We never got cicadas where I grew up, but my understanding is that where they do live, they’re inescapable.
Watch any anime set during summer, and a cicada’s mating-chirp is the go-to sound-effect to signal the season, moreso than even the rustling leaves of fall. And every year, some state in the Eastern U.S. will be positively drowned in them for a few months.
It’s odd, then, that a Pokémon cicada would pride itself on stealth, but here we are.
Nincada’s flavor more or less revolves around burrowing, which clearly pulls from the specific breed of cicada that burrows underground for over a decade, then swarms to the surface in a synchronized swarm. That breed notably only exists in North America, mind you, but we’ll get to other variations shortly.
This does give us the more unique Bug/Ground type, which admittedly isn’t terribly useful, but hey – it’s something we haven’t seen before, at least. I think that’s reflected nicely in his color scheme, too – dull brown claws and an off-grey carapace with greenish wings; all earthy, but without just making him A Brown Bug. I appreciate that they’ve fully given him an odd body plan with a bulbous thorax, stubby wings, and a face that feels thoroughly odd. Like, is that supposed to be a jaw across the front of his skull? And that pointy chin and the dangling mouthparts?
Can we stop and appreciate that “mouthparts” is apparently a proper, scholar-used term for the bits that hang off a bug’s face? Marvelous.
Not too outlandish, but he still feels like an oddity in the way that so many bugs are. An ideal balance.
Unfortunately, Nincada gets to hang out with Surskit at the “loses a unique type on evolution” table. It would’ve at least been kind of cool to see a Bug/Dark type, at least, but oh well. At least he looks super rad, what with the band between his eyes, “mask” on his jaw, black-and-gold carapace, patterned wings… this thing just looks cool for an insect, without feeling too embellished. Add a little bit of flair, and insects are perfectly awesome on their own merit.
…wait. Those orb-eyes, split-horn head, and scissor-y limbs don’t look too familiar, do they?
Oddly enough, Ninjask is also based on a North American breed of cicada, despite being overtly Ninja-flavored and how there are plenty of cicada species perfectly native to Japan. At least there are plenty of fun thematic ties between ninja and cicada, like its native Double Team mirroring a common ninja-story “technique” of leaving clones or mirages behind, or how cicadas’ shed shells are a clear analogue for deceptive decoys.
Speaking of shed skin, Nincada gets a heck of a consolation prize for evolving into yet another flying bug:
Oh, now we’re cooking with gas.
Remember how Slaking was a pivot point for how the entire Pokédex is going to change from here on out? Shedinja is how that design shift grabs your attention and refuses to let you ignore it.
Like, you literally can’t ignore species’ innate traits any more, or else you’ll be throwing yourself at this guy from dawn ’till dusk with nothing to show for it.
He breaks so many unique gameplay conventions, the very first of which is how he gets into your party. To obtain one (1) Shedinja, you must:
- Evolve a Nincada into a Ninjask
- With an open slot in your active party
- …and, if playing in a game released after 2005:
- Have a spare, plain Poké Ball in your bag.
Then this little bugger shows up in your party, silently and unannounced, a copy with the same training history as its “main body”.
It’s the kind of thing that sound like a ridiculous schoolyard trick, especially because there’s no real indication in the games of how to make this happen. And that’s before just how inherently weird the resulting Pokémon is. A literal shell of a monster, only ever with 1 hit point, but unfazed by any attack that isn’t super-effective. But it’s a very real part of the world, and every player I know got super-excited about him once they learned about him.
There’s literally nothing else in the game like Shedinja, he straight-up doesn’t work on a conceptual level without his unique application of game mechanics, and he creates oh-so-many fun edge cases for players to work around. It’s something of a marvel that he’s still so darned unique when we’re sitting around 950 unique species already.
Oh, and that’s not even mentioning that he looks eerily cool. You see zombies referred to as a “walking husk”, and Shedinja is exactly that. Those weird, sideways eyes with open-ended slits resemble suzu shrine bells. The tears in its skin mimic horrid wings, with a cloudy halo above. And he himself is just curled up into a ball, apparently floating along on sheer willpower or spite now that he’s lost his insides.
I’m not big on horror aesthetics, but Shedinja is 110% the way to pull it off in a children’s game. At a glance: harmless. When you start looking deeper: almost grotesque. A perfect third wheel for a critter whose real-life counterpart leaves its empty post-molt shell clinging to trees for all to see.
And not to mention the most famously-horrible part of the whole affair:
It is believed that this Pokémon will steal the spirit of anyone peering into its hollow body from its back.– Pokémon Ruby
Here’s the thing: Ninjask is stupidly-fast (even before his passive Speed Boost ability) with a perfectly fine attack stat, and the major reason you take damage in the single-player campaigns is because the AI moves first before you can knock them out. When he has the type advantage – or sometimes with neutrality – he can blast right through enemy trainers, or at least U-Turn outta there for a quick hit and a better option. And he’d better get out of there rather than taking his chances, because between type disadvantage and low stats, he crumples if you so much as throw a rock at him.
Shedinja, on the other hand, is wild. There are two dozen ways around him for thinking humans, but computer-controlled trainers can struggle with him, which is very abusable from the player’s perspective. Maybe not fast and furious, since a lot of his strategy revolves around forcing the opponent to do nothing – even cornering them in a state where they have literally no options – but he’s impenetrably safe in a lot of situations.
A final trick up Ninjask’s speed is his “invisibility”. On paper, people claim that Ninjask can straight-up become invisible to the naked eye. In practice, he can just move so fast that human eyes have trouble tracking him. It’s a natural little bit of deception – but an odd sidestep into “marginally grounded” territory considering that he can actually and properly leave behind a decoy copy of himself.
Honestly, I kind of like this dichotomy of “pure folklore” and “actual powers”. Having to keep guessing about how much of the Pokédex is driven by folklore and how much is canonically true is wonderful conversation fuel. The fact that this series plays so loosey-goosey with its own rules is why, twenty-five years in, I still get to have fun back-and-forth conversations with people about how Pokémon really work. It’s like the obsession around how to deal with zombies – everything is conjecture, and the rules seem to shift and change, but that gives everybody a slightly unique take on the same ideas in a way that’s incredibly engaging.
One more trip to the Foreign Naming Corner? Sure!
Shedinja’s Japanese name is something of a double-pun; “nukegara” (shedding skin) and “ninja” combine to make “nukenin”, which is also a term used for ninja who had abandoned (or “shed off”) their clan. Does Shedinja feel no connection to Ninjask, then, doomed to wander as a truly empty soul with no memory of his past identity?
This family – especially Shedinja – is just too unique to axe from the series, both mechanically and conceptually. They’re a little harder to work around for the QA team, I’m sure, but the payoff is worth it; he’s a high point in the series’ design overall, and I’d argue a Must-Have if not for historical evidence. That said, they gave him a miss in Unova and Alola, which suggests that he’s more of a strong Reserve as a fan-favorite.
…well, a favorite with this particular fan.
Any and all appreciation for Nincada, Ninjask, and Shedinja is welcome in the comments!