Every generation of the Pokémon games features three potential starter Pokémon. In each generation, the three starters are water, fire, and grass types. A few years ago, I came across a humorous meme highlighting a potentially troubling trend regarding the fire-type starting Pokémon. The meme observes (not inaccurately) that the final evolutions of the Fire-starter Pokémon are becoming increasingly furry-like each successive generation, starting with generation 3 of 8 (we were still safe in generation 2, which I wrote about my nostalgic feelings for). This is more that a little bit disconcerting. You can see the meme here (note: I do not know where the meme originated – but the most likely source appears to be this 2019 Reddit thread (archived)).
All starter Pokémon have three evolutionary stages. The meme focuses on the final evolutionary stage for the fire starters. There were no problems in generation 2. The meme accurately describes the iconic Charizard from generation one as a “winged lizard” and Typhlosion from generation 2 as “a wild beast” (I will opine Typhlosion had a dinosaur-essence, but “wild beast” is close enough).
Generation 3 marked a turning point.
The meme described generation 3’s Blaziken, a Fire-Fighting type Pokémon, as a “humanoid fighting chicken.” That is accurate. The “humanoid fire-fighting” trend continued with Infernape, a fiery monkey. The meme initially expresses concerns with a second humanoid final evolution, but it brushes those concerns aside because primates are actually humanoid. Generation five brought yet another Fire-Fighting hybrid (why all the Fire-Fighting dual-types?), Emboar. This is a humanoid boar, the meme asks with some concern: “Why does a pig have to be humanoid?”
If anyone was holding out hope after Emboar, that hope was dashed in generation six. Delphox broke the Fire-Fighting trend, but not the humanoid trend. Of the humanoid Fire-Psychic type the meme opines: “Now Getting Furry.” Generation 7 brought the Fire-Dark Incineror, a humanoid feline dressed as a professional wrestler. All the meme could say was: “Very Furry.” Finally, generation 8 brought Cinderace, a humanoid soccer-playing rabbit with pants. The meme minced no words: “Very Very Furry, is getting worrying.” The meme projected that generation 9 (which we now know will be Pokémon Scarlet and Violet), would have a final-evolution of the fire starter that would be so furry it would need to be censored.
My New Leaf Journal colleague, Victor V. Gurbo, is known to become enraged by biped Pokémon that were introduced after generation 1 (he makes an exception for any Pokémon in the original 151… nostalgia is powerful). Victor chose Cinderace’s first form, Scorbunny, in Pokémon Sword (generation 8). He did so without knowing its evolutionary path. After his once-cute Scorbunny became a Cinderace, Victor became so enraged that he stashed it away and refused to use it.
(Aside: See an interesting explanation of how the first-form Fire starters correspond to the Chinese Zodiac.)
A man of principle.
But I digress. The reason I explained the Pokémon-descent-into-furry meme was to introduce a true story about the design of Blaziken. Blaziken, as I noted above, was the final evolution of the cute Torchic, the fire starting Pokémon in generation 3, which encompassed Pokémon Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald. Blaziken, a humanoid Fire-Fighting chicken, was the first of the humanoid fire-starter Pokémon. It is distinctly less furry than some of the more recent final evolutions. But while Blaziken was not too furry in and of itself, it may have paved the path for worse. On July 25, 2022, Nintendo Life published an article titled Pokémon Artist Reportedly Designed Blaziken To Test Fan Reception. It related that a YouTube channel called Did You Know Gaming reported on the contents of a 2003 interview with Mr. Ken Sugimori, the lead artist for the Pokémon games from their inception to the present. Nintendo Life reprinted a translated quote from the Mr. Sugimori’s 2003 interview wherein he discussed his thought process behind designing Blaziken. I reprint the quote below:
I thought about how wide the variety of Pokémon could be and wanted to push the envelope of what would be accepted. So the first one I made was Blaziken. I wondered if people would go for such a humanoid Pokémon, I was intentionally testing the waters. Over the years we’ve developed an image of what a Pokémon looks like, but this time we decided to push those boundaries and weaken the idea of what can’t be a Pokémon. Ruby and Sapphire was [about] taking on new inspirations for Pokémon unlike anything we used before.Ken Sugimori (Tr. Did You Know Gaming)
(I preface the following analysis by noting that I think Mr. Sugimori’s art is immensely creative, and his early watercolor designs are genuinely aesthetic (many were used on the early Pokémon cards). See my posts on classic Pokémon strategy guides and a memorable Pokémon adventure book for some examples of his art.)
It appears that Mr. Sugimori designed Blaziken as a sort of trial balloon for a furrier (I mean more humanoid) Pokémon future. Blaziken was not an answer to a question, but a question about whether Mr. Sugimori should proceed with an experiment. The article notes that Mr. Sugimori was curious to see whether players would use Blaziken after it evolved from what began as a cute Torchic or whether they would, like Victor did to Cinderace in generation 8, lock it away in a fit of rage. Apparently, enough players who started with Torchic stuck with Blaziken for Mr. Sugimori to continue with his humanoid Pokémon experiment.
It is clear by the time we reach generation 8 that Mr. Sugimori had but one question: “How far can I take this? How close to the Sun can we fly?“
The Pokémon team has often been accused of resting on its laurels and not pushing the envelope. While I have enjoyed all of the mainline Pokémon games, that critique is not without merit. Generation 2 marked the pinnacle of the Pokémon team’s creativity and initiative in the first eight generations of mainline games. But what may be true on some matters is not true on all matters. No one can doubt the Pokémon team’s daring in designing the final evolutions of fire starter Pokémon. The meme is not wrong. I genuinely fear what could come next. Just how far will Mr. Sugimori take this? When will he be satisfied with his fire-starter handiwork? When will a critical mass of Pokémon fans stand athwart history yelling “no mas”? (Pun intended since generation 9 is set in a region resembling Spain.)
Fortunately, we may have some hope for generation 9, which is scheduled to be released later this year. The three first-state starter Pokémon have been revealed. Fuecoco, a fire-crocodile-like-thing, does stand on two legs, but it does not look like a likely candidate to turn into the censor-worthy furry that the meme feared. It looks happy and a bit unintelligent – perhaps more likely to turn into a reptilian fiery Quagsire than something that should be kept out of sight of children. However, while I am holding out hope, I do not want to Jynx (multi-level pun intended) anything while there is still time for the Pokémon team to make adjustments.
(PS: Based on Litten’s transition into Inceneroar in generation 8, am I wrong to be a little bit concerned about Sprigatito, the Grass cat(!?) starter in generation 9?)