Just Add Capes: How to Design a Pokemon Champion, Part Two

Capes part 2

Welcome back to Just Add Capes, a series that examines what makes a Pokemon League champion memorable, with an analysis rooted in costume and character design. The first entry in the series, which looked at champions in the first through third generations, can be read here. All images are sourced from Bulbapedia unless otherwise noted.

Today’s entry considers the champions in the fourth and fifth generation of mainline Pokemon titles. These characters range in popularity and reception, from beloved favourite to underwhelming disappointment, but will a second look reveal more about them? Let’s find out.

Generation Four: Cynthia (Diamond, Pearl, Platinum)

Whenever Pokemon League champions are ranked, Cynthia inevitably tops the list. Introduced as champion of the Sinnoh region in Diamond and Pearl, Cynthia takes a highly proactive role in the main character’s journey, supplying them with helpful items and fleshing out Sinnoh’s mythos-based origins. In the games’ expanded version Platinum, she accompanies you through the bizarre Distortion World. The official Pokemon website even observes that Cynthia’s “interest in the lore of her world sets her apart from other Champions.”

Cynthia’s iconic outfit.

Like champions in previous generations, Cynthia sports a distinctive and iconic look – an almost entirely black ensemble set off by gold-and-black hairclips and platinum blonde hair. However, her outfit stands out even more than her predecessors; as the Avocado’s own SingingBrakeman observes, Sinnoh and the new Pokemon populating the religion are both more “uncharacteristically colourful” than regions and ‘mons in previous generations. As a result, Cynthia pulls focus whenever she’s on screen — even in the settings of subsequent titles, such as the lush tropics in Sun and Moon.

Cynthia and her Garchomp in Sun and Moon‘s Battle Tree. Credit: Pokemon.com

Most significantly, Cynthia’s own experience and backstory is closer to yours than any other league champion. She’s the first champion since Blue to have been previously given her own Pokedex, has relatives in-game, and even describes herself when you first meet her as “a Trainer just like you.” Lance, Steven and Wallace had established careers before they became champions – by contrast, Cynthia’s title is hard-won and clearly comes after years of experience.

And this is all before you actually battle her.

The battle against Cynthia is one of the most challenging face-offs with a trainer in the entire franchise. Cynthia is the first champion since Blue to have a team of Pokemon with a variety of well-rounded types. In addition, her team is comprised of Pokemon that are either fully-evolved, like her signature Garchomp, or incredibly difficult to obtain, such as Spiritomb and Milotic.

Given Cynthia’s overwhelming popularity in Generation Four, it’s only natural that she makes a cameo in the next mainline Pokemon games. In Black and White, Cynthia can be found on vacation in the seaside Undella Town in the spring and summer months and challenged to a battle. Cynthia remains one of the most celebrated champions in the Pokemon series – and given that she first appeared almost fifteen years ago in a franchise with a high turnover rate, that’s no small feat.

Rating: Five out of five capes.

Generation Five: Alder (Black and White)

In Black and White, the first games in Generation Five, the Pokemon franchise followed one of its most popular champions with one of its most underwhelming: Alder, champion of the New York City-inspired region, Unova.

Unova was the first region in the main series based on an area located outside Japan, and Black and White are bursting at the seams with inventive new Pokemon, characters, and concepts. It’s the most technologically advanced region in the Pokemon world and features a baroque, Final Fantasy-inspired plotline about truth and ideals and the relationships between trainers and Pokemon.

Alder… isn’t really connected to any of this. Following the death of his beloved starter Pokemon, Alder left his position as champion, wandering Unova as a nomad and essentially living off the grid. Most significantly, he favours Bug-type Pokemon, often the most under-appreciated critters in any Pokemon game.

Poor, underutilized, underdeveloped Alder.

Alder’s signature Pokemon is the dual-type Bug/Fire Pokemon Volcarona, which is only accessible post-game and resides in the very bottom of a ruined castle. It’s a Legendary Pokemon in all but name. The stage is set for Alder to be one of the most thematically memorable champions in franchise history. And then Black and White fail to stick the landing.

As previously mentioned, Black and White are partly about the relationships between trainers and their Pokemon. This is manifested in-game by Team Plasma, a Templar-inspired organization holding the belief that Pokemon are better off without trainers, and that trainers should release their beloved critters. (In reality, their true leader Ghetsis wants to take away everyone’s Pokemon so he can become the most powerful trainer in the world. Standard stuff when it comes to these games’ villains.)

By setting this narrative in Unova as opposed to a less technologically-advanced region like Hoenn or Sinnoh, Black and White have a tension between a ‘natural’ state and modern civilization roiling just below the surface. Alder would be the perfect illustration of this tension between technology and nature – he’s the leader of a region that, by its very nature, contradicts all of his values – but, alas, he’s lost in the shuffle. Unlike Cynthia, he doesn’t take much of a leading role in the narrative and is surprisingly milquetoast for a league champion.

Furthermore, Black and White undercut Alder’s authority at every opportunity.  Ghetsis reveals that Alder abandoned his role as champion for so long that Unova’s Elite Four had to step in. You don’t even battle Alder after triumphing over the Elite Four – he’s already been defeated, and you only get to fight him after the main storyline is completed.

Overall, Alder is a significant disappointment compared to the champions of the previous few games. This isn’t entirely his fault – Black and White simply have too much on their mind – but he’s such a step back in quality that his many shortcomings as a character cannot be overlooked.

Rating: One and a half out of five capes.

Generation Five: Iris (Black 2 and White 2)

The sequels to Black and White not only introduced a new storyline set in Unova, but a new league champion as well. In the same vein as Emerald, the expanded version of Ruby and Sapphire, the new champion was a former Gym Leader: Iris, previously the young Dragon-type specialist heading the Opelucid City Gym in Pokemon White. (Her counterpart in Pokemon Black was her older, grizzled mentor, Drayden.) Iris originally lived in the rural Village of Dragons before becoming a gym leader, and her character art in White reflected her unassuming beginnings and exuberant personality.

Iris’s outfit in Pokemon White.

In Black 2 and White 2, two years have passed since the events of the previous games. Iris has become a confident and assured trainer, defeating Alder and achieving the title of Unova League champion. (This, again, raises questions about the precise nature of the champion’s role: shouldn’t Iris have had to battle the playerwho beat Alder and became champion in Black and White? What happened to that player, and why and how did Alder regain his title?) Her role as champion comes with an entirely new outfit, which feels very much like a playful homage to the fifth generation’s JRPG influences. In her new look, Iris wouldn’t feel out of place in a Final Fantasy game.

Her outfit as Unova League Champion in Black and White 2.

In a way, Iris’ own journey as a character mirrors the artistic and narrative development of Pokemon’s fifth generation titles. Perhaps disappointingly, Black and White 2 discard some of the more unconventional elements of their predecessors – most notably, the fact that only native Unovan Pokemon were available for capture in Black and White until the Elite Four were defeated – but also have a more focused narrative than their predecessors, setting the muddled philosophical trappings of the first game aside for a sci-fi tale told more confidently and in line with previous generations’ storylines. These sequels’ champion is similarly self-assured and memorable.

In general, the fifth generation was a fascinating if flawed era in Pokemon’s development, and its most daring qualities have become more appreciated, years after the titles were first released.

Rating: Four-and-a-half out of five capes.

Join us next time for the third and final part of our series, where we’ll look at Pokemon League champions from the sixth, seventh, and eighth generations.