What a weirdo. An absolute misfit. A complete, utter, thorough and total oddball.
And she has a close but dedicated following because of it.
And I’ll count myself in that number, because she’s a perfectly lovable doofus.
The best I could tell when I first saw her is that she was some form of burrowing flatworm, which is a fair enough choice. Most media doesn’t glorify worms as a cool animal, so it could be fun to feature one as actually credible and charming.
Unfortunately, Dunsparce is a bit of a technicolor mess of one. She’s a bright-yellow and cyan (which are fantastically comoflague-destroying colors for a non-poisonous cave-dweller), bears little vestigial wings, and she generally just looks kinda like a dopey larva. A lot of why this doesn’t necessarily work at a glance is cultural, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
One thing that I will grant her is that she looks like a proper burrower. The little “whiskers” on her chin look like spines that I can imagine being great for gripping rock and dirt or steering her head around, and that tail is a slick little tool. Usually you expect a creature to dig forward with paws or jaws, but tunneling backward makes a great “gotcha” defense – or escape – mechanism, and having a drill on her rear illustrates that perfectly clearly.
The overall quality of this monster seems to zig-zag on me, though: the flip-side is that there’s not a lot positive to say about her in-game. Most of her moves are pretty passive, the Normal type isn’t very exciting, and her stats are what you’d expect from something that has yet to fully evolve (which she doesn’t). She can do fine at addling an opponent and outlasting them, but that’s kind of not what the main game is built for, and she doesn’t stand up to competitive play.
Author’s note: The above was written in October of 2020.
The real story behind Dunsparce is that she’s almost certainly based on the Tsuchinoko, a Japanese cryptid in the same vein as a Unicorn or the North American Jackalope. While yokai and spirits certainly have their place, the Tsuchinoko has so many purported sightings (especially around the ’70s) and is so close to an actual animal that it’s often presented more like a “what-if” creature: a fat and flat snake with the ability to jump, which Dunsparce absolutely reads as if you have that context.
Dunsparce’s Japanese name even reflects this, being an anagram of “tsuchinoko” (ツチノコ ) – “nokocchi” (ノコッチ)! Do you know what her name is derived from in every single Latin-based language, though? Some derivative of “dumb” or “dunce” or “graceless” combined with a physical descriptor. No respect.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t fanciful folklore around the tsuchinoko, like its tendency to lie, or taste for alcohol, or a propensity to bite its own tail to roll down hills in a wheel-shape. She seems to mostly just borrow visual elements, though, being most noted on her not-at-all-related-to-Tsuchinokos ability to dig elaborate networks of tunnels.
Amusingly, with Diglett and Dunsparce both being presumably-herbivorous cave-dwellers, they even reportedly share those tunnel systems without competing. It’s kind of a “rising tide” situation, which is a delightful little show of cooperation to sprinkle in, and not unlike how certain reef animals share their hiding-holes. Granted, we’ve never seen the two spawn in the same place in the games, which is a shame – surely they have enough monsters running around now that they don’t have to spread these two across multiple areas?
I will grant that Dunsparce being a statistically-rare sight in-game is a direct call-out to Tsuchinoko lore, and its wings seem like a nice little allusion to Tsuchinokos’ jumping ability, with the specific phrase “it can fly just a little” seeing repeated Pokédex use. Even that gets slightly dashed, though, by a line speculating that Dunsparce’s wings used to be larger and flight-worthy in previous eons. They almost seem to be trying to evoke the European-dragon idea of a winged serpent or Mesoamerican Quetzalcoatl there, which just confuses the message.
In some ways, including its very name, Dunsparce feels like an example of “but not too foreign” localization, where some translation teams will rewrite concepts that are too inherent to a work’s region of origin when translating and editing a work for an overseas audience. You get a lot of this even within Pokémon itself; the TV anime used to frequently replace balls of rice with “doughnuts” or even “hamburgers” in dialogue, and re-draw scenes to drop Japanese lettering from signs in some cases.
And, to be fair, this is a totally reasonable track to take when the product is aimed at eight-year-olds. Little Timmy from Oregon probably isn’t going to go out and learn about Japanese cryptids – and wouldn’t even know to by Dunsparce’s design – so he just reads as alien. It would ultimately be pretty clunky to stop and explain this particular reference; why not just tie Dunsparce into a more general sense of fantasy?
It’s kind of a shame that Pokémon lost some things like that in translation – and, to their credit, they’ve retroactively solved at least one instance of similar issues. The comment about ancient, flying Dunsparce is alarmingly recent, though, suggesting to me that the writing team still hasn’t found an elegant way to inform Westerners about Tsuchinoko without breaking the fourth wall to bring up actual cryptozoology.
Anyway, where were we?
Oh, yeah: Dunsparce orients itself within familiar cave systems by identifying different soil by scent. What a delightfully specific skill for a creature with no discernable nose.
But for all that, be honest: either you forgot about Dunsparce entirely until you ran across this article, or you probably only remembered her because she’s kind of a joke. I’m sorry, she’s fun and the series benefits from having weird one-offs like Dunsparce, but her whole aesthetic in the series itself is a bit confused, especially in an international context. She’s prime Retirement material.
This at once feels almost insulting and also unfortunately appropriate.
Dudunsparce is possibly the most “just add more of the existing design” that we’ve had in an evolution since Poliwrath – to the point that I have a hard time coming up with novel commentary. The only think I can think that she even draws from is the Nokocchi, being generally considered a slightly-larger variant of the Tsuchinoko. But even then, this points to Dudunsparce feelking more like an enlarged regional variant than its own evolution.
Even its in-game voice cues are identical to Dunsparce, just pitched down. Come on, guys.
She does, at least, get enough of a stat bump to make her a little more viable, in addition to a fun signature move that pierces straight through Protect-like defenses. Her movepool is a bit haphazard, admittedly, but that does push her into a space where she could certainly earn her keep on an in-game team.
Her most interesting feature, though, is very understated – on very rare occasions based on Pokémon’s hidden stats, a Dunsparce will evolve into a Dudunspare with three segments instead of just two. These longer, larger Dudunsparce… are functionally identical to their garden-variety counterparts.
It’s a neat little take on genetic mutations like the amazingly named ultrabithorax that results in an insect growing an extra thorax, complete with a set of wings. But aside from likening Dudunsparce to some bizarre, deformed caterpillar – maybe one large enough to be confused for a Tsuchinoko? – I honestly don’t think it adds much to the design here.
I will grant that Dudunsparce is at least a very pleasant little hermit, digging their tunnel systems alongside their Ground-type neighbors and pleasantly ferrying any lost sprelunkers out to the mouth of a tunnel if they see one. Especially given that its main defensive mechanism amounts to a forceful yawn, I’m inclined to imagine this gal as a snakey, burrowing Totoro, which honestly goes a long way toward bringing me back around to it. Gotta love a gentle-giant Pokémon.
It’s a shame that after all these years, Dunsparce’s long-awaited evolution – coupled with a long-awaited environmental appearance of them sharing space with Diglett – came in such a very plain package. Still a mess, but oddly a fairly plain mess. Still, Dudunsparce strictly does help this line out enough that I think we could see the two more in and out of Reserve more often, so she’s a welcome addition.
Any and all appreciation for Dunsparce and Dudunsparce is welcome in the comments!