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Happy Pokémon Day! Let's Examine Team Skull's Crushing Poverty

Want to play a game with grown-up messages about death and how much it sucks to be poor? Give Pokémon Sun or Moon a try.

Analysis by Nadia Oxford, .

Pika pika! A Joyous Pokémon Day unto thee! On this day in 1996, Pokémon debuted on the Game Boy in Japan. It was a small fad, obviously. Burned out quickly. You know how fickle kids are.

The Pokémon Company has a ton of great stuff lined up in celebration. Pikachu is dressed up for the occasion in Pokémon GO with a festive hat, the Pokémon TV app is marathoning some Pokémon movies, GameStop is giving out Bottle Cap codes for hyper-training in Pokémon Sun and Moon – and that's just a start. Visit the official Pokémon blog for a run-down of all the cool goings-on.

The Struggle Between Rattata and Yungoos in Pokemon Sun and Moon is a Neat Bit of World-Building

Alola, Yungoos, and Dark-Type Rattatas: A tale of fragile ecosystems that's based on the real world.

The celebrations are so happy and sunny that I feel obliged to apologize to The Pokémon Company for something: I no longer associate the games with child-friendly adventures and candy-colored monsters. Pokémon Sun and Moon forever changed how I look at Pokémon games. I doubt I'm the only adult who regards the series with a kind of heavy-hearted respect, either.

I'm not saying the Pokémon series' emotional depth is a bad thing. Neither am I saying it's "secretly so dark!!" because its PokéDex contains entries involving dead mothers, dead humans, and stolen children (okay, but the PokéDex does go to some insane places).

Rather, if you're willing to listen, the series has some pretty poignant things to say to its older fans. I'm still impressed at how Pokémon Sun and Moon uses a bunch of Eevees to narrate a scenario about the ache of growing old and dying.

Sun and Moon makes it obvious to me the series has irrevocably grown up. It's made crystal-clear through the antics of the game's Rented Villain Squad™: Team Skull.

Team Skull and its leaders, (ya boy) Guzma and Plumeria, strike a perfect thematic balance. For kids, their incompetent antics and flailing movements are hilarious. Actually, anyone of any age can appreciate the sight of two Team Skull grunts attempting to steal a bus stop sign by throwing a whole bunch of nonsensical gang signs at it. I sure won't forget it any time soon.

But older players quickly penetrate Team Skull's thin façade and see them for what they are: Insecure thugs who lack family, friends, and role models, and will therefore eke out a sense of belonging from whatever questionable sources will stretch out a hand.

They're also poor. Very, very poor. And, as a consequence, desperate.

That bus stop is saying "Help meeeeee" in a thin, reedy voice no-one can hear.

What makes Game Freak's portrayal of Team Skull so masterful is how the laughs don't stop even when things get dark. One hard-up member of Team Skull tells you he'll take a Hyper Beam to the face if I'd give him 10 bucks. He doesn't stop his exaggerated gestures as he gives his schpiel, either. It's hilarious and terribly sad and I'm a monster for grinning while thinking back on the scene.

The jokes admittedly dry up a bit when you visit the compound Team Skull lives in. It's a high-walled, filthy place covered in graffiti. The Pokémon Center is broken-down and lacks electricity (the grunts running the place will heal your Pokémon for a small fee). There's a guy who just stands on one of the burnt-out cars and looks up at the rain – suitably, like a turkey trying to drown itself. He never moves, and he never talks to you.

Only Guzma's room appears remotely comfortable, though it's decorated in the garish tastes of someone who fancies himself a king. Also, the arms of his elevated chair "look to be they've been slammed countless times by angry fists."

On Axe of the Blood God, Kat once mentioned that Team Skull's compound, which is officially named Po Town, looks like the kind of place that cooks and distributes the Pokémon word's equivalent of methamphetamine. I concur (and I imagine one of the ingredients is PokéBlocks).

The Pokémon games' battle system is formulated to appeal to its adult fanbase as well as young newcomers. It's good to see Game Freak is applying that same careful balance to the games' narrative as well. I very much look forward to what comes next.

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Comments 11

  • Avatar for rifflesby #1 rifflesby A year ago
    They aren't just poor, they also see themselves as failures because they're all kids who flunked the Island Challenge. Their bluster is overcompensation and barely-concealed self-loathing. Poignant af.
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  • Avatar for Tetragrammaton #2 Tetragrammaton A year ago
    Also! The game heavily hints that Guzma's father was abusive, just look at the golf clubs in his family home. The BENT ones. And don't forget his room with its line of bronze trophies and ONE silver.

    Plumeria really interested me. Her room in the manor was nicely kept and had an assortment of plushies. She's also one of the champion contenders in the postgame. Is she the idea that someone who hits rock bottom can start working their way up?
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #3 nadiaoxford A year ago
    I forgot Team Skull is made up of Island Challenge dropouts. I also forgot that Guzma's father beat the crap out of him with golf clubs (which is apparently stated a little more blatantly in the Japanese text). Well, that adds a cheerier spin to everything!
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #4 Vonlenska A year ago
    Team Skull are just the best. Appreciate the self-plug, too. Just this morning I was lamenting the lack of articles on Jewish representation in SEGA games and Pokemon's exploration of mortality in my life, and lo.
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  • Avatar for vincentgoodwin88 #5 vincentgoodwin88 A year ago
    I really love that derelict Pokémon Center in the Team Skull town. It's a nice touch to take something so familiar & safe as a Pokémon Center and desecrate it and make it feel unsettling.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #6 Roto13 A year ago
  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #7 SIGGYZtar A year ago
    OMG. Team Skull may be depending on Fivver as a source of income. Remember how in older games and RPGs they let you donate money to a cause? Surely a few Pokeyen their way wouldn't hurt.Edited February 2017 by SIGGYZtar
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  • Avatar for Mixingmetaphorsoup #8 Mixingmetaphorsoup A year ago
    @Tetragrammaton Yeah, I got that vibe from Plumeria as well. That and the fact that she's less overtly "evil" and more just protective.
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  • Avatar for Tetragrammaton #9 Tetragrammaton A year ago
    @Mixingmetaphorsoup I hope Stars expands on her, she's an underutilized character right now. Lillie's development gives me hope that we'll see an arc for her, or at least a compelling motivation/backstory.
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #10 nadiaoxford A year ago
    @Mixingmetaphorsoup It's interesting to note Plumeria has a Crobat, which can only evolve through friendship.
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  • Avatar for EvilRed #11 EvilRed A year ago
    Even though they might be overlooked by most players, I love the subtle, tiny details they put in the game just to add character:
    - Guzma's home has a tiny swing on the yard ("he used to be a sweet kid, you know?")
    - There are 2 Wii U Gamepads on Team Skull's house.
    - There's very specific dialogue for when you lie in someone else's bed (for instance, Kiawe's bed smells of sweat).

    Another sad story: find Kiawe after the game ends.
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