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.
This time, we’re looking at the Elite Four of the Sinnoh region, featured in the 2006 games Diamond and Pearl, their 2008 updated version Platinum, and their 2021 remakes, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. The header image is from Bulbapedia, and all other sources are cited throughout.
I said in my previous article that Sinnoh’s Elite Four would be both the most challenging and interesting group to write about for this series: challenging, because I’ve previously regarded them as the weakest Elite Four from a design perspective, and interesting, because I would have to not only say why I find them underwhelming, but also explore why.
It’s hard not to treat the Sinnoh Elite Four as afterthoughts (from a narrative perspective, at least). Diamond, Pearl and Platinum feature perhaps the darkest and most involved storyline in the mainline series at the time: the villainous Team Galactic and their apathetic leader Cyrus seek to manipulate time and space to destroy the entire universe and create a new one in its place. The resolution to this plot occurs a considerable amount of time before you even step foot in the Pokemon League, so battling a group of master trainers for the title of Champion seems almost irrelevant by comparison.
The Sinnoh Elite Four’s costumes are primarily distinguished from those we’ve previously seen by an emphasis on bright colours, simple shapes, and generally minimalist styling. While the effectiveness of this approach is up for debate, it fits right into the fourth generation’s overall “uncharacteristically colourful” aesthetic.
Keeping this in mind, I must admit that Aaron’s outfit is… not that bad. A Bug-type expert, Aaron is the first member of the Sinnoh Elite Four, and isn’t afraid to say he is its weakest. After being defeated, Aaron openly admits he isn’t a top-level Trainer yet, and that the following three members are decidedly tougher than him. One can’t fault him for being honest.
Aaron’s outfit itself is visually interesting in ways that are very mid-2000s; bold and colourful and kind of tacky. The geometric design on his vest resembles a honeycomb; a motif also found on the soles of his shoes. His white belt is straight out of early 2000s menswear; an article I found specifically linked the white belt trend to 2003, three years before Diamond and Pearl were released. I’m not sure what function his vest serves; we aren’t given any indication about its practical purpose, but that may very well be the point. It’s workwear in everyday outfits; the sort of piece that someone of Aaron’s age would wear at this time.
I’m not keen on Aaron’s hair, which I suppose is meant to resemble an antenna but reminds me of plants instead; I would wager that someone unfamiliar with this character would think his specialty was Grass-types. (Toshinobu Matsumiya, a scenario writer for many Pokemon mainline titles, revealed on Twitter that Aaron’s Japanese name Ryou is a reference to the Japanese clethra plant, so perhaps that was the inspiration for his hairstyle. The vast majority of Elite Four members across the entire series have Japanese names inspired by plants, but most of the time they don’t have a bearing on costume design, so I haven’t discussed it much in these articles.)
Aaron’s character art goes a long way in selling this look. I normally don’t focus as much on the pose as I do on the actual costume, but Aaron’s pose in his official art conveys more personality than the look itself might possess.
For all my criticisms of Aaron’s look in its original appearances, it actually works rather well in the context of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl’s smoothed-out aesthetic. Aaron is depicted as standing up rather than sitting down, so we miss the detail on his shoes, and the aspects with which I previously took issue remain unexplained or unexplored. But he’s young, and fully admits that he’s over his head, so I can forgive him for having a neon-coloured, tacky outfit that probably wouldn’t look out of place on the street (or even a red carpet) in the early 2000s.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Bertha’s outfit does its wearer a great disservice. Bertha, a Ground-type expert, has possibly the most random assortment of items I’ve ever seen on a human in this series: a white coat, worn over a black dress with a maroon band on it, accented with a brown scarf. None of these items go together, not to mention that the maroon band sticks out like a sore thumb, and the brown scarf feels like a half-hearted attempt to signify her specialty.
I mentioned earlier that the Sinnoh Elite Four can often come across as an afterthought and, unfortunately, Bertha is the prime example. She is a Ground-type expert in a game that already has Rock- and Steel-type Gym Leaders, both of whom already use Ground-types. We also don’t know much about Bertha as a character, and her outfit doesn’t give us many clues. Her Japanese name, Kikuno, potentially refers to the Japanese name for chrysanthemums, and is similar to the Japanese name of Agatha from the Kanto Elite Four. A character in a later generation notes the two trainers’ physical resemblance, but this isn’t commented upon in-game by Bertha or any other character in the Sinnoh titles, so it seems like a wasted opportunity or, even worse, a half-hearted attempt to place an otherwise isolated character into the series’ wider narrative.
Bertha’s outfit makes even less sense in Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, where the remakes’ aesthetic puts the clashing aspects of her look into sharp relief. I hate to judge Bertha’s outfit so harshly, because none of this is her fault. The Pokemon character designers – in particular, artist Ken Sugimori – have been doing this for long enough at this point that I find it hard to cut them slack.
The anime does give Bertha cool grey-and-brown driving goggles that in fact make her outfit more cohesive and potentially even elevate it. This is one instance where I wish the Sinnoh remakes weren’t so faithful to the original character designs.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
Flint is already a punchline before the player walks in the door of the Pokemon League. The Diamond and Pearl developers somehow forgot to program in more than a scant few fully-evolved Fire-type Pokemon into the games, meaning that a Fire-type trainer like Flint had a laughably limited selection to choose from, compared to the many other types in the Sinnoh region. As a result, Flint’s team is filled out by a Drifblim and Lopunny, two Pokemon that are not Fire-types. (More Fire-types would be added in Platinum.)
In an Elite Four that might already seem an afterthought, Flint could be viewed as the biggest afterthought of them all. (However, Flint has the most backstory out of any of the Sinnoh Elite Four, possibly to compensate for this deficit. He has a younger brother, Buck, who accompanies the player as a support character during the game (and has a pretty great outfit). Flint’s design notes for the X and Y anime specifically note that he’s bow-legged; a detail we rarely see with other human characters. Flint is also very good friends with Volkner, a moody Gym Leader whose hobby is interior decorating and argues with Flint like they’ve been married for years.
In addition, Volkner reveals that Flint’s interest in Fire-type Pokemon stems from his name (flint can be used to start fires), which is fascinating, and invites a lot of questions we haven’t really considered before about how human characters in the Pokemon world are named. Flint’s Japanese name is Ohba, which reportedly is a reference to the shiso plant, so I’m not sure how Volkner’s quip works in that language; most other languages have Flint’s name as a reference to fire.
If I’ve spent far more time on Flint’s backstory than on his actual look, it’s because his outfit isn’t particularly interesting. The yellow-red colour scheme is almost too on the nose, even for a series that often colour-codes its characters by type specialties. We do get a sense that he’s a more relaxed person than we typically get with an Elite Four trainer; his exaggerated collar, sandals, and loosened suspenders are unusual details for a trainer of his stature.
Flint’s look also works fairly well in Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. It isn’t necessarily an improvement, but it ties into the remakes’ aesthetic. I also have to give the developers credit for fleshing out Flint’s background considerably more than a lot of other Elite Four members from any generation.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5.
It’s somewhat fitting that Lucian is the final and most powerful member of the Sinnoh Elite Four. His formal attire comes as a bit of a surprise after battling the likes of Aaron and Flint. Nevertheless, Lucian’s outfit shares the casual, contemporary vibe of his colleagues, with his unbuttoned shirt and his unusual combination (for this series) of a black dress shirt and red suit. His feather-like pocket square is a nicely whimsical detail.
All this said, his outfit reads very similar to that worn by Will, the Psychic-type Elite Four member first seen in Gold, Silver and Crystal. Will also has purple pastel hair, glasses, and a red-and-black suit. To be fair, Will wouldn’t reappear in the series until HeartGold and SoulSilver, which came out after Diamond and Pearl and Platinum were released, so it may be unfair to criticize Lucian’s designers for retreading old ground when they might not have even been aware of the similarities at the time.
When taken on its own, Lucian’s outfit suffers from the same generic qualities that plagued Flint’s look, without the unusual details that made Flint an interesting character. The tinted glasses and charming pocket square are nice details, but they don’t contribute to Lucian’s overall character in the same way as, for instance, Flint’s sandals.
Lucian himself has an underdeveloped background; his main personality trait is that he loves books – he’s seen holding one out of battle (but not during battle) in Platinum, and he’s encountered in a library post-game. Imagine if he’d been a psychic librarian or archivist! The costume design possibilities are endless. He could’ve looked for strategies while flipping through a book.
Lucian’s out-of-battle model in Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl is shown holding the same book he holds in Platinum, but otherwise his models in battle stay the same. Overall, it’s a somewhat unsatisfactory design, one that perhaps reflects a lack of imagination on the designers’ part. Psychic-type specialists tend to have some of the most visually impactful designs in the entire series, and Lucian is kind of underwhelming by comparison.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
I don’t want to end this article on a sour note, so I will observe that, to the designers’ credit, these are four trainers with different styles, and while I’m not overwhelmingly fond of their individual looks, they certainly aren’t identical.
As well, Generation IV (including HeartGold and SoulSilver) had the last Elite Four characters with key character art by Ken Sugimori for a few years; Sugimori took a break for Generation V. Sugimori’s visual style has shaped (and continues to shape) much of the franchise’s aesthetic, so I can’t fault him for trying something different or more minimalist with the Sinnoh titles. We’ve seen his Elite Four designs for HeartGold and SoulSilver, which featured good-to-great work, so maybe a back-to-basics approach in Diamond, Pearl and Platinum helped rekindle his creative spark.
Next time: We look at the Elite Four of the Unova region, first featured in Black and White. They’re one of my all-time favourite Elite Four groups, with some of the most interesting costumes in the entire series. See you then!
You can read Just Add Capes, my previous Pokemon costume design column, here.