Why Have Starter Pokémon Gotten Cuter?

One bright spot that saw exceptionally online people through a rather grim weekend was the reveal of the newest video game installments for the Pokémon franchise. An announcement for Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet with an accompanying trailer revealed some of the newest inspirations, Arceus-inspired open-world gameplay, and, most importantly, the three new starters.

The newest Pokémon to join the first-choice ranks are Fuecoco, the fire-gator; Sprigatito, a weed cat; and Quaxly, a water duck, and clearly the least inspired of the bunch. It’s not really Quaxly’s fault — water-type starters have been notoriously straightforward since Nintendo looked at a turtle back in Generation 1 and said “How about a turtle that’s a water type?” (Mudkip, our darling Gen III boy, was the best of the bunch.)

But looking at these new monsters for Scarlet and Violet, they all seem… rather cute. Soft shapes, not a lot of extra bits sticking up, and of course, massive eyes. Sure, the first tier of every Pokémon’s evolution are always pretty chibi-fied, but these three in particular seem made for mass production. What I mean is this: it is easier to make animations, key art, toys, and other merchandise when a design is simple. The simpler shapes a design uses, the easier it is to make and market. It seems that Pokémon, which has always existed on some level to sell toys, is making the switch to blatantly advertising future merchandise with every single starter. That’s the nature of the beast, er, monsters — you have to sell something.

But for the Gen IX starters Fuecoco, Sprigatito, and Quaxly, this increased ease of production comes at the expense of innovation. The clear Spanish and Mediterranean inspirations apparent in the trailer mean that there could have been any number of motifs, themes, and even colour schemes to experiment with, even inside the constraints of every generation’s starter. It feels like a wasted opportunity, and a frustrating example of bland designs created for ease of use over visual experimentation. Granted, they might surprise us in the evolutions of these three Pokémon, but I’ve given up on trusting the franchise not to make any originally cute, four-footed creature bipedal. (We all remember Delphox. And Incineroar. And Blaziken.)

This might also be an indication of an oversaturation of the Pokémon franchise in general. To date there are nearly 900 Pokémon available across all eight generations of video games. This is a huge amount of design work, and after 900 different morphisms of animals and objects with elemental themes, maybe it’s time to consider that Pokémon’s designs haven’t really improved since Gen IV’s Piplup, Turtwig, and Chimchar.

Or maybe I’m just a 30-something millennial ageing out of Pokémon, grasping at nostalgia and wishing that I could feel excited by something that Pokémon announced in the last five years and finding myself woefully wishing for that one glorious summer in 2016 where everyone was playing Pokémon Go. Truthfully, I just want to play something fun and charming, and I’m struggling to find much to enjoy about these rather basic, unusually-coloured animal designs.

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