Without fail, a new Pokémon generation will bring with it a wave of criticism—the idea that Game Freak has progressively gotten worse at designing new Pokémon. I've noticed that folks who are critical of new Pokémon will typically point toward the original 151 Pokémon as examples of amazing, if not the best, Pokémon design.
I know this stuff is subjective, but: I'm here to tell you that these people are wrong. I'm here to tell you that thinking Pokémon designs are getting worse is nostalgia talking, and that it doesn't matter how the Pokémon are designed inasmuch as it matters is that these Pokémon are new. Not just new, but sometimes weird, sometimes strange, and unlike the original 151, actually imaginative.
First I'd like to give some props: the original 151 Pokémon, which were designed by Ken Sugimori, are dear to many of us. It's hard to argue against the coolness of Charizard, the elegance of Ninetails, or the endearing dopeyness of Psyduck. You probably have a favorite. Mine is Gengar: he is a mischievous ghost!
Just the same, there are some awful Pokémon in this batch. Voltorb and Electrode are freaking Pokéballs. Exeggcute is broken eggs. Broken eggs! Muk is a blob. And Jynx is a literal blackface Pokemon. Jesus christ.
Am I being nitpicky? Not any more than most people are with newer Pokémon, I don't think—the people who only focus on the inevitable bad ones while ignoring all the good ones. Just like any gen, the original 151 has its share of meh Pokémon, which is partially what makes all the praise for these designs seem baffling.
But most of all, my issue with the original 151 is that they're too analogous to creatures we're well-acquainted with in real life: the pigeon, the snake, the bat, the starfish, the dog, the cat. Just to name a few. There's nothing noteworthy about being safe when it comes to a design, I don't think. Though admittedly, there are some basic concepts that repeat from game to game: every generation will have a creature similar to Pidgey, for example.
Still, newer generations forced Gamefreak to get creative, to create things that made people pause, raise eyebrows, if not laugh at the absurdity of what they came up with. These reactions aren't a bad thing in my books, they're definitely preferable to something boring.
Generation II Pokémon designs were a babystep. There were many Pokémon that existed to complete the evolutions of previous Pokémon—pre-evolutions, most famously —meaning that their design was anchored in what was done before.
Some of these were better than the original: aesthetically speaking, Espeon and Umbreon are cooler than older Eevee forms (elements aren't as good as light and darkness), Steelix > Onyx (steel over rock!), and all the pre-evolutions are more adorable than their more-evolved counterparts. We also got cuteness like Marill, inscrutable Pokémon like the Unown, and the oddness of Shuckle. Elekid in particular is my absolute most favorite Pokemon. He's not Gen I.
Newer generations forced Gamefreak to get creative, to create things that made people pause, raise eyebrows, if not laugh at the absurdity of what they came up with.
Then came gen III, and things started becoming more interesting. Look at Ludicolo, the party Pokemon, look at the regal Gardevoir, look at the WTF-ish Nosepass, look at mysterious Solrock, look at awesome Metagross. All compelling, despite, like in Nosepass's case, possibly being silly. I mean, he's a rock with a giant nose.
What the heck is Ludicolo, exactly, or Metagross for that matter? Certainly more creative than your typical Pokémon, I'd say. What's the worst you can say about the awful designs in gen III? Luvdisc is a heart? I think that's kind of funny. Ultimately I look at the list in Gen III, and there's not nearly as many bad designs in here as there are in previous generations.
Gen IV marks where most people, in my experience, started to really dislike newer Pokémon. I can't help but wonder if this coincides with when people started to get tired of playing Pokémon games—that's another long-standing criticism, that Pokémon games are very samey. In doing so, they've conflated being bored with the game with being unimpressed with the Pokémon designs. Like looking for reasons to justify why you're over something, or looking for excuses to not try newer games.
To me, Gen IV is actually the highlight of the Pokémon designs. Is there a starter Pokémon that's more awesome, more badass than Infernape or Empoleon? I don't think so. Even the typically not-noteworthy starting area Pokémon are great, like the goofy Bidoof. This generation marked the first time that I sought out Pokémon based solely on how they looked instead of erring toward the statistically superior ones.
Admittedly, at this point the legendary Pokémon got kind of ridiculous. That's probably an inevitability if Gamefreak includes new legendaries in every game, though you can't help but wonder how legendaries in the future will be better than the ones we've got now. We've got masters of time and space now, holy cow. Guess Gamefreak better get creative in how new legendaries are designed, since compelling designs might be all that's left.
And finally we get to generation V, which includes the most perfect design of any Pokémon ever, Snivy. Look at that smug, smug bastard. I can't even list all the great designs in this gen—there's a knight Pokémon , a brocolli Monkey, a sarcophagus, a snowflake and so much more. You can see for yourself here.
But being that gen V is the latest generation, it's also the most prone to ridicule. The Pokémon that comes up the most has to be Vanilluxe, the ice cream Pokémon.
As if people don't love ice cream, first off. As if the absurdity of said Pokémon isn't what makes it so remarkable: oh my god, can we.... eat Pokémon? What does it mean, evolution-wise, when creatures start resembling man-made objects? It seems like a natural progression, after scientists were able to engineer Pokémon.I think it's fascinating, lore-wise, that this is the case—despite being incredibly silly. Funny how we can retain the nostalgia of childhood but not the sense of wonder or the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy something lighthearted.
There are other Pokémon in this generation that aren't very good, to be sure—like Amoonguss, a mushroom Pokéball Pokemon. But there aren't more awful designs in here than previous generations, and overall I'm glad the designs are getting better, if not stranger, sillier or weirder. It keeps things interesting.
We like to postulate that things are always getting worse, regardless of what it is we're talking about. I think it's more accurate to say that change feels scary to people. It's so much easier to hang on to the things we know, the things that comforted us in the past. I can't help but wonder if kids new to the series feel just as strongly about the new Pokémon as some of us might of the original 151.
There's stuff out there—in real life, I mean—that's completely batshit weird. Stuff that makes even the newer Pokémon look sane. Deep sea creatures are horrifying. What the hell is this alien mole? And lord knows what nature is doing when it comes to insects and arthropods. Frankly, there's too many interesting beasts in real life for an entire Pokedex of boring Pokémon like the original 151 to exist.
That, and, if nothing else, Pokémon designs are much better than Digimon designs. Get it together, people.