The designs of the Second Generation very explicitly build on the first, for better and for worse. We’ve skipped over whole sections of the National Pokédex over the course of the last year because they boil down to “here’s a bunch of baby-form Pokémon; we’ve already covered them”. But at the same time, we’ve seen some impressive stabs at filling in the few gaps left in the comprehensive Generation One roster, as well as pushing a some existing boundaries.
But because the collective consciousness is less attached to these critters – even if I personally adore them – whether Johto’s wildlife feels like truly essential additions is much more up-and-down than Kanto’s “these are pretty solid on average”. In a sense, that makes them more fun to think about critically. In another, that there are fewer instances of clever people doing the legwork of, say, interrogating which specific mechanism makes Geodude float in most of its appearances. But hey, these fellas have still given us have a lot to chew on – here are some favorite highlights by category:
Unown and Sudowoodo make the land of Johto feel more alive. More than any others, they cast the Pokémon as tactile features that the player is asked to interact with in ways specific to their character. Sudowoodo asks you to learn about it as an obstacle before using contextual clues not only to aggravate it, but also take it down despite its trickery. And Unown exist explicitly as an in-universe puzzle-box that even now doesn’t have a complete explanation. They’ve even gotten better with time – Unown’s “living alphabet” gimmick makes more sense in-universe now that Pokémon has its own fictional alphabet, and Sudowoodo feels more in-tune with the Traditional-Japanese-inspired Johto with the introduction of a bonsai-baby form. Cheers to these two for their contributions to worldbuilding.
Most Important Use of Biology
Okay, this is cheating a little since Cursola wasn’t introduced until Generation Eight barely over a year ago. But I can’t ignore how Pokémon took quite possibly the single biggest crisis of the human era, turned it into something both charming and grotesque, and set it very intentionally in front of a worldwide audience.
Cursola is beautiful and horrifying and a reflection of the grievous harm that we’ve already collectively done. Its every very existence is a hazard to itself and others, and if this is one more of the many ways we have to get people to pay just a little more intention to the looming event horizon on climate change, so be it.
The second generation felt more free to play around with oddball concepts in a lot of ways, and so it did in spades. Wobbuffett blows natural animal deceit tactics way out of proportion and into a still-unique-within-the-series gameplay role. Shuckle tells us not about actual bugs or shelled animals, but about how odd concepts can have knock-on effects that give us G-rated wine. And even as a potential corner-case, Azumarill‘s potential to undergo a sexual transition – and the fact that the designers have willfully left that feature in the games ever since – marks her as a positive-if-small example of positive identity. I could put another eight monsters in this category, and that just speaks to a willingness to try less obvious ideas in the first ‘dex expansion.
Needs A Revision
I don’t mind Ledian, but for the generation that introduced Dark-types, it’s such a crying shame that the series missed out on giving a living Kamen Rider reference the oomph it needed as a proper counter. But I find Lanturn specifically offensive, taking everything unique and wild about actual anglerfish and throwing it in the trash. We don’t even get anything interesting in return, just… a bloated, kinda-dolphin-y fish. And Teddiursa comes off possibly the worst of the three, because all she needed was nocturnal behavior or a time-based evolution or anything to make her “moon” theme matter on a gameplay level. I know for a fact that the series can do better than this; send them all back to the drawing board for another pass.
Not The Original Intention
As much as the first generation had some fun ideas that more or less didn’t gel with the series’ eventual “style guide”, it’s amazing how much Lugia feels like she’s right at home, even when she explicitly isn’t. Call it some aggressive and thorough rewriting, or call it a strong sense of visual consistency. Or maybe it reflects how good designs are rarely the individual vision of just one person, but almost always a result of collaboration and iteration. Either way, Lugia feels quintessential in a way that wasn’t originally planned, in no small part due to how the series’ future art director would take to her. She’s a weird pivot point for the series, but a crucial one.
Legendaries of the Land
…speaking of Lugia, I have to give a shout-out to how tight-knit the rest of the Legendary Pokémon roster is this generation. There’s only six of them including the special-event, mythic Celebi, and all of them are tied to specific in-game lore and locations in a way that makes them feel truly part of the history of Johto as a setting. Even Lugia was retroactively given an attachment to the Whirl Islands specifically, and so the whole line-up feels like a complete set with no wasted space. Great stuff.
A Perfect Concept
They may be simple early-game monsters, but I love these two to pieces for a pure simplicity that just works. Not only is Mareep cute as a button, but she’s wonderfully elegant in her design. “Wool that gives you a static shock, still attached to the sheep” is still possibly the most absolute slam-dunk of a design that Game Freak has ever given us. Then you have Sentret, such a well-rounded and well-conceived mash-up of mammal parts that it feels like a direct translation of an animal, even if a “real Sentret” doesn’t exactly exist. Mareep and Sentret live at the exact balancing point of “clever but intuitive”, each in a different way, and that might just make them my favorite two creatures in the entire series.
…and that’s it for The Johto Years! There’s more delightful nuggets in this crew that make me adore the whole lot, from Heracross‘ embodiment of the Pokémon concept writ-large to Smeargle‘s game-bending conceit to the fun relationship between Remoraid, its evolution Octillery, and the Mantine family. But for every few of those, I have to admit that there’s a Stantler or Sunkern or Houndour that we could comfortably leave in the series’ sunset.
All that still means that the series is going out and taking swings at new and different concepts most of the time, even if they aren’t perfectly successful. It results in a lot of oddities that make Johto feel like a particularly vibrant region with a ton of diverse monsters hiding in different pockets of its landscape, which was exactly what drew me in and didn’t let me go as a kid. And yeah, that reflects on how I’m personally biased in this generation’s favor. But hey, from what I’m finding among this set, I don’t feel particularly bad about that bias.
In short, the Johto kids are – mostly – all right, and proves that Pokémon after the first batch still have new flavors to add to the pot. Their ups and downs mean that we’ve found some space where the series could ultimately trim some fat, but it’s been delightful to see how many of these still feel relevant or even essential two decades later.
Now we get to see what happens when we throw in a whole new level of complexity.
Generation Three starts next week with Treecko!