Lugia is a wild character, and ultimately one of the more interesting ones.
On his face, Lugia feels almost… unlike other Pokémon up until this point. He doesn’t seem to be explicitly based on one animal or concept, or even a clear mix of them. He just… is.
(By the way, I’m using male pronouns for Lugia entirely based on his movie debut. Bear in mind that some of the designers interpret Lugia as having aspects of both genders – or as being predominantly female-coded. More on that later.)
Sure, he’s got the vague appearance of some sea-bird, but his wings bend into “hands” in a way that’s unlike any actual avian animal. He’s also got smooth, rubbery skin and a long body like diving mammals, but aside from maybe a plesiosaur (who already has representation in this series), he also doesn’t look particularly like a real marine animal. Then there are those aquatic takes on stegosaur-plates, which fold down to make him even smoother and more aerodynamic (that’s right; this monster has an action feature). It’s all a little weird.
And yet, something about Lugia is just so undeniably cool. The icy white and cool and deep blues make for a very striking color palette, and he looks absolutely massive even in isolation. Plus, the shape of his skull and fin-like details make him both sleek and aggressive at the same time. There’s just so much good stuff going on here – and he doesn’t feel that foreign when placed next to an oddity like Mewtwo – that I’ll gladly overlook any nitpicks.
Lugia definitely is an oddity, at that. While he’s billed as a Flying and Psychic type, he’s got plenty of elements that shout “Water” (even before we get into his mythology), and you could make an strong case for reptilian, Dragon-ish influences – plus there’s at least one Dark-type-adjacent variant. It’s almost a shame that they went with the two types that we’ve already seen in Legendary Pokémon, but hey, the fact that he hits on so many speaks to a flexible design beyond most of his peers.
Even his “wings” being almost more arm-like are even a positive rather than a negative for me. For one, they double as flippers, adding to his “air and sea” motif. For anther, it underscores that Lugia is does have that Psychic power, less flying on any sort of propelled-gliding and more levitating under his own sheer, majestic aura. Glorious.
If there was one thing I’d point out about this fella, it’s how his upper jaw and lower jaw have different “styles” of fang. The lower appears to have actual, separate teeth, whereas the upper canines are part of his lip itself. Either one is a fine stylization for a cartoon-y critter, but seeing both right next to each other feels… off?
Whatever. I’m just a big ol’ Lugia fan.
He’s also stupidly-good in the games once he’s in your party. Defense and Special Defense through the roof on top of a built-in recovery move, high speed and HP, and a wide stable of moves. Lugia is just great all-around, and if you’re using him you’re very clearly not interested in game balance in the first place.
As for Lugia’s background, there’s a whole spiel in the tank about how Lugia is the one legendary in Johto who isn’t a folklore character, treated more as a kaiju who hides on the ocean floor for our protection. It could be its own journey to interrogate how a second-generation Pokémon is the retroactive “den mother” of last generation’s Legendary Bird Trio, but we almost don’t have time for that right now. There’s another Pokémon we can use to dig into the latter, anyway.
Instead, let’s talk about how we even got Lugia in the first place.
Because, to cut a long story short, he was never intended to show up in the games.
Lugia is more or less the only Pokémon whose design concept was led by Takeshi Shudo, chief writer for the Pokémon anime during its early run. I definitely don’t want to make hard assumptions about the creative process here – a lot of it comes from oral history, translated interviews, and incomplete information. But, needless to say, Lugia was designed, by committee or by direction, for the second Pokémon movie.
( a.k.a. The Best Pokémon Movie, and no I’m not taking feedback on that particular point. )
Anime is produced more than a little differently than games, and anime spinoff films even moreso. And, at the time that Pokémon 2000 (or Revelation-Lugia) was being written, there was an notion that Pokémon as a series might hit a definitive end in the near future. Famously, Gold & Silver were poised to potentially be the final games in the series.
Not exactly a realistic expectation, even back then.
So with that looming, there were also plans on how to end the TV series, which would’ve taken it to more dramatic places like “contemplative reminiscing about childhood” and “the Pokémon stage an uprising” or “a T-Rex skeleton comes alive and wreaks havoc”.
(Yes, some of those were rejected, very rough drafts.)
But even in the second movie, some of those ideas on how to play with the series were still bouncing around. Shudo had the notion to leave the series’ main cast out of the film entirely, and – crucially – to not indicate that Lugia was a Pokémon, exactly. It was more meant to be a living, maternal symbol of life itself, acting as a deity that linked Pokémon to humans on a conceptual level. Having it be a deity of the ocean as a “cradle of life” just seals that deal.
But when it quickly became apparent that the series needed to become a “safer”, perpetually-sustainable machine, the idea of a non-Pokémon creature that never appeared in the games started to seem less like a “fun curiosity” and more a “weird inconsistency”.
So apparently things got reigned in quite a bit from there. The movie became something more of a serial for the anime. The creative team rubber-stamped him as a Pokémon design and shipped him off to the game teams, who made a whole new backstory about him living beneath the Whirl Islands. From the outside, it looked more or less like that was the plan all along. Definitely more a surprise for the anime writers when they saw Lugia re-integrated into the rest of the monster stable, though.
And nowadays? Well, nowadays, Lugia just might be the most pervasive legendary Pokémon outside the original 151. There are somewhere between three and eight unique specimen of Lugia within the anime and its movies, he’s had perfect attendance in Smash Bros. since his creation, and I’ve got a model kit of him sitting within eyesight of my writing-chair. He’s just an immensely-successful design.
As a side note, the Shadow Lugia variant that showed up on the cover of Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness was the first creature design for the series by James Turner, who went on to be a character design lead for the last decade of the video games. For as much as Shudo didn’t intend on it, he ended up having a massive footprint on the core game series in the end.
Lugia is fantastic, and quite possibly my favorite Legendary monster in the entire series. I still don’t think most Legendary Pokémon have much business appearing outside their home regions and games. He should come around in and out of Reserve for the games themselves, but regardless of the original intent, boy am I glad that he’s around for the other branches of the franchise.
Any and all appreciation for Lugia is welcome in the comments!