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.
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!
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!