Last year saw Pokémon return to the mainstream in a major way with Pokémon Go, causing the biggest outbreak of Pokémania since the 90s. With new updates ushering in the next batch of 100 creatures, it’s time for my dual passions of artistic analysis and pocket monsters to collide in a horrid fireball as I have a good long look at some of my faves from the series’ second generation and see if we can’t learn something about art from these cartoon animals.
Spinarak and Ariados
We’ll start things off with these nasty bug boys, a simple but important duo as the franchise’s first spider analogues. These guys do a great job of showing how a lot of Pokémon designs work- distilling a creature down to the basics, and then building things back up in a way that at abstracts the source material without completely removing it from our points of reference.
The immediate focal point for these lads is the heads, with those piercing eyes and various pointy bits standing out against the simple round body shapes in a way that immediately conveys DANGER. The rest of their bodies are designed to draw you towards this focal point, with the striped legs and piercing colours acting like giant neon arrows, leading your eyes to the business ends of these spiders and creating some striking visual contrast. Spinarak and Ariados also have subtle false faces on their abdomens, a way of creating some additional visual interest while calling back to some of the tricks bugs employ in nature.
All in all, some very neat and cleverly-designed bugs that achieve their design intent effectively and efficiently- a lot is going on here, but none of it feels cluttered due to the clever arrangements of anatomy and colour.
Moving from dangerous bugs to doofy bugs, here we have Sudowoodo, one of Generation 2’s most memorable and ridiculous designs. Sudowoodo’s design is a simple enough one- it takes the concept of a stick insect and expands on it, with this Rock-type disguising itself as an entire tree- but the execution of this design takes the concept from good to great with how unabashedly silly it is.
Where the Spinarak line accentuated rounder shapes with angular ones to establish a sense of menace, Sudowoodo softens the edges of its body with rounder shapes, and the contrast between the stick-like anatomy of this weirdo and the inorganic shapes of its “disguise” serve to create a silhouette that is instantly memorable and immediately endearing. Look at this guy, it’s got like three different kinds of disguise going on at once and none of them are working, bless its heart. It’s not fooling anyone, but look at that big goofy grin plastered on its face. And that pose! How a design moves around is as important as how it’s composed, and Sudowoodo stands completely still when idle- it’s trying its absolute best to convince you it’s a tree, and it’s one hell of a method actor, even if the end result is more charming than convincing.
Sudowoodo also feels incredibly representative of the spirit of the franchise- Pokémon was inspired by the childhood of Satoshi Tajiri, which was spent collecting bugs (so much so that he was nicknamed “Dr Bug” by his friends). As ponds became replaced with arcades, Tajiri wanted to find a way to bring the joys of his own childhood to a new audience, and Pokémon was born. Sudowoodo calls back to these roots with its big beetle-like crest, and adds a dash of eccentricity to the game in a way that conveys that spirit of discovery and mystery, bridging the gap between worlds old and new.
Sudowoodo is a brilliant design, taking a simple concept and investing it with so much charm through a wholly earnest presentation. The design has one core angle and sticks completely to it, putting a lot of thought and effort into looking effortlessly thoughtless. I support this weird rock and its passions.
Wooper and Quagsire
These two have some similar design sensibilities to our mate Sudowoodo, having a very simple look executed effectively. In particular, these salamanders are primarily composed of very smooth and round shapes (save for Wooper’s gills, which draw attention to its big round head), which make them very easy on the eyes and combined with the pastel colours immediately convey a lot about their personalities- they are soft, and want to be your friend. As important as visual contrast is for making an interesting design, these two show that layering similar shapes on each other is as important for establishing a cohesive visual language.
Wooper and Quagsire are also pretty uncomplicated, and highlight the importance of efficiency in visual communication. Just like Spinarak and Ariados simplify things like the faces and legs (note that both only have 6 legs) to avoid cluttering things, Wooper removes a pair of legs from its real-life counterpart to streamline its silhouette, and Quagsire is made up of some stumpy limbs coming out of a big round body, not in your face but very confident in its visual presentation.
When it comes to design, sometimes less is more, and the Wooper family represent this perfectly, taking the source materials and breaking them down into simple shapes to create a distinct and memorable identity. This is especially useful in Quagsire’s case for reaching out to a wider audience- giant salamanders, which it is based on, are pretty well-known in Japan but not so much for international players, but the efficiency of the Wooper line’s designs help to provide a sense of what they represent that transcends any cultural boundaries, as well as communicating a slice of Japan to the rest of the world.
And man, I just wanted to have these two on the page because they are so damn pleasant. Look at Quagsire up there, don’t you just want to give it a big ol’ hug?
Murkrow has always been one of my favourite Pokémon designs because of how flawlessly and efficiently it incorporates so much character into one tiny scuzzy bird.
I mean, look at that big silly witchy hat and the raggedy tail like a broom, all integrated unobtrusively and effectively through the use of colour and the repeated jaggedy shapes! The round body making these two big witchy elements stand out and create a striking silhouette! The big doofy head perched atop the awkward pencil-thin neck, with those sad red eyes popping against the black backdrop of this gangly bird’s face alongside that crooked beak!
All these conflicting visual elements are joined together by the uncomplicated silhouette and minimalist colour palette, and the end result is a design that is deceptively simple, loaded with so much Halloweeny charm and an endearing underdog quality. The spiky shapes contrasted with the big round head and body communicate that this scrappy bird is at very awkward but also means trouble, the perfect poster child for the Dark type, which is more of an underhanded “jerk” element than an “evil” one. Murkrow is a masterclass in how keeping things simple doesn’t necessarily mean a design can’t be complex, and how contrasting shapes can be used without being cluttered or crowded.
Dunsparce has always been a bit of an enigma for fans, and it is certainly an oddity- it’s a Normal-type with kinda terrible stats, doesn’t evolve into anything and according to its Pokédex entries all it can really do is dig and fly a little. A lot of folks assume Dunsparce is some kind of worm, or a weird pudgy baby dragon, but it’s actually based on the tsuchinoko, a legendary Japanese creature that is often treated like an elusive cryptid!
Dunsparce does a lot to bridge this cultural gap despite being a distinctly Japanese design- the doofy angelic wings and odd drill tail contrasted against Dunsparce’s round body invest this little guy with an element of mystery, even without any prior knowledge of its cryptozoological roots, giving the impression of some kind of fat snake fairy. The colours also serve to make Dunsparce pop in a really striking way, with the dark teal contrasting against the light yellow to give this design some real visual presence. What really sells this design is the face- those tired eyes and sleepy expression are so endearing, and that droopy face juxtaposed against Dunsparce’s subtle angelic vibes and mythological inspiration serve to make a very peculiar monster that is very much in on the joke told by its design.
Dunsparce is a real weirdo of a Pokémon that revels in being a complete oddity, with a lot of contrasting shapes and colours purposefully bouncing off each other to create a distinct and creative take on an already pretty odd animal. Dunsparce is also a reminder that not every design needs to be conventionally cool (like your Charizards or your Tyranitars, for instance), and a little injection of odd for the sake of odd into a narrative can really spice things up.
We’ll wrap up this design analysis exercise on another one of Generation 2’s oddest and most memorable designs, the delightfully peculiar Smeargle. Smeargle takes the image of a cartoon dog and runs with it in some really interesting ways, stretching the tail into a paintbrush and re-imagining territory marking as a much less gross and much more creative outlet for our odd little friend. The round shapes that make up this peculiar painter’s body serve to give Smeargle a soft and friendly vibe as well as place more emphasis on that tail, something that is also accomplished by the bright green against the canvas of light beige.
Smeargle’s design is odd enough, with its doofy face and unconventional silhouette, but something that invests this design with an extra degree of personality is its secret power- its only move is Sketch, which when used is permanently replaced by the last move used by Smeargle’s opponent. This allows it to use nearly every move in the game, a fittingly unique ability for such an unabashedly odd monster- Smeargle, the artist, is a canvas upon which the trainer can create any number of masterpieces.
Smeargle shows how radically a source material can be re-interpreted without losing the core of its design intent through clever use of shape and colour, and is a design that works hand in hand with the mechanics of the game to create an absolutely unforgettable creature.
So what can we learn from this selection of Generation 2’s monster design? What was the point of this whole exercise besides pure self-indulgence on my part? Well, one thing that all of these designs show is the importance of a clear focal point- there is one core idea that all these monsters represent, and against which all of the other design work towards or against. They play to their strengths and focus on one key angle rather than half-assing many at once, which is essential for creating memorable and cohesive designs and a very useful lesson to take outside of monster design.
Another thing we can take from these monsters is that taking risks and daring to experiment is essential for standing out and being remembered. All of these Pokémon designs commit 100% to the concept they try and convey. The most heinous crime a monster design can commit is compromising its initial angle, and similarly being afraid to rock the boat and compromising on your ambitions is a problem that I’m sure a lot of people can relate to (I know I can). Don’t be shy about what you can bring to the table- bring it loud and bring it proud! Be unashamed in what you can accomplish, and people will never forget you.
Go out there and take the lessons of Sudowoodo and Dunsparce into your hearts and minds!
Words: Umar Ali