A lot of games are big on “mash-up” enemy designs – take a turtle, give it a rock for a shell, and you’ve got you a new monster. It’s a pretty guaranteed formula, but at the same time it can easily come across as lazy, especially when the combinations feel somewhat arbitrary/
Luckily, Pokémon has a pretty fantastic track record with those; we’ve already had a fair few chimeras between multiple animals, and most of them come across so cleanly that fans argue which creature drove the design. Murkrow, on the other hand, is very clearly a witch-crow, and one pulled off so elegantly that I don’t mind his straightforwardness.
The one non-subtle element of Murkrow is his witch’s hat, which both gets points for having three peaks (making it look more like a bird’s crest) and loses points for having a cartoonish brim. Everything after that is gravy, though, starting with that fantastic bushy tail that so clearly evokes the bristles of a witch’s broom.
Seriously, a witch who is their own flying broom? Fantastic. The anemic, gangly body under his coat as evidenced by the pencil-neck? On point. Crooked, knobbly nose? Love it. And having his eyes be permanently weary and half-closed? This bird spells “ornery” from fifty paces off, which isn’t that far removed from “ominous” and “willing to hex you”. Murkrow is just jam-packed with characteristics that not only evoke the common “underhanded” characterization of corvids, but also of folklore-y witches.
Plus, “crow” being one consonant off of “crone” totally outweighs the silliness of his hat.
Honchkrow plays that hat up even further. Somehow, it seems more natural on him, though – probably because it at least tries to look like some formation of feathers on the back of the brim.
Oddly enough, Honchkrow seems to be working in a couple of different ways. The one that follows from Murkrow is a wizard – he’s got the beard, he’s kinda got a brimmed hat, he’s got bags under his eyes to signify age. It works with the “bird magician” idea, but it kinda falters in that wizards don’t really have an association with crows; with hindsight, owls might be a better bird to tie the two together.
Rather, Honchkrow takes a turn into “mafia don” territory. Crows’ tendency to “mob up” on prey and their plural name being murder makes this a good tie-in to corvids, even if it doesn’t logically follow from the “witch” concept aside from both being common fictional villains.
I do like the look of him, though. The puffed-out chest calls to mind both self-important mobsters and territorial birds for the exact same posturing reasons, as does that massive white ruff. The red tail doesn’t work quite as well for me, but I do like it on the underside of his feathers – for all that clean black coat, he’s got some blood on his hands that he keeps out of sight. Straightening Murkrow’s crooked beak into a more crow-like, smooth one works as far as Honchkrow “presenting” himself, as well, and rotating those half-eyes ever so slightly turns the monster from “tired” to “scheming”.
It’s a good evolution of Murkrow on the whole, even if we have to lose the delightful “spindly witch” flavor for it. All of the individual elements follow, but the sharp turn in context and design inspiration just feels weird, even knowing that Honchkrow was designed some seven years after Murkrow.
Honchkrow is an odd sort. He seems like a classic offensive build – great attack, okay health, mediocre defenses – but he’s uncharacteristically slow for a bird, and his passive abilities aren’t consistently useful. His typing does give him two type immunities, but flying-types have some pretty common weaknesses that’ll sink him right quick. At least he gets plenty of great moves to play with, which means that he’s useful for covering a ton of situations in the main campaign. I guess that means he’s good to come in, make a hit, and then likely get taken out in revenge, which seems on-brand for a mafioso.
Murkrow is the first of a new type in its generation of introduction, the Dark type. As is evidenced by its other kin at the time except Umbreon (which was initially designed as a Poison-type), “Dark” was indeed meant to stick to more inherently mischievous if not outright villainous monsters in the series. It was something of a backpedal from the series’ previous “there are no bad
dogs Pokémon, just bad owners trainers” stance, but in other ways it was helpful to pointedly group all the “do-no-good’ers” together. The games would get further from this with time, but early on the idea of an implicit “Evil” type played out strong.
And the games were great at making the new types elusive, too; assuming you weren’t trading with more experienced players, the only way to get a Dark-type in Gold & Silver before you had the standard eight badges was to evolve an Eevee, and how to get a Dark-type Eevee evolution was something of schoolyard gossip at the time. Murkrow in particular was a new Pokémon that looked like it should be available in the early-to-mid game, but could only be found naturally well after the credits had rolled.
It was kind of a shame that your team would likely be fully-formed by the time the new elemental types became available, so I’m glad that they didn’t try the same thing when they added yet another elemental type later. Game Freak themselves even noticed this, since a lot of Dark and Steel-types are available much earlier in the HeartGold & SoulSilver remakes. That said, even the new Steel-types aside from the returning Magnemite were a bit obtuse for a player to get on their own until very late in the game, and that elusivity gave the new types a bit more mystery and excitement when you did encounter them.
Murkrow’s text descriptions used to be something of a blend between crow behavior – collecting shiny objects – and their literary, witchcraft-y interpretation – an omen of misfortune and misdirection. I especially love the games that give it an antagonistic relationship with fellow sparkly-trinket-lover Meowth; it creates a nice little excuse for avian and feline Pokémon to hate each other in-universe without getting into the whole “animals eating animals” angle in a cartoony series.
Later games seem more split on how to pin Murkrow down. The latest text entries we have give us two in short order, one evoking a mother’s warning tale, the other explicitly calling out “its boss”:
They awaken at dusk and take wing in the twilight, leading to the expression, “Get home before the Murkrow fly.”– Pokémon Sun
It searches for shiny things for its boss. Murkrow’s presence is said to be unlucky, so many people detest it.– Pokémon Ultra Moon
…which gives further credence to both Murkrow’s witchy vibe and the notion that he’s been retroactively made into one of Honchkrow’s flunkies. Granted, Murkrow was always a thief even when he was first introduced, which isn’t exactly a famed trait of folklore-witches, so he’s always been something of a mash-up. If anything, it bothers me that he has such a good witch-bird design that his characterization doesn’t really capitalize on.
For that matter, Honchkrow doesn’t capitalize on his cronies in a gameplay way, either. Almost all of his Pokédex entries revolve around how he summons Murkrow and orders those underlings around to do his bidding, but none of his attacks really reflect this. He definitely had some great flavored options when he was conceived: notably the Dark-type “Beat Up” (which gets stronger the more teammates are on the bench) or Vespiquen’s “Attack/Defend/Heal Order”, which explicitly call on flunkies. All are absent from Honchkrow’s move pool, though, leaving him more of a common attacker. Seems like the both of these two are wasting a fair bit of their design potential.
It’s such a crying shame that the two of these Pokémon pass up some great opportunities to capitalize on their inherent flavor (Murkrow doesn’t even learn Hex!). I still love these two individually, and people love them a crow or raven, but this line is confused and just doesn’t match up right. I’d almost rather these two were relaunched as separate monsters so that they could dig into their individual ideas better, but by my own rules I’m not going to split them up when they already exist as a family. It’s a shame, but I think we can Retire them and try again with a clearer crow design later.
Any and all appreciation for Murkrow and Honchkrow is welcome in the comments!