Phanpy feels like one of those boogers who’s impossible not to find downright charming. Little puppy-sized elephant in a cool teal with playful red accents. She’s even doing a fun little “march in place” in her key art! Perfectly endearing.
It’s easy to get down on “this is just an existing animal” designs, but like we’ve seen in monsters like Noctowl and Ursaring and even Cursola, Pokémon’s design strength really is in riffing on what nature already gives us. Even a real elephant calf doesn’t necessarily look this cute – they’re grey and wrinkly and have gangly limbs. Phanpy is stubbier, more vibrant, and even has rigid ears that flap like a toy. She’s like the plush-doll version of an elephant, if anything, but one that looks stocky enough to play rough with.
I just really like Phanpy. Cute lil’ monster.
Rather than the “big, commanding presence” route, Donphan has gone more for the “heavy-duty” interpretation of elephants, with even a little bit of warthog throw in. A rubbery “armor”, a cool blue-grey to mature from Phanpy’s baby-blue, and just the heftiest build in the fantasy-animal kingdom. She does have those cuffs on her ankles, though, and I’m still not sure why the Johto design team felt the need for those.
What I dig even more is that Donphan seems to be built entirely around using a specific move: Rollout. That tire-tread armor down her spine and constant ready-to-charge glare suggests that she’s on a hair trigger to curl up into a wheel and absolutely flatten you. It absolutely makes for a way more inventive use of her trunk than just “it sprays water or sand or whatever”. Her ears even make little handlebars or pivots to “steer” with!
It’s a shame that she doesn’t even get a same-type attack bonus while using Rollout, though, which kind of dampens the whole “signature move” angle. Plus, you’ve gotta imagine that those tusks get in the way. She was so close, too – not that it completely detracts from a pretty solid concept.
It’s a shame that these two generally aren’t available until quite late in the game – or much at all outside of Johto and Hoenn – because Donphan makes a fantastic mid-game monster. Nice and chonky, very basic elemental typing, but slow-moving and falls to special attacks. Well-rounded, but in a way that lets you get off some satisfying one-hit knock-outs.
In fact, that’s kind of the line’s whole schtick: “satisfyingly simple”. Take Phanpy: capable of carrying around adult humans despite barely coming up to their knees, regularly-if-accidentally knocking its playmates over fences, boring nests straight down into the earth. So dense with muscle that she’s 75 pounds at not even two feet high. She’s the perfect little encapsulation of “doesn’t know their own strength”.
Doesn’t that just speak to the core appeal of Pokémon as a whole, though? Cute lil’ pint-sized powerhouses. Gotta love ’em.
Walking right past Donphan’s supposed, likely-exaggerated ability to knock down a house, she gets to join the list of ‘Mons With Jobs. Big tusks, durable hide, wide body plan? Sounds like a living excavator to me. Maybe that’s just the tire-tread talking, or maybe it’s that these are actually, canonically used for clearing earth from paths and lots. If there’s something that real-life humans have used horses to do, you can bet your bottom dollar that there’s a Pokémon even better-equipped for that specific task.
The opposite side of that flexibility, though, is that sometimes the series can get too hung up on core ideas and use them as a one-size-fits-all personality. You know how Donphan is purportedly built for Rollout? Well, that’s their mating ritual. No, really; lady-Donphan apparently just can’t resist the fella-Donphan who can do the best tumble. Different strokes, I guess.
On the other hand, this also means that when Donphan showed up in the series’ first movie – a full year before in the games – she did so in a battle where she very definitely used Rollout. The thing is, Rollout hadn’t been introduced yet, either, and doesn’t especially look like any offensive move from the first generation. That makes Donphan’s debut something of a twofer for showing off how the games were going to expand : a fully-evolved monster with a visibly-new ability specifically tailored to her. Smart choice.
Donphan just feels like a satisfying “glue” monster to flesh out the rockier biomes, but apparently Game Freak and I disagree on that point. I’m actually a little miffed that the core games have seemingly Retired these guys for the last several generations running – they’re swell pachyderms, and I don’t think that’s a role that Mamoswine really fills on his own, or that newer elephants do quite as well. I’d love to see these two come out of Reserve and given another chance – maybe even with a “snow-tire” variant or even just an evolution to spruce up the line and cover for its speed issues.