The first generation of Pokémon design is kind of a loaded one – a lot of people hold them in high regard as the “canonical” roster, and scores of others only know this initial batch. As such, I kind of felt like I had to play with the kid gloves on a lot of the time – none of the original 151 could ever be realistically retired from the series as a whole, after all, so this first run feels like a wave of labeling monsters as “a staple” vs. “a sometimes-food”.
That said, these monsters have been in circulation for going on twenty-five years, so a lot of them have a lot of rich histories to them that have only grown over the years. Plus, this lineup had to do some real heavy lifting, as they were one of the first successful stabs at a video-game lineup of collectible monsters designed as its core. Some are a titch basic, but as a whole they cover a lot of ground, making a very solid basis for both believable world-building and a subsequent media empire. Even and especially as artifacts, they’ve been fun to look back on, particularly as someone who skipped right over Red and Blue while saving up a childhood allowance.
Before I move on to the second generation, I want to take an aside and call out a few monsters that left an impression on me when going back through them. Not necessarily my favorites – but ones I feel have some special characteristic that makes them a valuable addition or point of intrigue.
Best Use of Evolution
Two easy picks here – Magikarp is the poster child for the capital-E Evolution mechanic as a route to radical transformation. Magikarp is a lovable dope, and Gyarados is undeniably cool; the pair are absolutely right where they deserve as the go-to showcase for “be willing to put the effort into every monster; you could end up with something amazing“.
And you absolutely can’t leave out Eevee, who I’m thoroughly convinced would have made a fantastic series mascot. Encourage every child to go out and get one of the super-marketable darlings, then let them express themselves by evolving it into their personal-favorite second form, or have an easy way to fill in the right spot on their team. Eevee is as much a great gameplay hook as she is a cute lil’ hybrid mammal, and one whose better points continue to expand as the series does.
Speaking of the mascot:
The “Robbed by Pikachu” Club
It’s no secret that Clefairy was originally intended to be the series’ mascot character, and she’s better-equipped to be one with her more neutral appearance and typing op top of her fun “use-a-random-move” gimmick in Metronome. Tough luck that Pikachu snuck up on her last-minute.
Then there’s Porygon, forever banned from one of the longest-running anime series on the market for something that the electro-mouse did during his day in the limelight. Porygon’s a classic design concept, and one that Pikachu has neutered the exposure of as the digital age went into full swing. Our boy Porygon is innocent, I say!
Best Use of Actual Biology
Paras and Parasect provide a gateway to the wild world that is parasitism in nature, representing a mind-hijacking mushroom ages before The Last of Us called it out directly. I sure hope as many other kids as possible were inspired to do a little extracurricular reading by this weirdo, since that’s just one of the many less-than-cuddly but super-fascinating corners of ecology.
The Bulbasaur line gets a call-out here for incorporating a similar idea with rafflesia, but loses points for not actually including it in any depictions that I could find. Commit to the bit, buddy!
And I’d be remiss not to point out Poliwhirl. He’s not only a monster that leverages real-world zoology to implement a very supernatural status effect, but he’s also the rare monster for whom we have a detailed anatomical cross-section. Gross.
Best Use of Speculative Biology
Ghastly shows us an in-universe reason as to why haunted houses exist – not out of “unfinished business” or anything so obviously plot-hook-y, but out of a natural need for shelter from the elements. It’s such a neat little marriage of supernatural, fun elements and the intent of portraying a living, breathing world, which makes it a perfect intersection of what the series does best.
It’s kind of a weird thing that Zubat, one of the trash-monsters of the series that people love to hate, is ultimately one of the more successful designs of the generation. He reads like somebody re-invented the concept of a bat from the ground up, covering all the animal’s signature functions and exaggerating them until you have one really distinct critter. Great stuff.
Poor Mr. Mime. I think so often about how bizarre it is that not only is the fear of clowns almost exclusively a U.S.-centric idea, but that Mr. Mime’s depiction in the games was actively changed in later years to capitalize on the fact that international audiences find him creepy. The guy doesn’t deserve his reputation, but kudos to him for playing the hand he was dealt fantastically.
I don’t think that Galarian Weezing will ever quite dodge the fact that some people thing he somewhat resembles something that probably doesn’t belong in a children’s game. Outside of that, I love what the lore has done to the guy. Turning an air-pollution bomb into a walking air purifier, complete with a goofy stovepipe hat and turning him part-Fairy to reflect a more eco-friendly nature? Great regional spin on a design, especially when that region is known for smog and industry.
Based on an arcade game, but absolutely most at home on the range. If you could domesticate a pack of moles, wouldn’t you use them as all-natural tillers, too? Thanks for supporting local agriculture, Dugtrio.
Then there’s Muk, a walking biohazard that calls to mind the absurdity of letting kids choose their own pets even before accounting for their ability to kill plants just by proximity. On the other hand, they’re incredibly useful as waste disposal workers and hazmat agents, to the point that they reflect a blue-collar class that may well die out once the world stops producing that tasty industrial sludge.
As many people’s first proper role-playing game, Pokémon is introducing a lot of basic genre concepts, and few monsters reflect that better than the resident mimic. Voltorb reflects both an item pickup and the ever-iconic Pokéball itself, but with additional layers as both an in-universe power source (making him a provisional member of the Gainfully Employed) and having an additional “learn from this, kiddos” gimmick in his totally-not-gory-because-he’s-synthetic tendency to spectacularly self-destruct. Gotta learn your gaming staples somewhere.
Give ’em the Hook
Jynx isn’t a great concept, and the attempts to sweep her under the rug are proof that the designers know it. If there’s one monster in the first generation to axe, she’s it.
I could go on and on listing others – Starmie toes the line wonderfully between “bizarre beast” and “properly alien”, Scyther is a delightfully edgy indulgence, and I’ll forever have respect for the two canonical fossils being distinctly based in the concept of fossils themselves. Kadabra has this whole history to it, and Mew played a huge part in codifying the series’ collect-’em-all identity.
Ultimately, there are a lot of misses in the first generation that I’d be harsher on if not for their semi-protected status. But for each of those, there are stellar hits that people still maintain as their favorites for very good reasons. The designers had to cover a lot of bases on the assumption that this would be the only set of creatures they had, and it’s resulted in a wide range of varied critters that work for varied kinds of people – even a few that I didn’t particularly care for have been called out as personal favorites by others. And that kind of something-for-everyone is absolutely one of the series’ greatest successes.
But where do you go with expanding a series that already has all its key players figured out?
Generation Two starts next week with Chikorita!