Gawd, if this lil’ tyke isn’t just the cutest. Doesn’t hurt that he’s only sixteen inches tall – chances are pretty good that you own a stuffed animal or a cat that’s bigger than this guy. The skull-helmet and bone-club are classic prehistoric design features (in retrospect, it’s kinda weird that he doesn’t have anything to do with the game’s fossils), and overall I just love the look here. He’s clearly a very young monster trying to look tougher than he is by making angry-eyes and wearing a skull with bitty fangs. Yes, child, we’re all very afraid of you.
Marowak feels like a Cubone that’s finally grown up to fit his role properly – in-fiction because he’s finally overcome his grief, and mechanically because he’s reached level 28. His skull-helmet doesn’t look like a baggy hand-me-down any more, but instead almost like Marowak has a sleek exoskeleton specifically around his head, which is radical. Plus, his proportions are a bit less stubby and the ridges across his stomach break up his visual design, which makes him feel less blobby and more structured. It’s really impressive to me how little actually changes when Cubone evolves into Marowak, but it still completely shifts his impression from “cute” over to “cool”, which is a good sign that the design team is using relatively little to accomplish a lot.
Alolan Marowak borrows the fact that Marowak is one of the few Pokémon to naturally carry a weapon, and spins that into a full fire-dancer design to keep up with Alolan’s “island” theme. He’s a bit skinnier, there’s an indistinct tattoo on his forehead, and – most interestingly – skeletal markings down his back, to play up that Marowak is something of a living skeleton putting on a performance with will-o’-the-wisps. It’s a bit of a walk from the original, but I personally don’t mind since it feels like a clever recycling of an existing design: the “bones” and “death” themes were already there; now they’re being read entirely differently. This also retroactively means that the Gengar line aren’t the only ghosts in the first generation, so hooray for variety!
Marowak is all over the place – pretty great defenses, but not much health, poor speed, and okayish attack… except for its unique held item (the Thick Club), which doubles its attack stat into “killer feature” territory. It gets access to some pretty great physical moves in the games to use it with, too – especially once you get access to a Move Tutor. The main drawback is that it folds under a lot of common type weaknesses (both as Vanilla and Island-flavor Marowak), but Alolan Marowak has either three type immunities or two and a chance to disable any attack used on it (depending on its ability), which makes it useful as a swap-in in a pinch. Not a super consistent monster, but definitely not bad at the ol’ faithful, “hit it ’till it ded” strategy.
Cubone and Marowak have shown up an awful lot in the series, with Cubone being one of the “second-rung” characters that you shouldn’t be surprised to find on a cereal box in 1998 – plus, a major sidequest in the first games is based around the pair, which really helps with their memorability. Alolan Marowak has been especially visible recently due to being a recurring cast member in the recent seasons of the show and a boss in the most recent games.
Of course, the Donphan in the room here is that Cubone is a very depressing Pokémon with a very depressing backstory: the skulls they wear are those of their own deceased mothers, who they cry out for every night and pine for so strongly that they refuse to ever take their skulls off. It’s even called The Lonely Pokémon in the game’s text, and their subquest in the original game that involves laying a grieving Cubone’s dead mother to rest. Aww.
This is, of course, ridiculous.
It checks out for a single creature, sure, but across a whole species it just doesn’t make a lick of sense. Every Cubone to ever be born is an orphan? Does their reproductive cycle have a 100% mortality rate, then? Admittedly this is actually something that happens in nature, with certain mothers dying in childbirth and even allowing their litter to turn around and eat them for nutrition (fun!), but this is only the first of many problems.
How would athespecies sustain itself if any given Cubone or Marowak can only ever produce one offspring (or, in the male case, none)? What if twins are born? They can’t very well share a helmet. Does the mother grow and shed new skulls to bestow on each of its young, and if so, why isn’t it brought up anywhere? The lore around this children’s video game collapses like a house of cards, I tell ya!
While this makes for a good bit of fun, I think we have to accept it as folklore and hearsay not only for the fact that it doesn’t hold up to even the most minor scrutiny, but also because the games don’t just cruelly kill off your Marowak when the Day Care finds that she’s laid an egg. There’s also the lore-provided rumor that there exists a Marowak graveyard where these Pokémon get all their bones from, which kind of undercuts their whole shtick. Considering that this is a pretty direct parallel to the “Elephants’ graveyard” myth (which, despite what The Lion King suggests, is not known to be a real thing), we can pretty safely assume that this, too, is just a rumor. Marowak, when will your lies ever end?
There’s also a backup theory that there’s another, even tinier pre-evolution of Cubone out there somewhere, who can only evolve to the Cubone stage by donning the skull of its mother (which would clear up most of these inconsistencies), but until Game Freak presents this hypothetical cartilage-baby, that doesn’t count. Harumph. Regardless, the “mother’s skull” story makes for a nice little fable whether or not it’s actually true, so it’s hard to fault its inclusion too much.
It also creates a fun and not-entirely-unsubstantiated implication in Alolan Marowak explicitly being Ghost-type: that the spirit of Marowak’s deceased mother has returned and is now possessing Marowak, or at least that Maroak is channeling that spirit using its own skull as a sort of totem. And rather than use that to exact retribution on enemies or anything, it instead decides to go into the entertainment industry. How quaint.
There’s also an amusing little back-and-forth in the Pokédex entries in the Sun and Moon video games, where the entries in general tend to focus more on the games’ ecosystem and cross-species dynamics. In this case, Cubone’s crying inadvertently draws in Mandibuzz, who like to prey on them. Once Cubone grows up into Marowak, it gains the capacity to fight back and starts actively and vengefully attacking Mandibuzz in turn. It’s the Circle of Life….
Cubone and Marowak have played strong roles in the series for far too long to every really be retired. While they feel like something of fan favorites, it’s not the biggest stretch to accept that they aren’t the kind of Pokémon that need to show up in every game – but they’ll be welcome when they do. The Reserve category feels like a nice home for the pair.
Any and all appreciation for Cubone and Marowak is welcome in the comments!