Welcome back to Elite Evaluations, an ongoing series in which I review the Elite Four from each generation of games in the Pokemon series, with an especial focus on costume and character design. Previous entries can be found here. (You can also check out Just Add Capes, my previous Pokemon costume design column, here!)
This time, we’re looking at the Elite Four of the Johto region, featured in the 1999/2000 games Gold, Silver and Crystal (commonly referred to as ‘Generation II’), as well as their 2011 remakes, HeartGold and SoulSilver. The header image is from Bulbapedia, and all other sources are cited throughout.
These titles take place three years after the events of Generation I. The Johto Elite Four is a combination of returning characters and brand-new faces, which makes it a particularly unique group of trainers to evaluate.
Will, a Psychic-type expert, is the first member of the Johto Elite Four; he only recently joined up after travelling the world. I tend to perceive Will as the youngest member of the Johto Elite Four, or at the very least more inexperienced than his fellow trainers. His colleagues are, for the most part, already established characters, and he’s the first opponent faced by players, which might suggest a more junior position.
The key features of Will’s costume are his formalwear and his mask, which nominally obscures both of his eyes, but not at first. In Generation II, only his in-game sprite depicts both eyes as covered; the character art above has only one eye obscured, and this same image is used in Pokemon Stadium 2. (Furthermore, his manga appearances often have both eyes completely visible.) His formalwear isn’t necessarily distinctive, but it does stand out in a series whose significant characters are often dressed casually. The general impression I get is of a strong first draft for a promising character.
Will’s costume was significantly redesigned for HeartGold and SoulSilver, and this redesign is far and away my favourite outfit from the Johto Elite Four (and one of my all-time favours). With this redesign, it becomes further apparent that Will’s costume has two specific style inspirations: the harlequin and the dandy.
The parts of Will’s outfit most referential to harlequins are his black mask and, to a lesser extent, his brightly-coloured clothing. (In HeartGold and SoulSilver, Will’s mask fully obscures both of his eyes; the first time this has actually happened in the series and its adaptations.) The Pokemon Adventures manga makes the harlequin connection explicit by depicting Will, in what I believe is his first appearance in the manga, as a literal clown:
Will’s outfit in HeartGold and SoulSilver is also heavily inspired by dandyism — in particular, the wardrobe of 19th century Englishman Beau Brummell, who was a quintessential example of the dandy and has been described as “the leader of fashion at the beginning of the 19th century.”
Will’s outfit elevates the formal aspects of his original look, fashioning him into a proper dandy. Every detail, from his crisp white cravat to his buttoned tailcoat, is incredibly on point; especially for the look of a dandy from Brummell’s time. (The history of cravats is fascinating in itself; before coloured cravats became more common, only plain white ones, such as the cravat Will wears, were permitted at balls and other formal events. Black cravats and white patterned cravats were for daily wear.)
I’m generally a fan of when the Pokemon series utilizes this sort of character design (my love for Juan knows no bounds) and the fact that Will is a psychic harlequin dandy makes it even better. Will’s outfit is a paramount example of the Pokemon series realizing what makes a character’s costume great and expanding upon that in the best way possible.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Bruno, who we previously met as the second member of the Elite Four in Generation I, reprises his role here. Unlike in the previous generation, the Johto Elite Four isn’t an end-of-game gauntlet; instead, they’re a bridge between the first portion of the game, set in Johto, and the second half, set in Kanto. Therefore, his presence here feels more like a callback than anything else.
Bruno’s outfit hasn’t changed much (if it all) since his appearance in Generation I. It’s a consistent and effective look, even in HeartGold and SoulSilver. There isn’t much one could do with Bruno’s outfit here beyond some minor details — possibly some wear and tear, to illustrate the passing of time — but the opportunity existed nonetheless, and it’s a shame that the designers didn’t take it. In addition, Gold, Silver and Crystal, as well as their remakes, already include a Fighting-type Gym Leader; as a result, Bruno’s inclusion here is less unique than before. He isn’t even the most memorable character in the Kanto Elite Four. A missed opportunity, all around.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5.
Koga is another familiar face from the Generation I games. In Red, Blue, Green and Yellow, Koga is the Poison-type specialist leading the Fuchsia City Gym; he probably received the biggest promotion of his life by joining the Elite Four. His inclusion in Generation I is justified narratively by having his daughter Janine take over his former title.
Like Bruno, Koga’s character and costume design have remained consistent throughout his appearances in both generations, and like Bruno, his appearance comes across more as a nod to existing fans than as an attempt to do something new with the character. I do appreciate the details added to Koga’s character art in HeartGold and SoulSilver, including the new dark grey and steel parts of his costume that nicely complement his trademark black and purple apparel, and the greying in his hair that signifies the passage of time.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Karen, the fourth and final member of the Johto Elite Four, is an expert in Dark-type Pokemon, one of the two new types introduced in Gold, Silver and Crystal. As she tells the player, she’s drawn to Dark-types because she “find[s] their wild, tough image to be so appealing.” (Perhaps ironically, only three of her five Pokemon are Dark-types, as there weren’t many Dark types at the time; her team is filled out by two non-Dark type Pokemon, Gengar and Vileplume.)
Karen is also known for her post-defeat speech, in which she remarks that there is no real distinction between “strong” and “weak” Pokemon, and encourages the player to use the Pokemon they like best; it sets an unusually philosophical tone just before battling the Champion. (The Pokemon Masters EX mobile game describes Karen as having a “calm, cerebral exterior.”)
In Generation II, Karen’s character design consists of long, light-coloured hair and a short black or dark-coloured dress. (It was difficult to find character art of Karen from this era, so I used art from the Pokemon Pocket Monsters manga instead.) It’s a perfectly fine outfit; evocative without being stereotypically ‘witchy’ — although there are ways to convey that sort of vibe without dressing like Elvira. The overall effect is more femme fatale (as close to femme fatale as Pokemon can get, anyway).
For HeartGold and SoulSilver, the designers went in the complete opposite direction, trading in Karen’s original, dark dress for a significantly brighter and more colourful ensemble. Karen is wearing a short yellow-and-black top with a jagged edge, light gray pants with yellow petal-like attachments around the waist, and bright yellow shoes.
The Pokemon series has a tendency to colour-code the outfits of its human characters, depending on which Pokemon type they prefer; a character dressed in red likely uses Fire-types, a character dressed in blue tends to use Water-types, and so forth. It’s nice when designers are able to subvert or find interesting variations on this trend; but when they go completely left-field, there needs to be a clear concept — which Karen’s revised costume doesn’t possess.
A character like Karen drawn to stereotypically ‘scary’ or ‘tough’ Pokemon could prefer to dress in brightly-coloured or casual clothes (and, indeed, we’ll see an example of this in the next generation). And this outfit is in itself okay. But the details distract from any purpose or vision the designers might have had. Her modern, punk-esque top doesn’t go with her more casual pants and bright yellow shoes. The yellow petals are the sort of inexplicable addition that a struggling Project Runway contestant might tack onto their outfit in the hopes of convincing the judges that their look is “avant-garde.” The colour scheme could be a “Gold and Silver” theme, but that doesn’t have anything to do with Karen as a character; it reminds me most of a Steel-type Pokemon, Mawile.
If one were to further revise Karen’s outfit, we could lean into its punk or even rock aspects; carry the modern elements of the top of the outfit into the rest of the look. Add jagged elements to the pants; turn the yellow petals into symbols representing the different phases of the moon; add black or silver accents to the shoes. The outfit would feel more purposeful and present a clearer concept. Karen is a formidable trainer and an interesting character, and this look doesn’t do her justice.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5.
The Johto Elite Four has a unique combination of old and new trainers, one we won’t see again (to this extent, at least). As we’ll see in subsequent generations, a clear decision was made going forward to create new Elite Four characters, often with memorable costumes, much to the series’ overall benefit.
Next time: We consider the Hoenn Elite Four, first featured in Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald. They’re one of the aesthetically and thematically strongest Elite Four groupings of the entire series, so I’m very much looking forward to writing about them. See you then!