Pokémon Type Rants: The Ghost Type

How the Ghost type fully materialized over time

Written by ritabuuk and dubiousdisc
Posted on October 22nd 2018
Last Updated on October 24th 2018

In our first Pokémon type rant, we wrote about how Bulbasaur is ostensibly meant to be a primary representative of the Grass type, but it is actually half-Poison type for no good reason, just to confuse everything. In our second rant, we wrote about the Dragon type, and we discussed how weird it is that this entire type was originally represented by just one evolutionary line.

Put both problems together, and you get... the Ghost type!!

In Generation I, there were only three Pokémon belonging to the Ghost type: Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar.

Gastly line

None of them is a pure Ghost-type: all three are Ghost/Poison, because everything in Kanto is poisonous, even the ghosts. So, in Generation I, the Gastly line and the Ghost type have the same problem as with Bulbasaur and the Grass type: you can't get a sense for the Ghost type from simply playing the game, since the strengths and weaknesses of the Gastly line are impacted by the strengths and weaknesses of the Poison type.

Gengar intro
You don't know them yet, but there they are.

And just like the Dragon type, the Ghost type is represented by a meager three Pokémon, all of a single evolutionary line. However, while the Dragon type was meant to be super rare and somewhat of a secret, the Ghost type is heavily featured in Generation I. Even if you won't know what you're seeing yet, you will be teased with Gengar's existence before you even start the game: it's in the opening, fighting against either Jigglypuff or Nidorino.

GHOST: Get out... Get out...
Pikachu is scared stiff. (Screenshot from this Let's Play)

Then, the plot mandates that you investigate the death of Cubone's mother and the strange happenings at Lavender Tower. When you first arrive, the tower is full of unidentifiable ghosts crying for you to get out, and possessed Channelers wanting your blood and attacking you with these terrifying ghost Pokémon. So, you will definitely encounter and learn about the Ghost type as you play the game. Before you can make any progress in Lavender Town, you will need to obtain the Silph Scope that will let you identify the ghosts, and once you do that, you can catch a Gastly to add to your own team.

Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar are worthy additions to your party. However, if you were planning to use their Ghost-type moves to your advantage, you will learn that you can't. There are only three moves belonging to the Ghost type in Generation I:

  1. Confuse Ray affects the target with confusion. Which is awesome, but that's it. As a status move, it works exactly the same no matter which Pokemon uses it and no matter which Pokemon is the target. Only damaging moves have a damage calculation that takes type into account.
  2. Night Shade deals damage equal to the user's level, without doing any other calculations. As such, it is also unaffected by type match-ups (it's similar to what we wrote about Dragon Rage in our rant about the Dragon type).
  3. And then there's a move that actually does deal damage with the regular calculation! It's... Lick. In Generation I, Lick had a power of 20, making it one of the weakest moves ever. It does have a nice chance of paralyzing the target, but in terms of attack damage... that's pathetic. Plus, for whichever reason, the Ghost-type was treated as being physical, and so its strength is computed with the user's Attack stat... while Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar all had high Special but low Attack stats. So... this move was especially useless for the available Ghost-types in Generation I.

So, the Ghost-type Pokémon of Generation I (almost) can't use their type offensively. And there's only three of them anyway. And none of them are pure Ghost.

Agatha
Agatha is such a badass, she gets punk jewelry for her Arbok.

Remember how we previously talked about how Lance, the self-proclaimed Dragon Master, had a lot of trouble making a full team of Dragon Pokémon, and mostly had to fill in with Pokémon that looked like dragons, regardless of their actual types? Well, Elite Four member Agatha is ostensibly the Ghost-type expert of the game. However, since there are so few Ghosts, she kinda themed her party around being spooky instead. In Generation I, she had two Gengars and a Haunter, and then had to fill in the rest of the team with Golbat and Arbok. You could make a case that she's a Poison-type expert more than a Ghost-type expert: after all, three of her Pokémon are Ghost-type, but all of her Pokémon are Poison-type!

Gengar concept art
Gengar was one of the first Pokémon that Game Freak designed, and was clearly much beloved by them, so don't cut it!

However, unlike what we said about the Dragon type, we wouldn't propose cutting the Ghost type from Generation I. We can understand that, from the perspective of developing the game and needing to release it someday, considering Game Freak had made a whole part of the game centered around ghosts, cutting the Ghost type would require a massive plot rewrite. And that part of the plot was awesome, so don't cut it!

Also, even though it didn't get a chance to really shine until later games, the Ghost type itself adds a really interesting mechanic to the type match-ups in Pokémon. Notably, Ghost moves can't touch Normal types, and Normal moves can't touch Ghost types. Because if you're Normal, you can't see Ghosts, and if you're a Ghost, you can't interact with the Normal plane of existence. That's a cool idea, so don't cut it!

The actual issue with the Ghost type in Generation I is: why are there so few Ghost-type Pokémon anyway? And why are none of them pure Ghost?

Cubone handkerchief
Whoever decided to make this handkerchief is a monster. (scan from Pokescans)

Why are Marowak and Cubone not Ghost-type? The first time you encounter Marowak in the game, it is as a ghost. Both Cubone and Marowak wear skulls on their heads and wield bones as weapons, linking them with death. Canonically, the skull Cubone wears belonged to its deceased mother, and that's grim and badass . But the living ones you find are Ground-types. Not Ground/Ghost? Or pure-Ghost? Because honestly, why are they Ground at all? Because they're brown? Because bones come out... of the ground, if you're a dog?

This was so begging to be explored that, much later, in Generation VII, Game Freak addressed it by adding the Alolan form of Marowak, which is Ghost/Fire.

Ninetales and Gengar

Speaking of Fire, what about Vulpix and Ninetales? Ninetales in particular is said to have the power to curse people, and it is based on the kitsune, a fox spirit. Both Vulpix and Ninetales, however, are just pure-Fire. Considering this aspect of their concept, we'd imagine they'd be also something else. If not Ghost, maybe in Generation II, they could have been made part Dark type? But no. Eventually, in Generation VII, they added Ninetales' Alolan form, which gets to be part Fairy-type (but that's a rant for another time).

Jynx faints
Stadium was very hardcore with the animations.

Another potential candidate for being Ghost-type could have been Jynx (making it Ice/Ghost rather than Ice/Psychic). Jynx has the distinction of being the only Pokémon outside of the Gastly line that could learn Lick in Generation I (yes, not even Lickitung could learn Lick in Generation I). For five generations, Jynx was unable to learn any Psychic-type moves by leveling up. Also, until it unfortunately needed to be redesigned due to the Jynx controversy, Jynx had a face emerging from ambiguous darkness under its wig. When Jynx is defeated in Pokémon Stadium, it is animated as if it were evaporating away, leaving behind only the empty wig on the ground. That's pretty ghostly, if you ask us.

But, Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar are the only Ghost-type Pokémon we got in Generation I, and they are only half-Ghost-types at that. They are also half-Poison-types. But why? We have previously discussed how Bulbasaur, a Grass/Poison type, has essentially nothing poisonous about it. The same seems to be true for the Gastly line. The Generation I Pokédex descriptions talk about how Gastly is a gaseous being that can envelop you, causing you to suffocate or pass out. Not because it's poisonous, just because it's a creepy ghost wrapped around your face. In fact, looking at all the Pokédex entries of Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar, from Generations I through VII, there is only one single mention of poison, and it's in Gastly's Pokémon Crystal entry:

It wraps its opponent in its gas-like body, slowly weakening its prey by poisoning it through the skin.

...which sounds more like a desperate and retroactive attempt to make sense of it. Crystal seems to do this a lot.

But we don't believe the Crystal Pokédex, because... how exactly can Gastly poison anything, seeing how it doesn't naturally learn any Poison-type moves? Yeah, even as of Generation VII, none of the Gastly line can naturally learn one single Poison-type move, in spite of being supposedly Poison types. They can't even learn Poison Gas, which sounds like it was invented for Gastly in particular.

You know what Pokémon would have been a perfect candidate for being typed Ghost/Poison, rather than the Gastly line?

Koffing

Koffing, the Poison Gas Pokémon?

The only thing that we've got to explain the Gastly line's Poison type is that, in Generation I, the Poison type was kinda treated as the beta version of the Dark type - as the evil and corrupted type of all things that are bad. So, Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar might have been made part Poison just to highlight how scary they are. Then again, we could have believed that they're scary because they're ghosts, without them needing to be Poison too.

But, in practice, the only thing the Gastly line's Poison type does for them is... ruin them. Twice.

  1. The Poison type makes the Gastly line weak to Ground-type moves, which makes absolutely no sense at all. We can't imagine a floating ball of ectoplasm giving a shit about an earthquake, let alone getting double damage from it. In fact, Game Freak had to crudely rectify this oversight in Generation III by forcing Gastly and Haunter to always have the Levitate ability, which makes them immune to Ground-type moves. This, however, robs them of having a more interesting ability, as they get one that only exists as a "bug fix". And even there, Game Freak screwed it up, since they originally gave Levitate to Gengar, too, even though Gengar is more solid than its earlier forms, it has feet, and it stands on the ground. Yeah, maybe an earthquake would hurt it. So they later had to fix this other oversight, which was caused by fixing an earlier oversight, by making Gengar no longer have the Levitate ability as of Generation VII. Poor Gengar.
  2. The Poison type makes the Gastly line weak to Psychic-type moves, which contributes to how extremely overpowered the Psychic type was in Generation I. If Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar had been pure Ghost types, Psychic-type moves would have dealt neutral damage to them, rather than double. Coupled with the Gastly line's high Special stat , this means a pure-Ghost Gengar might have been a reasonable counter to Psychic-type Pokémon, as Gengar's high Special would have let it withstand some Psychic-type moves and allowed it to reply with its own powerful moves of other types. Ghost-type moves in themselves were completely ineffective against Psychic-type Pokémon in Generation I, but Gengar has plenty of other moves to use. Who cares about Lick when you can have Thunderbolt.

    Unfortunately, since Gengar ended up being half Poison-type, it's doomed against any Psychic-type move.

Alakazam and Gengar
In game logic, Gengar got its ass handed to it.

It has been speculated that perhaps Game Freak originally intended the Ghost type to be a counter to the Psychic type, but they somehow made a mistake and messed it up (it wouldn't have been their first and only error). Lots of side material related to Generation I refer to Ghosts as being the natural counter to Psychic types. It happens repeatedly in the anime, which frames the Abra line and the Gastly line as being bitter rivals: Ash gets Haunter in order to face Sabrina's Kadabra; the ancient Alazakam is locked in an eternal unwinnable struggle against the ancient Gengar. Even dialogue in the original games reinforces the idea that Ghosts should have been strong against Psychic-types. One trainer says, Psychic Pokémon "only fear Bugs and Ghosts." Of course. It makes sense, logic-wise, too. Because if you turn the overactive brains of the Psychic Pokémon against themselves, they can spook themselves out thinking about how scary bugs and ghosts are and - they - could - be - behind - you - right - NOW!

So maybe Game Freak meant for Ghost-type moves to be super-effective against Psychic-type Pokémon in Generation I, but accidentally made them completely ineffective. Even worse, since the only Ghost-type Pokémon of Generation I are Poison-type as well, they end up being super-weak to Psychic-type moves. Double oops.

Clair with Kingdra and Morty with Misdreavus
Morty with his(?) Misdreavus (nevermind Clair over there)

After this fuck up of the Ghost type in Generation I, Game Freak tried to rectify some things in Generation II. Exactly like with the Dragon type, Generation II added one more new Ghost, one Ghost-type Gym Leader, and more Ghost-type moves. Misdreavus had the honor of being the first pure Ghost-type Pokémon; it is based on the nukekubi, a disembodied screaming head from Japanese folklore. Morty was the first Ghost-type Gym Leader, who, unfortunately, had a pretty limited variety to his team caused by how few Ghost-type Pokémon there still were - he had just one Gastly, two Haunters, and a Gengar. (No Misdreavus?)

As for what concerns the new moves, Generation II added some of the most memorable Ghost-type moves ever, most of which have unique mechanics to them:

Nukebuki
No matter how much he chases the nukekubi, it is always ahead.

Also in Generation II, Ghost-type moves were made super-effective against Psychic-type Pokémon rather than ineffective, giving further support to the theory that Game Freak fucked up the Ghost type in Generation I.

Haunter, Gengar, Froslass, and Absol have a tea party
Which of these Pokemon is a Dark-type?

Generation II also added a whole new type, the Dark type, specifically as a counter for the Psychic type. Dark-type moves are super-effective against Psychic-type Pokemon, and Psychic-type moves cannot touch Dark-type Pokemon.

But what is the difference between the Ghost type and the Dark type, conceptually? The Dark type is literally the "Evil" type in Japanese, and it is associated with all creepy hellish things of the night. But what are ghosts, if not creepy hellish things of the night? Is Gengar, the Shadow Pokemon, not related to the darkness?

It is difficult to think of a Ghost that isn't also Dark, but we can see that not everything that is Dark is also a Ghost. Some Dark-type Pokemon are too corporeal to go through a wall. Maybe that's why the Dark type is separate from the Ghost type.

However, even gameplay-wise, the Dark type and the Ghost type are barely separate. Offensively, they are almost identical. Defensively, they are the opposite of each other. Overall, they are affected by the same types, but in opposite ways (Ghost resists Bug and Fighting, but Dark is weak to Bug and Fighting). The greatest distinction is that Ghosts and Normal-types can't interact, but Dark-types and Normal-types can.

Considering how much these two types overlap, as more Ghost-type Pokémon have been added, a new problem has become apparent: since the Venn diagram is such that Ghost-type Pokémon could potentially always be Dark-types as well, what logic is used to assign a particular Pokémon to the Ghost type and not to the Dark type?

Duskull
Seems pretty Dark to us.

Duskull is the perfect example. Introduced in Generation III, Duskull looks like a little grim reaper with a literal skull face, bones on the back of its black cloak, and the red orb of its soul peeking out of the eye holes. Duskull is a pure-Ghost type, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, it easily could have been a Dark-type. It's got pretty much the same design motifs as Houndour, and it's black, the color of most Dark-type Pokémon, and not purple, the color of most Ghost-type Pokémon, so Duskull confuses Denise all the time. Maybe Duskull is less corporeal than Houndour, which is why it is specifically a Ghost-type. But it would have been extremely reasonable for Duskull to have been dual-typed as Dark/Ghost.

Then again, Dark/Ghost is not a type combination to be thrown around lightly. At the time, a Pokémon with this type combination would have no weaknesses, as Dark and Ghost had the unique feature that one type's strengths covers the other type's weaknesses. Not just that, but this type combination results in a Pokémon with three immunities: Normal and Fighting from the Ghost type, and Psychic from the Dark type. That's a lot.

Sableye
Most ghosts aren't known to have digestive tracts.

Duskull is simply a pure Ghost-type Pokemon, maybe because being Dark/Ghost would have been too much. Except that can't be it -- another Pokémon introduced in Generation III did indeed receive this terrifying type combination: Sableye. However, we don't understand why Sableye is either Dark or Ghost type. Sableye looks like a purple goblin with gems for eyes. It is awfully corporeal for being a Ghost, and it's not particularly evil or scary. It lives in a cave and collects rocks and plays pranks. Clefairy does that, too, and Clefairy isn't seen as evil.

Rather than being Ghost- or Dark-type, we wish that Sableye could have been a Rock-type Pokémon. It eats gems, which become part of its body. Such a cool concept and fun design would have been a very welcome addition to the Rock type, which is mostly comprised of boring grey rocks with faces (plus the fossils). Maybe Sableye could have been Rock/Dark, if they really wanted to point out that it lives in the darkness. Or, if the Fairy type existed at the time, Rock/Fairy could have been a possibility (the Fairy type also kinda overlaps in concept with the Ghost type, but that's a discussion for another type).

And yet, even if it didn't really fit Sableye, Game Freak gave it this overpowered type combination -- but then they were chicken about it! Too afraid of Sableye becoming an unstoppable powerhouse, they felt the need to give it trash stats, making it too weak to make effective use of its cool typing. How bad? It gets surpassed by even Butterfree in stat total. What good is it to have no weaknesses, if you are so frail that anything can take you down? You don't need to have an obvious counter to Sableye, if essentially anything can obliterate it. Poor Sableye.

Spiritomb
What kind of friends does Game Freak think we have?

Learning from the failure with Sableye, Game Freak tried making a Dark- and Ghost-type Pokemon again in Generation IV: Spiritomb. And this time they went all out. This Pokémon is the amalgamation of 108 evil spirits, souls that committed misdeeds in the past, and each representing one of the 108 temptations of the Buddhist tradition. These evil spirits were bound to a stone as eternal punishment, and woe betide anyone who disturbs it. How do you summon this evil entity? By going in the Underground and talking to friends 32 times.

But still, Spiritomb makes much more sense for this type combination than Sableye, and Spiritomb has reasonable stats, making it actually somewhat scary in battle. We just... don't care about Spiritomb, though. It's a cool concept, but it looks kinda... flat.

In retrospect, another perfect candidate for the Ghost/Dark typing could have been Gengar. As the Gastly line evolves, it seems to become more solid. As previously discussed, there is nothing Poison about them, so, wouldn't it have been cool for Gastly and Haunter to be pure Ghost-types, and then Gengar could have been Ghost/Dark, strengthening its particular association with shadows and implying that it is now corporeal enough to interact with the Normal plane of existence? Ooooo, spooky.

This issue with the Ghost type overlapping the concept of the Dark type aside, over time, the representatives of the Ghost-type got more varied, especially when combined with different types entirely.

Shedinja
With a halo and all.

For one of our favorite examples, Generation III also introduced Shedinja. When Nincada evolves into Ninjask, it leaves behind its shed husk like a ghost of its former self, exactly like a cicada. In this case, the empty shell becomes a separate entity - Shedinja, a Bug/Ghost Pokemon. Shedinja has only one health point, since it is nothing but a fragile dead husk in search of a new soul, but it can only be hit by super effective hits - so Flying, Rock, Ghost, Fire, or Dark type moves. There's nothing else like Shedinja in Pokémon and it is very cool.

For a Ghost/Flying Pokemon, Game Freak came up with Drifloon, a haunted balloon. Drifloon seems very cute, but it carries unknowing children away to the afterlife. That's terrifying.

Drifloon
Murder in progress.
Rotom
In our opinion, nothing is more scary than the idea of a possessed lawn mower coming after you.

For a Electric/Ghost Pokemon, Game Freak introduced Rotom, a poltergeist that haunts your appliances. When Rotom is haunting the appliance, it has a physical presence, and so drops the Ghost-type and gains a type related to the appliance in question. For example, when Rotom is inside your oven, it becomes Electric/Fire.

Although the Ghost type is still one of the rarest types of Pokemon, over time, the number of new Ghost types introduced each generation has been trending upward.

Halloween is on the rise (hover your cursor over the chart for more information).

We like having more Ghosts, but it seems like the Ghost-type has been applied more... lackadaisically over time. Like, for the cool points, regardless of how much sense the typing actually makes.

Decidueye

For example, Decidueye, a Grass/Ghost Pokémon. It's an anthropomorphic owl which goes around in a leaf cloak shooting leaf arrows and being Robin Hood. We're not sure what any of this has to do with the Ghost-type. We wondered if it had anything to do with how owls are nocturnal and associated with death, and how they can fly silently like ghosts... but we checked the PokéDex, and there's nothing about any of that. The only thing any of the entries talk about is Decidueye's skill at shooting. They don't even mention if it can fly or not.

Why exactly is Decidueye a Ghost-type? Maybe we can compare it with its previous forms, which are not Ghost-types, in order to find the difference. Well, it can't be the owl thing, since each member of the line is an owl, and it's not like Decidueye is any more owl-like than the others - in fact, if anything, the opposite. Does it have something to do with archery? No, Rowlet and Dartrix also shoot leaves from their wings. Apparently Decidueye's power in particular is a reference to a legendary ninja technique of trapping someone by pinning their shadow to the ground. That's badass, but not specifically ghostly; that could have been a rationale for labeling it with the Dark-type or the Fighting-type as well. Not to mention that there is nothing ninja-like about Decidueye... Is it a Ghost-type because it has a cape, maybe? Or, no wait, it's the abs! It's pretty scary to see a shredded six pack inexplicably on the feathery stomach of an owl. Yeah, that's horrifying. That must be it.

No, it's because Game Freak wanted all the Generation VII starters to have a dual-type final form that also plays into a type triangle: Fairy, Dark, and Ghost. So, they were going to make something be a ghost, come hell or high water. They picked Decidueye, but they made no effort to actually make it be a believable ghost.

Oricorio
It's a Ghost because... it's purple?

Generation VII also introduced another bird that is a Ghost type and we don't know why. Oricorio has its Sensu form that is Ghost/Flying. It is based on a type of Japanese dance, but we can't find any information about why it would be related to ghosts or to death or anything like that. The PokéDex says that its elegant dance can summon the dead or curse you but, why? We are very puzzled. Is this a Japanese pun we aren't getting?

Then there are other Pokémon that are Ghost-types, and we can get why they are ghosts, but they are kinda boring. There are three whole Pokémon that are just haunted swords, and yeah, okay. There's a haunted sandcastle. Because buildings are haunted, why not a sandcastle? Why indeed. Pick something random to be haunted, and there you go.

In conclusion

The Ghost type had the roughest of starts: its core functioning was probably completely fucked up in Generation I, and there wasn't much of it - there were only three moves and only three Pokémon, and those Pokémon were all in the same line and not even fully Ghost at that. After Generation I, Game Freak evidently made it their priority to rectify these problems and give the Ghost type more than a... ghost of a chance. After all, it was one of their first and most beloved ideas, even if something got really jumbled about it. Over time, the Ghost time has grown into a full type with many different Pokémon of many different concepts. There are now enough of them that there are some that we don't like. It's a big development from how it started, with just Lick as its only attacking move.

Ghosts Ghosts
Scan from Pokescans

Notes

  1. The Generation I games treat some Pokémon species like singular mythic beings rather than a category of creature. Some Pokémon were described in a way similar to that of The Raven or The Coyote, in which they are characters and archetypes, and all living ravens and coyotes are expressions of this mythic archetype. In the case of Cubone, the story goes that its mother died, and then the child started to wear its mother's skull, and this was the mythic birth of Cubone and Marowak as distinct Pokémon species. And that's how all the infinite Cubones in the game wear the skull of their mother, even though that makes very little sense if you think of it literally. Sorry, we're having a tough time explaining this concept; we're having trouble finding the word that describes this phenomenon in folklore.
  2. In Generation I, Special Attack and Special Defense were unified and called Special. Side note, but, at the time, as a kid without the internet to look this up, Denise had no idea what this Special stat even meant. She thought it was a stat about how special that Pokémon was. So, Pidgey is not very special, but Mewtwo is very special. Makes sense.
  3. Generation VI added the Fairy type, and Dark Pokémon are weak to the Fairy Type. This means Dark/Ghost Pokémon now have one weakness, just to the Fairy type.

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