Turtwig, Grotle, Torterra

#387 – Turtwig

Look at those bright eyes. That cheeky smile. The geometrically-snub nose.

Turtwig is the very image of a tortoise toddler, and almost objectively cuter than his predecessor starter-“turtle”. It’s actually kind of a miracle he manages to do this with browns and muted yellows and greens, all of which are usually associated as muddy and a little gross. Somehow, this little tyke makes them look gentle and pleasant instead; probably some combination of his friendly round-n-squat shape, the single bit of vestigial vegitation linking him to Grass, and how he seems to be in a perpetual beaky grin.

Really, I just love how much personality is communicated even through this static pose. He’s all cheerful and optimistic, a little underdeveloped physically, but ready to go out and tromp around the yard with those stubby little legs of his. Precious.

#388 – Grotle

Grotle is really solid as a middle evolution, and I honestly wouldn’t be upset with him as the end of a two-stage evolution line. I’m especially fond of how his body gains a lot of structure and continuity by breaking away from the “round head on round body” model toward something more consistent with real-world body plans.

What it’s meant to emulate exactly is hard to place; he’s lost some of the shell definition that would point to a pure tortoise inspiration. But the next best thing I can think of is an armadillo, and not only is that quite right, but it’s also kinda covered by the Pokédex for being such a specific animal. He’s almost got a bit of armored rhinoceros in him, or possibly an ankylosaur, or even a bit of a thought experiment of a reptile developing an insect carapace.

Either way, I really like the shrubbery poking out through a few rows of… dirt?… in his shell. Not only does it evoke manmade indoor gardens in their careful planning, but it also seems like a great natural deterrent. No need to fortify your shell if a predator has to hack through a foot of brush to get there; I reckon that’s enough to get most offendors to just pick easier prey instead, which is a very viable evolutionary strategy.

The lad’s doing a lot right; handily one of my favorite of the starters’ middle evolutions.

#389 – Torterra

It’s almost a shame that Torterra couldn’t commit to Grotle’s more speculative bit, but the end result is such a good overall design that it’s hard not to adore him anyway.

It’s also a little weird to see this line lose the shell in its first evolution in favor of more integrated armor, then almost entirely re-grow it later. A bit of a zig-zag, but let’s be honest; most people will primarily remember the first and final forms of these lines, anyway, so a diversion in the middle isn’t the worst fate – it certainly didn’t kill Feraligatr‘s non-caveman appeal.

The whole self-managed ecosystem on Torterra’s back is a great bit of kit, though. You’ve got at least three distinct zones, from the dirt to the field and the mountains, plus a defining feature in that bonsai-like tree that sprung up from one of Grotle’s bushes. Pity the other didn’t survive, but I dig the resulting asymmetry in its way.

There’s a lot going on overall here, and I think the duller colors do a lot to keep him from being overwhelming in spite of it. A lot of armor, a lot of earthy flavor – including stony toes and dino-like horns off his terrarium-shell – and just a satisfying heft to the whole creature. Torterra is a great addition to the lineup of starters.

Torterra is surprisingly fun in the main games, too, despite how most chunky defensive Pokémon can be a bit of a slog. Clearly the designers made a point to spice him up for players as a starter evolution, since he only really lags in Special Attack and Speed, which is admittedly a drag but can lead to some great comebacks despite his lack of a solid Physical Grass-type move in most cases. Unfortunately he loses his inherent resistance to Water with his dual-typing, but upgrading to a full immunity to Electric and mitigating his weakness to Poison isn’t a bad trade-off for a team anchor.

There are two major points of reference this line could be drawing from. One is the idea of a creature that grows and curates a garden on its own back, turning preening and grooming into a sort of life-long bonsai hobby. It ties nicely into the colloquial idea of the “slow and steady” tortoise, and I’m personally fond of the imagery, but not only do we already have a living bonsai, there’s a wealth of game text that points in a different direction.

Torterra is, of course, The World Turtle.

For the unfamiliar, in Hindu, Chinese, First Nations, and many other mythologies, there’s a belief that the land itself is carried on the back of a great tortoise, either literally or as a teaching metaphor for perseverence. Depending on the tradition, this is meant to mean just the land on which its storytellers live, or the entire world itself, with other traditions having other, similar stories around whales, crocodiles, and the like.

And that excitement absolutely carries over into the modern day. It’s a visually-exciting and thematically-resonant idea that pops up in tons of stories, from the Lion Turtle in the animated Avatar to the natural wonders in The Neverending Story to an ally in Majora’s Mask and the titular conceit of Discworld. It’s no wonder that Pokémon would get a stab at it.

The whole idea also leads to a fun bit of thought around infinite regress (see: “Unwritten Philosophy”) and, in turn, to books about wallowing that regress. But that’s neither here nor there.

Between Pokédex lore tying it to ancient belief systems, its Japanese name including 土台 (dodai, foundation), and its striking appearance in the Hollywood movie, it’s hard to deny that Torterra is anything else. To that end, I think it’s quite nice that Torterra is taking some cues from paleolithic tortoises with his head-horns, supporting the idea that Torterra have been wandering micro-ecosystems in the Pokémon setting for some time, thus in turn inspiring the in-universe tales that informed its out-of-universe design process.

It’s all nice and self-fulfilling.

Torterra is one of – if not the – conceptually-strongest of all the starter Pokémon evolutions we’ve yet seen, and even rarer, a thoroughly quadraped starter, which we see so few of. While I’m a big fan of keeping starter Pokémon within the context of the region they debuted in, I can’t deny that I’m pleased as punch to see him come out of Reserve whenever he does pop up in a game.

Any and all appreciation for Turtwig, Grotle, and Torterra is welcome in the comments!

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