Boy howdy do I love me a Sudowoodo.
First off: take a good look at her dumb face. Those little beady eyes and wide, vacant smile? What an absolute dork. Gotta love her.
Then there’s her whole build, from the green orbs that pass as her “leaves” to her unnatural smoothness and those feet. Those aren’t the roots of a tree. Those are the legs of flunkie in a mascot suit. Everything about Sudowoodo’s look points back at her core concept:
This creature is a fraudulent Rock-type masquerading as a Grass-type monster.
Now, it’s also perfectly reasonable for Sudowoodo’s features to just read as “weird cartoon creature”, but that’s arguably part of the appeal. There’s a high chance that unwitting players will be totally bamboozled by this thing the first time they run across it, which is the whole point. A strong, functional design.
Oh, this poor, perpetually-panicked baby.
Sudowoodo is a fake tree, right? So what’d be the small version of that? An artificially-created tree about a foot and some change tall?
Smells like a bonsai to me.
Granted, bonsai by the normal definition are totally organic, “natural” trees. But pruning and human cultivation play such a heavy hand in what they are that the quotations around “natural” are doing some awfully heavy lifting; those things were never intended to live the life of a wild plant. They’re just meant to look like the real thing.
Just like Sudowoodo.
Not the most obvious tie-in, but given the extra step of thought, it plays incredibly well. Full marks to Bonsly for taking an existing idea and building on it in a new and entertaining way, which is the kind of thing I’m always hoping to see in a new evolution.
The only thing that still gets me about Bonsly is that the crest on her head is in the same shape as Sudowoodo’s hands. Either Bonsly sprouts arms from her noggin one at a time and they migrate downward (ew), or that dies out into Sudowoodo’s “horn” and two entirely new arms sprout out where there were adorably none. Either way, there’s some odd growth shenanigans going on with these rock-trees.
Unfortunately, Sudowoodo derives most of her appeal from the lore around her. In battle, she has great physical stats, but is lacking in other defenses and has all the speed of… well, a rock. Not super-compelling, but at least she gets a good range of potent physical attacks to throw around and abilities to compensate. Fair enough, but the kind of critter that would benefit from an update.
Personally, I love those clever animals that go beyond automimicry and try to pass other forms of life altogether as a survival tactic. Sudowoodo is far from a bad way for Pokémon to start dabbling in natural Mimesis.
And the series really commits to Sudowoodo as an idea.
First off, a recap of how she’s introduced: in Gold & Silver, you see an odd tree blocking your way though a woodland fairly early on. That’s normal enough considering that you had to Cut certain trees in Red & Blue; maybe you just need a similar move here. Except, if you examine it, it shakes. Hmm. Clear hint #1.
When you come back to The Odd Tree on the other side, somebody offers you a watering pail that they claim should provoke a reaction from it. Huh; not normal tree behavior, but maybe watering it will cause the tree to grow or something? Big clue #2.
Then you actually sprinkle some water on the thing, and it springs out to attack you. A-ha! (And that’s giveaway #3 about what type Sudowoodo really is.) Many players had figured out straight away that this was a special Pokémon, and it seems obvious in hindsight, but you have to remember that a lot of the playerbase is in elementary school and had never heard of a Sudowoodo before (less Internet, after all). Solving an easy mystery like that will make them feel like clever little sleuths, so the whole sequence makes for a great payoff.
Not to mention that it’s a way more interesting way of creating a living roadblock than Snorlax in my opinion. Snorlax is big and lazy and has to be irritated into moving out of the way, which does speak to his nature. But that’s also just vague enough that any monster of sufficient size could feasibly fill that role.
Sudowoodo, on the other hand, has her entire identity built around being a faker that looks just off from her surroundings, which adds an extra flavor to a confounding roadblock. Then the solution to the “problem” is to treat her more or less like a regular plant, which she reacts to violently because of how Water interacts with Grass (her expected type) and Rock (her actual type) within the game’s specific mechanics.
This girl makes Snorlax look like an arbitrary fetch quest by comparison, and frankly I wish Sudowoodo had gotten the “stock roadblock” reputation instead. Alas, Snorlax gets privileges for being first to the table. Maybe it’s better that she fly under the radar so that she can continue to confuse new players.
Now, aside from that, the franchise loves to play with presenting Sudowoodo as a fraudster. Starting with the anime, in one of the series’ recent films, a Sudowoodo is amusingly drawn to and teams up with a serial grifter (though each helps the other get over their worse natures). In the ongoing Twilight Wings web series, one turns up as a fake potted plant in an office – much like how some real offices and public buildings will use fake plants to skip out on maintenance.
Then in the mainline games, Sudowoodo is rarely given an idle animation in the video games (or, at least, has a very subtle one) to show that it’s trying to mimic a still tree. Then, in the games where you could encounter a collective herd of Pokémon at once, a Sudowoodo would sometimes be “hidden” in a herd of more genuine treelike Pokémon. Even Smash Bros. gets in on this, where in the Poké Floats stage a Sudowoodo-shaped platform is timed to move opposite and out of the way when the water-type Wooper appears.
She’s a lot like Diglett in that her very nature makes her ripe for the creators to turn her into a fun easter egg, and I’m absolutely here for it.
The other obvious inspiration for Sudowoodo’s appearance and Rock typing is petrified wood, an absolutely fascinating phenomenon that – to over-simplify yet another bizarre feature of nature – effectively happens when a tree manages to fossilize in-place rather than decaying. The plant material is gradually replaced with silica, pyrite, and other fun minerals, resulting in a rock formation in the same shape as a former tree.
In a sense, you could read this as a tragedy – that Sudowoodo is mimicking the shape of the tree that she once was – but the games don’t read that far into the idea. They do, however, read plenty into Sudowoodo as the evolution of a bonsai-like Pokémon, noting that popular style magazines revolve around it and how different specimens are prized for the shape and angle of their branches. It’s even noted as a favorite Pokémon among the elderly – and cultivating bonsai has been used at times as therapy for those symptomatic of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The crack in Sudowoodo’s disguise is, of course, that there are no seasonal variants for her to morph into throughout the year. A select few shiny Sudowoodo have reddish “leaves” on their hands, making them more suited to hiding in autumn, but none of them shed those “leaves” in the winter months. Ah, well, every system has its flaw; at least that’s a season where they don’t have to flee from the tiniest drizzle of rain.
Bonsly seems very intent on building up her facade, either by mimicking rocky conditions or by creating the conditions by which she can eventually become rocky (I’d lean toward the former given that she’s already a Rock-type). From seeking out arid areas to dry out her “leaves” to actively inducing her own crying to remove moisture from her body, she’s all about getting dry – though hanging out in deserts and mountains tends to mean that her camouflage at the time is rendered useless. Whoops.
Oddly, Bonsly was introduced very early, even with Pokémon making a regular habit of using certain marketable Pokémon as teasers for the next round of games. Bonsly was introduced in English nearly two years before his fourth-generation debut, and even before Emerald had finished publishing in Japan. She was around for so long that XD, one of the Pokémon Stadium-style games, included her as playable at least a year before she’d turn up in the main series games, something that we wouldn’t see again until very recently. Babies really do want for all the attention.
Last note, I love the double-entendres in this line’s Japanese names. Sudowoodo’s usokkii name comes from uso (false) and ki (wood/tree), which strung together are a near-homophone for usotsuki (liar). Similarly, Bonsly’s usohachi comes from uso and hachi (flower pot), but doubles as a homophone for usoppachi (a downright lie). Wordplay is fun! And the French names are just as fun to say, even if they’re more straightforward conjunctions: Simularbre and Manzaï.
High-concept Pokémon are barrels of fun every time we see one make the rounds, and they’re the kind of memorable designs that really make the roster vibrant. For my money, Sudowoodo should be a regularly-featured Reserve customer in the series. Heck, if they can find a way to make her a physical contender, I could even see her as a Must-Have based on her lore alone.
Any and all appreciation for Sudowoodo and Bonsly is available in the comments!