The third generation feels like a massive dividing line in the series for a wealth of reasons. Part of that is explicit – until the Virtual Console releases of Red through Crystal, this was the furthest back the series would stretch in allowing players to transfer Pokémon forward. Some of it is implicit – the jump to a fuller color palette and a ton of gameplay conveniences just make the games so much more playable from here on out.
It also introduces one of the last major elements to drive Pokémon design – there are one or two more shifts the series will see on a permanent basis, but none will inform the actual creatures to the extent that the addition of passive abilities will.
And more than Johto’s expansion-pack nature, Hoenn’s native wildlife feels self-sufficient and interesting on its own, like you might be able to design a whole standalone game featuring only this lineup and their unique quirks. Hoenn’s got a lot of distinct newcomers for us to pick apart on that front; here are just a few samplings of personal favorites and stand-out concepts:
ADM (Ability-Defined Monsters)
Whenever a new feature pops up in these games, chances are you’ll end up with at least one Pokémon designed specifically around it. Lookin’ at you, Feebas, with your “I change evolution methods like I change shirts after spaghetti night”.
But here right out of the gate we have three Pokémon who absolutely do not make any sense if you remove the concept of Abilities. Castform maybe if you jump through some hoops to change its form another way, and Slaking’s sluggishness is such a deliberate Achilles’ heel that major strategies revolve around suppressing that drawback. But Shedinja’s Wonder Guard is so specifcally broken in such a particular way that it turns the little ghost-bug into a mechanical puzzle. What options do I have on the team that can crack this highly-specific armor?
I get the feeling that this is going to become an annual category for generations going forward, so it’s great to see a solid bar-to-meet set this early on.
I’m sorry, Wurmple, but I can’t be bothered to do the math each time on which direction you’ll evolve in. While it’s nice to have a functionally-random evolution tied to traits opaque to us – some of us just have different metabolisms or can’t grow a beard, after all – it feels weird to lack that control in a game-y sense. I’m still here for throwing things at the wall, though, and a region’s most basic bug-type line is a low-stakes place for them to try considering how easy it is to just catch a Cascoon, anyway.
At risk of negativity, I will never not look at these two and be distracted by how close they are to filling a unique niche. Sitting here in the Hindsight Armchair of Design, I can see clearly how you would make the red firefly a Fire-type and the purple lightningbug an Electric-type, then set them up with Plusle & Minun‘s compounding ability to make them shine as doubles partners. But it’s too little too late, and these two follow in Lanturn‘s unfortunate footsteps (fin-flips?) to leave me not upset, but disappointed in a missed opportunity.
Pokémon have drawn influence from yokai and folklore from day one, let’s not get it twisted. But it seems worth drawing attention to how many Pokémon this generation are explicit cartoony translations of very specific traditional stories. Even having one based off a holiday-festival with a modern presence, Pokémon is already on its path to using wholesale ideas as a canvas for creating creatures. It’s not always my favorite form of design, but it makes for a great exposure tool for anyone willing to dig just a bit deeper, and an easier turnaround for the creative team.
Am I cheating a little bit by including Froslass in this lineup? Perhaps, but as a thematic follow-up to Snorunt, you can still see how the this internal design “genre” was really coalescing in Hoenn.
Vintage Anime Squad
Hoenn is unique in that it has two pseudo-legendaries, coming in two very different forms. And while it’s great for kids to have the variety in which absolute powerhouse they want on their late- or post-game team, I hadn’t thought they shared design DNA until just now.
Turns out that after literally Godzillla, of course the next thing on the list was cartoon superheroes. Not in the same interprative way as more folklore-based monster, but in such a way where Salamence still feels like a slightly-goofy antihero and Metagross clearly evokes the feeling of a big, stomp-y mecha. Strong vibes for strong contenders.
Myths from Space
And speaking of pairs with themes, I adore how the two mythic Pokémon this generation represent very different types of stories we tell about the night sky. Jirachi, the clearly-wishful little cosmic traveler from a bedtime story; and Deoxys, the invader from a horror double-feature. And yet, despite how both are clearly not of this earth, they both feel truly right at home alongside the rest of Hoenn, reinforcing the “Pokémon are aliens” theory that I will continue to take off the back-burner where GameFreak seems to have left it.
Perfect, Majestic Beasts
I can’t leave this generation in the rear-view without calling out Altaria as a personal favorite, an artistic songbird whose claim to being a dragon has to come from an almost-metaphorical reading. Then there’s Tropius, a seamless fusion of two ideas so fully-realized that we’ve already seen them both independently – plus an extra sprinkling of silly. On one hand, a personification of grace. On the other, an effortless goof. For two Pokémon that perhaps get less attention than their peers, they’re two of the very best that Hoenn has to offer in my eyes.
And there are so many more great one-off monsters in this generation that are worth mentioning! The Regi Titans are rightly famous for their super-satisfying puzzle-and-explore questline. Flygon comes frustratingly close to a spot as the generation’s third pseudo-legendary Pokémon, with a wonkily-accurate biological path. The absolute audacity of Wailord‘s girth demands attention. And you absolutely cannot and will not ever convince me that Spheal’s family is a strictly superior replacement for Seel’s.
Hoenn was a generation of ups and downs. The more self-sufficient roster and infusion of new abilities resulted in some truly unique little buggers, like the sound-centric Whismur. But it also left some slack to create Pokémon that ended up more interesting conceptually but serve quite little purpose within the game, like Solrock and Lunatone. And then they occasionally hit right in the middle, like with fan-favorites Absol and Rayquaza.
In its own way, it feels like different members of the design team taking different approaches within the lineup, as opposed to a push-and-pull within a collective group. Not a ton, mind you – Pokémon still has a consistent design aethetic all things considered. But at over 300, we’re starting to see more and more that classic, repeatable archetypes are sharing the same space with critters that rub right up against the edges of the design document.
That healthy mix feels like the start of the series’ real, repeatable, steady-state existence for me, creating a template how the series can keep itself evergreen. Let’s see how long they can maintain that pace!
After a few weeks’ break to dig into Scarlet & Violet, Generation Four starts in December with Turtwig!