Poor, poor Magikarp – designated punching bag of the largest multimedia franchise on the planet. She’s purpose-built to straddle the line between “plain” and “dopey”, with that lifeless stare and painfully generic fish-body. She isn’t even a distinctly interesting fish, at that, being a pretty flat-looking Asian carp that can’t even begin to compare with something like Goldeen‘s elegance. She’s just… purposefully a nothingburger, which I suppose makes her really good at her job. The only really exciting things that she gets are her long whiskers and sharp dorsal and pelvic fins, a hint at what’s soon to come when she evolves.
Gyarados is one of those Pokémon clearly designed to appeal to boys: “hey, our main mascot may be cutesy and adorable, but we have some real sharp-lookin’ dragons in here.” The rub is that she’s Member #3 of the not-a-dragon club, right after Charizard and Seadra. The difference for Gyarados is that the other two eventually got evolutions or alternate forms that did make them Dragon-type, whereas Gyarados is still just a sea-snake burdened with a non-functional Flying-type. Poor gal.
She is good and gnarly-looking, though. She’s got that same “colossal, segmented monster” look that Onix does, but with the additional mystique of being an honest-to-goodness sea monster that looks like she’d crush a ship whole. I do like that her jaggedy, white fins simultaneously suggest age and roughness, like she’s so imposing because she’s been lived through an age and a half, with the long-lived look further backed up by her whiskers, her lean jaw, and the creases about her eyes. That’s a cool-lookin’ leviathan you’ve made there, GameFreak.
Unfortunately for Gyarados, she used to be terrible despite herself. She’s a Water-type, but all Water moves were calculated from the user’s Special Attack before 2006, and Gyarados is overwhelmingly physically-based. Her type combination also gives her a double weakness to the Electric-type, which is both pretty common to begin with and the signature type of the series’ very mascot. Poor, poor Magikarp – evolution could only help you so much.
Gyarados is better nowadays, with access to proper physical Water moves, a potential free attack boost when when she lands a K.O., and Dragon Dance for stat boosts. Still, her Flying-type remains as much a burden as a boon considering that nearly every Electric-type in the game is fast enough to outrun and K.O. her before she can move. Keep her away from those, though, and she’s a pretty solid attacker with the bulk to take one on the chin and dish it right back.
Magikarp is, as noted, the series’ punching bag, so she’s a certified regular in its advertising; she even has her own spinoff mobile game, where she’s given a delightful array of alternate scale colors and patterns. Gyarados is an in-house favorite, too, with her striking appearance making a great shorthand as a powerful opponent – you see her a lot in villains’, Gym Leaders’, and Champions’ teams. Both of them are so notable that this is the only evolution line in the game where all members of a multi-line family have their own dedicated Wikipedia articles, which tells you something about their impact.
Magikarp in particular is imprinted all over the games as the definitive “trash monster” Pokémon, being so absolutely worthless between its terrible stats and functionally-nonexistent movepool that the franchise’s official YouTube channel produced a music video dedicated to explaining how pathetic Magikarp is. It’s something of a tradition to have an NPC con the player into buying one, you’ll almost always find a “joke” opponent in the games with a team full of six of the suckers, and they’re the only thing player can even fish up until they upgrade their fishing rod. They’re like aquatic pests, really.
That said, the series keeps coming back to this horrible little waste of space because she makes for such a strong concept. Her evolution into Gyarados is famously based on a bit of Chinese folklore that claims that if a carp (originally a sturgeon before a Japanese mis-translation) can surmount the Dragon Gate waterfall of the Yellow River, it will transform into a dragon. It’s a pitch-perfect mythological example of the kind of “level up and evolve” hook that Pokémon is built around, and it’s more specifically referenced all over in the series, from Magikarp using a waterfall to evolve in Pokémon Snap to Gyarados swimming up a waterfall in the Pikachu shorts back when the series’ movies regularly made it to theaters. Waterfall – literally used in the game to scale waterfalls – isn’t her signature move, though, but rather the decidedly non-Watery (and non-physical) Hyper Beam. Well, at least a laser-shooting sea serpent is a powerful image.
Gyarados has also adopted the position of poster child for the series’ concept of evolution, sharing it nowadays with that increasingly-popular and ever-so-darling Eevee. Magikarp’s transformation is probably the most striking of any in the series, really feeding the idea that you should hold onto just about any potential teammate; even if you don’t like how they look now, they could always evolve later into something absolutely radical. The lore even digs into this, with such a drastic evolution being the blame for its violent tendencies, and that in turn being the basis for the villains’ dastardly plot in the Gold & Silver games. Gotta love it when the gameplay feeds into the narrative. She’s even used as a symbol for rare and ancient power, with those same games giving us a red Gyarados as the only example of an exceptionally-rare alternate-color (“shiny”) monster being part of the main games’ story.
With all this pressure and praise being put on her, it does feel like a bit of a shame that Gyarados is denied the prestigious Dragon-type despite her design. There are a few reasons why that might be – she seems to be thematically-related to a holiday wind-sock called a koinobori, for example, or that she’s associated with storms. More likely, though, the designers wanted to make the Dragon-type something so elusive that you couldn’t happen into it by evolving a super-common Pokémon, and giving it a “Flying” type was the next-best option to paint that picture. Dragon-types are common enough nowadays that I expect she’d be one if she was introduced today, but Game Freak tends not to retcon a Pokémon to a different type unless it’s to one that they’ve just introduced. A Flying-type she stays, then.
There’s so much meta-discussion around Magikarp, it gets hard to cut through that and look at the actual lore around the thing. Outside of being a fantastic jumper (albeit it amusingly doesn’t have quite the reach of a real Asian carp’s 10-foot leap), it’s also apparently a monster that’s gotten weaker with time, with records showing that it used to be at least functional as a self-defending fish Pokémon. Nowadays, every single game entry loves to harp on her signature horribleness, to the point of researchers specifically examining why she stinks so much and Diamond noting that “no one knows why it has managed to survive”. Yikes.
She does have at least one strong point, though, being hale and hearty enough to survive in highly polluted environments. That may just give the designers more excuse to stuff the miserable thing in every possible body of water to fill space, but that in turn does provide predators with an easy meal, so… indirect win?
Gyarados is almost equally straightforward, being so hopped-up on Evolution Juice™ that she does nothing all day but rampage until she’s exhausted, sometimes over the course of weeks and sometimes feeding off an existing conflict. That’s literally all that’s written about her, and to be fair, that’s all you would really care about if she was known to level and burn villages. An ideal interpretation of a sea monster, that one.
Gyarados’ very name is delightful, being the result of throwing Japanese words like “slaughter”, “storm”, and “threaten” together in a blender, making for something that just sounds so much like it’ll tear you limb-from-limb that they didn’t even try to translate it. It’s also delightful in French: Léviator. Man, they just have a way of making names that roll off the tongue.
Magikarp and Gyarados are such a perfect storm of the series’ best aspects, from pulling in foreign mythology to being emblematic of one of the series’ core mechanics to just being elegant and memorable designs. There’s a reason why the games keep them around as an apparent Must-Have, and I’m not inclined to disagree.
Any and all appreciation for Magikarp and Gyarados is welcome in the comments!