Posted on April 20th 2020
Back in the days of playing Pokémon Red and Blue on the playground, us kids noticed that there was something of a strange treatment of the Grass type in the games. At the start of the game, you are presented with the choice of one of three starter Pokémon: a Fire type, a Water type, and a Grass type. These elemental types form a triangle, with Water super-effective against Fire and not very effective against Grass, Fire super-effective against Grass but not very effective against Water, and Grass super-effective against Water but not very effective against Fire. This elemental triangle is presented as being of critical importance, with the evolutionary lines of the starter Pokémon forming an important trio.
But then, elsewhere in the game, this particular triad of types... is not really emphasized.
The Legendary Bird Pokémon of Kanto are Articuno, Zapdos, and Moltres: an Ice-type, an Electric-type, and Fire-type. No Grass-type.
In Generation I, Eevee was unique in that it has a branching evolution; you could expose Eevee to certain elemental stones in order to spur it to evolve into one of three different final forms: a Water-type, an Electric-type, and a Fire-type. No Grass-type.
There are three Pokémon that seem to fill a particular niche in the game as single-stage humanoid elementals. They are Jynx, Electabuzz, and Magmar: an Ice-type, an Electric-type, and a Fire-type. No Grass-type.
The triad of Water/Ice, Electric, and Fire types seems to have been of great importance to Game Freak. These elements do not form a type triangle of being super-effective and not very effective against each other in the same way as the Water, Grass, and Fire-types are, but this trio of elements are a known video game trope arising from Dungeons & Dragons. The developers at Game Freak were likely directly inspired by their love of Final Fantasy in particular, and decided relatively early in development to feature these elements in their game, showcasing them in the Legendary Birds, the Eeveelutions ✽, and the Jynx, Electabuzz, and Magmar trio.
Yet, it always seemed off to us kids somehow. Why shouldn't there be a Grass-type Eeveelution? The Grass type seems like a critically important type to have an Eeveelution. After the discovery of Mew, in our fervor for discovering more secret Pokémon hidden in the game, we all tried using the Leaf Stone on Eevee, but to no avail. Instead, we were just left to our own imaginations, and pretty much everyone drew what they thought a "Leafeon" would look like. By the time the canon Leafeon was added in Generation IV, it was so belated and obvious as to be completely underwhelming.
Similarly, a lot of us felt that there should be a Grass-type Legendary Bird. Denise saw such fan designs less often than "Leafeon", but there was a whole Team Rocket's Rockin' sprite competition with the prompt to design what an assumed lost "Fourth Legendary Bird" would look like, and a good chunk of the submissions were designed to be Grass-types.
As for the single-stage humanoid elementals, some fans used to desperately associate Tangela with Jynx, Electabuzz, and Magmar to thereby fill the perceived Grass-type void. However, Tangela is not really the same as the others. For one thing, Jynx, Electabuzz, and Magmar are all in a line in the PokéDex, with Tangela several spaces away. Jynx, Electabuzz, and Magmar all gained a baby evolution in Generation II, which are likewise all in a line in the National PokéDex, implying an association between them again. Meanwhile, Tangela has not been given a matching baby evolution at all. ✽ Additionally, Tangela does not seem to have been designed with the same core idea as the others, which are humanoid elementals. Tangela is much less humanoid than the others, and it is less of a personification of its type. Also, one feature that Jynx, Electabuzz, and Magmar share is that they each learn their respective elemental punch move: Ice Punch, Thunder Punch, and Fire Punch. But Tangela doesn't have arms to punch with, and, in fact, as of Generation VIII, no analogous "Leaf Punch" move even exists.
So, in the Generation I games, the Grass type seems like it should be important and featured... but for some reason, it isn't really. It's actually pretty neglected in terms of representation, with Tangela as the only purely Grass-type Pokémon, and all the others dual-typed.
The Pokémon Array and Period Theory
In the Generation I games, there is a data structure that keeps information about the different Pokémon in the game. You might be imagining that this Pokémon array starts with Bulbasaur and proceeds in PokéDex order down to Mew, but nothing could be further from the truth. This array starts with Rhydon and ends with Victreebel, isn't arranged in any way that corresponds to evolutionary lines, and even contains skipped spots and other stuff that aren't even Pokémon (like the sprites for the unidentified ghost or the fossils viewable in the Pewter City Museum).
There is evidence to suggest that this array is actually more or less in the order that Game Freak invented the Pokémon's designs, with the oldest surviving ideas at the beginning of the array, and the eleventh-hour designs at the end. Game Freak at some point had 190 Pokémon planned and at least partially coded in the game, but then they needed to prune down the list due to memory constraints - and apparently, they did so by simply deleting entries in the array. The blanks were left with the error Missingno. or reused to store some other sprites merely for convenience.
Denise has been thinking about the theory that the Pokémon array gives insight into Game Freak's design processes since way back, and she has been putting her own ideas together for an article on Copy Cat for ages. But, she's the first to admit that she's very slow about this sort of thing, so the draft of that page has been in the works for like, at least four years. In the meanwhile, this theory has been adopted widely by the fandom, and stellar folks like those at The Helix Chamber have been devoting a whole group's collective insight and research into investigating this array, with special attention on finding out what scrapped idea each of those Missingno. maybe used to be. They have a lot of information from various leaked sources that they were able to piece together into a very enjoyable read, with some more recent updates here (and while we will try to write this article so that it stands alone, we do recommend you read the Helix Chamber articles as well).
When reading The Helix Chamber's theories, we were particularly interested to see where our own thoughts about the Pokémon array lined up, and where they differed. Most excitingly, reading The Helix Chamber analysis gave us some new ideas on the development of the Generation I games that we would like to elaborate on and share here on Staircase Spirit. With the memories of the weird un-featured-ness of the Grass type in the back of our minds, we came up with our own theory about what might have happened.
The gist is, we think the Grass type was to some degree a last-minute addition to the game. We also think that the concept of having three starters in a type triangle came very late in development, and that the two things are connected.
The Helix Chamber divides the Pokémon array up into what they call "periods". The Pokémon from each period seem to have different ideologies behind their designs. Some of these periods might have been divided by literal hiatuses Game Freak took from Pokémon during its almost ten-year development, and other times might be from a major shift due to a breakthrough in the game's concept.
Through this discussion, we'll be including sprites and artwork from the Japanese Red and Green Versions, as these will be some of the oldest iterations of the Pokémon designs, to fit with this discussion of their conception. Where possible, we will include scrapped concepts based on the Helix Chamber's findings as an animated gif, alternating with the finalized Red and Green sprite (which most often is Missingno.). Note that for many scrapped designs, all we have currently are the back sprites, or a partial front sprite, or a blurry image we can't quite make out... though it's frankly amazing we have anything at all, heh. For scrapped designs that we only have back sprites for, but which also ended up also appearing in the SpaceWorld demo, we opted to use those front sprites, so that we can see front views wherever possible.
Period 1: Before types
Game Freak didn't always have the idea of elemental monsters in mind for their game. In fact, it was only partway through making the first games that they came up with the idea. The Helix Chamber speculates that these designs from Period 1 were made well before Game Freak thought of Pokémon having types - so "types" probably were not a consideration at all when they designed any of these early monsters. They just tried to come up with monsters that would be cool for their game.
A lot of Pokémon that would eventually become Grass-types are from Period 1. That would mean that, during their design process, Game Freak was not thinking of creating Grass-type Pokémon, but just inventing cool monsters that just so happened to have some plant-like features. Only at some later point would these designs be retroactively considered representatives of the Grass type. Instead of thinking of elements, Game Freak's inspiration for these Period 1 monsters came from kaiju, Ultraman, and concepts from their favorite video games.
We think one of Game Freak's major inspirations was the movie Godzilla vs. Biollante, which came out in 1989, right around when Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori first started development on Pokémon. In the movie, Godzilla's opponent, Biollante, ends up being created by scientist Dr. Genshiro Shiragami, who initially wanted to develop hardier crops by genetically modifying plants using cells from Godzilla. His experiment is destroyed by a terrorist attack on the laboratory, and his adult daughter Erika is killed in the explosion. Grief-stricken, Dr. Shiragami retires and splices his daughter's DNA into a rosebush as a memorial. It is implied that Erika's consciousness lives on inside the rosebush, since a girl with psychic powers can faintly hear her voice calling from the plant. Later, after an earthquake, the rosebush is damaged and starts to die, so Dr. Shiragami tries splicing in Godzilla's cells to make the last remaining rose immortal - accidentally creating Biollante, an unstable hybrid of his daughter, Godzilla, and a rose. First Biollante grows into a giant rose, known as its "Flower Beast" form. Godzilla is compelled to seek out and destroy this abomination that was created from its cells. Although Godzilla defeats the Flower Beast, Biollante returns again as a more monstrous, vine-covered "Plant Beast" form, challenging Godzilla again, but ultimately dying and unleashing its spores - and Erika's consciousness - into the sky.
Apart from having probably influenced Mewtwo Strikes Back and Mewtwo's Origin, Biollante and each of its forms could have been part of the inspiration for the Period 1 designs of Ivysaur and Tangela in particular, adding evidence to the idea that Tangela was designed separately from Jynx, Magmar, and Electabuzz, and that, in fact, Tangela was not originally conceptualized as having a type to embody at all.
Also from Period 1, there are Exeggcute and Exeggutor, who probably weren't thought of as evolutionary relatives yet (we're not convinced that Game Freak fully conceptualized Pokémon evolution at this stage of development). The Helix Chamber puts forth an interesting theory that Exeggcute and Exeggutor, created around the same time as Voltorb, may also have been initially designed as as a twist on standard JRPG mimics. Perhaps you would find a bird's nest, but when you inspect it, the eggs would attack! And maybe there would be a beach-like location where the very palm trees might turn out to be unexpected enemies! That's a cool idea, and it sounds on par with Game Freak's other quirky ideas.
So, all of these these Period 1 Pokémon that eventually became Grass-types could easily have been designed without needing to have the idea of there being a Grass type, or any types at all.
Period 2: Types? Types!
At some point during Period 2, it seems that Game Freak came up with the idea of adding some sort of typing to their monsters. We can argue about which monsters might have been designed with a clear type in mind, and which would get a type only in retrospect, but we think we can safely say that Game Freak had at least some vague idea of Fire, Electric, and Ice in mind by partway through Period 2 when they were designing Magmar, Electabuzz, Jynx ✽, Moltres, Articuno, and Zapdos.
However, it is possible that in Period 2, what would be considered "types" were a very different idea than what they ended up being in the final game. Game Freak seems to have been most focused on designing Pokémon that would specialize and embody the use of a particular stat, status ailment, or category of move rather than a particular element. In this set there is Machoke who could have been designed as a monster that favors the Attack stat, versus Kadabra, who in contrast utilizes the Special stat. There's Chansey who is the embodiment of Health Points, and Graveler who specializes in Defense, and Diglett, a living whack-a-mole, to represent Speed. In terms of status ailments, Drowzee could have been designed around the status ailment of Sleep. Perhaps Psyduck was thought of as a monster that could Confuse. And we'd be really surprised if Koffing wasn't designed around the idea of inflicting Poison. Maybe the literal Fire, Electric, and Ice types didn't exist yet, but Magmar, Electabuzz, and Jynx could have been designed as creatures that would Burn, Paralyze, and Freeze. Many of the Pokémon of Period 1 ended up having very wide, generalist movepools, but the designs of Period 2 seem to have been made with the intention of focusing on specific moves. Hitmonlee and Hitmonchan could have been invented along with the kicking and punching moves, respectively. Mr. Mime would be the specialist of barrier-like moves, and Arbok that of wrapping moves.
So, maybe at this point in development there were the beginnings of the Psychic type, the Rock type, the Fighting type, the Poison type, the Fire type, the Electric type, and the Ice type... but then again, maybe not in any form that resembles what we know from the final game.
If there were types at this point, there are some types that we don't think were in mind for Game Freak yet, despite some Period 2 Pokémon eventually being assigned to those types.
First of all, we don't think there was a distinct Water type, despite the presence of Psyduck, Seel, a scrapped squid-like design, and a scrapped shark-like design from this part of the array. We suspect that Water was initially treated as the same type as Ice. The Eeveelutions would seem to have been conceived as another trio of Electric, Fire, and Ice, but in the end Vaporeon became a pure Water-type. Besides, even in the finished Generation I games, the Water and Ice types are not very differentiated, with lots of Pokémon of either type learning moves of both types, and meaning that we personally can never seem to remember which Pokémon are Water/Ice vs. just pure Water.
Also, although Dragonite was designed in Period 2 (and a hypothetical "green dragon" had been in discussions since the beginning of development on Pokémon), it is unlikely that there was a distinct Dragon type in Game Freak's minds at this point. And, despite the presence of Parasect and Venonat, The Helix Chamber also speculates that a distinct Bug type was probably not in mind yet.
And, we think, there wasn't any inkling of a Grass type yet.
The only design from Period 2 that made it to the final game as a (part-)Grass type is Parasect. The Helix chamber in the past speculated that, given the extreme scarcity of Grass type Pokémon in Period 2, maybe the Missingno. gaps in this part of the array represented Grass-type designs that didn't make the final cut. But, with new information about the identity of those scrapped designs, that does not seem to be the case - there only is one that The Helix Chamber suspects of maybe being a Grass type, called Cactus. As of this writing, the Helix Chamber now speculates that, during Period 2, Game Freak looked back on Period 1 and realized a lot of designs could belong to their newly conceived Grass type, and so they didn't focus on inventing many new Grass-type Pokémon at this point in development.
We instead think that there was no Grass type yet at all. Even if at this point Game Freak was starting to think of types, they might not have needed a type specifically for the plant-like designs of Period 1, and Parasect and Cactus could have been designed with different ideas in mind.
First, Parasect. We theorize that Parasect didn't get its final typing of Bug/Grass until much later in development. The Helix Chamber speculates that, since there probably wasn't a Bug type yet as of Period 2, maybe Parasect was originally a pure-Grass type. It seems more likely to us that Parasect was designed without a type at all, but as being the specialist of status-ailment-causing "powder" moves like PoisonPowder and Spore, and "claw" moves, like Cut and Slash. But, if Parasect did have a type before the Grass type was invented, perhaps it was a Poison type, representing the corruption of a parasitic fungus on the host bug.
Then the scrapped Pokémon design called Cactus. We bet it was designed around the prickly pointy multi-hit spiky moves of Generation I, like Spike Cannon and Pin Missile. To be honest, even though its name is literally Cactus... maybe it's just the low-res picture, but we can't even tell what it really looks like. It seems to have bird feet holding up a pile of spiky balls and... is the backsprite showing a tail? A tentacle? Besides, just because its name is Cactus, it doesn't mean that it is also literally based on a cactus. If you only followed that logic, going by their Japanese names, Beedrill would be based on a spear, Articuno would be based on a freezer, and Vaporeon on a shower. Magnemite's Japanese name is Coil and it doesn't even have a coil in its design at all! All this to say, Cactus may have not even been conceptualized as a Grass type.
If our theory is right that Game Freak got the idea for types out of thinking of gameplay mechanics such as stats, moves, or status ailments, we can easily see which types would have been born out of which mechanic. As we said earlier, Burn, Freeze, and Paralyze easily gave rise to Fire, Ice, and Electric. The Confuse ailment and the Special stat gave rise to the Psychic type. The Attack stat and the design for the Machop line gave rise to the Fighting type. The Poison ailment gave rise to the Poison type.
This theory would explain why Pokémon has so many weird types that most other games before didn't have, like Poison and Fighting.
But the Grass type doesn't really have an associated gameplay mechanic, so, if we're right about its late appearance, this might be why. Without an obvious starting point like the Poison ailment for the Poison type, Game Freak didn't have the spark to invent the Grass type yet.
We also doubt that at this point Game Freak looked back on their designs from Period 1 and decided that a Grass type was needed. At that point, Ivysaur, Exeggutor, Exeggcute, and Tangela may have still been monsters that just so happen to be plant-like, without needing their own type. After all, it's not like these four designs create an obviously unified group that screams for the Grass type. They're pretty heterogeneous - as it is to be expected, given that they were designed separately from each other and based on whatever struck Game Freak's fancy in the early stages of development.
If Period 2 was the point in which types were starting to be retroactively assigned, and if the Grass type wasn't there yet, what were the first ideas for the types of Ivysaur, Exeggutor, Exeggcute, and Tangela? Except for Tangela, all these Pokémon ended up being dual-type, so it's not hard to imagine that their other type was Game Freak's first idea. Ivysaur could have been a pure Poison type, Exeggutor and Exeggcute pure Psychic types... and Tangela maybe was just a Normal type, since the Normal type is anyway the grab bag of all the monsters that Game Freak didn't make a specific type for.
Period 3: Evolutions
In Period 3, it seems Game Freak was finalizing the concept of Pokémon evolution. At this point, whole evolutionary lines appear in the array in the order in which they evolve, implying that the whole evolutionary line was being designed and added to the game at the same time.
It seems to be during Period 3 that Game Freak added items that would interact with Pokémon, such as evolutionary stones and fossils. The Pokémon of Period 3 seem to have been created together with these new mechanics. Looking at this part of the Pokémon array, we can almost feel the excitement of their breakthrough. We can hear them say, Yes! The Fire Stone will make this little fox age hundreds of years into a majestic kitsune immediately. Oh! Oh! What if we had a creature that you could choose how it evolves based on which stone you use? Yes!!
Similarly to the Pokémon array, the array of item names seems to also follow the order in which Game Freak invented the items. The Moon Stone appears to have its origin as a much earlier idea, but then the Fire Stone, Thunder Stone, and Water Stone appear all together, followed a bit later by the Dome Fossil and the Helix Fossil. It's only further down the list that the Leaf Stone appears. Based on this ordering, the Helix Chamber speculates that the Leaf Stone did not exist during Period 3. The Helix Chamber thinks of it as, because Game Freak didn't think to invent a Leaf Stone yet, they didn't bother making any Grass-type evolutions during this item-focused phase of development.
But what if Game Freak didn't think to make a Leaf Stone because there was no concept of a Grass Type yet? If Game Freak was inventing stones left and right, why would they seemingly blank out and forget to make one for the Grass type, too? It makes much more sense to us to think that they didn't do that... because they had no Grass type in mind at all.
Period 4: Adding evolutions
Most of the Pokémon of Period 4 are evolutionary relatives of earlier designs from Period 1 and 2. The only exceptions are Snorlax, which Game Freak designed specifically to serve as a gameplay obstacle ✽, and Mewtwo, which, even early on, was thought of as the "final boss" of the game.
In Period 4, the only new Pokémon that would end up being Grass types are Bulbasaur and Venusaur, serving as the evolved and unevolved forms of Ivysaur from Period 1. It seems that the primary motivation for designing Bulbasaur and Venusaur was simply part of this wave of filling in evolutionary lines for the earlier designs. There is still no clear evidence that the Grass type existed in Game Freak's minds at this point of development.
Important to note about the design process of Bulbasaur in particular is that, not only might it not have been thought of as a Grass-type Pokémon, it most likely was not designed specifically to be a starter Pokémon either. The entire concept of starter Pokémon was a very late idea which went through several iterations before arriving at the concept we know from the final games. Because we see the Bulbasaur line here in Period 4 without Squirtle and Charmander, we think that the entire Bulbasaur line was designed independently from the concept of a starter Pokémon.
The Helix Chamber notes that in the leaked information from an early prototype version of the game, many Youngster trainers had Bulbasaur on their team. In the published versions of the game, it is uncommon to see trainers with one of the starter Pokémon on their team, since starter Pokémon are special.
Keep in mind that, in the original games, the beginning of the player character's adventure is radically different from how it would be presented in later Pokémon media. Everything that came later was influenced by the Pokémon anime's version of this part of the plot. In the anime, kids who are ten years old go to Professor Oak to pick their first Pokémon between Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle. Most trainers in Kanto start their Pokémon journey like this, and this event is akin to a coming-of-age ceremony.
But this is not how it goes in the original games. In the Generation I games, Professor Oak is a renowned Pokémon professor on the verge of retirement. He invented the PokéDex, which requires extensive field work to be completed, but he says he is not able to take on such a task himself. Instead, he asks his grandson and his young neighbor to go on an adventure on his behalf. Since it's dangerous to go alone, Professor Oak gifts both children with the choice of a rare Pokémon from the last of his personal collection. This was a special, personal thing that he did just for these two children he knew. Professor Oak's goal is to fuel a love for nature in the younger generation, a motivation which is at the core of what prompted Satoshi Tajiri to create the Pokémon games in the first place. What Professor Oak does here is not part of a ceremony of any kind like in the anime, and there's no starter Pokémon kennel that provides Professor Oak with as many Bulbasaurs as needed to equip every ten-year-old child in Kanto.
It would be weird, then, if many Youngsters also had Bulbasaur. After Game Freak decided on Bulbasaur as one of the starter Pokémon, they went back and edited the Youngsters' rosters to no longer have so many Bulbasaurs, in order to keep it more special. Either the specialness of starter Pokémon changed dramatically during development, or else Bulbasaur was not originally thought of as being a starter Pokémon when it was first designed. If the second option is true, it seems that Bulbasaur earlier had the role of being a relatively common low-level Pokémon, akin to Rattata. The fact that Rattata was created later in Period 5 lends some credence to this idea - if Bulbasaur is no longer so common, something else needs to fill that role.
The Helix Chamber also notes that, despite being among the last additions to the game, the Bellsprout and Oddish lines "are among the most common Pokémon in their respective versions, populating most of the eastern routes of Kanto", suggesting they replaced what was earlier a common Pokémon in these areas. In line with the Youngsters' rosters, perhaps this previously-common Pokémon in eastern Kanto was Bulbasaur, which then needed to be replaced.
Period 5: Final Ideas & Starter Pokémon
By Period 5, the game was almost finished. These are presumably the very last ideas added to the game before its release, and the driving inspirational force seems to be achieving game balance. For example, Game Freak seems to have thought to add Aerodactyl at this point so that the player could revive more than just one fossil in the same playthrough. Period 5 also features the introduction of more Pokémon designed after basic animals, such as the Rattata line, to have some more common Pokémon in contrast to the rare creatures inspired by myths, which they already had in spades.
What we find most interesting here is the end of Period 5. So close to the finish line, Game Freak invented the Charmander line and the Squirtle line, in an entwined sort of way.
We don't fully know how the development of the opening scene of the game went, except for the fact that Game Freak tried many different things before arriving at the final idea of the player getting to choose one of three starter Pokémon. Based on Charmander and Squirtle's positions in this array and some other clues, this is our theory of how this beginning sequence of the game was developed.
At some point during development, we think it was decided that the rival's first Pokémon would be Charmander. Ken Sugimori has revealed (with translation by Helix Chamber) that the rival character was at one point designed to be specifically a Gyarados trainer named Gyarao. This makes us think that the dragon master that you would fight at the end of the game would have therefore been your rival. It seems, at some point, this concept was split into two characters and developed further: one of them becoming the head of the Elite Four, the seasoned dragon master Lance; the other becoming your rival, a kid of your same age who sets out on his journey at the same time as you. We can speculate this split happened because the protagonist of Pokémon is a child, so why would the rival be an adult man who is inexplicably mean? The adult characters in Pokémon are inspirations and teachers. The rival should be someone that a child can relate to, someone very much like the protagonist, yet with their differences serving as an important foil... and he's a little jackass that you totally want to beat.
Given the rival's history as a dragon master, it seems Game Freak at some point wanted his starter to be Charmander, which eventually becomes Charizard. Note that dragon master Lance also has a Charizard on his team. Even after the start of the game changed, it looks like Game Freak still thinks of the rival's quintessential Pokémon as being Charizard. There is a plethora of early side illustrations by Sugimori in which the rival appears with Charmander or Charizard (including that one).
We think the idea was that the player's first Pokémon should be the newly-designed Squirtle, the Water-type counterpart to the rival's Charmander. This would let the player start with an edge on their rival.
But, after making a whole game where you can nickname every Pokémon you catch, and where each player can choose their team from a roster of so many, what fun is there in having your first Pokémon set in stone?
We imagine that, at this point, Game Freak considered letting you choose between Charmander or Squirtle, and whichever you don't pick, the rival gets. However, in this scenario, if you pick Squirtle, you have the upper hand against your rival, and the beginning of the game is easy. But if you pick Charmander, you are at a disadvantage against your rival, and the beginning of the game is hard. What sort of choice is that? This wasn't supposed to be the difficulty setting, this was meant to be picking your best friend. This shouldn't be a situation where those gamer assholes write a game guide that says, "strategically, you should always pick Squirtle".
Game Freak needed some way to ensure fairness in this choice at the beginning of the game so that, no matter what the player picks, battling against the rival's starter Pokémon would have the same dynamics. This is impossible with only a choice between two. What about having three choices instead of two? In that case, there should be another evolutionary line that can be chosen at the beginning of the game, one that should be strong against Charmander, but weak against Squirtle.
And what is weak to Fire but strong against Water? Something that is combustible. Grass is combustible. And grass grows with water...
We think this thought process is what led Game Freak to invent the Grass type. With the realization that this new type was essential to the game balance of the beginning of the game, we imagine they hastily went back and retyped all of their plant-like designs as this new Grass type, and chose the three-stage Bulbasaur line as the Grass-type starter. Besides, Bulbasaur conveniently matches Squirtle and Charmander in design, since it's also an amphibian-y reptilian-y critter.
In the end, it was decided that, no matter what the player picks, the rival picks the starter with the type advantage against your choice. This also helps to drive home the characterization of the rival as an ass, and the difficult battle that follows impresses on the player why they want to beat this ass. The player chose their best friend, and the rival made their choice thinking only of beating the player. This is the core theme of the game. We think Game Freak eventually made the right call on how to tackle this scene.
So, our theory is that the Grass type owes its existence to the starter Pokémon mechanic, and not the other way around. This would explain why the type triangle of Grass, Fire, and Water is really only featured at the beginning of the game: it's not that Game Freak invented it and forgot to put it in other places in the game, it's just that the type triangle was invented specifically for the purpose of the beginning of the game, after the rest of the game was almost complete, and they had no time to go back and make such drastic changes.
It must already have been a pretty big upheaval to add the Grass type retroactively. If the Grass type was added very late in development, that would explain why there was no time and no space to think about adding a Grass-type Eeveelution or a Grass-type Legendary Pokémon. It also would explain why all Grass-type Pokémon are dual-types, with the sole exception of Tangela. We think that the second type of all those Pokémon that eventually became Grass was originally their main type, with the Grass type being tacked on later. So, the Bulbasaur line would have only been a Poison type, owing to its origin as a creature of mad science and corruption. Exeggcute and Exeggutor would have only been Psychic-types, as strange many-headed creatures that confuse and outsmart you. For Paras and Parasect, we suspect Game Freak was really reaching for any more representatives of this new type, so, uh, mushrooms are kinda like plants, uh, they're Grass types now. We think Game Freak, in their usual style, did not consider the full implications of this change, because the resulting Bug/Grass combination is... not good. As for what concerns Tangela, we think it used to be a Normal type, so it could be retyped as pure Grass.
It makes then perfect sense that the last Pokémon that appear in the array, after the starters, would be the Oddish and Bellsprout lines, possibly together with the addition of the Leaf Stone. We imagine that the rest of Game Freak rushed to the desk of Pikachu's designer, Atsuko Nishida, at approximately 11:55PM the night before the homework is due, and they requested more planty creatures, quick! And so Oddish and Bellsprout were made with the speed and the skill of a samurai. Maybe at the same time while Morimoto was hanging from the ceiling sneaking Mew into the game. No one saw him, because they were all busy admiring Oddish and Bellsprout!
So, now that we have this theory, as good scientists, we need to try to disprove it. We're trying to think of what evidence there could be that the Grass type is not a late addition to the game.
Let's look at other things that relate to the Grass type. What about Erika, the Grass-type specialist? If Erika was invented as the Grass-type Gym leader from early on, this hypothesis that the Grass type was a last minute addition would be overturned.
Sugimori has shared some early official art of Kanto's Gym Leaders; Erika is already there, so the look of her character was not designed at the last minute. However, it is possible that she existed from an early on during development, but at some point was revamped with a new specialty. This wouldn't be too weird for Game Freak - for example, it seems pretty solid that Giovanni was at some point planned to be a Flying-type specialist, with his Gym battle team consisting of all Flying-type Pokémon, and with his feather-shaped ✽ badge being named the "Green badge" (matching the color that Japanese culture associates with the wind).
In looking this up, we came across an interesting theory that specifically posits that Erika may have also gone through a specialization change during development. The primary clue is that Erika is one of the few trainers whose sprites got adjusted between the original games and the Generation I enhanced version Pokémon Yellow. The only other characters to get a revamp were Brock, Misty, and the rival character, so as to make them look more like their anime counterparts. But what about Erika? Her change is more subtle: now her yukata (summer kimono) is wrapped so that it crosses left over right.
This is an important detail because, in Japan, right over left is customarily how a body is dressed for a funeral. This isn't just an oversight in the pixel art or some unfortunate mirror-flipping accident - her early artwork clearly shows her kimono crossing that way, too. As a Japanese man, Sugimori knew what that meant, and designed it that way.
Also, Erika seems to have been originally planned as the 5th Gym leader, and Lavender Town is marked as the 5th town on an early map. Might this have originally put Erika's Gym in the same town as the cemetery full of Channelers and ghosts? This would not have conflicted with Agatha, who at an early point in development had a more generalist team. So, maybe Erika was originally a Ghost-type Gym Leader. All this puts the Generation I official art of Erika in a new light: rather than demurely tossing her PokéBall with her eyes closed, what if she's a possessed corpse and that PokéBall is levitating over her cold, dead hands!
Also, we know this article is getting long, but remember the plot summary of Godzilla vs. Biollante from a million words ago? Reading memory test: what was the name of the mad scientist's dead daughter? Well, Erika. Of course. Erika Shiragami.
This movie clearly left an impression on Game Freak, and they were not shy about making other such references in their game, so it's not far-fetched to think that the character of Erika in Pokémon was originally a reference to Erika Shiragami from Godzilla. Maybe that's also why Erika's gym is covered in flowers, because Erika Shiragami loved roses and was spliced into a rose. And perhaps to make Erika's gym look like a funeral service.
The published games still contain unused text that appears to be a list of scrapped names for gym badges (which would have been usable items, from another discarded idea). Among the unused Gym Badge names, there's a "Falcon Badge", possibly an earlier name of Giovanni's Flying-type badge. Thinking of Erika, we can't help but notice that a "Rose Badge" is on the list of scrapped badge names. ✽ Might this be an early name for Erika's badge, linking her with Erika Shiragami, who became a rose? The sprite for Erika's badge in the published games even still resembles a rose.
This is pure speculation, but what if Erika at some point was planned to be a Ghost-type Gym Leader who also included an Ivysaur on her team as an homage to Erika Shiragami? Then, later on, when Bulbasaur was reworked to be a starter Pokémon, it would upset the game balance if Ivysaur were the featured Pokémon of Erika's gym. However, this earlier idea could have provided the foundation for Erika to be reworked into a specialist of the newly conceptualized Grass Type.
In the end, Erika's badge became known as the Rainbow Badge, both in Japanese and in English. All the towns in Kanto are named after colors, and in Japanese, so are the gym badges, with the colorful name of the badge matching the name of the town. For example, Pewter City is known as Nibi City, from nibi-iro, a dull gray color. The corresponding badge is the Gray Badge. For Erika, Celadon City is called Tamamushi City, named after tamamushi-iro, the iridescent green of the jewel beetle. In that case, the rainbow of the Rainbow Badge refers to iridescence - which works, but seems somewhat out of pattern with the other badges, which are given more straight-forward and simple names like Gray Badge, Blue Badge, Orange Badge... Since a rainbow brings all the colors together, shouldn't the Rainbow Badge be the name of an ultimate badge? Why is it the name of only one of the middle badges along the player's journey?
According to The Helix Chamber, an early concept of the end-game of Pokémon included a tournament sponsored by Silph Co. where the player would need to face off against every class of trainer, including a rematch against all the Gym Leaders, after which the player would be granted access to a dungeon containing Mewtwo. Wouldn't it make sense that after defeating all the trainers in series, including all the Gym Leaders with their single-color badges, the reward would be an ultimate badge called the "Rainbow Badge"? Then this could have been the game token that would grant access to Mewtwo's dungeon. Perhaps, after the Silph Tournament was cut, the name "Rainbow Badge" was conveniently available for Game Freak to reuse in a different context.
In our theory, this means that, when Bulbasaur became a starter Pokémon, Erika was resurrected from the dead and instead made into a specialist of the newly solidified Grass type. Perhaps whatever the earlier color-based name her badge had did not match with her new specialty, so that name was discarded and her badge instead given the recycled name "Rainbow Badge". This change must have been done so quickly that Game Freak didn't even take the time to update Erika's sprite. Conveniently, her Gym was already full of flowers, but please pay no attention to the levitating Pokéball and the implications of her kimono. Her eyes are closed because she's just, uh, sleeping... yeah, sleeping...
We feel pretty convinced that there was no Grass type before Bulbasaur's appearance during Period 4, and that the Grass type most likely did not exist until late in Period 5. If the Grass type was invented simultaneously with Bulbasaur, we do not think Bulbasaur could have been thought of as a starter Pokémon yet. If it were, we think this would have lead Game Freak to more quickly realize that the Grass Type is important, and that they should add the Leaf Stone to give a more appropriate treatment to this now major type. In that situation, we think they would have created the Oddish and Bellsprout lines more promptly in order to have more Pokémon that evolve with the Leaf Stone, ✽ similarly to how they seem to have added Aerodactyl to better flesh out the fossil resurrection mechanic. Instead, the Oddish and Bellsprout lines only appear after what seems to have been the simultaneous creation of both the Squirtle and Charmander lines - seemingly implying that the idea of choosing one of three starter Pokémon is what directly prompted the creation of these two Grass-type lines that evolve with the Leaf Stone. Our theory makes too much sense to us, so please let us know if there is anything we are overlooking.
One weirdness we see with this theory is that Bulbasaur ended up being the very first Pokémon in the National PokéDex. We're not sure why this would have happened if it was a later decision to make Bulbasaur a starter Pokémon. Then again, the PokéDex order is more like a table of contents linking to the relevant Pokémon information, and not literally how the Pokémon information is stored (that would be the array); the order of the PokéDex is something that's easy to change at any point in development. Having Bulbasaur first might have just been how it all settled later on - perhaps even as a conscious consolation for the fact that the Grass type ended up being relatively under-featured overall.
In the end, whether our theory is right or wrong, man, the development of Pokémon must have been something else.
- Thanks to Destinie for the tip about Godzilla vs. Biollante. We think it's spot on!
- Godzilla vs. Biollante from the Internet Archive.
- The Helix Chamber Essays, especially tidbits of information on these pages:
- A History of Pokémon through the Internal List - What was known as of September 2018.
- Capsule Monsters – Sprite sheet - An analysis of the super early sprites from the Pokémon "Capsule Monsters" pitch.
- What Dreams May Come: Prototype Data for Pokémon Red and Green - updates based on leaks, as of February 2019.
- The Many Prototype Maps of Red and Green - an analysis of the leaked maps, as of July 2019.
- Pages on The Cutting Room Floor, especially:
- Disassembly of Pokémon Red and Blue: Item names - the list of items and their order in the code.
- A theory that Erika was originally intended as a Ghost-type trainer.
- The Wikipedia page for Kṣitigarbha, to understand the significance the scrapped badge named after this figure.
- An interview confirming that Pikachu's designer, Atsuko Nishida, also designed the Oddish and Bellsprout lines (and, in fact, all existant Period 5 Pokémon).
- Game Freak had a design for a baby pre-evolution and an evolution of Tangela in the Generation II SpaceWorld demo; however, making Tangela into a three-stage line does not match the pattern that Jynx, Electabuzz, and Magmar had in Generation II. Also, Game Freak ultimately decided to cut the designs for the baby Tangela and the Tangela evolution, rather than feeling the need to retain the baby Tangela together with Smoochum, Elekid, and Magby.
- Vaporeon is actually a Water-type, not an Ice-type. However, the Water and Ice types were not very well differentiated in Generation I, which makes us wonder if they were split later in development and perhaps Vaporeon was originally conceived as an Ice-type Pokémon. More on that later, hang on...
- Actually, it seems that, the first member of this trio was a male yeti and that Jynx was designed a slightly later. Both the male yeti and Jynx as a female yeti are probably references to characters from Ultraman.
- It is written バラ meaning "thorny plant" or "rose flower", not "rose" the the color.
The original sprite of the Earth Badge looked very much like a feather, before its design was altered in later games.
- There also is the scrapped name "Kṣitigarbha Badge". Kṣitigarbha is venerated in Buddhism and East Asian cultures as the patron of the souls in hell, especially for the souls of children who die before their parents. This made us wonder if this scrapped badge might have been related to Erika's design history; however, looking at the other early designs of the gym maps, it might be more related to early versions of the 7th gym and/or the Fighting Dojo, since these locations at some point featured what appears to be a Buddhist statue.
- The Oddish and Bellsprout lines became version exclusive Pokémon, and Exeggcute ended up being the only other Generation I Pokémon to evolve with the Leaf Stone. This means, in a single playthrough without trading, the player can use the Leaf Stone to evolve and get the PokéDex entries of two Pokémon, which is pretty much the minimum for this mechanic to make sense to include in the game.