Articuno is probably my personal favorite of the Legendary Bird trio, despite it looking a titch plain by the standards of its station; 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 noted, “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 evoke 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 son of a gun (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 a bit much for me, personally, 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 soar under its own power. Granted, there are plenty of offenders to this, even within the first generation, and imagery of the actual Thunderbird is usually more impressionistic than flight-worthy, even being more triangular or X-shaped (both of which you can absolutely see in Zapdos’ key art). For a trio referred to within canon as the legendary birds, you’d kind of expect all three of them to rise on majestic wings, though I suppose there’s nothing wrong with breaking things up with a long-nosed chickadee.
Of the set, 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 wing ridges 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 one 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. It almost ands up with 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. Man, now that’s some imagery. 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 certainly gives Moltres a more potent impression.
Legendaries are just overkill for the main game, which is usually what I’m concerned about with these little “usability” 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 quite posibly best) of the series’ yearly anime movies, they’re slated to get entirely new forms in the expansions to Sword & Shield (more on that later), 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 series’ 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. At times, they’re just treated as powerful and hyper-rare, with multiple distinct specimens within a given species known to exist, and with academics deliberately reserving space for them in their documentation.
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 “legendary” monster as just about strong enough for a one-on-three match to be an even field. Two separate anime adaptations belonging to two separate canons may treat the same creature as “unique deity” or “elusive species” depending on what best services the day’s 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 things; multiple people across various stories seem to have just befriended an Articuno or run across a Moltres, making them show up 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 hermetic 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. Or maybe look to a different mythology for your Arctic deity, and use one that’s actually associated with snow and ice while you’re at it?!
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, presumably for future-proofing of films and event distributions.
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.
…and, indeed, they were some of the many “legendary” monsters that boomerang-ed back around in the Crown Tundra. Unlike their peers, though, we got a new perspective on the Kantonian Avians:
Somehow, this exudes even more “frozen” than the original, but in a different way. The purples feel like an almost alien color for plumage, that angled-straight-back crest looks hard and frozen, and those eyes are the definition of an “icy glare”. Having a black base coat and legs just helps everything else to pop out all the more.
Without giving up the wintry notes, Articuno now looks majestic in this untouchable, all-seeing way – super-appropriate for its new Psychic typing. Just look at it – this is the sort of monster that sits perched at the peak of a mountain, waiting for a traveler to ask three questions or receive judgment. That’s exactly the kind of cryptid I love to see in these games.
In this next upturn of these classics, Zapdos has undergone a total change in anatomy and turned its quills into racing stripes. His coloration is pretty aggressive – especially the yellow eyes and talons, which feel a tad DeviantArt – but that’s not terribly out-of-line with Kantonian Zapdos’ brashness.
The legacy of the dodo and countless false claims at live specimens make it seem like a ripe target for an oddball legendary concept – or they would, if the series hadn’t already normalized them. Still, unless you live in an area with native emus or something, there’s something absolutely frightening about seeing that body plan at full scale, like your brain never quite anticipates having to deal with a bird a time and a half your height and weight. Turning that into a properly powerful cryptid – and one so directly combative that he’s turned Fighting-type – just rings deeply true to me. Sure, his speed makes him closer to a roadrunner in pure concept, but a 5-foot-plus roadrunner leaves a very different impression.
I can’t help but think it’s shamelessly pulling from another famous game series, though, and that’s fine by me. Imitation belies flattery, etc.
Moltres is, yet again, the most predictable of the three. He hasn’t changed much, but what is there just moves him up from an eight-year-old’s “cool fire-bird” to a fourteen-year-old’s. Red-on-black is a pretty gaudy color scheme, especially when you’re applying it to the monster’s very skeleton instead of just its feathers, and the “edgy” interpretation of the Dark type is just not to my taste.
I will grant that his actual shape is pretty rad, though. Splitting his tail into two feels even more “supernatural firebird”, and while his racing-striped torso is a little silly, having everything flow into one another is a strong look. You can’t tell exactly where his beak ends and his forehead begins here, and his “feathers” seem to burn at the edges as much as the fire that embellishes them. Galarian Moltres is just over-the-top; some people will love him for it, I’m sure, but I’m not one of them.
That pattern on his head and shape of his beak do give him a bit of a resemblance to a cormorant, though, which marks both times that a firebird legendary looks closer in body plan to a water bird, and dang if that isn’t some tasty irony.
The thing to notice with these three is, of course, that they aren’t the types shown in their names any more. Not directly, at least – here, instead, they embody the ideas of the types in their names. Local folklore says Articuno can telekinetically paralyze victims solid as ice, that Zapdos is a ferocious fighter quick as lighting, and that Moltres is coated in a malevolent, flaming aura.
I really like this as a re-interpretation – for one, it introduces a surprise for players who don’t play with a wiki open, reinforcing the idea that these creatures – especially Legendaries – aren’t always what they appear at first glance. It also speaks to how myth and oral tradition can exaggerate natural phenomena, attributing the very elements to animals based on their traits rather than a literal ability to spew fire or whatever.
This also maintains the trio’s very tenuous internal balance gameplay-wise. It used to be that Moltres’ fire had a rock-paper-scissors advantage over Articuno’s ice, which had an advantage over Zapdos’ flying, and Zapdos’ electricity was super-effective on both of the others. Kind of a tenuous balance at best.
In Galar, Moltres’ dark-type once again overpowers Articuno’s psychic type, which is super-effective on Zapdos’ fighting type. But Moltres’ flying also gets a one-up on Zapdos’ fighting, which is neutral against Moltres’ Dark/Flying combo. It’s a back-and-forth again, but this time with a clear loser in Galarian Zapdos. Ah, well, at least Fighting/Flying is a very unique type combination, if not an especially useful one.
The new Galarian forms are pretty slick, and make another example of one of my favorite design practices in Pokémon – linking elements to ideas, and then to each other through shared concepts. Making the fire-ice-lighting group more about the impression these monsters give than anything literal feels very “oral tradition” to me in a way that perfectly fits how Legendary Pokémon work in the series.
Any and all appreciation for Articuno, Zapdos, and Moltres is welcome in the comments!