The closest thing Gulpin has to a theme is just that she eats, a lot. In fact, she appears to be nothing but a stomach, slithering along like a slug until she finds something she can swallow whole. There’s not even that much to her feature-wise, with downplayed eyes and anime-style “kissy lips” that imply she primarily experiences the world by taste.
She’s got that fun charm of a perfectly-round Kirby design, but with just a bit of hair to break up the shape and triple the focus on stomach bile. The duality between “plush-doll cute” and “secretly revolting” keeps serving the series well.
Swalot’s still got that blobby shape and smoochin’ lips, but she’s a bit more upright now to read as “predatory” rather than “scavenging”, and now leans into a poison-purple look. Another of the “if it ain’t broke, just iterate” designs, which I find it hard to argue with even if Gulpin was a bit more of a distilled hit of the same flavor.
The one addition I adore is those little mustache-whiskers on her face. Especially with the diamond pattern on her chest – presumably some sort of warning pattern, but really it just looks like argyle to me – they give her the air of a half-melted Mediterranean food critic to me, like she’ll give you the sommelier’s opinion of a tire while digesting it whole. Marvelous.
But then she just veers straight back into the weird, what with being a gelatin-beast who sweats poison and swallows live prey – in a children’s series, no less. Good thing the designers made her look fairly innocuous, because she has the potential to be nightmarish in the best possible way. Once again, like Gulpin, there’s a really clever duality going on that you can’t help but adore.
Swalot is generally more on the defensive side – a very sensible choice for a Poison-type, but typically a bit tiring to maintain as a party member. In a sense, the games try to get around that by making these three the poster child for “Stockpile”, “Swallow”, and “Spit Up” – three moves that work together to store power and then either heal the user or do an avalanche of damage. But not only are these a flat Normal type, they also come out slow and take up 3/4 of your available move slots – you have to really commit to that moveset to get it to work.
You could also fill that fourth slot with a move called “Belch” that does heavy Poison damage after she eats a berry in-battle, which is very very good theming.
That said, none of her stats are that bad aside from her sluggish Speed, and she gets some solid Poison offense and health-draining options. She’s got some issues, but Swalot can still serve perfectly well in the main game if you load her up right.
When is a fish not a fish?
When it’s a-gulpin’, apparently.
Gulpin seems to be in part based off of a sculpin, which is a family of fish species including fatheads, a.k.a. the blobfish. But with Gulpin and Swalot decidedly not being Water-types (which is fine; we have enough of those anyway), that’s a bit of a long walk if you aren’t an marine zoologist. It’s doubly a long walk considering they took a notorious “ugliest animal” – usually because of one picture taken out of context – and turned it into something round and cute.
I kind of adore that about this series. Even if they don’t really hit the mark for me all the time, Pokémon manages to take every plant and animal under the sun and twist them into something inherently charming. And that’s when they’re even on-model; sometimes you get a weirdo like Swalot that’s so transformative as to feel like her own thing. Then you get the joy of back-forming them to real-world inspirations and discovering that wait, there are real animals like this?
Were this series any less fantastical, I’d be surprised this series didn’t spawn a whole generation of ecologists the same way that Jurassic Park instigated a surge in paleontology degrees. Well, we still have the messages about environmental conservation, if nothing else.
Gulpin and Swalot were marked as absent from Sword & Shield, which honestly feels about right to me. I love these two goofy goobers, but I don’t honestly think about them that often, and we already have a major mascot who can serve as a resident glutton – even if Gulpin does it in an arguably more interesting way. They’re unique enough that I wouldn’t want to see them Retired, but even given a crossover-cameo in Smash Bros., I don’t know how often the series needs to take these two out of Reserve.
Any and all appreciation for Gulpin and Swalot is welcome in the comments!