Since the starters for the unfortunately titled Pokémon Sun & Moon games (abbreviate ‘em) were first revealed last Tuesday, the internet’s been quick to praise the Grass-type owl Pokémon, Rowlet, and quick to heap vitriol on the Water-type seal Popplio. Most of the hatred seems to pivot around its clown-like design, which has been described as “silly” by game sites and Twitterland alike. And yes, clowns are silly – and a bit scary. But Popplio is one of the most creative starter designs in a long time, and it’s pretty damn cute, so I’m personally pulling for it.
These are the best-looking starters since Generation II. The only dud of the three is Litten, yet another mammalian Fire starter; he’s a cat, and of course he’s going to evolve into a lion, probably with a mane of flames. Rowlet is inventive, a nice change of pace from the almost uniformly reptilian Grass starters of yore (the exception being the chipmunk-like Chespin), but he doesn’t really fit my definition of cute; he reminds me too much of a baby or a pug. I like things with long snouts.
Popplio appeals to my tastes just a little more, and he’s the best seal Pokémon has yet created. Generation one’s Seel and generation three’s Spheal were cool, but they didn’t radiate Popplio’s charisma. The former two are aloof wild animals, while Popplio – appropriately for a beast you’ll likely spend the whole game with – looks like he wants to jump up and lick your face. His design’s more creative than your average water starter, which are mostly existing animals colored blue. Popplio’s a seal and a clown, which is impressive given that the GameFreak design team was probably home for lunch with the others.
The clown thing doesn’t really bother me, either. He’s too cute to bring to mind Pennywise or Poltergeist. But when he grows up, he’ll probably be terrifying. Clowns and full-grown seals are two of the most godawful things to walk the earth; have you ever seen a bull elephant seal? I hope he matures into some disgusting, corpulent John Wayne Gacy monstrosity.
And it wouldn’t be the first silly/scary pinniped the games have cooked up. If you played the third-generation games, you might still have nightmares of Walrein, the toughest beast in that game’s Elite Four arsenal. With his devastating Sheer Cold attack and endless, hollow roar, that thing was as frightening to fight as to stare down. And even though the big walrus was a little funny with his Danny DeVito tufts of hair, most people weren’t laughing.
Popplio doesn’t deserve the hate. It’s a remarkably inventive design, and given the iconic image of the trained seal, it’s surprising the Pokémon design team didn’t think him up before. And look at those front flippers. If those things pack anywhere near the punch they look like they do, he’ll be no clown on the battlefield.
Follow Daniel Bromfield on Twitter @bromf3