Horsea is just such a cute little tyke, ain’t he? That little snoot is oh-so charming, the contrast between his spiky cheeks and his tiny little fins is a sublime cocktail, and his silhouette is perfectly and immediately identifiable even among a roster of 900-plus creatures. He’s a perfectly simple design to communicate a simple concept, but exaggerated just enough to feel like a fantasy creature. Granted, seahorses are pretty non-standard as an aquatic creature in the first place – they’re such a delightfully odd shape for a swimmer, and Horsea warps it into something pleasingly round and adorable.
Also, everybody loves a good spoonerism. Sea-horse -> Horse-sea -> Horsea is such a perfect little Pokémon name.
Seadra is another one of those “it grew up and got crankier” evolutions, right down to the angry eyebrows. Lots more spines on the guy now, and I really like the how his chest has fringed ridges to it, giving him a sort of layered-armored look, even if his proportions are still more childlike than evolved-form-like. I don’t dislike him at all, but for a two-stage evolutionary line and given how Water is easily the most common elemental type, he just seems a bit so-so, like he needs another feature to underscore the “dra” part of his name.
Seadra is the second major Pokémon after Charizard to definitely be dragon-inspired, but not dragon-type. Considering that the Dragon and Ghost types were both featured on just one evolutionary family each in the first games, it’s a shame that the designers didn’t capitalize on the “dragon” bent to make Seadra mechanically different than, say, Seaking.
Luckily, they fixed things just a few years later with Kingdra. This gives the Seadra line the closure that it really needed; he looks almost ancient now, with his craggy features worn down with time, long whiskers, and almost coral-like horns and wings. He definitely has the feel of a folk sea monster; the kind that doesn’t actively terrorize sailors, but nonetheless inspires stories of great big sea dragons. I doubly like that the dragon flavor doesn’t manifest in the body shape that you would normally think of for a dragon, either; he’s definitely his own thing while maintaining a distinct and recognizable theme, which is a great balance.
Also, I’d like to applaud the Kingdra line for not playing off the famous fun-fact that males carry around and birth their young around in a marsupial-like front pouch. Kangaskhan already has that market cornered, and I think they’ve found a much cooler way to play off of seahorses as a creature design.
Kingdra is pretty solid in the games – he doesn’t have many weaknesses (just Dragon and Fairy, which are fairly rare) and almost completely shuts down the common Fire and Water types, and his stats are evenly above-average almost entirely across the board, all of which make him a very safe panic-button Pokemon to have up your sleeve. The biggest downsides are that he doesn’t have a particularly wide offensive move-pool and can be kind of a pain to get (you have to trade Seadra while holding a specific item, requiring another cooperative player), but if neither of those are a deal-breaker for you, Kingdra makes for a pretty solid teammate.
Horsea feels a little like the Second-Tier Merch Squad: he was definitely present and part of the series’ marketing, and was even a semi-regular in the anime in its early years, but wasn’t used as consistently to advertise as, say, Poliwhirl or Geodude. It probably doesn’t help that visually Horsea is a pretty direct analogue to a seahorse, so he doesn’t catch the eye or imagination so much (and there are so many more distinct Water-types). He’s definitely around and consistently part of the scenery, but was never especially a spotlight Pokemon – aside from being the pain-in-the-butt anchor of Clair’s team in Johto.
I think the Horsea family might be the first water-type evolutionary line in numbered order that straight-up doesn’t make any ding-dang sense outside of a water arena. All of the other water-types so far have been partly terrestrial, seabed-dwelling, or the Tentacool family (which you can hand-wave away as “walking” on their tentacles). The forms of Horsea, on the other hand, are completely immobile without water to float in.
This forces the show to come up with situations where a body of water just happens to be nearby (like how every stadium in the series is a transforming pool) and creates a real head-scratcher when you stop to think for a half-second why you can take your Seadra spelunking through mountainous passages. Yes, the real answer is “arbitrarily limiting the player isn’t fun”, but nothing kills imagination like a real-world answer to an in-universe question. Let’s try to think of some fun versions of a hand-wave:
- Shrinking technology definitely exists in the Pokémon world, from your ridiculously high-capacity backpack to the Pokémon themselves. Perhaps all trainers carry around portable pools to house their Pokemon when out of their element?
- Pokémon is a soft science-fiction setting as a whole. Since okémon must already be a hospitable environment for their residents, perhaps they can project just enough of that for Water-types to safely and temporarily exist in a sort of artificial bubble?
- Water-type Pokémon almost universally produce water. Perhaps “floating” water-types like Seadra can hover on little jets produced from under their fins?
Hey, I said fun, not believable.
So the connection between seahorses and dragons is definitely a thing just going by their names – “seadragons” exist as a relative of seahorses (though this design is visually much closer to the latter), the Japanese name for seahorses is roughly “dragon’s child”, and there’s even a bit of Japanese folklore about how a seahorse can become a dragon if it lives for a thousand years. Visually, these guys tend to take inspiration from kind of a grab bag of dragons and marine life – Kingdra’s horns scream “eastern dragon”, Seadra’s spines reek of reef-dwellers like the lionfish, and they’ve all got ink-squirting noses for an extra bit of squid flavor that they use in a very Archerfish-like way to hunt.
There’s even a bit of hummingbird in there, would you believe it – Horsea apparently uses its tiny wings to move horizontally and vertically without shifting direction. That coupled with its ink-shooting nose has to make Horsea a really adept hunter despite the fact that his Pokédex entries paint him as skittish.
But my favorite mix-in to these designs is that the text themes them around whirlpools – Seadra deliberately creates them to trap prey, and Kingdra does so on accident by waking up and surfacing from the seafloor through oceanic currents. This ties it in nicely with the Charybdis, a Greek sea monster that created whirlpools, but never really gets called out as being antagonistic (Charybdis is more of a force of nature that happens to make it a pain to travel a certain straight). In reality, “Charybdis” is almost certainly a folklore exaggeration of a real-world whirlpool, but sea-creature-inadvertently-hindering-travel seems perfectly suited as an everyday nuisance in the Pokemon setting.
This also makes a fun little tie-in from Kingdra back to Horsea; Kingdra is said to be the source of some ocean currents in the setting, whereas Horsea is so tiny that it uses its prehensile tail as a limb to grab onto rocks just so that it isn’t swept away. There’s some commentary in here about the older generation making things harder on the young generation, which in turn grows up to become the old – but this isn’t that kind of blog.
I don’t think about the Horsea line a whole lot, to be honest, but that’s mostly because they just do their job exceptionally well without being loud about it. There’s a solid amount of depth to a Pokémon that you could just as easily point to and just say “that’s a seahorse”, and subtly-clever designs like these are a huge part of why I love Pokémon in the first place. A line of Rock-solid Reserves, but one that I’d love to see explored more.
Any and all appreciation for Horsea, Seadra, and Kingdra is welcome in the comments!