Porygon, Porygon2, Porygon-Z

#137 – Porygon

Porygon is such a neat little design. Being a Tron-style virtual being, he fits comfortably into that bent of mid-nineties pulp science fiction; lots of wireframes and hard angles so that you know absolutely for certain that he’s a Computer Critter. And do you know what else is a creature made completely out of sharp angles? Paper cranes, which is absolutely what it evokes visually. This thing is just such a slam-dunk of a monster.

I also appreciate that they made no attempt whatsoever to make it look organic; being cobbled together from blocky shapes keeps him miles off from anything you’d think would occur naturally. For nailing that look, I’ll gladly hand-wave the matter of how you can have “a Pokémon that consists entirely of programming code”.

#233 – Porygon2

Gold & Silver were about striking into next-gen hardware, so it makes some sense that they’d give Porygon a very literal upgrade. He’s ever-closer to the eerie zone now, with those round eyes and smooth body making him look like a haunted rubber duck (which I choose to believe is no accident), or possibly one of those drinking-bird desk toys. I honestly wouldn’t be shocked if some developer on the Porygon project got bored and modeled the Porygon redesign after the nearest thing to his monitor.

I love that the Porygon line continues to reflect the graphical prowess of console games about the time that new evolutions are added. Porygon 1.0 came out the same year as primitively-chunky headliners like Super Mario 64 and Quake, whereas Porygon2 came to us in the year of Shenmue and Final Fantasy VIII, games that were just on the underside of convincing at their full pre-rendered strength. This sequel makes for a bit of an odd duck, but a charming one.

#474 – Porygon-Z

…and then 2006 came around, and the internet communities were really coming into its own – especially file-sharing ones, from Napster giving rise to the wide world of torrents and YouTube still being a wild west of questionably-legal video uploads to video game emulation and modding taking off to really stretch the abilities of existing PC games. So, the natural post-Y2K direction for Porygon would be to apply an item straight-up called “Dubious Patch” and saddle our friend here up with some open-source “character”. As if that wasn’t enough, the fact that “Porygon-Z” doesn’t follow the same naming convention “Porygon2” should’ve been a tip-off that this thing isn’t exactly endorsed by Silph Co. Style guides matter, fellas.

There’s arguably some improvements here; by inverting Porygon’s body, the designer actually gave it some functional limbs for a change, and the belly-stripe and “horn” arguably make it more aesthetically pleasing than its bundle-of-ovals predecessor. I’d bet those eyes see better, too, what with somewhat evoking camera lenses to me. But, in a fun bit of wordplay, he’s also visibly unstable, looking ready to tip over at a moment’s notice and have his head tumble clean off. Porygon2 looked dopey but solid and to someone’s design specification; Porygon-Z looks dopey and wonky and like somebody spent their spare weekend on it with little oversight. Ten points to Pokémon for capturing a little of the software development cycle in how its virtual Pokémon evolves and changes.

That said, I am a little disappointed in The Pokémon Company for passing up the opportunity to make Porygon-Z a literal Bug-type.

Porgyon-Z can definitely serve its place on a team, with pretty fantabulous Special Attack, moves and passive abilities to boost it even further, and a wide range of moves to wield with that power. The main downside is that he’s a titch frail, but not to the extent that most Ground-types will crumple up and die if they get grazed with a Water Gun. It’s a shame that Porygon isn’t hearty enough to take advantage of its signature moves (which niftily modify its own elemental type), but whaddayagunnado?

While it had a little bit going for it in the mid-’90s given its unique flavor, Porygon’s family line is famously absent from the anime, having only appeared as static images or in the briefest of brief cameos during a few montages. They’ll still show up in merchandise or the card game from time to time, but their most visible appearance outside of the main game series these days is actually when they show up in Super Smash Bros. as trophies or on the Saffron City stage. It’s kind of a shame considering what a strong idea Porygon is, but at least the series eventually found a replacement design to fulfill the public version of that role.

So the thing to understand about Porygon not being invited back to any anime parties is this: it wasn’t Porygon’s fault. Back in 1997, its anime debut was in an episode centered around an adventure into a very pulpy interpretation of “cyberspace”. On their way out, riding on Porygon’s back, Team Rocket fires a missile at the protagonists, which Pikachu deflects with electricity. This creates an explosion of flashing red and blue lights, and the group escapes.

This strobe effect caused over 700 viewers from ages 3 to 58 to report various averse reactions, from things as minor as irritated eyes up to vomiting and being admitted to hospitals for epileptic symptioms. (Not-so-amusingly, additional people were afflicted later when news stories on the incident aired the offending scene as part of their coverage.)

The episode was immediately pulled, and the Pokémon anime actually went off the air for four months afterward in response. It also caused a lot of other knock-on effects, from animation studio OLM redesigning the effects used for Pikachu’s electric attacks to mandatory health warnings in front of all Japanese television shows for years afterward. Rather than cut or re-animate this four-second clip and try to convince anyone to re-air it, the episode was canned, and has never been officially rereleased in any official capacity.

This is all from a strobe effect caused by Pikachu, in response to a missile fired by Team Rocket, a transaction in which Porygon was not involved. Nevertheless, our virtual friend has been swept under the rug ever since, made to be a scapegoat for the whole debacle. Sometimes that’s just how these things go, unfortunately, but hey – it wouldn’t be the first time the Pikachu has robbed one of its peers.

The things that it does do well, however, are almost part of the secondary “abilities” that come with being a totally synthetic Pokémon – and not hacking the Gibson or whatever. Rather, Porygon is repeatedly noted for not requiring sustenance or oxygen in any capacity, making it a great research tool in harsh environments like deep-sea exploration and potentially the upper atmosphere. The only limitation to its utility is its programming, which is painfully narrow by “living creature” standards – and the later games even cheekily note that Porygon was top-of-the-line “twenty years ago” (at the series’ debut), but has since fallen behind the times. Truly, Porygon is the embodiment of the pre-Y2K technological dream.

The games also provide a clear reason why the player can’t simply Copy-Paste a Porygon as many times as they want – in theory, it’s a deeply-rooted copy protection. In practice, they never address how it can still breed when left to interact with a Ditto, or why you can’t duplicate other monsters when you store them in the hammerspace that is the PC Box system, but hey – whatever it takes to make the mechanics at least marginally consistent with the lore.

Porygon2 leans a little more into its software nature, with just hints of artificial intelligence dropped into how it expresses itself and the promise (but not necessarily fulfillment) of being used in such flighty ideas as space-faring technology. The caveat seems to be that it can’t properly fly so well as float and push itself off of things, which I suppose is all it would technically need to perform on a spacewalk. Technically-fulfilled features that fall short of expectations are completely unheard of in software, though, so I don’t know where they might possibly be coming up with that characterization.

Then there’s Porygon-Z, given additional programming by an unknown author to “enable work in alien dimensions”, surely a feature that nobody actually wanted or needed, and one that that clearly messed with the Pokémon’s ability to function normally (to the point where Sun and Moon explicitly call out the person responsible as incompetent). Again, this is something that any developer will testify never happens in reality, so the line has really gone off the rails a bit, huh?

Amusingly, while Porygon-Z gains a good chunk of Speed and Special Attack when it evolves, making it generally more useful than Porygon2, its defenses actually go down in turn, making it the second Pokémon where you could argue that evolving it is a lateral move rather than an improvement. Way to include that wonky, glitchy flavor into the gameplay!

The lingering thing that gets me a bit about Porygon-Z is its trophy description in Super Smash Bros. for 3DS, which mentions that it’s “a bit glitchy. Maybe there’s a patch in the works…“. That feels like as strong of a hint as any that some evolution or alternate form of Porygon-Z was planned, but never made the final cut. Granted, this isn’t text from the main series in any way, but it’s still coming from a first-party Nintendo title, which would give anyone a bit of reason to hope.

It’s a shame what’s happened to Porygon’s public status, but as a “digital Pokémon”, he’s pretty on-point in all three stages of his evolutionary line. I’m a fan, but how he’s been treated puts him more realistically in the category of Reserve Pokémon – glad to see him from time to time, but we do all right when he’s absent.

Any and all appreciation for Porygon, Porygon2, and Porygon-Z is welcome in the comments!

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