I’ll start this with a confusing admission: My favourite thing in the world is a trip to an aquarium. I could spend days gazing through the curved glass of a tank, watching sharks glide past me, pressing my hand against the smooth, white underbelly of a stingray, and taking note of the clownfish darting in and out of the swaying mass of a sea anemone. Aquariums are my happy place. They’re fascinating, beautiful, entrancing, and for a kid who grew up pretty far away from the ocean, basically magic.
So why do I dislike fish Pokémon so much? It’s precisely because they have nothing in common with those actual fish in an aquarium, or in the sea. Let me explain.
Back in 1996, we were introduced to the concept of Pocket Monsters — weird little animals that lived in tiny, portable cages, that would fight other Pocket Monsters on your behalf. Many of those Pocket Monsters were based on real-world animals, like turtles, butterflies, and birds.
In amongst all those real-life animals, of course, were fish — three fish, to be exact. Goldeen, Seaking, and Magikarp are the only fish-like beings on the Gen I Pokédex, although you could expand your definition of “fish” to include Gyarados (who is more of a dragon, if you ask me), the Horsea line (those are horses, duh), Shellder, Staryu, and Omanyte (those are shellfish), Poliwag (a tadpole), Tentacool (a jellyfish), Vaporeon (some kind of dog-mermaid), and Lapras (…dinosaur?). For the purposes of this article, I am talking solely about the fish-shaped fish, and I’m going to ignore all other marine and piscine creatures, okay?
Listen, Goldeen and Seaking are pretty cool. They’re based on ornamental fish like goldfish and koi carp, and having grown up with a koi pond, I’m quite fond of the sparkly little guys. As a result, they’re quite pretty, with their frilly little fins and orange-white-black colouring, but let’s be honest: They’re the Rattata of the sea. No one actually wants them for any reason other than to fill up the Pokédex. These fish are PC Box filler.
Now, you might argue that Magikarp is, in fact, the Rattata of the sea, but you’d be wrong — I’d argue instead that Magikarp is probably the most interesting fish in all Pokémon history (not that there’s much competition). There’s even a trope named after it: “Magikarp Power”, which is when a character or item seems completely useless at first, but eventually evolves into something great. And Magikarp keeps excellent company in this category: Chie in Persona 4, Donnel from Fire Emblem: Awakening, and even Exagryph from Hades are all the Magikarps of their respective games.
But it’s all downhill from Magikarp. I don’t think there’s been a single fish Pokémon that I’ve actually wanted in my party since then, and though many of the designs are cool — Relicanth, Mantyke, even the stupid-looking Arctovish — I just don’t care for them.
I put forward my hypothesis: That, of all the types of Pokémon (bird, dragon, humanoid) the fish ones are always the most disappointing. You think I care about the difference between Tynamo and Remoraid? I do not. You think I want to put in a ton of effort to catch and evolve a Feebas into a Milotic? No. Has anyone ever picked Huntail or Gorebyss as their favourite Pokémon? Probably not, right?
I know a lot of people aren’t keen on bird types either, and I’m inclined to agree that bird types suffer from the same boring “oh, it’s a bird” designs that fish types do. But bird Pokémon tend to appear early in the game, when you’ll take just about anything to beef up your party for the next gym, and so I have an attachment to them because they usually stick around long enough to grow on me. Fish Pokémon, on the other hand, require a fishing rod or the Surf ability, meaning that they usually start appearing in the games once I’ve already got a pretty solid roster of interesting and powerful Pokémon, and there’s no room in my heart or my party for a weak-ass salmon lookalike.
I don’t get it. The ocean is full of weird and strange fish, but when translated into Pokémon, they just seem so incredibly dull. But I think I know why they’re so dull — it’s because fish aren’t really very interesting on their own. They’re interesting together — the way they move, the way they interact, the wondrousness of the ocean itself as another world beneath the land.
Unfortunately, in Pokémon games, because we’re only ever on the surface of the water (except for Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire’s cool diving sections), we don’t get to actually explore the oceans like we do every other part of the land. Whenever we encounter fish in Pokémon, they skim along the waves and then jump out of the water to battle us. There are no swimming sections, in which we get to brush past schools of glittering Luvdiscs, or night-time bioluminescing pools courtesy of Finneon and Lumineons; it always feels as if we are forcing those fish to come to our world rather than visiting theirs and getting to see them behave, you know, like fish.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet was the first time I ever really saw fish behaving like fish — in particular, seeing a Dondozo come up to the surface from the shadowy depths. It was such a cool moment; a moment that implied a literal and metaphorical depth to these oceanic creatures that had previously just been an annoying hindrance as I tried to Surf from A to B.
So, Game Freak, if any of your designers are reading this: Let us explore the oceans in a future Pokémon game. Let us see fish Pokémon in their natural habitats. Give us seabeds blanketed with Staryu and Pincurchin, coral reefs crowded with Skrelp and Qwilfish, and solitary Arrokuda lurking in dark corners, ready to seize their prey. Let us appreciate fish the way we do in real life — not as lone encounters, but as a rich, colourful ecosystem.
Is your favourite Pokémon a fish Pokémon? Do you think birds are way worse? Did you like Ruby and Sapphire’s diving sections as much as I did? Give me your thoughts in the comments!
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