In the Pokemon series of role-playing games, your typical goal as a newly-minted Pokemon trainer is to travel throughout the land and eventually become Pokemon League Champion. To achieve this title, however, you first need to battle the reigning champion of the region in which each game is set.
These characters, essentially the Pokemon equivalent of final bosses, are usually interesting, stylish, and memorable personalities. (Also, a lot of them wear capes.) But what makes for a genuinely well-designed champion?
Turns out it’s more than just a cape.
This three-part series of articles looks at the various champions in the mainline series of Pokemon games, beginning with Red and Green in the 1990s and ending with the recently-unveiled Sword and Shield due to be released in late 2019. We’ll primarily consider each character from a costume design perspective but also look at their storyline, team of Pokemon, and other factors as well.
Generation I: Blue (Red, Green, Blue and Yellow; FireRed and LeafGreen)
Your first battle in most Pokemon games takes place against your rival. This character, typically a childhood acquaintance of friend, shows up throughout the game to test your progress. In the first generation of games, your rival is Blue, the entitled grandson of your mentor Professor Oak.
Blue is intentionally designed to be as obnoxious as possible, from his spiky hair and indelible smirk down to his enormous t-shirt and boots. He turns out to be not only your first opponent in the game but your last opponent as well: by the time you reach the Pokemon League, it turns out he became champion shortly before you arrived. Blue has a powerful team of Pokemon with a wide variety of types and is deliberately designed to be the most difficult challenger in the game.
His design was updated for the Generation I remakes FireRed and LeafGreen released in 2004. Blue’s clothes are in general somewhat more mature; the t-shirt is replaced by a black dress shirt and he sports less absurd shoes.
Even if he isn’t the most traditional of champions, defeating Blue and becoming champion is a satisfying conclusion and narrative payoff.
Rating: Three out of five capes.
Generation I: Trace (Let’s Go, Pikachu and Eevee)
The newest set of Generation I remakes introduce an entirely new childhood rival named Trace, who is considerably friendlier and less antagonistic than Blue. Nevertheless, he retains his predecessor’s spiky hair and questionable taste in pants.
This change in dynamic makes the battle against Trace at the end of the game entirely different. You aren’t squaring up against an irritating rival; you’re battling against a childhood friend. The result is less impactful than before, even if there’s still a narrative arc of sorts.
Rating: One-and-a-half out of five capes.
Generation II: Lance (Gold, Silver and Crystal; HeartGold and SoulSilver)
Lance is the Pokemon League champion in Gold, Silver and Crystal, and essentially becomes champion in these games through a simple promotion. In the Generation I games, Lance was part of the Elite Four, a powerful quartet of trainers you fought before facing Blue. By the time of Gold and Silver, Lance takes over the position of champion after Blue steps down to become a Gym Leader. (Lance was the Kanto league champion in the anime series.)
The best Pokemon League champions are meaningfully connected to the region or game they represent. By these criteria, Lance is not a particularly successful champion. He doesn’t particularly represent the land of Johto, which is focused on myths and legends; he only helps you thwart Team Rocket’s invasion of Johto. (The Pokemon League in the second generation isn’t even located inside Johto; rather, it’s the first part of Kanto you get to explore after defeating Johto’s Gym Leaders.)
Lance’s team is also a disappointment. While nominally a Dragon-type trainer, Lance’s team in the Kanto league only includes two Pokemon of that type — Dragonair and its evolution, Dragonite — and is rounded out by three dragon-like creatures. (That said, there were only three Dragon-types, the Dragonite line, in the first generation, with a fourth, Kingdra, added in the second generation.)
When he becomes champion, his team carries over from Kanto without any significant variations or additions reflecting his new role. Johto has its own Dragon-type Gym Leader, Lance’s cousin Clair, who has some of the same Pokemon (as well as the new Dragon-type, Kingdra) and once again makes Lance feel seriously lacking.
All this aside, Lance’s costume in these games make up for some of his shortcomings. He’s the first league champion to sport a cape, and it’s a particularly good one. The length and design of his cape is appropriately grandiose, suggesting a dragon’s wings or claws. It’s sleek and dramatic. (Unfortunately, it appears that proper artwork of this design is unavailable.)
His redesign for the Generation II remakes HeartGold and SoulSilver is rather underwhelming, shortening the length of his cape and removing much of the imposing air that gives Lance his much-needed personality.
Overall, Lance is a respectable first draft for the idea of a ‘traditional’ Pokemon champion. His design was more impactful at the time of Gold and Silver’s release but has become less impressive over the years. The increased variety of options to tackle his once-intimidating team hasn’t helped, either.
Rating: Three out of five capes.
Generation III: Steven Stone (Ruby and Sapphire)
The third generation of the Pokemon franchise takes a distinctive approach to the idea of a Pokemon league champion. Ruby and Sapphire, the first pair of games released in this generation and the first to feature the new region of Hoenn, feature a different champion than their pseudo-sequel, Emerald.
In Ruby and Sapphire, the Hoenn League champion is Steven Stone, the son of the president of the Devon Corporation. Devon began as a mining company and eventually became responsible for many of the technological advancements in Hoenn.
Steven himself specializes in Steel-type Pokemon, which were first introduced in the previous generation but became more widely available from the third generation onwards. He spends most of his time wandering the region, collecting rare rocks and fossils and assisting the player throughout their journey.
Steven is a rather unusual choice for the champion of a region such as Hoenn. Hoenn is full of rocky landscapes and bodies of water – at least twenty-five percent of Ruby and Sapphire is spent either surfing the region’s vast ocean or diving below the waves. Furthermore, these games and their sequel are in general themed around respect for nature. (The two villainous teams, Team Aqua and Team Magma, seek to reshape the earth as they see fit by drastically altering the environment.) Therefore, it seems a bit peculiar that the Hoenn region’s champion would be the son of a wealthy industrialist.
Steven himself is not a particularly interesting character. He’s endearing and helpful enough, but he’s rather dull overall and quite literally buttoned-up. Most of his personality comes from his team of Pokemon, including his signature Pokemon: the nasty-looking and powerful Metagross.
Steven is neither the first nor last example of a regional champion with Pokemon whose characteristics stand in for a lack of personality on their owner’s behalf, but he is certainly one of the most noticeable instances of this phenomenon.
When the third-generation remakes Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were released in 2014, Game Freak had the opportunity to improve Steven’s design, to give him a more interesting outfit and personality. What did they do?
They unbuttoned his jacket.
Rating: Two out of five capes.
Generation Three: Wallace (Emerald)
Emerald, the final entry in the third generation’s trilogy of games set in the Hoenn region, significantly improves on many of the flaws and limitations present in Ruby and Sapphire. Its added features and expanded narrative have made it one of the most beloved titles in the entire franchise.
However, where Emerald most shines is in its introduction of a new Hoenn League champion: the Water-type expert Wallace. In Ruby and Sapphire, Wallace was the eighth and final Gym Leader battled by the trainer and had a limited, expository role in the games’ narrative. That doesn’t stop him from making a great impression.
Even in Ruby and Sapphire, his design is outstanding; the combination of teal and purple is tasteful and inspired. His cap and jacket suggest an artist’s beret and smock without being too literal and even call back to the hat and uniform of many sailors. Wallace is also one of the few Water-type Gym Leaders who doesn’t focus on athleticism and physical strength.
By the time of Emerald’s release two years later, Wallace was given the position of Hoenn’s league champion – and, delightfully, has a new outfit to celebrate his new role. The best addition, of course, is an enormous cape that is simultaneously elegant, striking, and a campy sendup of the extravagant outfits normally associated with Pokemon champions.
His team itself is themed around visual appeal, starting with the heart-shaped Pokemon Luvdisc and ending with Milotic, a Pokemon who literally evolves from the drab-looking Feebas once it becomes beautiful enough. Milotic itself is a very difficult Pokemon to obtain; Feebas can only be encountered in a handful of randomly chosen patches of water each in-game day, and increasing its beauty can be a laborious task. It’s a fitting choice for a champion.
In Emerald, Wallace’s spot as Gym Leader is taken over by his
lover mentor Juan, whose team shares some similarities with those of his partner student. However, Water is a common enough Pokemon type that unlike Lance and Clair in the second generation, this doesn’t feel like overkill. Juan himself breathes sophistication, and it’s easy to see how and where his boyfriend colleague got his sense of style.
In Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, Wallace is unfortunately once again only a Gym Leader, and as such Juan is nowhere to be found. Game Freak nevertheless made up for this by giving Wallace yet another entirely new outfit. Most of the other Gym Leaders and main characters in the remakes kept their original designs, but the design team blessed us (and Wallace) with this stunning look:
Wallace may have only been the champion for one game in a decades-old franchise, but he made every part of it count. It’s clear that many people on the Pokemon development team are fond of him, and with good reason.
Rating: Five out of five capes.
Join us next time for the second part of this feature, in which we’ll look at one of the most beloved champions of all time, as well as one of the most underwhelming. See you then!