What a cute-lookin’ little sprout!
I love how they’ve captured something of a middle stage of seed growth here – Sunkern has a little bit more going on than just being a kernel, but she’s also not a totally mobile creature like Bellsprout. She’s more what you would imagine a sentient plant as a toddler to be, which is a solid place for a first form to land on.
The shell pattern here is important, too – the brown on yellow evokes the colors of a very specific plant, where the vertical stripes are perfectly in-line with its very recognizable seed-shell. It makes a very nice amalgamation of the various parts of a sunflower without actually using the signature “flower” imagery.
Plus, those beady, seedy little eyes? They have a perfect little stuffed-animal-like button quality. This kid feels like the all-in-one package of the doll, house-pet, and potted plant that a parent might give you to teach you responsibility, which inevitably breaks your heart when she gets worse for wear. Luckily, this one still looks pleased as punch to be here. D’aww. We’re happy to have you here, too, Sunkern.
The more I think about Sunflora, the more I find that there’s nothing about her that the aforementioned Bellsprout isn’t already doing better. That pudgy body isn’t at all representative of the famously-tall sunflower with its straight stem, her leaf-hands feel more obvious than novel for an anthropomorphic flower, and those floppy feet just don’t feel natural on this creature. It’s all kind of a deflated mess.
I never know quite how to feel about her face, either. On one hand, it’s obviously meant to evoke that happy preschool drawing of a sun with the spiky rays around it and a happy little grin. It’s quaint. On the other, its face looks as much like a volleyball as anything else – it certainly doesn’t match a sunflower’s brown center or a clean, shiny “sun” image. It’s just kind of… nothing. It’d be another thing if the ridge-lines just weren’t there, but that’s nitpicking a flower-monster that we’ve established only has one or two interesting things going for her.
And, unfortunately, that’s the biggest problem with Sunflora: she’s just less interesting than her non-humanoid baby form. A walking cartoon flower is fine and fun, but Silly Symphonies was running with that eighty years before this one came about, and there have been plenty of others since. She’s conventional and safe, but that’s just not exciting.
And do you know what else isn’t exciting? Sunflora’s scouting prospects. Being pure grass on her own (which was still a rarity in the games at this point) doesn’t give her a stellar outlook on type matchups, and unfortunately her markedly-below-average stats and straightforward move pool don’t do much to remedy that. She’ll do all right in the main game if you can sneak some fun stuff like Sludge Bomb and Earth Power onto her, but that’s extra legwork just to bring her up to snuff with other options, really.
Oddly enough for Sunkern (who, by the way, holds all sorts of adorable series records for “lowest stats”), she originally showed up as green in the games, with her alternate “shiny” coloration better matching both her official art at the time and her current appearance.
Sunflora didn’t have it much better, looking a little brown and wilted compared to her more vibrant appearance on the cards, in the show, and just about everywhere else; her “shiny” form, on the other hand, was brighter and more radiant. Nowadays, it’s the other way round, with her shiny form being the toasty-gold one. At least her feet look something like roots here.
In both cases, the odd coloration persisted into Crystal version, so it’s not like they just redesigned the monsters last-minute after the cartridges had gone to print (though they did exactly that with the stripes up Sunkern’s back). Rather, this feels like a quirk of the Gameboy Color’s limited color palette, but in reality I’m as apt to label it a fluke.
Clearly both palettes were reasonable to paint Sunflora with, they were just assigned to regular and shiny in reverse; and we know for a fact that the Gameboy Color could handle yellow-and-brown (see Drowzee for an example). It wouldn’t be the first time that the designers tweaked a monster after its first appearance, but here it stands out because it so obviously doesn’t line up with the rest of the series’ messaging.
Speaking of incongruity, I remember very distinctly having a physical “guidebook” back in the day that claimed Sunkern’s height as exactly one inch tall. The correct number is about a foot, but that’s totally boring, I say. I love the idea that these Pokémon can be anything from an actual, miniscule insect up through the famously titanic Wailord, and a one-inch-tall sentient seedling would be a glimmer of that.
It’d take up until the fifth generation until we actually saw an insect-sized Pokémon – and even then, four inches is a generous “smallest”. While it’s useful in some ways to have the monsters homogenized so that they can all, for instance, play fetch with you, it also makes Pokémon less interesting than real animals in certain ways. I’d rather choose to believe that Sunkern are born at one inch and then rapidly grow over their early life, because that’s much more dynamic and leaves the door open for some truly microscopic Pokémon. What a wild ride that would be.
Not that Sunkern isn’t also a wild ride. One very persistent piece of text we get about the species is that they “suddenly fall out of the sky”, especially in the morning. Given that this is a little seedling who sustains herself on morning dew, what is she doing up in the sky? At least “from trees” would make an inkling of sense, since treetops are agreed-upon safe zones from predators in most environments.
“From the sky” makes me think that sprout on Sunkern’s noggin was originally supposed to have something of a helicopter function before Hoppip took up the idea. Sunflora doesn’t follow through on it at all, though. Maybe it does more of a “maple seed” action, drifting down and away from the treeline each morning so it looks like it’s coming from the sky? Seriously, with how much time people spend obsessing over Pokémon in-universe, you’d think someone would have at least figured out the daily routine of a common seedling.
The one bit of lore that Sunflora does have going for her is, unfortunately, not part of the games. In theory, she runs about during the day, petals always facing the sun, and then totally clams up at night. This seems like a cool gameplay hook – especially with Gold & Silver introducing a day-and-night cycle to the game’s world.
Alas, the time of day has no gameplay effect on Sunflora whatsoever. This is the kind of thing that we’ll start seeing in force soon, but as for now, Sunflora is more of a “what could have been” design. I’d love to see a version of her that’s actually affected the clock, getting stronger or weaker depending on when in the real world you’re playing (maybe with a moonflower counterpart?), but we’re not liable to get this after-the-fact, and later designs will fill this exact niche anyway.
It’s disappointing that the Sunkern line stops with Sunflora, in a way; this seems like the exact kind of evolutionary family that needs one final iteration to really spice things up. Maybe make her a literal sunflower, with a unique fire/grass typing and more oomph to take advantage of Sunny Day? Or, more like the once-lost Spaceworld Demo showed us, a sunflower that’s hoisted itself up out of the ground with some sun-derived supernatural power. Maybe even a psychically-linked colony of mobile sunflowers, like a sunny mangrove?
Well, Exeggcute already has that last one covered. But man, I can’t believe that Pokémon of all franchises is sitting on its hands with that obvious bit of wordplay right in front of them. Give us SolarFlora, dangit.
Sunflowers are not a killer “oh-yeah-gotta-have-it” monster concept, and Sunflora is similarly not a mandatory monster to have kicking around – and if the numbers are anything to go by, the developers know it. I think Sunflora may just be the clearest example yet of a Pokémon that could be Retired tomorrow and few people would stop to mourn her. Sorry, Sunkern, we still love you.
Any and all appreciation for Sunkern and Sunflora is available in the comments!