Pokémon: Then and Now
Everybody probably knows the basic plotline of Pokémon by now. Ash Ketchum and his fellow travelers set out to become the greatest of Pokémon trainers, catching various creatures known as Pokémon in order to use them as partners in their everyday lives. This also includes pitting these powerful creatures in battle against one another. (Thankfully, there’s no PETA in the Pokémon world). Over the past six years, the group has captured a wide variety of Pokémon, ranging from the more standard Grass and Electric types to the rarer Bug and Steel types. Some are full of personality and become fan favorites, while others are dull and just seem to be there. But during every saga the group receives an “upgrade” of their lineup, replacing their previous Pokémon with those of a similar type from the newest games. Time to get out your Pokédex.
We’ll start out in Kanto, the land that started it all. In the first episode, Ash receives the mascot of the franchise: Pikachu. Initially, Pikachu resents Ash and refuses to do anything its Trainer says. It isn’t until Ash risks his life for the third time that Pikachu finally relents and begins to trust the young rookie, and the rest is history. The electric rodent has since become best friends with Ash. Pikachu is the leader of the group, often taking command when separated from the humans and the first to try and convince wild Pokémon to trust Ash and company. Not only that, but until Advanced Generation, Pikachu was the second mother to Togepi, taking care of it whenever Misty was busy or away. For the most part, Pikachu is pretty fun to watch, as the rodent still likes to have fun while keeping the other group from acting up. It can also be really adorable at times, as any cute Pokémon should be. Pikachu’s good-bye to Butterfree early on only added to the sadness of the Pokémon’s departure, and the rodent’s obsession with ketchup (to the point where it goes to tears when the bottle’s empty) is just adorable to watch. Likewise, because Pikachu is the mascot it usually gets the best battles. Pikachu’s battle against Bellsprout in the Kanto Pokémon League was pretty fun to watch, and its battle against Raichu for the Thunder Badge is still one of the series’ very best. Though some people blame Pikachu for the fact that people do not take the series seriously, the fact is that the little mouse is highly entertaining and the show would not be the same if he left or evolved.
As any fan knows, Ash’s team was centered around Pikachu and the three Starter Pokémon from Red/Blue: Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle. The first of the three, Bulbasaur, was the ultimate bad-ass Pokémon and has yet to be replaced. If Pokémon speech were subtitled, you’d know that Bulbasaur would only be seen on Adult Swim. Though it didn’t get many spotlight episodes (not nearly as many compared to Charmander), Bulbasaur still got a lot of development. Early on, in one of Kanto’s best episodes, it had the chance to evolve into an Ivysaur but didn’t want to. That was the first time in the show that evolution was shown to be an unwelcome (to the Pokémon, anyway) change. The fact that Bulbasaur did not want to change speaks volumes, especially since many fans like evolved Pokémon a lot more.
Squirtle, its partner in crime, was the fun-loving one of the bunch. It didn’t try to act macho the way Bulbasaur did, but it wasn’t helpless like Charmander used to be. Squirtle was also the prankster of the bunch. Unfortunately, it never really got to prove its worth on the battlefield: It never won a Gym Match in Kanto (though it did win a couple battles in the Pokémon League), and it never gained enough experience to evolve. Heck, the only time Squirtle really shone in battle was against Rudy’s Starmie when Ash was trying to get his 3rd Orange Islands Badge. But despite Squirtle’s lack of battle prowess, Squirtle was a fan-favorite. Heck, it was my mom’s favorite Pokémon! Plus, it had cool shades. You gotta have cool shades.
Then you’ve got Charmander, Ash’s second-most-used Pokémon in the whole show. When the little fire lizard was first seen, it had been left to die by its old trainer, Damien. What’s worse, Charmander believed Damien would come back for it eventually! Luckily, Ash and Brock saved Charmander in the nick of time, thus adding a significant fighting force to Ash’s team. Ash used Charmander in almost every episode, allowing him to claim his Rainbow and Soul Badges as well as capturing Primeape. Charmander was a very loyal Pokémon until it evolved into Charmeleon following an Exeggutor rampage. From then on, the bloated reptile refused to obey Ash, often lying around and doing nothing. The only time Charizard ever obeyed Ash was during the match to win his Volcano Badge. But due to Ash’s negligent training, Charizard remained disloyal, eventually costing Ash his match against Richie in the Pokémon League. Charizard would continue to act up, getting worse and worse each episode, until the fire dragon was defeated by a Poliwrath in the Orange Islands. After that, Charizard learned to obey the young trainer, though it got off to a rocky start when it had to team up with Pikachu in the 4th Orange League Gym Match. However, Charizard eventually learned the value of teamwork, which would help win Ash not only the Orange Island Championship but his Zephyr Badge and his Raging Badge from the Johto Gyms. When Ash let Charizard go to train in the Chariffic Valley, it was one of the saddest moments in the series. They had forged a deep bond and had become an awesome team. The final shot of Ash running away crying while Charizard spits fire in the sky is still one of the most iconic shots in the series.
Before we leave Kanto, there’s one more Pokémon we have to talk about: Pidgeotto. The poor bird was Ash’s workhorse during the first dozen or so episodes, but when Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle came in, Pidgeotto was demoted to janitor duty. Since then, Pidgeotto had done little except punch holes in Team Rocket’s balloon, blow away Koffing’s/Weezing’s smoke, and search for a missing ally. Even in its debut episode, Pidgeotto was overshadowed by little Caterpie! As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, Pidgeotto’s track record in Gym Battles is awful. It got beat in under a minute against Brock and was defeated handidly by Koga, but in the final match against Team Rocket (filling in for Giovanni), it single-handedly brought Ash out from defeat after Bulbasaur and Squirtle were beaten. Yet Pidgeotto never got credit for helping Ash out. Heck, the bird never even got to compete in any match in the Pokémon League! To top it all off, its lone spotlight came in the final episode of the Kanto arc, and even then, the episode was half over before Pidgeotto finally got some attention! To make matters worse, Pidgeotto evolved into Pidgeot in that same episode. Ash left it, saying he would come back for it after the Orange Islands saga. That was over five years ago, and we’ve only seen the bird in a brief cameo in the latest ending theme in Japan. When all of Ash’s Pokémon came back to compete in the Johto Championships, Pidgeot was nowhere to be found! While the creative staff tried to rectify this with Noctowl and Taillow, Pidgeotto will still go down as the most screwed-over Pokémon in the series’ history.
The Johto League opened up whole new world for Ash and the gang to explore. Unfortunately, it also began a three-year journey of complete and utter crap. Wasted opportunities, boring Gym Battles, and uninspired filler poisoned the saga, making fans wretched. Worse, as the Gold/Silver games were being featured, all of the Kanto Pokémon were dumped off. Charizard was the first to go (though it came back several times due to fan demand), and was replaced by Cyndaquil, who was nowhere near as interesting as Charmander or its evolutions. Even though Cyndaquil is the first Pokémon Ash has actually trained (instead of merely sending it off to battle over and over again), that doesn’t help its case. For the most part, Cyndaquil is the lazy one of the bunch, preferring to lay down and sleep rather than battle. The creative staff tried to imbue some of Charmander’s worrisome tendencies into Cyndaquil, but Charmander was charming while Cyndaquil isn’t. Its debut episode wasn’t all that hot either. Ash found the wild Cyndaquil and made friends with it. But it didn’t attack Ash; it didn’t have a fear of battling; it didn’t appear to have any purpose in life. It just happened to be the first Cyndaquil Ash saw. Though Cyndaquil eventually became decently powerful (it did beat a Steelix all by itself), it could never replace the adorable Charmander or the cool Charizard.
Squirtle was the next to leave and, unlike Charizard, we didn’t see it again until near the end of the Johto League, where it helped Ash win one of his preliminary battles. Squirtle was replaced by Totodile, who at least had an endearing prankster streak, but it didn’t really develop any other defining character traits. It was not helped by the fact that most of its focus episodes really sucked, nor did it ever learn anything that helped it in later stories. Totodile is certainly one of the wackier Pokémon in the show, but that doesn’t change the fact that Totodile isn’t a Pokémon to get a cheer when it appears. I would have been happier if Totodile had been a semi-recurring Pokémon, a la Jigglypuff, rather than a full-time member.
Bulbasaur also eventually left the group and was replaced by Chikorita. Now, Chikorita is probably the most interesting of the Gold/Silver Pokémon group, simply because it has a crush on its Trainer. Whenever it appeared to battle, you could see the joy on its face, and its little contests with Pikachu over Ash’s attention were simply adorable. Things only got better when it eventually evolved into Bayleef in order to protect Ash from Team Rocket. Oddly, Bayleef did not get very well acquainted with its new form; instead, it still kept its Chikorita mindset, running up and jumping on Ash. Eventually it did learn to control its new powers and got comfortable in its new role, becoming Ash’s second-most-used Johto Pokémon, and helping him win his 5th and 8th Badges. Bayleef was the fun-lover Totodile wanted to be, but done right.
Finally, we come to Noctowl, the Johto replacement to Pidgeotto. Unfortunately, Noctowl is only able to give off a “holier-than-thou” attitude compared to Pidgeotto. Of course, that might be my bias talking. Noctowl was one of the “shiny” Pokémon, meaning it had a red/tan coloring instead of the dark brown/light brown color that normal Noctowl have. Not only that, it was smarter than most of Ash’s other Pokémon, coming up with ways to defeat Team Rocket’s mechs and evading traps. However, this little trait disappeared after its debut episode. Another Noctowl advantage was its ability use the move Confusion, which added some variety to its move set and allowed it to compete against Gengar so Ash could win his 4th Gym Badge. However, Noctowl isn’t all pluses. Its character design is far from appealing (unlike Pidgeotto, which was pretty vanilla but still colorful), and it was relegated to janitor duty just as Pidgeotto had been. Nevertheless, Noctowl was highlighted during the various intros and endings, even appearing in the third movie. Its personality is even flatter than Pidgeotto’s, as it rarely interacts with any other Pokémon and doesn’t show off any kind of special trait. Pidgeotto didn’t much either, but my bias prevents me from criticizing it.
Then we get into the Hoenn Pokémon. Torchic is the first Pokémon that one of the main characters receives Ruby/Sapphire, and it proves to be quite entertaining. It’s similar to Cyndaquil in that it just loves to have fun and run around. But Torchic has the mind-set of a three-year-old, which makes it all the more appealing. The little fire bird stumbles its way early on, running into rocks and burning random flora in an attempt to be an actual battler, but the thing is just so adorable that it’s entertaining instead of irritating. It also helps that Torchic is by far the most popular Starter Pokémon from Ruby/Sapphire, giving it the sympathy vote.
But Torchic’s not the only fun Pokémon in this new show. Ash’s Corphish is quite possibly my favorite of the Hoenn Pokémon, as it basically does whatever it wants. It doesn’t like to be insulted at all and attacks anything (even Ash!) when angry; it happily chows down on any food it can get a hold of (even rope and a buoy); and it’s extremely curious, exploring anything that holds its interest, no matter the danger. Not only that, it values its place on Ash’s team, eagerly battling for the Trainer whenever asked. In fact, after Treeko evolves into Grovyle and shows off its new strength, it even gets scared that Ash won’t use it in battle anymore. Luckily, that feeling didn’t last after Corphish cemented its place in the lineup. Whenever Corphish comes out, you know you’re going to have a smile on your face. The fact that it’s often clueless as to what it’s doing is all more the reason to love the little crab. Thankfully, it doesn’t evolve (thanks to Team Aqua owning a Crawdaunt), so its escapades continue even today.
As usual, Ash captures a Normal-/Flying-type Pokémon soon after entering the Hoenn Region. Taillow has a lot to live up after Pidgeot and Noctowl, and for the most part it does. While it will never replace Pidgeot, Taillow is infinitely more fun to watch than Noctowl ever was. In fact, its first appearance is extremely memorable, as it’s able to take Thunderbolt after Thunderbolt without fainting! Thankfully, Taillow is used in actual battles and actually becomes quite strong. In fact, Taillow helps Ash win his 6th and 7th Hoenn League Gym Badges, evolving into Swellow all the while. Its tag-team match with Pikachu to win the 7th Gym Badge is still one of my favorites in Advanced Generation.
Ash’s other Pokémon, Treeko, is another interesting case study. While on the outside it seems a rip-off of Bulbasaur (they’re both trash-talking Grass-types), Treeko has a dream of becoming a lot stronger. When we first see Treeko, it only has a decently powered Quick Attack and a weak Pound attack. Since it doesn’t know any Grass-type attacks, it had to make up for it by increasing its physical strength, which it does twice in the series. Later on, Treeko increases its versatility by learning both Bullet Seed and Leaf Blade (the latter upon evolving into Grovyle), becoming just as powerful as Bulbasaur was by the time it left.
Brock gets two new Pokémon in this series: Lotad and Mudkip. Luckily for us, these Pokémon actually have a personality. (Previously, of Brock’s Pokémon only Vulpix and Pineco had personality). Lotad is basically an updated version of Psyduck, except that Lotad is just absent-minded, not stupid. It’ll come out of its Poké Ball, stand there with a blank stare on its face for a few minutes and then spout out a trickle of water before finally using Water Gun. Easily the most fun of any of Brock’s Pokémon, Lotad is one of those doofy Pokémon that’s not quite all together yet. Mudkip takes on the maternal role of the group. When we first meet it, Mudkip is taking care of a large group of baby Mudkip, protecting them from danger. And in one episode, when the Pokémon are separated from their Trainers, Mudkip helps Pikachu calm Torchic down and stops Treeko and Corphish from fighting. Since it’s the caring, concerned Pokémon, Mudkip doesn’t battle much, which means we see it a lot less than the other two Starters. As for Brock’s other Pokémon, Forretress, it’s received little development of any kind.
The Pocket Monsters in Pokémon are a very interesting group, much more so than they appear. Though the Kanto Pokémon will forever hold a place in my heart, since they were the first and the sharpest, the Hoenn Pokémon have quickly been climbing up my favorites list.