Mareep is such an incredibly good Pokémon.
First off, she’s nothing short of adorable. Just look at those little rounded legs; they’re a perfect halfway point between the stubby arms you see on a teddy-bear and having accurate ungulate hooves. Her coat is pleasantly big and floofy and creamy-yellow, with a satisfyingly huge coif. Those shiny, tiny eyes tell you everything about her mild demeanor. She’s even got a fun little orb on the end of her tail like one of those desktop plasma balls, which clearly implies an “electric” element (in case the yellow didn’t do it for you).
And then you get to her concept: how does electricity most commonly “bite” most of us? Static. And what builds up a lot of static really quickly? Among other things, wool sweaters. It follows that a sheep with an electric fleece would be a perfect marriage of Pokémon’s rock-paper-scissors elements and a recognizable animal.
The only thing that gets me is her ears and tail, with that yellow-and-black striped pattern. It makes a little sense with what she eventually evolves into, but for right now it’s a little distracting, especially how it’s drawn as shiny and rubbery. Maybe over time and domestication they’ve developed hand-holds for ranchers to handle them safely?
Other than that oddity, Mareep is a fantastic, stylized abstraction of a sheep with plenty of non-intrusive dashes of elemental flavor. This is the exact kind of monster design that I come to this series for. High marks.
Flaafy seems like the rightful evolution of Mareep. She’s something of a half-shorn sheep, maintaining a mane of that fantastic electric wool and those wonderful, hooved stub-limbs (though I miss the fork in her toes). Plus, that tail-orb has turned blue, which implies a more powerful, plasma-like electricity. And she’s standing on two legs! Everybody knows that animals are more serious and intimidating when they can stand upright. All gradual progressions from what Mareep was already bringing.
As much as I like the shape of her, I’m less of a fan of Flaaffy’s sudden pink coloration. Her evolution is about to discard the change, anyway, and “pink” doesn’t exactly smack of anything pertaining to sheepiness or electric-y-ness. Still, it’s an appealing color choice, even if it doesn’t really follow through as well as the rest of her design.
I’ve gone back and forth over the years on how I feel about Ampharos. She’s very different than her predecessors, but in a way that still follows a natural progression, and that could either read as “doomed to be a weirdo” or “undergone a proper evolutionary process”.
Ampharos is fully shorn now, and fully standing up with an elongated neck and weird, flippery limbs. She looks really weird, like some slippery animal that’s neither sheep nor giraffe nor amphibian nor much of anything else; that tail and those horn-ears are the main things that tie her back to pre-evolutions.
This does kind of make some sense when you consider that she’s meant to evoke a lighthouse – one of the biggest icons for “electricity” is a light bulb, and a lighthouse has some of the biggest light bulbs you’re likely to find. Lighthouses being associated with the sea would also explain those awkward, flippery limbs that she’s got going on.
I don’t really dislike Ampharos nowadays, knowing what she’s trying to go for. She just takes a real leap to get there.
Ampharos is pretty all right, considering she’s a single-type Pokémon who you can encounter either right before or right after the first gym in her debut game. She’s got great Special Attack, enough moves to use it with wide type coverage, and can really tank a hit. The reverse side to this is that she’s pretty slow (unusually for an Electric-type) and gets walled out by Ground-types, but by and large she’s a very reliable team member.
The Mareep line’s progression into a lighthouse doesn’t make a ton of sense at first, but consider the main problem with sheep: they
are dumb get lost easily. Usually you solve that with a herding animal, but the alternate to pushing is pulling, drawing them to one place. And a beacon of light – a lighthouse – seems like a perfectly natural way of Mareep self-regulating their herds in the wild. All of Mareep family members even have little lights on their tails so that others can find them!
Of course, the irony here is that lighthouses are typically used to warn stray ships away from the source of light, indicating that there’s a shore nearby and they shouldn’t be approached. But I’m perfectly happy with the series taking a real-world concept and twisting it into something new and fresh that makes their world more consistent.
And on the note of consistency, Flaaffy is yet another Pokémon who was almost immediately re-designed after her initial appearance; her art in the Japanese Gold & Silver had her mane be separate, like a head of hair and wool boa, before every subsequent release would give her a joined woolen mane. I think the change looks better, and the original design is all but buried, so it’s more of a curiosity than anything.
And on the note of curiosities, Mareep’s wool is so good at being light and fluffy and carrying a charge that it can’t be directly used for textiles. Rather, there’s “a special process used on it”, presumably to make it less condusive. Man, these monsters are fun, but actually integrating them into any other part of life and commerce seems to be a regular pain.
Amusingly, that’s cited as the reason why Flaafy have massive bald patches – not because they’ve been domesticated and shorn, but because their fleece was becoming untenable, so they naturally shed and developed an insulated hide to keep from electrocuting themselves. Lil’ Mareep was too potent for even herself, it seems.
Mareep’s various international names are a combined delight.
Just in the obvious English and Japanese, her name is a combination of “Mary” and “Sheep” – a nice little allusion to “Mary had a little lamb”. Plus, “Mareep” itself is an anagram of “ampere”, a unit of electric current. That name’s pulling double-time! Then there’s the French Wattouat – making fun of the convenient homophone between “watt” and “ouate” (wool).
Flaaffy is a little boring by comparison (unless you want to count the repeated A as a double-meaning between “baa” and a AA battery), but Ampharos kicks it up again, with “amp” (obvious), “amparo” (Spanish/Portugese for “aid/protection”, which a lighthouse definitely does), and “pharos”, the Greek word for lighthouse. Trilingual combo! There’s arguably even more Greek words you could root out of there – all of which get better when you consider that Mareep has a literal Golden Fleece – but needless to say it’s pulling a lot of weight.
Her Japanese name is even better – “denryu” means current, but contains the word for “dragon” (“ryu”), which Game Freak initially planned to make manifest with Ampharos intended as an Electric/Dragon type. For whatever reason (probably the balance issue of handing a player a potential Dragon-type by the second Gym), they made Ampharos purely Electric and parked on that double-entendre for fourteen years. Then, in X & Y, they came seemingly left-field with a proper Dragon-type variant of Ampharos. So if you’ve ever wondered why Ampharos had a wild Dragon-type Mega Evolution with a majestic mane and curled horns: it’s an old design given new life purely derived from a pun, as this series does best.
Oh, and on top of that, there’s also the fine little nod in this whole concept to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a seminal science-fiction story and the rough basis for Blade Runner. Knowing how openly Japanese fiction tends to reference Western sci-fi, I have to assume that this is intentional.
I adore Mareep; she’s one of my favorites, and a plush one is hanging out on my desk right now. Yes, I’m biased. Flaafy is a fantastic evolution, and Ampharos takes the line in a different but fun direction. I’m down with this trio design-wise, and the clever “animal-element” combination at their core makes them both the best sheep in the series and an encapsulation of its monster design firing on all cylinders. If I were at the wheel, they’d be a Must-Have. As-is, Game Freak doesn’t seem to agree and Sword & Shield did all right with a lesser sheep, so these can safely hang around in Reserve.
Any and all appreciation for Mareep, Flaaffy, and Ampharos is available in the comments!