Articuno is probably my personal favorite of the Legendary Bird trio, despite it looking pretty plain compared to its contemporaries; it’s the easiest of the three by a country mile to attribute as just a bluebird or magpie-jay dolled up to fit in with a light fantasy setting rather than a preternatural Roc that bends ice and wind to its will.
In fact, that relative simplicity is why I love Articuno so much (as you may have figured out over the last seventy articles, “doing more with less” is my design jam). That crest on its head looks like pretty normal plumage, but is angled in such a way to resemble ice crystals. That long, gorgeous tail is something that certain real-world birds flamboyantly sport, but it waves and folds, suggesting an aurora. And that pale blue plumage on its chest does look at least a little something like a muffler or fur coat.
None of these individual aspects is loud about its presence, but everything together gives the low-key impression of an icy bird. Good job, Articuno, embodying the theme without beating us over the head with it.
Zapdos is anything but subtle, being a bright yellow plumage (standing out even stronger against its black under-coat) and shaped of nothing but sharp, jaggedy edges and a fierce glare. This thing is just bristling with energy, shouting lighting from the rooftops. It’s not my cup of tea, exactly, but I can absolutely appreciate its moxie.
The one thing that gets me about Zapdos is that it looks distinctly incapable of flight – it’s shaped more like a kite than anything that would fly outside of its own power. Granted, there are way worse offenders to this, even within the first generation, and images we have of the actual Thunderbird are more usually more impressionistic than flight-worthy, even being more triangular or X-shaped (both of which you can absolutely see in Zapdos’ key art). Still, for a trio referred to within canon as the legendary birds, you’d kind of expect all three of them to be able to be capable of self-powered flight.
Of the set of three, Moltres has always felt the most predictable to me. If you ask a five-year-old to draw a phoenix, this is probably what you’re going to get – something vaguely chicken-y, with its tail, crest, and covert wing feathers radically on fire. Oh, and the whole thing is bright orange.
And do ya know what? It works. Phoenixes are a great concept in their own right, and this is a good take on it that doesn’t really look like many other Phoenixes that I can think of thanks to its lack of (or very tight and fine) feathers, giving it more of the body shape of a wading-bird, ironically enough for a fire-type (unless it’s wading through magma, as the Pokédex suggests). That smooth body helps it really look like a proper Firebird born of the element of fire itself more than a bird that merely wields fire, which in the end gives Moltres a stronger impression.
Legendaries are just overkill for the main game, which is usually what I’m concerned about with these little blurbs. All three of them boast some very potent special attack power but are crippled by common type weaknesses, so use all three with the intention of them being glass cannons (and, again, overkill for anything outside player-vs-player competition).
The three of them collectively have quite a lot of screen-time – they’re regulars in Super Smash Bros., headlined the second (and one of the best) of the series’ yearly anime movies, they’re slated to get entirely new forms in the expansions to Sword & Shield (a rarity considering how long ago they were originally introduced), and generally tend to pal out around the series’ merchandising an awful lot.
The three of them make an interesting collective study on what “legendary” even entails within the series. A lot of their Pokédex entries read out like proper myths and legends, and they’re positioned within the stories as deities in their own right. At other times, they’re treated more as powerful cryptids, Pokémon that some within the canon believe to be the result of folklore (but that researchers and the like reserve Pokédex entries for just in case). At times, they’re just treated as powerful and hyper-rare, with multiple distinct specimens within a given species known to exist.
One of the frustrating problems in – and also one of the joys of – the Pokémon franchise is that it doesn’t seem to have a terribly consistent style guide. The writers within the games are happy to position one Legendary Pokémon as an entity that can bend physical laws and travel through time – and then let you catch one and trade it with a friend, because the games’ mechanics take precedence. Then the main manga can mostly follow the game’s plot, but treat the same monster as just about as strong as three other Pocket Monsters put together. Two separate anime adaptations belonging to two separate canons may treat the same creature as “unique” or “very rare” depending on what best services their story. It’s kind of a delightfully-messy free-for-all.
The legendary bird trio, for what it’s worth, seem to tend to fall more on the “very rare species” end of the spectrum; multiple people across various stories seem to have just befriended an Articuno run across a Moltres, making them show up just a titch too often to believe that there’s only a single one on the planet. It’ll be interesting to look at the rest of the Legendary Pokémon as they pop up to try and suss out which are truly unique, and which are just powerful and uncommon species.
The names of these three are also notably simpler in Japanese – Freezer, Thunder, and Fire, suggesting that the three are the very incarnations of their elements. The French plays with a different theme naming, dubbing them approximately “Arktic-Odin“, “Elec-Thor“, and “Sulfur-Ra“, the last of which which is super-disappointing considering that both Surtr and Loki are right there and both associated with fire.
The fact that they even have different names in different languages is a little unique among Legendary Pokémon, and one of those quirks of the first games in the series. Later entries would pay particular attention to the naming of Legendary Pokémon, ensuring that their names are universally-understandable enough such that every single official translation of their names reads as similarly as possible.
The Legendary Birds of Kanto, our first set of Legenday Pokémon, are pretty solid entries, albeit they don’t quite set the world on fire. I’d say they’re more Reserve material than something that the games need to have in every release – in fact, holding back on their inclusion heightens their elusivity and mystique. That’ll be an issue later, but for now, the Legendary Birds make for pretty all-right additions.
Any and all appreciation for Articuno, Zapdos, and Moltres is welcome in the comments!