Last week while browsing a game store, I overheard two gentlemen talk about Pokémon Sun and Moon. They both seemed dismayed at the "lame" direction Pokémon designs had taken in recent generations.
"Pokémon used to be cool," one lamented, "but now it's – well, there's a sandcastle! Like, what the hell?" His companion agreed.
I just managed to stop myself from marching over to the detractor and tapping him on the shoulder like some evangelist who'd heard a sinner curse God's name. Yeah, sure, taken at face value, Sandygast and its evolution, Palossand, are weird Pokémon. But consider the lore for Sandygast:
"If you heedlessly grab a Sandygast’s shovel, you’ll fall under the Pokémon’s control. A Sandygast uses its power to manipulate children into gathering sand to increase the size of its body (…) The tunnel-like mouth of a Sandygast can suck the vitality from people and Pokémon."
That's metal. Someone at Game Freak sat down and said to themselves, "How can we turn something as common and innocent as a sand castle into a Pokémon that eats souls?" Think about that. Imagine living in Alola, a region that's surrounded by beaches. Sand castles and lost toys are part and parcel of every beach; here in the real world, we don't give them much thought. Alolans aren't allowed that luxury. They can't simply retrieve an abandoned toy shovel without hesitation because if they do, there's a chance that their soul will be sucked away by a sandcastle from hell.
This is the kind of world-building that's long kept me engaged with Pokémon and its lore. This series, beloved by children and adults alike, strikes a perfect balance between clean sunlit fun and crawling Lovecraftian horror. And in my opinion, Pokémon designs are every bit as engaging and imaginative in Generation Seven as they were in Generation One.
Putting aside the fact the original Kalos PokéDex has its own yawners (including rats, pigeons, caterpillars, and other wildlife any city-dweller can spot while walking through an alley), it takes a certain amount of guts for a character designer to say "Screw you, I'm making a Pokémon that's an ice cream cone." Vanilluxe, Trubbish, Sandygast, Kelfki, et al weren't born because Game Freak is "running out of ideas." These weird and wild designs exist with a clear purpose: To make you double-take.
It's not difficult to smush two or three cool animals together to make an even cooler animal. I'll be the first to admit Arcanine is my favorite Pokémon because it combines the most striking features of a tiger, a lion, and a Tibetan mastiff. It's visually perfect in every way. But you can't populate an entire PokéDex with these kinds of striking chimeras, because the impact lessens very quickly.
I've played innumerable Pokémon imitators on mobile, and few of them take design risks like possessed sandcastles and sentient ice cream cones. Instead, nearly every monster is a take on a dragon, a wolf, a big cat, or something else that's cool on a safe level. That's fine, but when everyone is offering dragon-wolves, there may as well be nobody offering dragon-wolves. I can't remember the name of a single monster from any of the Pokémon imitators I played, but I sure won't ever forget Garbodor.
Game Freak's weirdo Pokémon keep the competitive scene interesting, too. Oftentimes, the simplest-looking and / or stupidest-looking Pokémon boast a hidden power that makes it useful on the battlefield. Simply building a team out of the coolest Pokémon isn't an option because a with the correct strategy, a boring Pachirisu holding a Sitrus berry can fell a mighty Salamance wielding Draco Meteor.
You don't have to like trash bag Pokémon. You don't have fawn over Pokémon made from ice cream or cotton candy. But you owe Game Freak some credit. It has a plan for every ugly, unappealing, and seemingly misbegotten Pokémon it makes.