Monday, August 11, 2014

63. Abra

Is Pokemon science fiction, or is it fantasy?

Abra lets us ponder this, as the first pokemon in the dex that deals heavily with mysticism and the supernatural. It’s a psychic little fox-shrew-person that teleports all the time. All the Japanese names in its evolution line reference famous mystics. Plus in Pokemon there are literal ghosts running around. But hey, maybe Abra’s powers could be explained by science! Maybe its brain is just that powerful, or it’s normal-powered but accessing 100% of its capacity.

I think Pokemon, like a lot of my favorite things, is at the intersection of sci-fi and fantasy. It’s all about biologically speculative creatures doing sometimes-magic things. Unless you think that pokemon are all just manifestations of memes, which is cool (if a bit anthropocentric)(and a theory largely popularized by a jerk). But even then, I like to think about how those manifestations would physically work. The Pokemon journey itself is one of scientific discovery—a guy in a lab coat gives you an encyclopedia to fill. Also there’s the deal with Mewtwo being a gene-spliced clone of Mew, which in the mid 90s was as topically sci-fi as you could get.

One thing’s for sure: Abra is living out my fantasy in that it sleeps 18 hours a day and is still functional enough to teleport away from danger while still sleeping. That approaches Snorlax/Slowpoke/Slakoth levels of young adult aspirational quality. It’s too bad the Abra line isn’t bulky enough to run Sleep Talk well, because that would be perfect thematically. Still, the sleepy nature comes across in Abra’s sprites, which are all laid back—literally.

Most, like Red and Blue’s, are content to sit with their hands folded on their belly.

HeartGold and SoulSilver’s is so unconcerned with your presence that it does a little crotch scratch:

Diamond and Pearl’s is the same but picking its nose:

Crystal’s is so filled with mirth by your attempt to battle that it clicks its heels together and wags its tail:

And ranking highest on the Abra Investment scale, the Gold one deigns to OPEN ONE EYE at us!

My goodness. Abra is capable of standing up, as shown in several of its back sprites. But you only see this after you get a hold of one and presumably inject some motivation into its telepathic slacker lifestyle.

Speaking of which, one thing I love about Abra is how it’s encountered in the games. It’s elusive, first being a rare find and then teleporting away without fail. You go through 30 wild pokemon battles before you even see another one. To a kid who might not have Sleep Powder on a fast enough pokemon yet, and doesn’t understand that pokeballs have a pretty good capture rate on low level pokemon even when they’re at full health, capturing Abra is no mean feat. Abra is the ephemeral, the unattainable. It totally throws a wrench in the rhythm of normal pokemon capture.

Then when you do catch one, it doesn’t learn any attacks until it evolves at level 16, so training it requires patience and care. Considering Psychic was the imposing OP type of Gen I, it’s cool that they did this with the staple Psychic pokemon. Delayed gratification. I feel like recent pokemon games have done away with the idea of making certain pokemon harder to catch and raise—there are still rare pokemon, but you wander around in grass until you find it and then it’s smooth sailing from there. A Gen VI player training an Abra just goes “god this is SO BORING I’ll just turn the Exp. Share on and never use it in battle until it’s good”

Abra’s original name, Casey, is based on Edgar Cayce, an early-1900s psychic healer from Kentucky who kinda spawned the New Age and holistic medicine movements in the States. He was known for going into a trance or sleep-state to deliver readings on people from his subconscious—hey, sounds like Abra!

It’s too bad the references to historical figures were dropped when the Abra family got localized. For one, they’re educational, and have that Did You Know quality of other pokemon names that reference people like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Plus, a small character with psychokinetic powers and a mundane name like “Casey” gives me a very Mother vibe. But considering how many Mother developers were involved with Pokemon, the entire presence of Psychic types has a very Mother vibe.

The Winner:

R/G is a close second, as it forgoes cuteness for straight-up creepiness. It’s the most detailed and alien-looking, for sure. But ultimately I kept getting bothered by the weird perspective on the legs.

Gold’s winking and extra-casual pose won me over, as I feel it best captures Abra’s trickster persona. It still baffles me how much expressiveness you can give a sprite's eye with the change of one or two pixels. And this Abra overall feels very volumetric. Look at how much bigger its shoulder pads are than on every other sprite! Its whole profile feels more weighty and fleshed-out, which makes it cuter to me.

Later ‘bra.

Monday, February 24, 2014

62. Poliwrath

The day is come friend!

Watching the X and Y reveals made me aware of a tendency in creature design, which one Pokebeach poster called "it gets bigger" syndrome. It didn't come up because any gen VI pokemon suffer from it, but because our expectations and projections do. As a reminder, this is what many wanted Frogadier's evolution to look like:

All the respect in the world to fakemon artist zerudez and his wonderful Sugimori-style rendering. But there's a reason why the ultimate design for Greninja looks like Greninja, and not like this. That dude is essentially a Frogadier that got bigger. The obvious characteristics of Frogadier are taken and intensified, but no design elements are introduced, aside from the black spots. It's more of an extrapolation than an evolution, and certainly falls short of the professionally clever and gross concept of Greninja's shinobi-style tongue scarf. Yet, there was much internet caterwauling when the real McCoy was revealed, and even long afterwards I couldn't get my friends to google "froakie final evolution" without them seeing the fakemon instead; it had become that popular.

I don't only bring this up because Poliwrath and Greninja are both blue-colored frogs. It's so easy to sit here and trash a poor guy's design for not living up to the standards of Gen VI evolution, yet here we are comfortably loving a Pokemon in Poliwrath that's basically the poster child of "it gets bigger." Did Gen I pokes simply face less scrutiny, from design to reception? Or is there nothing at all wrong with simple evolutions, and the difference in new pokemon is just a matter of style?

A couple thoughts:

- In my last post I came just short of calling Poliwhirl the objectively best pokemon, and in that respect any degree of resemblance to it can only be a good thing, in fact we would be blessed to have Poliwhirl variants taking up multiple pokedex slots. Seven Poliwhirls, maybe more. Imagine

- Maybe the small degree of change is the point? Axolotls, neoteny in amphibians and so on. It's the opposite of what you'd expect from tadpoles in a game about metamorphosis, which is kind of awesome (and indeed, all 3 polis are the "Tadpole Pokémon"). Also there's something to be said for giant, muscly tadpoles, and until I played X and Y I don't think I appreciated just how big the entire Poli line is. Poliwags are 2' spheres - they're beach ball size. I don't know how accurate the scaling in XY is; Greninja is clearly given its standing height in a crouching position, so when it does stand it's like 11 feet tall. But I enjoy that people see pictures like this and have to be a little freaked out:

- It's simplistic to say Gen I designs were all more minimalist than now. True, there was an angry eyebrow evolution and a cross-popping vein evolution, but look at the starting pokemon: Charizard is a salamander that grew wings, and Wartortle grows metal cannons out of nowhere. No fan could have seen those coming. Meanwhile Gen VI has much-loved lines like Goodra and Talonflame, which evolve in a steady and conventional way.

Of course, Poliwrath is distinct from Poliwhirl. I would never gloss over its je nes se quois. Obviously, it gets those broader shoulders and more of the classic, upside down triangle shape of heavy muscle characters. For some reason, its profile has always reminded me of Gossamer from Looney Tunes, probably due to childhood scarring.

It compares favourably with Frogadier 2.0 up there, in that it keeps a chubby, charming look and doesn't have to grow spikes or splotches. It was smart, in all seriousness, to keep intact a lot of the roundness of Poliwhirl's design, while adding an edge (almost literally). And that helix fossil spiral pattern will never go out of style. In case you're wondering btw: in all but a few early sprites, the swirl on 'wrath and 'whirl always goes clockwise, and the swirl on 'wag goes counter-clockwise.

While Poliwhirl almost had a visible skeleton, Poliwrath has an interesting design history as well. Look at the kingly swag on this one:

This style is so cool. Again I am reminded of Rayman characters, or maybe an old Kirby boss. A whole world of frog prince mythology would have come into play if they had kept that crown, and it would have been fresh given that this frog is heavy-set and kinda villainous. The resemblance of that crown to the eventual design for King's Rock is also interesting. What could have been! But I'm guessing they wanted to go for a more active and capable-looking monster to befriend, and it's understandable. Personally, I'd have a hard time deciding between a bloated, enormous tadpole and a tadpole with beefcake arms.

I ordered the first box set of Pokemon Adventures (volumes 1-7) to do Poli research for this post, and it didn't get here in time. But my recollection is that Red's Poliwrath is his full-time lifeguard, and now I can't wait to dive through those exploits. So I bring you the most representative image of Poliwrath, and perhaps the whole relationship between pokemon and their trainers, to ever exist:

Lastly, it seems Bulbapedia added a reference to glass frogs on Poliwrath's page since the last time I memorized the entirety of its contents. So do yourself a search for glass frogs, which are real animals that are completely haunting and sweet. And would you look at that! Swirly guts!

The Winner:
Red and Blue

Yellow is very dynamic. I really like the upward tilt of B/W. And D/P has a sort of flair for the dramatic. But I couldn't really be expected to pass over the fluid pose and shapely leg of this sprite, could I.

Another thing R/B did well with both Poliwrath and Poliwhirl: put their eyes almost on eyestalks. Poliwrath's eyes have definitely receded further and further down into his skull over the years. But it turns out big round eyes nearly in silhouette are really fun to look at, which Game Freak took advantage of expertly in the design for Froakie.

I'm leaving a note about my past year in the comments. Brace the day people!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

61. Poliwhirl

So many Polies! Poliwhirl is one of the few pokemon to get a different sprite in Emerald than it had in Ruby and Sapphire, and as you can see, it's due to the design shift from fingered gloves to mittens.

D'you ever wonder why Poliwhirl is always like... wearing gloves...? It's a cartoon tradition, from Mickey Mouse and Looney Toons characters, to Itchy & Scratchy and the Animaniacs. Originally they were meant to catch the eye and stand out from the characters' bodies in black and white cartoons. Video game characters don them for largely promotional reasons: Sonic the Hedgehog was consciously designed as a cartoon mascot that would appeal to Americans; Mario wore them in box art, but his sprites didn't have the palette for distinctly white gloves until Super Mario World. With Poliwhirl, though, you could argue the purpose is practical: its gameboy sprites were, after all, black and white. Their hands wouldn't come across quite as well without those gloves.
...Actually those look kind of cool!

As for the Great Mittening: like most abrupt changes in pokemon design, the anime is to blame. Anime Poliwhirl always wore boxing gloves, also seen in its Yellow sprite—I'm guessing because they're easier to draw, help distinguish Poliwhirl from the visually similar Poliwrath, and hint at its near future as a fighting type. Interestingly, Poliwrath has always had fingers, probably because they're more menacing, when you think about it. Cartoon boxing gloves are cute and round! Fingers can grab you! Plus, it's easier to see mittens “evolving” into a more complex shape, than vice-versa.

If you want to reconcile Poliwhirl's old depictions with its new ones in the pokemon world, I suggest that all Poliwhirls in fact have fingers, and some just prefer wearing mittens! It's a free country. Though this raises the issue of pokemon wearing clothing—where does Poliwhirl get the gloves? Does Tyrogue just hatch out of its egg with pants and bandages? Are Sylveon's bows made of flesh? Let us think on this.

Surprisingly, this isn't the first time Poliwhirl's design has been tweaked, as we can see from its concept art:

Now, it's easy to see why they didn't run with the idea of Poliwhirl's skeleton being visible through its skin. It would have been very difficult to depict with gameboy graphics, for instance. That being said, oh my god. Its skeleton could have been visible through its skin. You have no idea how much I've always wanted a skeletal or undead pokemon – they have pokemon described as actual ghosts, they have pokemon that wear and wield bones, so why not? Poliwhirl could have been the Skeleton Frog pokemon. And it would have made perfect sense – Poliwag has guts showing through its skin, so as the tadpole develops Poliwhirl would display skeletal structure and Poliwrath would display musculature! The anatomy pokemon!

But it wasn't to be. They at least left us with some very cool and descriptive Pokedex entries, like this one from Gold which has become the entry à la mode: “The spiral pattern on its belly subtly undulates. Staring at it gradually causes drowsiness.” First of all, it's cool how the Poliwhirl family really learns Hypnosis in-game; Game Freak is good about actually looking at their own designs for move set inspiration. Second of all, let's appreciate how Poliwhirl's body is constantly undulating and will make you feel funny just for looking at it. It's the original Hypnotoad.

And it's hard to say modern Poliwhirl has done poorly for its opaque self. It's a fantastically successful design, really. All circles and swirls! For a while it may have had a shot at being the de facto pokemon mascot; it was Red's signature pokemon in the manga, and a team member for Gold as well. It had a spot on the logo for Pokemon Center Tokyo. And then there was this, one of my favourite images in pokemon history:

This is Poliwhirl's defining moment. The star of the show, framed by a cosmic aura, with its hypnotic spiral and expressionless eyes, jumping off the page in magazine stands in every town in America! No wonder the cover line expresses threat and alarm! How could a child not be corrupted by pokemon, after seeing this?

It was a wise editorial decision on TIME's part, as Poliwhirl has the most eye-catching stomach in the universe, and its central positioning on that cover takes advantage of that. Sadly, Poliwhirl's star has faded these days, while Pikachu is still on top. Personally, I blame oral bias; Poliwhirl doesn't have a mouth, while Pikachu does, and that gives the mouse more opportunity to look like a happy mugging doofus. Y'know, something we relate to.

That's not to say Poliwhirl can't be expressive! It gives fistbumps! Adorns babies! Looks contemplative! Has ideas! Inspires costumes and eye-makeup! Takes punches! Invents poses! And holds unpopular opinions about music! But it's not part of the anime anymore, and BW2 buried it underwater (when c'mon, it's like the amphibious pokemon). Froakie is set to overshadow it as the first frog starter. So it's seemingly doomed to be appreciated by only us old-timers. And that's okay. If you're discussing favourite pokemon with someone and Poliwhirl comes up, you know to give that person props!

The Winner:
Red and Blue

I like this one for its loose and stylish lines. It looks like a Rayman character. And it's got that clenched fist of determination.

Gold through Crystal are really good too, well posed and shaded as usual. I like whatever D/P is doing. But both it and the B/W sprite look kind of flat. B/W is one of the ones that looks better animated, though, where it's allowed to get all squishy. There's even squash and stretch on its feet!

Until next time!

Monday, December 10, 2012

60. Poliwag

The claim to fame of Poliwag is that it is Pokemon creator Satoshi Tajiri's favourite pokemon. And that means it should also be YOUR favourite pokemon.

If you haven't read up on this guy and the early days of Game Freak, it's an incredibly do-it-yourself, inspirational story. Game Freak was so broke during the first game's six-year development that five employees quit and Tajiri stopped paying himself a salary. At all stages there was doubt it would be published; when it finally was, it had a really slow start, and only started spreading through the appeal of the link cable. In a way, it was the precursor to online games.

It's easy to take Pokemon for granted now, but we wouldn't be sitting here enjoying it if it weren't for this one person and his keenly sensitive relationship to the world around him. Even something as singular and nostalgic as spreading honey on tree bark to catch beetlesthat made it directly into the games, as anyone who's tried to catch Heracross in D/P can attest. Not many games and media franchises are based on specific childhood experiences like that.

Usually we have to sort of speculate about pokemon origins, but Poliwag comes directly from Tajiri's brain: “It looks like a tadpole. There's little whirls on it because I remembered that when you pick up a tadpole, you can see its intestines because it's transparent.” Okay, so that's not the most elaborate origin, but it's simple and original. The “I remembered” part is the key; it's not “what do people remember about tadpoles,” it's “what do I remember,” and in this case it's little Satoshi Tajiri holding a pollywog in his hand and going “woahhh, I can see through its skin!” For whatever reason, personal touches like that are lovely, and Generation 1 was probably full of them.

Unexpectedly, Poliwag really is a subtle and accurate portrayal of tadpoles. If you're thinking, “What about its googly eyes and rudimentary feet,” well guess what TADPOLES HAVE THOSE SOMETIMES

I mean, look at those. If you transpose their mouths onto their backs and swing the tails around, they would look exactly like Poliwag.

And if you're still skeptical about Poliwag being two feet tall and weighing 25 pounds, bullfrog tadpoles look like they could probably get that big:

If the above picture makes you remark, “gross,” then you are not alone. Tadpoles creep me the heck out. They're dark and slimy and shaped like sperm. They look like snot. And because frogs and toads are often the first animals to show ill-effects from pollution, and tadpoles are the first form of frogs and toads, you're probably more likely to look at a tadpole than any other creature and see something freaky like two heads or extra limbs. Something so embryonic and biologically simple should not be so visible! Nature needs to keep its awkward baby business away from prying eyes, like usual, not all up in our swimming holes. Not that I would trust swimming holes anyway, because that's where brain-eating amoebae live.

But it's easy to see why tadpoles are so intriguing to people. For one, they're widely available; the Common Toad, Bufo bufo, has a range spanning three continents. For another, they have a drastic, visible metamorphosis; they develop not only limbs but lungs post-natally, and completely change habitats; unlike insects that morph in cocoons, we can see all their in-between stages; and finally, tadpoles are pretty much self-sufficient; some walk around on land; some are omnivorous and eat other tadpoles. And I mean, look at that bullfrog tadpole up there. That is a fish. Not bad for what is basically a larval stage. This is the kind of stuff that would make primitive cultures think frogs and tadpoles were unrelated or some kind of godly voodoo was responsible, like maggots being born from rotting meat. Of course, now we know tadpoles metamorphose when they gain enough experience points and reach level 25.

The whole growing legs and moving onto the land thing also neatly parallels the evolution of terrestrial life in general, as every Evolution of Man montage will show us. And where would the Pokemon game mechanic be without evolution?

For all those heavy implications and unsettling qualities of tadpoles, though, you have to admire Game Freak for condensing them down to palatable ol' Poliwag. It used to look a bit more dark, as we can see in its early sprites and Pokemon Pinball appearance:

Old-school Poliwag was invariably coloured black with an eyes-half-shut pouty face. Nowadays it's a bit more circular, bright, and cutesy, but I still think the original inspiration shines through. They take a tadpole and think, “What's a feature of tadpoles can we exaggerate in our design?” And then Tajiri goes, “Probably that you can SEE THEIR GUTS THROUGH THEIR SKIN.” And then they dial it back again, by making the guts appear in a cute spiral pattern. A lot of the best pokemon seem to be born by this recipe: cute animal >>> disturbing idea >>> cute execution. That is the Pokemon way.

The Winner:
Diamond and Pearl
I like representations of Poliwag that give it a vaguely pointy shape, like actual tadpole and frog heads. Sugimori's artwork is usually good at this. For some reason that egg shape is just more believable than a circle with feet. D/P doesn't do this as well as B/W and HG/SS, but it's still better than the circular Silver and Crystal sprites. It also has the biggest watery puppy dog eyes and is posed the most swimmingly.

I really wanted to like HG/SS's sprite, but it's kind of asymmetrical in its lower half, like it's missing a butt. Observe how its right eye is higher than its left eye, but its right edge is lower than its left edge!

This may seem like nitpicking, but I stared at this sprite a long time and at no point did that stop bothering me.

There's also the question of how many times Poliwag's guts should spiral. 2-3 revolutions seems to be ideal. But with Crystal through FR/LG, those intestines barely make it around once! LAZY. How are those supposed to hypnotise anyone?

Finally because Poliwag's head is basically its entire body, it contributes to some of my favourite pokemon fusions. Like Squirtwag and Vulwag here.