We’re getting to the end of the Johto ‘dex, which means it’s time to look at some Legendary Pokémon again, starting with another trio.
Raikou has always been my favorite of these three, possibly because it has the cleanest and clearest design. Tigers are naturally orange with stripes, so that’s an easy thing to twist into a brght yellow “lightning” design with sharp, angular markings. Super-readable.
But it’s also got a ton of embellishments that make Raikou feel like it leapt out of an old painting. The purple “storm clouds” rolling down its back, the tail warped into a bolt of electricity, the armor-like crest on its forehead, and even its goofy little “mustache”. And while they’re less “lightning-y”, its exaggerated sideburns and sabretooth tusks push Raikou even further into the “regal-but-savage” territory.
Everything about Raikou’s design just works for me, down to the little tufts of fur by its hind haunches, a feature of cats both large and domestic. It’s just a great creature design, and a fantastic start to the Johto legends.
Another big cat with another silly mustache.
Well, another big beast, at least. Let’s put a pin in the whole “cat” thing.
It does look like some mythical animals, and borrows from lions in particular, it’s officially a mix of a different influences, with the goal of creating a mammal with a powerful silhouette. Once again, it’s pretty successful; regardless of what you want to call this thing, it has the same energy to me as a St. Bernard or a lion or even a long-necked bear, which is a great aura for something you’d see painted on a mural or scroll or what-have-you.
More than any of that, though, Entei is a living volcano. A great brown mountain of fur, the red-and-yellow facial “plates” suggesting an explosion of fire, and the great plume of smoke rolling down its back. This is how you elegantly roll imagery into a character design – not by sticking eyes and a mouth on a shrubbery or whatever, but by taking the constituent parts and re-interpreting them in a new context.
I don’t get why the designers seem intent on shackling their fire creatures, though. It’s just not a look that works for me, and I feel like Entei would look more like a natural “creature of the land” without them. Ah, well. It’s still just as great of a mix of animal-and-element as Raikou is.
I’m a little less enamored with Suicune, but I still absolutely understand why people adore it. That giant, crystaline crest on its head is distinct and impressive, but manages to not detract from its sleek, powerful build. The wavy, aurora-mane down her back and ribbons reaching out front are both more “animated” than the same features on Entei and especially Raikou, and so she feels more lively. And that little “beard” under her chin looks exactly like a cat who’s dribbling water, completing the “water mammal” look.
There’s nothing in her design that’s inherently bad; in fact, I love all the individual parts of Suicune, aside from maybe the diamond “leopard” patterns on its fur. Maybe it’s how she breaks the “powerful animal” imagery set by the other two for something leaner and quicker. Maybe it’s that Suicune’s palette is more monotone, where the other two had splashes of contrasting colors to break them up. I just can’t put my finger on it, but it just feels like the odd duck design-wise.
Suicune’s still a nice-looking Pokémon on its own, though, and I can’t take that away.
All three are firmly in the Legendary class, though, so once you finally track them down, there’s no doubt about it – they’ll outclass anything in the main game, and even hold their own well enough if you’re willing to use legendries in a competitive context. They each have their own specialties, too – Suicune is more defensive, Raikou boasts more special attack, and Entei is the most physical – though all of them are well above average on aggregate. Once you have them in your party, at least.
And that tracking down is the whole crux of their appearance in the original games. These three introduced the concept of a “roaming” Pokémon – one who would show up by pure chance in any area of the game’s map, always traveling to an adjacent route every time the player changes locations or goes through enough random encounters.
There’s also a few other mechanics around them, but the general idea is that they’re a monster that feels persistent without being a scripted encounter, which is a much more lively notion than how Mewtwo just sits in its cave from dawn ’till dusk. It also re-contextualizes the whole idea of capturing, since they attempt to flee every turn and retain status conditions across encounters. Now you have to use the Pokédex to actively track the Pokémon, specifically lead your party with some move or ability to prevent their escape, and be careful with how you treat them since you’re less likely to have saved right before the encounter.
It’s such a successful setup, in fact, that nearly every main-series game has copied this feature in one way or another. They’ve only gotten more fun over time with how they physically appear in the overworld in Sword & Shield, were accompanied by dramatic weather in Black & White, and were more easily-viewable on the in-game maps in the fourth generation. What a way to make them feel unique and even inject a bit of life into the ordinary capture cycle.
They’re also much more lively in that this trio has plenty of solo, breakout roles. Where you rarely see Zapdos without Moltres in the same conversation, for example, all three members of the trio have had their own solo adventures. Entei got a whole theatrical movie to himself, Suicune co-starred in the next movie and was a focus of the revised Pokémon Crystal, and Raikou got a still-fun TV movie that broke away from the usual anime cast entirely. They still show up together quite a bit, but I love that these three get to feel like individual siblings at least a little.
The HeartGold & SoulSilver remakes even reflect this in that they each get personal mixes of the same battle music. Suicune gets some cool, clear bell tones on top of its theme, Entei’s has some synthesizer mixed in, and Raikou’s, of course, features electric guitar. It’s the little things that make these three feel distinct rather than just pieces of a set.
The main point of contention with them as a trio, though, is… what are they?
A lot of the fanbase seems to refer to them as “legendary dogs”, which feels a little arbitrary to me, though I get it. They’re big, strong, four-legged creatures that run around a lot. In our daily lives, that mostly translates to “domestic dog”, so that’s a reasonable place for the brain to go. Except they’re very clearly not that.
You can’t reasonably argue that Raikou is anything but a tiger, Suicune definitely has a leopard motif, and as noted, Entei is the only arguable one of the three and still feels more lion-y than anything else. The thing is, they’re never referred to as cats, either, outside of another splinter of the fanbase. Granted, even in 1999, Pokémon was trying to wean itself off of references to “real” animals, so no official sources was ever going to explicitly call them “dogs” or “cats” or “gerbils” or anything so clear.
Which is fair, since these three really are based on no one animal; not even on any specific myth. The series only ever calls them “Legendary Beasts”, which is a good enough catch-all moniker, even if it’s a little impersonal.
You could make an argument that they come from the same liondogs as Arcanine, or the feng-shui-fouced pixiu (no, not Pichu), or – most specifically to Raikou – the Raiju, a mythical Japanese beast seemingly modeled on whatever the storyteller or artist felt like interpreting at the time. Taking a mythical creature associated with one element in particular and then twisting it to the other two feels like such a natural fit that I wouldn’t doubt Raiju was the initial spark of inspiration behind the whole set. Not to mention that their international names reflect the original Japanese (as opposed to, say, the very cross-linguistic Lugia), where after the first generation, the Legendary Pokémon’s names were chosen explicitly to be the same in every regional localization.
Of course, Johto in particular is very keen on reflecting “traditional” Japan in the first place, especially with Ecruteak City (where these are found) being based on the historic capital of Kyoto. These three even tie into its real-world history, with the legend of the Brass Tower burning down (and being subsequently extinguished) by the trio directly mirrors the burning of its real-life equivalent, the Kinkaku-ji temple. But, y’know, as a friendly accident rather than an act of war. It gives these three some of the most involved in-game backstory of any of the legendary monsters, and ties them directly into the setting in a way that feels super-satisfying.
Oh, and they’re all arguably zombies, but that’s a story for another time.
I’d go so far as to argue that Raikou, Entei, and Suicune feel distinctly important to Johto specifically, and don’t even make that much sense as a presence in other games outside of a cameo. For Gold & Silver, they’re absolutely a Must-Have, and I love these three to death for their strengths. But specificity in their backstory ties them strongly enough to one location that I feel like they can stay in Reserve and be used sparingly outside of jaunts to Johto.
Any and all appreciation for Raikou, Entei, and Suicune is welcome in the comments!