I’ve recently noticed more fans pointing Gatling guns at the shift in Pokemon art style. While the series is under fire for increasing chibi/kawaii themes in design, I’d argue that this has been present since the days of Ruby and Sapphire.
If you’ve hopped in here with a torch and pitchfork in hand, welcome aboard. Although, fair warning: I’m going to argue the shift in art style is natural.
Before we get there, I want to cover who the original artists were, their unique visions that often clashed, and why the art style will continue to change.
I heard a joke one time. In Japan, they take an existing creature and slap it with a few fantasy elements and call it a Pokemon. In America, we take that animal and arm it to the teeth with guns and call it a Digimon.
Of course, the Japanese have a rich background in the art of story-telling. Within that rich history lies the most elegant and extensive bestiary of ghosts, goblins, and ghouls still preserved in modern times.
The Japanese draw influence from endless Chinese superstitions and monstrous Hindu demi-gods. It’s an unfair advantage. Across the ocean, we simply can not compete!
I’d also like to highlight a fundamental difference in how Japanese companies operate. If a company truly believes in a concept, they will not relent in funding that idea until it comes to fruition. In America, we tend to use those funds to hire analysts, study charts and diagrams, and businesses tend to tread with more caution than innovation.
It’s like they say in sports. You can play to win, or you can play to “not lose”
I can understand Game Freak’s obsession with keeping a small staff. They operate much like a family, coordinating ideas and bouncing off one another to complete a product. In the past, it’s given the Pokemon franchise a unique art style.
Although, they’re going to have to overcome that obsession eventually.
It’s no secret that the art style of Pokemon evolved as Game Freak tampered with new hardware. Many early Pokemon renders featured simple color palettes and were designed with sharper edges to accommodate low pixel sprites.
The truth is that many of our beloved first-generation designs were created directly onto software with no sketches, blueprints, or models to stem from. As a result, many Pokemon lost some subtle features from their first-generation sprites.
Also, as a result, Ken Sugimori is often wrongly credited for having designed the full roster of the original 151. He drew watercolor reference images after the completion of the game. Partly because the upcoming Super Game Boy add-on and the infamous Game Boy Color required creatures to have color palettes. Partly because the Anime artists needed lifelike images to help form the basis of their series.
Fun Fact: Speaking of software limitations, did you know that most original “shiny” sprites were procedurally color-shifted? All of those ugly green shinies? They were just light brown Pokemon tossed into a generator and left to dry. All our blue water types? Yeah. The next color over happened to be lavender.
Ken was not alone in designing these creatures. He had two helpers and hired a third down the line. Someone I would argue was more influential than he.
So, let’s get to know these four noble ink samurai in-depth:
Speculation corner: With combined knowledge that he created Voltorb, Magnemite and Exeggutor, chances are that he designed Magneton, quite possibly all first-generation 3-headed ‘mons, and Electrode.
Alas! The King of Pokemon Art Style! The man may not have done everything, but he was still the bottleneck of monster design! Ken Sugimori was responsible for overlooking design templates and providing final touch ups – like changing Espeon from yellow to purple, or removing the fins from Vaporeon’s legs. He was the man who drafted the design philosophy of Pokemon as a whole.
What were those philosophies?
Ken Sugimori’s favorite Pokemon is Gengar, if that tells you anything.
The early days of drawing up Pokemon were quite different than when Red and Green released. The massive time-span of development for the two games were a blessing in disguise for Ken Sugimori. See, in the early stages of development, Pokemon were made specifically to replicate dinosaurs. The idea of creature types, weaknesses, and resistances was still in hibernation. Take a look at Rhydon, Nidoqueen, Lapras and Blastoise. Those are our leftovers from early development.
As time passed, Ken Sugimori grew as an artist. The Pokemon art style evolved. He wanted Pokemon to each have their own distinguished features. Ken Sugimori is often quoted for saying things like, “if a Pokemon looks too cool, we intentionally add something quirky to balance that” likewise, if something is too cute he breaks the design. On purpose.
In fact, Ken was so successful in his ideologies to make these creatures distinguishable, neurologists made a scientific breakthrough using Pokemon sprites!
More importantly, Ken wanted to ensure all Pokemon designs looked approachable enough to befriend – Even the villains. While Blastoise may look pretty fierce, he’s still designed for a game about children collecting bugs and making friends with animals. It was important not to make these Pocket Monsters look too tough.
Ken Sugimori is always referencing an argument he got into with other artists: They wanted Oshawott without the freckles he haphazardly penciled in. They said he looked better without the freckles, to which Ken replied, “He does look better without the freckles. He’s more memorable this way”
Fun Fact: Ken Sugimori also designed the first Pokemon. It was Rhydon. If you’ve ever wondered why the Kanto region had so many Rhydon statues, it was to pay tribute!
Somewhat late into development, Ken Sugimori realized his art style had a shortcoming. He struggled with making things cute. After all, he wanted a diverse roster that could appeal to a larger audience… and he kept twirling his pencil and landing on new variations of Clefairy.
So, he did something a stubborn man could not. He elicited help.
Speculation corner: Seeing Nishida’s evolutionary line of Dratini and Dragonair getting slapped onto someone else’s design explains why the final form looks so different!
Hiring Nishida may very well have been the best decision Game Freak has made in their entire lifespan. Her job was simple. Her role was to add a bit of feminine touch to designs intended to be cute.
She did so much more than that.
By the time Atsuko Nishida entered the picture, Pokemon were late into development. Pokemon designs needed to be functional. With each new project, she faced a handful of limitations.
“Create a version of this guy, but don’t make it look too tough. The trainer hasn’t earned tough yet.”
“We want a Pokemon that can evolve into multiple things. Try to make this look like these two images, but water type.”
“We came up with this idea for a new electric-type, make a cute one.”
Do you know what kind of results we usually get from Pokemon meant to be functional? When the boss says he needs a grass/steel type, we get Ferrothorn. We get Lumiere’s cranky uncle, Chandelure*.
Nishida had a gift. When the boss asked for a water-fox, she blessed us with Vaporeon – a Pokemon so successful that afterward she would be tasked with the creation of every Eeveelution in generations to come! When the boss asked for an electric rodent, she delivered a mascot.
It took Nishida almost two decades to admit to creating Pikachu.
When she finally showed up, she hid behind a giant Pikachu plush doll for the entire interview. She’s abnormally shy and thus difficult to find any information on.
During her interview about Eevee’s creation and Eevee’s evolutions? Yup. She hid behind a pile of Eevee plushies. She designed two-thirds of the Pokemon on expo, and was the star of the show! Still not enough to overcome her shyness.
In another interview, she told the reporter she wanted to move to rural Hokkaido because there were more beautiful horses and far fewer people.
Still, Atsuko Nishida’s art style is pure innovation.
If you want to know her inspiration, you won’t find it. During her interview about Pikachu, we only learned that she had an obsession with squirrels and enjoyed their twitchy, sporadic movements. She said she wanted to make a squirrel with little red dots on its cheeks – so it could store electricity in pouches like a squirrel would with acorns.
The name Pikachu? Pika is a Japanese onomatopoeia for a light clicking on. Chu is the Japanese word for mouse, so her design ultimately became a mouse for added wordplay.
What else does Atsuko Nishida like besides squirrels?
Ribbons. She LOVES slapping ribbons on things, especially in her newer designs. Cinccino and Sylveon are her work.
Again, it’s a bit of a sin that she’s only known for designing Pikachu. She did so much.
When reading about Morimoto, I always picture him sporting the garb of a traditional biker. Leather coat, bandana, studded collar.
He doesn’t. It’s unfortunate.
Morimoto gets in-game cameos all the time. He’s a secret end-game opponent generation after generation. He’s a great programmer. He ultimately designed the moves and their animations in their entirety during the early development days.
Of course, we’re here to talk about monster design. During generation 1, Morimoto only received credit for 6 Pokemon designs. So why is he so important?
Well, get ready to slap him in that biker outfit I mentioned earlier.
Morimoto designed Mew from the ground up. The sprite, the Pokedex entry, everything. He took his sweet time doing it, too. He completely missed the window of opportunity to include it in the game.
After extensive beta testing, the team cleared out a mere 300 bytes from the cartridge’s source code. They found some old debugging code that wasn’t necessary anymore.
300 bytes? Should be enough space to slap in a hidden creature that has nothing to do with the game, right?
Ha! What a legend.
He grabbed the staff and piled them into a room. His goal was to include a secret file for his fully developed creature that he’d worked on tirelessly. It didn’t serve a purpose. His goal was nothing more than to drop a little easter egg for him and his team to snicker over.
When Pokemon hit the shelves in Japan, it wasn’t a huge success. Not at first.
As word started to get around that a Pokemon named Mew hid in the bushes somewhere, kids started to go nuts trying to find ways to obtain the thing.
Did it really exist? Who knew?
A Japanese publication targeting elementary kids titled, “CoroCoro” was advertising the game. In one issue, they announced a special “Legendary Pokemon” offer where 20 lucky applicants would be gifted with a Mew injected onto their cartridge after mailing it in.
Once word of this competition got out, Pokemon carts were selling like hotcakes. Mew may have been the legend of Red and Green, but Morimoto is the legend of Game Freak.
He should be rocking a leather jacket, right? Ha!
Unfortunately, the press seems to have dodged this man like the plague. In terms of crediting his Game Boy creations, we can only track his involvement by stating that he designed Eevee, Jolteon, and Flareon.
Despite our limited knowledge, Fujiwara still shows up when the credits roll.
Unlike Morimoto, who was the design team’s hyperactive pinball, Fujiwara was solely credited for monster design. When tasked with creating a Pokemon who could evolve into multiple different creatures, he had an idea in his mind. He wanted to create something plain yet oddly distinguishable. In his words, he wanted to design a creature you feel like you encountered deep within a forest as a child, but can’t quite remember what it looked like, or even if it were real.
Is it a fox? No. Not quite. Is it a cat? No. That can’t be it.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s Eevee!
Motofumi Fujiwara’s Eevee design was a little more fierce than the face we’ve grown to adore, and Sugimori provided Eevee with a much more mild face for future games. This brings me to a major point:
These artists always worked as a team. No single person can be held responsible for every adjustment to a Pokemon’s weight, or every tuning of a Pokemon’s height. Someone may have suggested that Blastoise needed chubbier cheeks or a shorter neck.
I get a strong impression that Fujiwara focused on touch-ups and designed back angles for trainer views. I’d like to provide more distinct information, but for every plush doll Nishida hides behind in an interview, Fujiwara calls in sick or schedules a fake appointment.
What can I tell you with certainty?
Fujiwara handled some critical refinement tasks to help clear the floor for our other artists to shine. It isn’t the most prestigious job to take on, but it’s the most responsible. I can respect that.
Fun Fact: Fujiwara was also a pretty big deal when it came to illustrating the TCG cards.
Many of the features we see in modern Pokemon design perceived as simplified were experimented with as early as generation 2. Of course,Gold and Silver also housed at least 30 leftover designs that didn’t make the original cartridges. So the change in design philosophy is… camouflaged.
In Ampharos and Hoothoot, we see nubs for arms. These two also highlight another major change in style.
Jagged lines on fur (meant to assimilate realism) were already losing traction. These lines were substituted with smoother bodies and more deliberate thematic markings – such as rings.
Baby forms further simplified Pokemon already designed to be cute. While there may have only been a handful of babies, these forms became a marketing highlight for the new breeding mechanic added to the game.
Legendaries such as Ho-Oh and Raikou took on an experiment of their own, featuring clashing color palettes to help accentuate the idea of being legendary.
Still, for the most part, Pokemon retained a simplified color scheme similar to first-generation models, and models retained some aspects of rugged lines seen in early Pokemon models.
Generation 3 took these art experiments and made them the base of all creations. Jarring color combinations, a trend toward round eyes – not quite making them obscenely large and cutesy yet, but the trend had begun. Simplified appendages, rounded bodies.
Bi-pedal humanoid Pokemon hit an all-time high.
Call me old fashioned, but when a Pokemon seems like something you can chill on the couch and share a beer with it can be a bit creepy.
I know… I know, there’s still Jynx, Machamp, Hitmonchan, and Mr. Mime. Notice how none of our four artists stepped forward to claim any of them yet? Those were poorly-received. Somehow, after all these generations, the design team hasn’t learned their lesson.
Maybe we proved the opposite by showing favoritism to humanoid designs like Gardevoir.
Anyway, back on point…
The early days of Pokemon featured only four artists.
With such a compact team in the early days of development, it was easier to keep a uniform look throughout the designs. Every team member had a distinct role. Each artist passed their creations on to the next.
There was an equation.
Ken Sugimori drew up some flashy new monster. Atsuko Nishida penciled in a baby form for it. Fujiwara pointed out a few traits that seemed out of place, and they altered each design several times before it took on its signature Pokemon aesthetic.
Times change. More artists meant more influences. As technology improved, the team found that single poses of Pokemon wasn’t sufficient anymore. Each Pokemon needed multi-angle, multi-pose blueprints to derive from.
A growing staff also means more people who need to memorize a core design. Even with four tightly-knit artists, they made mistakes. Imagine the impact as staff increased.
THe Pokemon art style saw it’s biggest shift in Diamond and Pearl. Generation 4 featured an overabundance of features per design. The idea of simplicity became a clear afterthought. Many designs were cluttered. Horns began popping up in obscure areas of the body in senseless ways. Ambipom featured an awkward triangle nose.
More importantly, generation 4 began modeling Pokemon after animals with jobs or professions rather than mythical creatures. The trend would only intensify as seals would become opera singers in Sun and Moon.
But make no mistake, it started in Diamond and Pearl. Empoleon was a penguin personified as lord Poseidon, Torterra is the fabled world turtle, and Infernape took the form of Sun Wukong.
Infernape also became the second fire-type starter in a row I could crack open a beer with on guys’ night out. Then came Emboar.
Do you see what I’m getting at?
“Yo, Greninja! My parents are out on vacation this weekend. Party at my place?”
Generation 6 intensified large round eyes.
Generation 7 art attempted to lure old fans back in by blatantly milking fandom toward first-generation creatures and redesigning them. The attempt was ultimately an out-of-touch cash grab. A failure, at best. It merely made the changes in art direction infinitely more pronounced to the audience they were trying to target.
Look… you can’t fool me. Galarian Rapidash is just an old photo James Turner had sitting in his closet from his brony phase. Most of our Alolan forms are just a handful of Atsuko Nishida’s designs saturated in 100 extra coats of Kawaii.
Top that off with the fact that only first generation ‘mons are getting a new coat of paint.
That’s when the community begins to crack.
I don’t mind the new Pokemon art styles. I really don’t. With a growing team, it only makes sense that styles will shift. The problem is that Game Freak ultimately tries to over-correct these changes causing ripples to form among the fans.
Game Freak, we need to talk. Quit trying to do what you think we want. The Pokemon art style is writhing in agony. The original designs in Sun and Moon were top notch! Lurantis is one of my favorite Pokemon designs! What we want is for you to stop pandering to different sections of your audience.
We want you to go back to the brilliant ideals you held in your early development stages. We want you to go back to being you. Nothing more, and nothing less.
… And for the love of Arceus, if you’re going to craft Pokemon into drummers, warlocks, and soccer players… Could you at least put them back on four legs?