Penguins seem to be one of those animals that the vast majority of people can agree on. They’re exotic enough to be exciting, but have enough dorky mannerisms to feel endearing and familiar. Plus, they have a simple enough body plan that they reduce down to a really nice little plush-doll version.
Like this fella.
I have to admit that Piplup is probably the most lift-and-shift interpretation of an existing animal of any starter so far, maybe tied with Squirtle. But there is a little bit of cartoony flair that gets him out of the hole, like the floppy little mantle and Mickey-Mouse buttons on his torso in place of a proper belly patch. In fact, if you want to be generous, the cape’s coloration extending to its head puts it pretty visually-close to a little rain-poncho, and who wouldn’t be smitten by a penguin waddling around in a toddler-sized cape?
Sorry, Delibird. You did your job really well, but you’ve got cuter competition now.
It’s all Piplup, But More. He’s taller, with more buttons, and a mantle that’s grown out into a feathery overcoat. We’re definitely starting to see how it incorporates the common imagery of penguins shuffling around in tuxedoes, what with his double-breasted-finery look. I’m personall a big fan of the balance of color here, too, lots of satisfyingly-cool blues with splashes of yellow.
But he’s not Ice-type yet, which feels a bit strange for an explicitly-(ant)arctic Pokémon given our history of these things. It also feels a bit strange to see those beaky fins stretch backward over his head, not a feature we see in a real penguin nor one with an obvious purpose, aside from perhaps a sight-gag reference to the crested penguin. Until, that is:
A whole-design joke on the phrase “cold steel” and the name “emperor penguin”.
Empoleon was one of my absolute favorites for a long while. Those blades on his fins, with the claws underneath? Rad. The trident-beak with the eyes glaring out from behind? Menacing. The clear, sleek outline and white-on-black chest pattern? Elegant.
There are certainly a few bits on him that come across as dorky – the ruffles on his white “bib” are a bit much, as is the blade running down the entirety of his torso. But pound-for-pound, he’s just the right mix of intimidating and thoughtful that he comes across as a truly cool Pokémon – admittedly not coming from the same place as the cannon-tortoise, but cool nonetheless.
It’s also incredibly cool to have access to a Steel-type as a starter, which makes a great type-advantage setup for the single-player campaign. He does take double-damage from his peers’ new Ground and Fighting moves, but that feels like a fair trade, especially back in his debut game when he also resisted Dark and Ghost – that’s 11 potential type resitances and an immunity on balance for only three weaknesses. That certainly helps him take a hit due to his slow speed and so-so HP, but otherwise he’s well-formed to focus in on Special moves, especially with such a wide and varied movepool at his disposal. Great stuff.
Just ignore the fact that Piplup is canonically too independent for a greenhorn trainer to effectively win the trust of and bond with. If the games really abided by the independent thought the flavor text and anime insisted on, you’d be out of luck around the fifth gym when your freshly-evolved Scizor up and walks away from your team.
The main issue that sticks out to me with Empoleon as a broad concept is that we were on-trend for a round of starters based on mythologies of China and India. Following up after the World Turtle and the Monkey King, a Royal Penguin seems a bit grounded in comparison – unless you really want to stretch its trident-crown beak to allude to Poseidon, but that’s nowhere near the overt connection that the other two have.
I promise the starters will transition back to having a theme, like the Kanto starters’ “popular aquarium pets” bit. We just haven’t gotten back there yet.
Piplup seems to be one of the more popular starters not in the first generation, with Empoleon being a slightly-offbeat pick for the Pokkén fighting game roster, Piplup itself being a major companion in the I Choose You movie, and generally being one of the first starters to turn up in merchandise lines – I’ve got a model kit of one behind me as I write this. I expect to see Piplup’s family continue to show up more heavily out of Reserve than most starters, and I’ll be happy to continue to see them.
Any and all appreciation for Piplup, Prinplup, and Empoleon is welcome in the comments!