Interlude: The Pokémon Power Bracket – Round 2a
Unsurprisingly, the internet has failed to take my advice and tossed Mesprit, Raikou and Jirachi. There is still hope for my other picks, though, so let’s talk about the next round…
Arceus vs. Celebi
Okay, so, anyone who’s been paying attention will know that this part of the entry is a total sham anyway because I have an irrational vendetta against Arceus, but let’s pretend for a moment that I’m not horribly biased and talk about these two.
Arceus is a creator god. To say otherwise is to argue semantics. I don’t think Game Freak ever actually use the word “god” of Arceus, and everything they tell us is couched in “it is said that” and “described in mythology.” However, we do know from direct observation that Arceus can create complex life from nothing and imbue it with the power to rewrite the universe. This goes well beyond just “Pokémon are wondrous creatures from whom we have much to learn.” The problem is that Game Freak seem to hold two conceptions of Arceus simultaneously – as they do for most other legendary Pokémon, actually, but it’s most blatant for Arceus. There’s the mythical Arceus, who created Dialga, Palkia and Giratina in the void to bind space, time and antimatter, shaped the world with his thousand arms, and brought about the birth of life and the soul. There’s also the mundane Arceus, who is a Pokémon like any other, was born and will die, and is exceptionally rare and powerful but can be caught, befriended and trained. This latter Arceus – or a member of his species – may in ancient times have accomplished some fantastic achievement that inspired an early version of the creation myth, but he’s not actually the creator. When we capture Arceus and use him in battle, we’re clearly meant to have the mundane Arceus in mind. The problem is that Game Freak shove the mythical Arceus in our faces at every opportunity and readily provide us with apparently solid proof of his existence, while repeatedly failing to provide similar evidence for a mundane Arceus.
Celebi, by contrast, has done nothing more heinous than introduce the possibility of time travel into the franchise. I must emphasise that I think this was a bad idea, but at least Celebi has the grace to keep it low-key, unlike “now I shall unravel the universe” Dialga. Celebi’s role is to “watch over the forest from across time,” which I take to mean that she moves back and forth, always appearing in the right place at the right time to ensure that there have always been and will always be enough forests in the world to provide habitats for forest Pokémon and keep the earth’s climate in balance. Believe it or not, despite this potentially enormous power and this possibly vital role, she’s one of the legendary Pokémon who won’t give me too much of a headache at all if you capture her. She’ll just wait for you to die and then get back to what she was doing. She won’t even be upset about all those years spent waiting. She’s a time traveller; she’s not exactly in a rush. She’ll also let you believe that she can’t take anyone with her on her little time jaunts. Celebi is thus, surprisingly, one of the few legendary Pokémon who actually make total sense.
Can anyone say “forgone conclusion”?
My vote goes to CELEBI!
Kyogre vs. Darkrai
I’ve been trying for a while now to pin down what it is that I like about Kyogre, and I think I have it. Kyogre – like Lugia, actually – evokes one of the most mysterious parts of the known world, the deep ocean, and the fact that something like this could actually be down there and we wouldn’t know it. I mean, it seems very unlikely from a modern scientific standpoint, but a) most people are not modern scientists and b) it has been said, with a fair degree of justification, that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the deepest parts of the ocean. It’s a dark, forbidding, mysterious, wonderful place and you could hide some pretty massive things down there (as evidenced by our painful lack of detailed ecological data on giant squid) – Kyogre isn’t actually all that big, but he’s big compared to most Pokémon, and gives an impression of size because of his whale-like design. In short, Kyogre taps into a series of ideas and emotions that have held humanity spellbound since ancient times, and captivates us (or… well, me, anyway) in a way Groudon can never match. Darkrai evokes a similar place: the world of nightmares, a place most of us visit but few can remember in detail, where we are most often powerless against the whims of our own subconscious minds. Darkrai, fittingly enough, takes the shape of a spectre, vague and insubstantial, like a shadow in a dream. However, I take issue with Darkrai’s characterisation. According to the games, Darkrai’s nightmare powers are just a means of self-defence, meant to chase people and Pokémon away from his territory, and he actually hides himself away from others to protect them from his power. Now, this type of characterisation – the misunderstood noble pariah who is hated and feared by those he tries to protect – is fun in itself, but I don’t think it was the best use of the concept. First of all, I think Absol did it better. Second, it doesn’t totally make sense: he has these powers to keep people out of his territory, and he needs to keep people out of his territory to protect them from his powers. It’s like a bizarre, sadistic, evolutionary Catch-22. I actually prefer the way Rise of Darkrai interpreted Darkrai’s nightmare powers – the horrific dreams he sends are actually visions of the future, sent to warn people – because that evokes all sorts of wonderful old ideas about the purpose of dreams and the fearful nature of prophecy (again, this is sort of Absol’s schtick, but Absol experiences the visions herself while Darkrai inflicts them on others). The movie, of course, has problems of its own that I discussed in more depth a while ago. For today, my point is that I think Darkrai would be more interesting and have more potential if he were morally ambiguous, and that Kyogre has enjoyed a more flattering interpretation of his concept.
My vote goes to KYOGRE!
Mewtwo vs. Latios
I hinted earlier that I have problems with Mewtwo. Let’s talk about that, because there’s nothing I love more than complaining. In truth I don’t hate Mewtwo, but I think that his backstory invokes another one of those awkward tensions I like to natter about: Mewtwo’s backstory belongs to that class of moralising tales that characterises scientists as hubristic ivory-tower academics who overreach themselves in their single-minded quest for knowledge and are destroyed by their own creations (you all know the story; Jurassic Park is one notable example). This is all very well in itself. It does rather clash with the overall portrayal of science in the Pokémon franchise, which almost universally presents it as wondrous and beneficial, particularly as the Pokémon world’s technology is, in general, more powerful than ours and has fewer side-effects and drawbacks (this is hardly surprising coming from a company that makes its money out of the proliferation of ever-improving technology). This arguably provides opportunity for interesting conflicts, though. What really irks me is the more specific clash with fossil resurrection, which works on essentially the same principles as the science that created Mewtwo but is consistently portrayed as cheap, easy, risk-free and not at all ethically contentious. After all, it wouldn’t do to have the player forced to do anything shady to complete the Pokédex. Fortunately for Mewtwo, Latios is not guilt-free either.
As I mentioned the last time Latios came up, against Jirachi, my issue with the Eon Twins is quite different, and one on which I’m aware there are many who would disagree with me. I am of the opinion that legendary Pokémon should have legends, which add something to the background and general aesthetic of the whole Pokémon world. I hold this opinion because legendary Pokémon (with many notable exceptions, though Latios is not one of them) simply enjoy massive advantages over most mortal Pokémon, with superior stats and often with powerful type combinations and excellent movepools (I am making the tacit assumption here that we want the game to be balanced, an assumption which I am aware is not self-evident and does not seem to be shared by the game’s designers). In brief, I think that if legendary Pokémon are going to have these advantages, they need to justify them, and that if they are going to harm the game’s balance they should offset this harm by improving its background and lore. Latios does not do this. Latios’ characteristics are as follows: he understands human speech (most or all Pokémon implicitly do), he can outpace a jet (this quality is shared by a number of flying Pokémon), he can detect the presence of others through telepathy (a quality shared by a number of Psychic Pokémon), he dislikes fighting (so does Togepi), and he can create illusions. This last characteristic is interesting and a perfectly valid concept to build a Psychic Pokémon around. However, there is nothing in this list that requires ‘legendary’ status, ludicrous stats, Latios’ fundamentally obscene movepool, or the insanity that is the Soul Dew.
It’s funny, but the more I think about legendary Pokémon, the more they stick in my craw, so to speak. My arguments in this match-up have been broadly analogous to those I made in my shorter “Mew vs. Heatran” passage, so I suppose I ought to follow the same rationale in casting my vote: a problematic story is better than none at all…
My vote goes to MEWTWO!
Dialga vs. Giratina
Up until now, I’ve been judging members of trios primarily by the characteristics of their trios, but Dialga and Giratina are both members of the same trio – the one that infamously raised Pokémon to the level of deities and forevermore rendered the setting’s cosmology utterly incomprehensible. Nonetheless, I’m sure I can pick one of them to hate more. Quite apart from simply giving us the opportunity to capture and command celestial beings, Dialga and Palkia draw attention to one of the more egregious rifts in Pokémon’s conception and style: it keeps thinking it can be science fiction. Pokémon is not science fiction. Pokémon barely passes as science fantasy. This would not be a bad thing, except for the fact that it sometimes wants to be. Thus, we get Pokémon who are described entirely through myth in order to create ambiguity about what they can actually do (see my complaints about Arceus) but have power over extremely abstract concepts like space and time – did “space becomes more stable with Palkia’s every breath” really come from the commonplace campfire stories of ancient Sinnoh? I can in fact think of at least one ancient reference to time travel; Pythagoras – yes, the triangle guy – was said to have been able to move freely through time (I’m serious; it’s in a fragment of Aristotle), and many cultures have a mythic personification of time, so maybe this is more a problem for Palkia than Dialga. I will bet my copies of the Iliad and the Odyssey, though, that no ancient civilisation ever had a mythic personification of antimatter, which is what Game Freak have told us Giratina is supposed to represent. I don’t believe them; I think Giratina is the personification of death in the Pokémon universe and was quietly retconned when the designers began to wonder whether they’d gone too far. I mean, really. “It appears in an ancient cemetery”? How about “it was banished for its violence”? If Game Freak try to claim that isn’t a reference to the Devil, or some equivalent mythic being, I’m calling ‘Death of the Author’ on them. What would make the most sense out of this, though, would be to claim that Giratina was viewed by the ancients as a personification of death. This would make Giratina the only one of the trio to have a believable distinction between his mythic role and his actual powers, thus escaping (to a small extent, anyway) the trap that I spent Arceus’ section ranting about. Like Dialga and Palkia, he still occupies a ridiculously high place in the setting’s cosmology and it makes little sense for anyone to be capturing him in a tiny ball, but I’d regard him as slightly better done (even if only by accident). I also think Giratina has – and achieves – far better-defined aesthetic goals than Dialga; he’s meant to be creepy and he is, while Dialga looks like a robot space dinosaur and is meant to be… I don’t even know.
My vote goes to GIRATINA!