This feels very “Pokémon” to me, being more embellished than one-to-one interpretations like, say, Ratatta or Furret, but not taking as many creative liberties as something like its counterpart in Lugia. Even so, folklore has a lot of “exaggerated animal” flavor to it in the first place, so when the designers do borrow from animal legends, they tend to mesh incredibly nicely with Pokémon’s overall appeal.
It also leaves Ho-oh looking really clean, since it’s more or less just two steps removed from an actual bird. Rainbow plumage could look very busy, bright, and frankly gaudy if done clumsily, but the choice to stick with vibrant red and gold with green accents makes it feel like, y’know, a coat than an actual bird might have.
I really like how there’s a fire motif here without it being so explicit as “its head is on fire“. Its black feet look like they might be coated in ash, its tail poofs out into what might be a golden explosion, and the crest on its head curls like wisps of flame. That “elemental symbolism” fits nicely with how the Beast Trio reflect natural phenomena, and Johto’s legendaries as a whole feel richer for how they pick and choose their imagery.
Ho-oh may not be the most complicated design out there, but what it has works in a satisfying way.
And as a teammate, it’s every bit as busted in the main games as Lugia, with crazy-high Special Defense and Attack on top of above-average stats across the rest of the board. Then throw in a great signature move, a whole grab-bag of other attack options, and a potential passive ability that heals it whenever it switches out. Ho-oh just doesn’t quit.
Neither does it in the lore, where it’s explicitly based around life and rebirth – both metaphorically, gameplay-wise (as mentioned), and literally.
Sure, rainbows symbolize how inclement weather brings rain for plants and all that jazz. But this thing died in a lightning-strike, came back from its own literal ashes, and then breathed life into three new legendary Pokémon as a memoir. That’s persistent life almost to the point of spite, which is how you know it’s owning the whole “guardian deity” gig.
It’s also not that far off from several dozen actual phoenixes – as it turns out, fire-birds are almost as prevalent of an image as a legendary wolf or a sea-serpent, only slightly below dragons themselves. The Greeks notably had phoenixes in their myths, but so did Egyptians, Russians, Hindus, Persians, and tons of other independent cultures across the Eastern hemisphere. But this specific phoenix is almost certainly derived from the Chinese Fenghuang, whose name in Japanese is literally “Ho-o”.
(Really? I thought we were going to try a bit harder after “Freezer”, “Thunders”, and “Fire”.)
The Fenghuang is more derived from a crane than a peacock, so it’s still not exactly a one-to-one adaptation. On the other hand, taking cues from a peacock – specifically the flared tail – really underscores the “rainbow feathers” idea, and as wonderfully wonky as it would be cool to see a wading-bird as a legendary, I understand not wanting to borrow as much from an animal associated with lakes when Ho-oh is more based around fire.
Interestingly enough, “reborn from the ashes” is a characteristic almost entirely absent from the tradition around the Fenghuang that I could find at a glance, which is more about celestial bodies and virtues. The “revival” element is more associated with the European phoenixes, making Ho-oh something of an amalgamation of different phoenix and firebird myths from around the world. I’m sure somebody more familiar with anthropology could better-explain why these different tales all line up well enough to be re-amalgamated into one creature, but from the outside, the fact that they can at all is fascinating.
Ho-oh is also famously the Pokémon introduced possibly the furthest ahead of its game debut, appearing in episode one of the anime – which also makes it the first legendary monster seen in the show outside of the opening credits. But it also showed up in Corocoro magazine around the same time alongside an announcement of Gold & Silver themselves (just called “Pokémon 2” at the time). That wasn’t even six months after Red & Green came out, and it would be over three years before Gold & Silver would finish development. Say what you want about the main series’ yearly nature, but the turnaround between announcement and release of the main-series games is thankfully much shorter nowadays.
My favorite little thing about Ho-oh, though, is that when spelled in all-caps (as it was in the original games), HO-OH is an almost perfectly symmetrical name. Not only is it a palindrome, but you could flip or mirror it on its horizontal or vertical axes any number of times, and it would look exactly the same. And because The Pokémon Company has made a point of making all Legendaries’ names the same in all languages, this is also true in every localization into a Latin alphabet. No such luck for Japanese or other syllabic alphabets, but hey – it’s still fun to say out loud.
Ho-oh is fantastic, and while it has got something of a life outside its home region, that feels very specific to one Ash Ketchum at this point. I don’t think Ho-oh needs to show up in every game, so it feels appropriate to keep this bird in Reserve for jaunts to Johto and other events that specifically call for its presence.
Any and all appreciation for Ho-oh is welcome in the comments!