Every single generation opens its listing with the three starter Pokémon, and always in the same order: grass-fire-water. That makes Chikorita first on the docket for the Johto roster, and she seems to be following a bit closely in Bulbasaur‘s footsteps – a tanky, dinosaur-inspired monster with an obvious sprout of vegetation.
Chikorita seems more traditionally cute in the “big, round eyes” sense as opposed to Bulbasaur’s squat, roly-poly charm. Neither is a bad approach, but her little smirk, smooth and single-tone body shape, wavy head-leaf (which isn’t a huge leap to imagine as hair), and apparent necklace of sprouting buds seem to code her as feminine, where Bulbasaur always struck me as more boyish, ready for a tumble in the dirt.
Somewhat annoyingly, her body seems to vary in color from depiction to depiction. Very early art showed her having a yellow body, the anime usually shows her as a more soft, pea-green, manga covers use an even mor vibrant green, and the games vary wildly on the whole gamut between sharing Bayleef’s color palette and following the cool-green stock art above. Most tend to land on “pale green”, though, which I swear provides a better contrast against her foliage, making her appear much more vibrant than she does here. Please-oh-please just commit to that for the style guide, fellas.
The second-generation starters seem to be trying to distinguish themselves from their first-generation counterparts a bit, but Chikorita mostly does so in tertiary ways. At her core, she’s the same archetype: a chunky, saurian grass-type with plant detailing to show she’s got room to grow and evolve. A good start, if a bit of a repeat.
Bayleef is one of those “most logical second step” evolutions. There’s no new features here, but everything is a follow-up to a feature Chikorita was already showing off. Bigger body, more pronounced tail, more toes. Her head and neck have definition, and those buds have begun to bloom into something of a wreath-like mane, kept looking perky and fresh by a purported little tree shoot inside each rolled-up leafling.
The head-leaf feels like the best change, though – it’s moved from a decorative ponytail to something of a sharpened horn, with a more rigid shape and a notch bitten out of it. Bayleef is still definitely cute and cuddly, to be sure, but I’m much more ready to believe that she can defend herself now – not that any real-world animal with her body type would typically have a better defense than “run away”.
Speaking of, it can come across as a bit odd that the grass-type starter Pokémon are traditionally based on herbivores. First-generation grass-types got around this by being overwhelmingly non-animal-based (or, in Paras‘ case, the Grass-type came from a very particular source). Starter Pokémon, on the other hand, have without fail been designed after land animals so far, which opens a minor question of auto-cannibalism when you have flowering plants right there on the monster’s body.
Most other Grass starters will dodge this in their own ways, like Bulbasaur’s bulb being a semi-parasitic growth on its back. Bayleef feels like the one to make it obvious, though, given that she looks completely capable of craning her neck down and nibbling at the leaves around her collar.
Anyway, Bayleef herself looks pretty neat. Most middle-stage monster can feel like lanky teenagers between their “cutesy” phase and “cool” ones, but Bayleef feels like a happy middle that can hold her own.
As the final evolution, Meganium drops Bayleef’s aggressive leaf-horn to cut a gentler, more majestic figure. Her apparent size and bulk, in addition to the bright-pink floral frill around her neck, should be more than enough to deter predators. That kind of confident design belies a maturity and grace that really makes Meganium feel like a proper final-form evolution.
While it’s a bit odd that Bayleef’s curled-up mane of leaves has resulted in a single flower rather than a whole ring of blooms, I’ll easily forgive it for the imagery. Meganium really feels like a fusion of a geranium and an Apatosaur as opposed to a monster with a few vegetable parts stuck on; the flower’s stamen make for a natural crest on her forehead, and translating the pistil into a long dinosaur neck feels like a natural fit.
On top of that, I appreciate that we have a final-stage starter evolution that isn’t so overtly aggressive. Every other starter for quite some time would evolve into an adult form with a more pointed, sharper appearance that would make them look fiercer; Meganium contrarily retains the rounded edges and placid expression that made Chikorita so endearing. Ten points to Meganium for coming out of the growth process as something that still looks like a friendly companion rather than another apex predator.
Fortunately or unfortunately, that less confrontational demeanor translates over to her place in the gameplay. Chikorita is build more defensively than her peers, leaning into support and recovery moves that are cherished in player-vs-player gameplay but much less enticing in a single-player campaign. She doesn’t even have a type advantage against any of Johto’s gyms, to boot – she’s weak against the first two and struggles in the game’s first dungeon. All in all, this makes picking the Chikorita line in the Gold & Silver series something of the equivalent of playing on a harder difficulty setting.
Whereas most fully-evolved Pokémon are concerned with defensive mechanisms or features that make them desirable in the context of the all-important Pokémon Battle, Chikorita and her line lean more into curative herbology and aromatherapy, marking them as the second evolutionary line designed as a cleric. Chicory is used as a healthy(-ish) coffee additive or substitute, bay leaves are widely used as aromatic seasoning, and geraniums… smell nice? A few points off Meganium’s score for straying off the “culinary plant with arguable medicinal use” tract, but at least she follows it in the text.
As they progress, the three evolutions in the family produce different scents from their leaves and flowers – Chikorita’s is soothing and sweet, Bayleef’s is peppy and spicy, and Meganium’s is again more becalming, even directly restorative to plant life in close contact. The three flavors are even reflected in the line’s canonical natures; Chikorita uses her photosynthesis powers to find the nicest places to sunbathe, Bayleef gets people excited and ready to tussle, and Meganium is billed as a docile peacemaker. I do appreciate the continual, subtle portrayal of Bayleef as the rowdier member of the family, gaining some spice in her first evolution before mellowing back out in her final form. It gives the three of them a nice little character arc.
The very idea of a plant-based dinosaur makes a neat little reference to a specific real-life species of prehistoric plant. Aachenosaurus, first in many alphabetical fossil records, was first discovered as what was assumed to be jaw fragments of some manner of herbivorous dinosaur. Shortly after, other paleontologists pegged the samples as a form of petrified plant, and the two sides had a hot and short bit of debate before the “plant” theory was clearly proven out and the original discoverer withdrew from paleontology altogether in mortification. The original name stuck, though, and so the scientific community has a plant genus on record with a “-saurus” name. Oh, the many wonderful follies of pre-modern paleontology.
Bonus points to Chikorita’s entire line for having the same English names as in Japanese; that so rarely happens outside of legendary monsters or overtly-marketable lines like Pikachu and Eevee. I’ve never decided whether I’m annoyed at Bayleef for having the same phonetic name as a real-life cooking ingredient, though; I can never see or hear about actual bay leaves without thinking of a particular pocket monster.
Chikorita is such a charming little thing, and I love the use of aromatherapy and herbalism in a way that doesn’t completely overtake its design. Plus, she doubles as a call-out to Actual Weird Biology! I’m typically anxious about keeping starter Pokémon in the natural roster unless they’re an option as your starting Pokémon in the game where they’re included – it seems to dilute the pool a bit. As such I’d put the Chikorita line more in Reserve – she’s a sufficiently-strong design (in addition to being many people’s first partner) that I wouldn’t want to see her done away with.
Any and all appreciation for Chikorita, Bayleef, and Meganium is welcome in the comments!