Pokémon Type Rants: The Dragon Type

Lance had the right idea.

Written by ritabuuk and dubiousdisc
Posted on February 26th 2018

In Generation I, back when they didn't quite know what they were doing , Game Freak included the Dragon type in their first set of types. At the time, the Dragon type was, in many ways, the secret hidden type. There were only three Pokémon belonging to this type, all in the same evolutionary line: Dratini, Dragonair, and Dragonite.

Dratini from Pokémon Red and Green Dragonair from Pokémon Red and Green Dragonite from Pokémon Red and Green
The original sprites of the Dratini line from the Japanese Pokémon Red and Green
Poliwhirl fishing a Magikarp from a pond that also contains a Dratini
Poliwhirl will need to fish for awhile before managing to catch that Dratini

Out of the three, only Dratini can be found in the wild, and only by fishing in a specific location in the Safari Zone, where you cannot use your Pokémon and you can only throw rocks or baits or Safari Balls. Even if you get to see a wild Dratini, catching it is a whole different animal. And Dragonair and Dragonite are obtained by evolving Dratini at levels 30 and 55 - which, at the time, was the highest level needed to evolve a Pokémon.

So, back then, if you played Pokémon on your own and without a guide (and without fully deciphering the type chart in the manual), you might have gotten all the way to the Elite Four without knowing that the Dragon type exists at all. In that case, your introduction to this secret type would happen by getting through the first three members of the Elite Four and reaching Lance, who introduces himself as a Dragon-type master. And you'd go, what the fuck? What's the Dragon type? Oh no, I'm screwed.

Lance introducing Dragonair
Lance introducing his Dragonair

As part of his team, Lance has two Dragonairs and one Dragonite, which are certainly hard to beat; however, the fact that there are only three Dragon-type Pokémon in all of Generation I means that Lance has to fill in the rest of his six-Pokémon roster with other, non-Dragon-type Pokémon. And it turns out that Lance the Dragon Master decides for himself what is or isn't a Dragon based on his own personal metric, which has very little to do with whatever the Pokémon's typing is, and a lot to do with logic and common sense.

In retrospect, why exactly aren't these Pokémon actual Dragon-types too? If Game Freak already has a whole Dragon type, why not use it for these Pokémon that they are themselves acknowledging as looking undeniably like dragons?

Dratini using wrap on Charmander
Dratini: "I'm more of a Dragon than you'll ever be!"

Maybe it's because they wanted to keep the Dragon type as a later surprise, and couldn't spoil it with Charizard? Charizard being half Dragon type would also probably make it too overpowered and overly special compared to the other starters?

But then there are Aerodactyl and Gyarados. They are both already pretty hidden and merit being special within the game; why couldn't they be Dragon-types?

Seadra
Also not a Dragon-type

And what about Seadra, classified in the Pokédex as the "Dragon Pokémon" (just like the Dratini line), and which is based on the leafy seadragon? Nope, Seadra is... a pure Water type. What? Seadra is also relatively hidden, appearing primarily in the Unknown Dungeon or if you manage to find and evolve Horsea, which is also hard to get. Why couldn't Seadra be a Dragon-type? Maybe they invented Seadra before they invented the Dragon type, and forgot to go back and adjust its typing?

But alright, let's say that these choices were intentional, and all these Pokémon did not get the Dragon type just so that it could be unique to the Dratini line, and so that it can be extra rare to suit how powerful it is.

One of the reasons why we're calling it powerful is that the Dragon type has only two weaknesses: itself, and the Ice type. Also, Dragon-type Pokémon are resistant to Electric, Grass, Fire, and Water attacks, which is pretty much... all of the best attacks of your best Pokémon. Good luck fighting Lance.

Illustration of the Dragon Rage from the All Moves Encyclopedia
Dragon Rage, as illustrated in the All Moves Encyclopedia

However, for how much the Dragon type is presented as the coolest thing ever, in Generation I, there was only one Dragon-type move, and that was Dragon Rage, which deals a fixed 40 damage and is unaffected by type matchups. So, the entire thing that the Dragon type is weak against itself... is a complete moot point, because there's no Dragon-type move that could be powered up by type matchups.

Dragonair using Dragon Rage
Dragonair using Dragon Rage, which looks cooler than it is.

And 40 fixed damage isn't much. It could be useful at the beginning of the game, where 40 damage is still a sizeable chunk of most opponents' puny health bars... but the only Pokémon that can learn Dragon Rage in Generation I are Gyarados and the Dratini line - Gyarados at level 25, the Dratini line at level 40 at the soonest. So, by when they learn it, 40 damage is nothing. Also, you're not going to get Dratini until either the end of the game or the post-game, and Gyarados requires training a Magikarp, which might have not been your priority - and even if you went out of your way to get it at the earliest possible point, it would still be around the middle of your playthrough. So, Dragon Rage was especially useless in Generation I.

Adding insult to injury, in Generation I, Dragon Rage is also available as a TM, if you bother to get it from the Game Corner of all things. But why would you waste a TM to teach a Pokémon something that will stop being useful around level 30?

Illustration of a Pokemon card featuring Lapras, also with a Dratini swimming in the background.
Lapras and Dratini are buddies

It's more interesting to try to use it and see which Pokémon could learn it - notably, all of Lance's non-Dragon Pokémon can learn it, plus Arcanine and Lapras - pointing out that these could have also been Dragon-types. After all, Arcanine is one of those mystical guardian lion creatures that may or may not be considered a dragon. And Lapras seems to have been inspired by the Loch Ness Monster and could be seen as a dragon, sure.

Anyway, this is all to say that the Dragon type has always been fucked up. The existence of the Dragon type in Generation I for just the Dratini line and the move Dragon Rage mostly just highlights how strange it is that there are so many dragon-like Pokémon that are not Dragon-type. The type was made artificially rare against all logic, it was not fleshed out in the least, and it was presented as the coolest thing ever when, really... it wasn't. If you're looking for the overpowered thing of Generation I, go look at the Psychic type.

Illustration of the Psychic from the All Moves Encyclopedia
Mewtwo trouncing Dratini with Psychic, as illustrated by the All Moves Encyclopedia

Clearly something needed to be done to fix this.

Game Freak did a few things in Generation II to attempt to address problems associated with the Dragon type. They added three new Dragon-type moves - Twister, Dragon Breath, and Outrage - and all three of these moves do damage in a way that takes typing into account. They also added Kingdra as a new Water/Dragon-type Pokémon at the end of the evolutionary line of Horsea, we suppose as an attempt to rectify the situation with Seadra. Unfortunately, they only added this one new Dragon-type Pokémon, bringing the total to four.

Dratini from Pokémon Crystal Dragonair from Pokémon Crystal Dragonite from Pokémon Crystal Kingdra from Pokémon Crystal
All the Dragon Type Pokémon of Generation II
Clair with Kingdra and Morty with Misdrevus
Clair with her Kingdra (nevermind Morty over there)

At this point, if Lance had a team with one of every Dragon-type species available, he would still be two Pokémon short of a full team. However, exacerbating this problem even further, Generation II introduced the character of Clair, Lance's cousin who is also a Dragon Master and who has a similar flair for capes. She's the Gym Leader specializing in Dragon types. Now there are theoretically 12 party slots to fill, and only four distinct Dragon-type Pokémon (of just two evolutionary lines) with which to fill them. Oh no.

Lance saying something in Japanese next to one of his Dragonites.
We imagine Lance is saying something like, "Yeah, I've got three of these."

What they did is that Clair got to have three Dragonairs and a Kingdra (they're all blue to match her clothing), and Lance three Dragonites, plus the same dragon-like Pokémon from before: Charizard, Aerodactyl, and Gyarados. So... this is still really fucked up.

From then on, there started to be a shift. Generation III added nine new Dragon-type Pokémon. Some of which make us raise an eyebrow. Altaria, the bluebird of happiness, is somehow half-Dragon. Latios and Latias, which look like airplanes, are somehow half-Dragon. But, okay... From then on, everything and their mom was a Dragon-type. Generation V notably added ten Dragon-type Pokémon. Most of which were Legendary Pokémon. Now almost every Legendary is a Dragon, because Dragons are cool now, apparently.

Dragon-type Pokémon Clearfile
So many Dragon-type Pokémon!
Dragonair flying over the clouds
"It is said to live in seas and lakes. Even though it has no wings, it has been seen flying occasionally."

One other question we have regarding the typing of Dragon-type Pokémon is, why is Dragonite Dragon/Flying, but Dragonair pure Dragon? Is there any doubt that Dragonair also flies? It even says so in an original PokéDex entry. Maybe it is because Dragonite literally has literal wings that it literally flaps in order to fly, and Dragonair does more of a mystical dragon-like swimming-through-the-air sort of flying, with wings on its head that it doesn't actually need to flap? But then there's Rayquaza, which is also Dragon/Flying and doesn't even have wings at all, so that can't be it.

Gyarados and Dragonite on a postcard
Only one of these is a Dragon-type Pokémon

But, all of these complaints aside, you know what is the core of the problem here? That the Dragon type, as an idea, doesn't follow the same logic as the other types. Most of the other types are elements (Fire, Water, Grass, Electric, Ground, Rock, Ice) or properties (Normal, Fighting, Flying, Poison, Psychic, Ghost). What about the Dragon type? There's no Dragon element. Maybe it's a property? But then, what is the defining feature of a Dragon? Is it that it flies? No, that's the Flying type, and not all dragons can fly. Is it that it swims? No, that's the Water type, and not all dragons can swim. Is it breathing fire? No, that's the Fire type, and not all dragons can breathe fire. Is it that Dragons are extra magical? But all Pokémon are magical. Even Normal type Pokémon are magical monsters.

Just really, what is the Dragon property that Dragonite has but Charizard does not? What is the Dragon property that Dragonair has but Gyarados does not?

Charizard vs. Clair's Dragonair
Only one of these is a Dragon-type Pokémon

The problem here is that the Dragon type isn't an element or a property. It's not an adjective, it's a noun. "Dragon" is a category of creatures. It would be just as mismatched if there was a Cat type, or a Turtle type.

You may have noticed that in our list of types above we skipped one type that was also present in Generation I: the Bug type. The Bug type is similar to the Dragon type in this regard; however, the Bug type ends up making more sense than the Dragon type, because in Pokémon, it is consistently defined as the creepy crawly type of creature, including every buggy critter that has many legs. The Dragon type, on the other hand, is a mix of several different ideas, not defined consistently, and assigned (or not assigned) to Pokémon seemingly arbitrarily.

Steve
Know your dragons!

Even in the real world, dragons as a concept are not solidly or universally defined. There is the difference between western dragons and eastern dragons, and even within each category, the details of what a dragon is can vary wildly. Chinese dragons are sometimes described as having all of the attributes of the animals of the Chinese zodiac, meaning that dragons can look like pretty much any animal you want. Or maybe they're snakes with lion faces and bat wings. Maybe they don't have wings. Maybe they have six limbs. Maybe four. Maybe none. Maybe they are Steve.

Considered that Pokémon are mystical and magical beings, you could probably make the argument that every single Pokémon is a dragon. So, the existence of the Dragon-type just needlessly confuses matters that didn't need to be so confused.

Colorless Energy
Colorless Energy

In fact, the Pokémon Trading Card Game, in a stroke of (apparently unrecognized) genius, nixed the idea of a separate Dragon type and merged it with the Normal type into the combined concept of Colorless energy. Colorless energy simultaneously feeds from every energy and no energy. Perfect for understanding what is a dragon. It's everything, and nothing. We'll talk more about this concept in another article later, tackling the Normal type and its problems.

Essentially, the Dragon type should have never existed. If you eliminate the Dragon Type, all these problems of coherency and logic are immediately solved. And Lance can still be the Dragon Master and still do exactly what he does now: use a team of Pokémon he considers dragons regardless of their typing.

Lance riding on his Aerodactyl, surrounded by his Dragonairs, Dragonite, and Gyarados
When you are a Dragon Master and head of the Elite Four, you get to decide what a dragon is.

Notes

  1. We mean this in the best way possible. We'll probably write more about this in the future. Game Freak took it as a matter of pride that they were willing to throw away even the most established of video game tropes and attempt something new, without knowing if it would be a good idea or not, and see how it went. And, learning from that, go back and try something completely different yet. This is part of why Pokémon was so revolutionary and so fun. But also part of why Pokémon was so behind schedule and so full of mistakes.
  2. Though, we bet Rayquaza specifically is part Flying-type because it meant to be the Ruler of the Sky (compared to Groudon the Ruler of the Earth and Kyogre the Ruler of the Sea). Pokémon doesn't really have an element of Air, but Flying is the closest thing. So maybe Rayquaza being part Flying-type has nothing to do with how Rayquaza flies... but it still makes Dragonair's typing seem weird.

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