Wobbuffet, Wynaut

#202 – Wobbuffet

Pokémon has gotten some Beedrills in people’s collective bonnets critter designs based on inanimate objects – particularly grousing that that they’re “unoriginal” compared to the original 151. This is, of course, hogwash, as evidenced by two examples:

  1. The literal seal named “Seel
  2. This guy.

I love that it’s not overtly obvious what he even is at first. Some odd, rubbery creature with four stubby legs, right-angled flipper-arms, and… a platypus tail? With eyes? What’s going on here?

Who knows, but he’s just happy to be here, so good for him. And how can you not love such a delightful, round creature with a wide smile and emoticon-like eyes? As a design that’s meant to be abstract and just a little obtuse, he’s doing a great job.

#360 – Wynaut

Wynaut pretty all right as far as baby forms go. He’s simultaneously more and less humanoid than Wobbuffet; there’s a distinct head-and-body and two feet, but there’s also the matter of his arms. Er… ears?

This guy is going to evolve into Wobbuffet some day, sure. But in a really indirect way, like re-molding plastic. These two are very Gonzo-like “whatever” designs, and I love it.

Wobbuffet has a weird and distinct place in the games’ battle system: he’s entirely reactionary due to his lack of any directly-damaging moves at all. It’s a fun hook, but most players wont want him on their team just for the main campaign.

So what is his place?

As a training tool.

It’s possibly more obvious in Japanese or to players of a certain age, but Wobbuffet is based on a specific kind of wobbling toy that’s designed to roll back upright on its own when pushed over. His French name even borrows from a locally-trademarked name for Weebles! There’s also more than a little “punching bag” in there – or an upside-down speed bag, going by hi shape.

And, much like an actual punching bag, he’s designed to take hits and just bounce right back.

The whole thing with Wobbuffet is that he revolves around two moves – Counter (which turns physical moves back on the attacker) and Mirror Coat (which does the same for special moves). There’s some other options in there – like preventing escape or nullifying status effects – but they all exist to support those two counterattack options. In fact, when he debuted, he could only ever have one possible set of moves.

Much like Voltorb serves as a player’s first mimic or environmental hazard, and Sudowoodo teaches you to not always trust your eyes, Wobbuffet exists to break players out of their “attack-attack-attack” habits. On both sides of a matchup, Wobbuffet turns the game into a predictive gambit, playing out the classic “I know he knows that I’m anticipating X”.

And if the attacking player guesses wrong? The’ll likely be knocked flat, as Wobbuffet has way more health than the average bear, but his counterattacks return pure HP damage rather than using his own measly attack stats. And from the third generation onward, most opponents can’t escape or switch out against Wobbuffet, either (which is admittedly an annoyance when you find one in the wild).

He’s pretty much just got the one trick, sure. But it forces players to think differently about him and branch out to strategies other than “maximum damage, all the time”, which is something that the main campaign unfortunately reinforces in some ways. He’s part of a long line of “puzzle enemies” in RPGs in this way; break up the usual flow of the game to make sure that the player is paying proper attention.

Of course, because every monster in the game is also usable by the player, having such a specific Pokémon creates some problems. Notably, there was a point at which certain Wobbuffet-vs-Wobbuffet matchups were literally unwinnable by either party because their passive abilities prevented switching out and neither can perform direct attacks. This has largely been fixed since, but he still creates odd situations where he can’t damage specific Pokémon at all, or other hiccups from his passive moveset make him a notable wrinkle to adapt in other forms.

And even when he’s not causing mechanical problems, the adorable Wynaut gave him access to Encore: a move which forces the opponent to endlessly repeat their last move. Predicting a counter with 100% certainty shifts him from a “game of chance” to “there is no escape” territory, making him regularly banned from competitive venues. Wobbuffet is a monster, plain and simple.

Back in-universe, that perpensity to only get hit also seems like a very poor survival tactic for Wobbuffet in the wild, doesn’t it? Luckily, the games have a solid explanation for this – that Wobbuffet’s “body” is fairly inconsequential. Rather, it’s implied to be a very large and successful decoy organ, designed to inflate and be hit uselessly by predators until they give up, while the “main body” of the Pokémon stays safe. And where is that located?

Why, in the “tail”, of course, which is perfectly camouflaged in their natural cave habitat. Its tail’s “eyes” even blink in the Stadium Games.

God, Wobbuffet is weird, and that’s before noting that lady Wobbuffet are distinguished by a cartoonish splash of lipstick.

Now, we do have a lot of examples of biological automimicry and deceit in Pokémon already, but growing a whole vestigial organ for the purpose is a whole other level. Usually this kind of deception takes the form of acting (like a bird pretending to have a broken wing to lure predators away from a nest), but aside from the trick where geckos can drop their tails in a pinch, the closest thing real animals have to “hit me here” body parts are defensive shells or spines. Rather, this is a kind of believable animal evolution; if a gecko can regrow a tail or an anglerfish can grow a luminescent lure, why can’t a different strain of animal grow a physical decoy given enough spare energy? It’s not strictly analogous to the real world, but you could probably convince a ten-year-old that some deep-sea creature does exactly that.

Then again, there’s also the notion that Wobbuffet as a species are just gluttons for punishment, canonically getting into endurance competitions with each other in everything from physical damage to fasting. As if the series needed another finger pointed at how Pokémon undergo mistreatment, here we have one that relishes in it, play-fighting from the baby stage to toughen themselves up into solo-fighting rubbery fiends.

One last thing about Wobbuffet is that his Japanese name is literally pronounced as “That’s the way it is”. That’s apparently the catchphrase of a particular comedic rakugo storyteller, Hayashiya Sanpei, who would use the phrase as a punchline while putting his hand to his head (which Wobbuffet is commonly shown doing). And Wynaut’s Japanese name sounds like “Really?”, which leaves the pair in kind of a constant back-and-forth comedy routine, bouncing lines off each other.

You’d think The Pokémon Company would be wary of basing designs off real-life humans at this point, but hey, history hasn’t repeated itself on this one. Maybe they got permission from the estate, or British “psychics” are just a testier bunch?

It’s kind of weird that “Wynaut” in English is built to play off the same puns as in Japanese (and in German, where the pair are roughly named “Where to?” and “It is so.”) when Wobbuffet’s English name is one of the series’ stock portmanteaus. The two names simply don’t line up, I’m afraid, nor does the French going from a Weebles reference to “Okay, okay”. I guess not all the localization teams were let in on the joke early enough here

Wobbuffet has turned out to be something of a favorite among both fans and the designers over time; in particular, he’s been a regular character in the anime since just after the turn of the millennium. He shows up in the marketing a lot as a mascot, too, which makes sense – he’s simple but distinct, and so immediately-recognizable as “a Pokémon” even if you don’t quite understand what his deal is.

With all that recognizability and such a distinctive place in the gameplay, he’s definitely one of the Must-Have monsters of the series. I absolutely can’t see him being dropped any time soon, at any rate.

Any and all appreciation for Wobbuffet and Wynaut is welcome in the comments!

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