How Pokémon Designs Have Evolved From Gen 1 To Gen 9

The Pokémon series has come a long way from the first 150 designs introduced in Pokémon Red and Blue in 1996. Just as pocket monsters evolve, so does the company that makes them. Indeed, time has seen Game Freak and The Pokémon Company make big changes in how they approach monster designs.

These evolutions in Pokémon art styles started with success The Pokémon Company found with the first two generations of games. When Pokémon Gold & Silver released in 1999, in fact, the company thought those two would be the last two in the series, expecting the Pokémon series trend and its story to end. But since then, more generations have been released and each has seen notable success, which in turn has forced the company to constantly rethink how to revitalize the series with new pocket monster designs.

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When chronicling the history of how Pokémon designs have evolved since the first generation, the games fall into four distinct groups. While some of these distinctions are largely determined by the limitations of the hardware the games were played on, others show how The Pokémon Company and Game Freak have been willing to take risks over the Pokémon series' lifespan while also adhering to a constantly changing set of design principles. Following is the evolutionary line of not any particular Pokémon but of the design principles behind all of them.

Pokémon Found Its Identity In Gens 1 & 2

Split image showing Charizard and Blastoise from the cover of Pokémon Red & Blue.

When Game Freak began developing Pokémon Red & Green in the 1990s, the concept of what a Pokémon was did not yet exist. Society nor The Pokémon Company had constructed the schema with which they can differentiate a pocket monster from a Digimon or any other fantastical creature. Consequently, the Gen 1 monsters don’t have a clear set of design principles. Some are tough monsters who look like they belong in battle like Charizard and Mankey, while others look goofy and friendly like Tangela and Dragonite.

However, the pocket monsters of Pokémon Yellow were altered and modeled after the Ken Sugimori art from the cards. This showed that the Pokémon Company was beginning to develop distinct design principles. A particular pattern in the monster designs of Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow was that they had a lot of sharp features, whether that was represented in the angles of their eye shapes, the pointedness of their fur, or the sharpness of their claws. If Pokémon did not have these sharper, more aggressive features, they were either more goofier like Snorlax or magical like Dragonair.

The Gen 2 Pokémon games are where this newfound style was finalized. A lot of the Pokémon introduced in Pokémon Gold and Silver provided rounder features, which in a way sanded the sharper, inexperienced edges of Gen 1 Pokémon. Roundness is further emphasized in the usage of rings, circles, and ovals on Pokémon bodies: Ampharos, Furret, Sudowoodo, and Umbreon are notable examples. Nevertheless, the sharpness of early Pokémon designs is present in Pokémon Gold and Silver, which can specifically be seen in the aggressive evolution lines of Tyranitar and Feraligatr. This pointed use of style shows how The Pokémon Company began to not only recognize its own design but also how to utilize traits of design toward specific ends.

Gens 3 & 4 Brought Gods To The Pokémon World

Pokemon-Brilliant-Diamond-Shining-Pearl-Box-Art

The Gen 3 and 4 Pokémon games differentiated themselves from the first two in terms of Pokémon design and gameplay. This in part happened because of the upgrade from the GameBoy Color to the GameBoy Advanced with Gen 3 and then from the GameBoy Advanced to the DS with Gen 4. These technological advancements allowed for Pokémon sprites to become more complex, especially in terms of color. Their sizes grew, too, a Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire's sprites were 64 by 64 pixels and Pokémon Diamond and Pearl's sprites were 80 by 80. All in all, this allowed for more dynamic designs for both new and old Pokémon, as sprites could suggest depth with color shading and had more pixels to play around with to make a wider variety of styles. Gen 4 even went so far as to add over 20 new evolutions to previously existing Pokémon lines, in a way showcasing how Pokémon had found its identity with better technology. The Pokémon that makes this most apparent is Magmortar, who takes the chunky duck that is Magmar and turns it into a clawed fire monster with flamethrowers for hands.

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Perhaps the biggest change in terms of design principles in Gens 3 and 4 were with the Legendaries, however. The concept of a Legendary wasn’t defined in Pokémon Red and Blue. For the most part, Legendaries were treated as stronger, rarer beings with a bit of lore and intricate designs. However, in Pokémon Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald, the Legendaries came to be much more than that. They were integral to the games’ stories, and they also represented abstract concepts like the forces of nature. This presented Kyogre, Groudon, and Rayquaza as deities in a pantheon of gods in the Pokémon universe, in turn making them not just more powerful Pokémon but all-powerful Pokémon.

Pokémon Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum built off of Gen 3’s Legendaries development by quite literally making the god of all Pokémon names: Arceus. Arceus’s first creations - Dialga, Palkia, and Giratina - are also given the god treatment. To make the majesty of these Pokémon clearer, they became over-designed to the point that they began to look like Digimon. Other Legendaries also took on more complex designs to highlight how they represent abstract concepts: Crescelia’s moons and pastel colors for good dreams and Darkrai's indistinct black mass for a body for nightmares are primary examples of this. In all, Pokémon Gens 3 and 4 reinvented some of the design principles from Gens 1 and 2 while introducing entirely new ones for Legendaries.

Pokémon Gen 5 Is Its Own Beast

Pokemon BDSP Black White Gen 5 Remakes

The Gen 5 Pokémon games serve as a soft reboot to the series. Not only are zero pre-existing Pokémon available prior to beating the games, but Pokémon Black and White were the first releases to be placed in a region whose inspiration was outside of Japan, as the Unova region is based off of the United States. On top of this, the Gen 5 Pokémon sprites were the first to have active animations, which opened up doorways for designers to creatively express the personalities of Pokémon species through movement. In this way, Pokémon Black and White revolutionized the series in terms of how Pokémon were designed and represented in the games.

That being said, a lot of the designs themselves were not all that revolutionary. In fact, a lot of the Pokémon from Pokémon Black and White are merely replacements for roles fulfilled by other pocket monster in earlier games. They had the classic early rodent, dog, and cat Pokémon in the forms of Watchog, Stoutland, and Liepard; Ponyta’s fire horse was replaced with Blitzle’s electric zebra; Drilbur even provided a two-stage Ground type evolution line in place of Cubone. This list of replacements is nowhere near exhaustive. It seems that The Pokèmon Company wanted to show that it still had original designs to offer by creating an entirely new 156 Pokémon, but in doing so, it also had to find a similar balance to the game in the same way they did with the first four generations. The consequence of this is that Gen 5 had to fill roles that were crucial to the games before it with similar Pokémon.

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Still, the Pokémon in the Gen 5 games are truly unique. This is primarily due to the fact that Unova is based off of the US. The inspirations behind Pokémon designs are a lot more specific and diverse in origin: Zebstrika comes from African wildlife; Sigilyph is based off of Native American art; and Golurk represents Jewish folklore’s golems. These designs in turn gave Unova a more distinct culture and wildlife than seen in the previous generations, a trend that would continue for the rest of the series.

Pokémon Gen 6 Set The Stage For The Rest Of The Series

Xerneas and Yveltal in promo art for Pokémon X and Y.

Pokémon X and Y marked the series' entry into the three-dimensional world, which had huge ramifications on Pokémon design. Prior to Gen 5, the Pokémon games built character and motion into static, two-dimensional images. For instance, Aipom is often standing on one foot to communicate its energetic, playful nature, while Malwile faces the player to express both its coy nature and battle strategy. But because Pokémon Black and White brought in distinct animations and Pokémon X and Y placed pocket monsters into a three-dimensional world, the designs of sprites had to dramatically change to solve issues that arose when making these transitions. And since Gens 7, 8, and eventually 9 share Gen 6's artistic and logistical approach to Pokémon models, a distinct design philosophy has since arisen with three primary principles: softness, calmness, and concept.

"Softness" essentially refers to "roundness" in that Pokémon from Gens 6, 7, and 8 as well as the few Pokémon seen from Gen 9 generally lack harsh, sharp features. This is most notable when looking at each generation's pseudo-legendaries: Goodra is practically made out of a soft goo and is all curves and ovals; Kommo-o has the angular eyes of Gen 1 but has curved scales all over its body; and Pokémon Sword & Shield's Dragapult has a curve-shaped body even if its head is in the shape of a jet. In comparison, every single pseudo-legendary from the previous generations have spikes or sharp edges in their designs (save for Dragonite, oddly). This is further reflected in the regional variants in introduced in Pokémon Sun and Moon - even Ninetales has its sharply drawn tufts of fur replaced with a swirly, curvy mane.

"Calmness" refers to the strange motionlessness seen in Gens 6, 7, and 8. What makes the motionlessness strange in these later Pokémon games is that the Pokémon in them are literally animated for motion while the ones in earlier games are not. Part of the reason for this is likely to limit the amount of difficult animations that would be required for updated 3D Pokémon sprites. This is most notable with Hitmontop. This Pokémon's two-dimensional sprite used to show it spinning on its head, which reflected its spinning top design and energetic nature. However, since the switch to three-dimensional sprites, Hitmontop more calmly shuffles from side to side.

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Finally, new Pokémon designs are more often built around specific concepts or gimmicks now than in earlier games. For instance, Polteageist from Gen 8 is a haunted teapot, where as Gengar from Gen 1 is just a ghost. Even Gen 7's pseudo-legendary Kommo-o is built around the abilities his scales give him, while practically every other pseudo-legendary relies on zero gimmicks. The reason for this change is likely to give newer Pokémon more distinct personalities. Having another Dragon type Pokémon would risk being boring at this point; however, a dragon Pokémon that is also an apple pie like Appletun is significantly more memorable. This choice in favoring concepts and gimmicks is a double-edged sword, though. While recent generations have seen some of the most creative Pokémon designs, they have also become volatile in terms of how inventive they really are. For instance, Klefki from Pokémon X and Y is just a pair of keys, and the Frankensteined fossil Pokémon from Pokémon Sword and Shield look horrendous. So though Pokémon games are still offering refreshing, new designs, their concepts leading into Gen 9 often run the risk of being too simple or too outrageous.

Sources: Rempton Games / YouTube

2022-08-13T21:56:25.000Z

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