Pokemon, revisited

It was tough being a biologist during my kids’ brief Pokemon craze. What kind of animals were those? What was this business of stuffing them into balls? And what a horrible mangling of evolution was portrayed in those transformations! Ick, ick, ick. The game just annoyed me in principle.

Those wild and crazy guys at the World’s Fair have had an idea: redo the whole Pokemon concept with real animals. It’s going to be called Phylomon. They’ve just started assembling a few bits and pieces — not only do they need to flesh out a game, but they also need to gather user-submitted illustrations. If you’ve got ideas for game design, or are an artist, check out their site and send in ideas.

Right now, they’ve got a simple request: Name your five favorite organisms and why, and pass it on to the Phylomon art community. Easy.

  • Vampyroteuthis infernalis
  • Architeuthis dux
  • Dosidicus gigas
  • Sepia latimanus
  • Enteroctopus dofleini

Why? Because they’re awesome. And anything would be better than Squirtle and Pikachu.


  1. mjb.dna says

    Once you substitute in real animals, it stops looking like a cute kids’ game and starts looking like a dogfighting simulation.

  2. Gyeong Hwa Pak, the Pikachu of Anthropology says

    And anything would be better than Squirtle and Pikachu.

    That’s a low blow PZ. :P

    The game just annoyed me in principle.

    I enjoy pokemon even if the premise is absurd. lol. I mean honestly what kind of world is it where a 10-year old gets sent of on their own by their obviously negligent mother with potential weapons of mass destructions in order to battle people for fortune and fame, battle organized criminal, stuff animals in balls, load them up drugs until they’ve reach a desired level, breed the animals then discard them for their genetically superior offspring, and then get robed by hooligan along the way?

  3. Sgt. Obvious says

    Okay, PZ, I thought it when you hated on X-Men, I thought it when you hated on Avatar, and I’m damn sure thinking it now: LET IT GO. Seriously, unclench. Not everything has to include a scientifically accurate view of everything. Yes, it’s a poor choice of wording, but so what? It isn’t MEANT to be a biology class.

  4. Rutee, Shrieking Harpy of Dooooom says

    As a law student with a deep, abiding love of Phoenix Wright and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at law, screw you and the All Things Must Be Real horse you rode in on!

  5. theshortearedowl says

    1) Asio flammeus (obviously)
    2) Anolis wattsi
    3) any species of Mantis shrimp
    4) Neofelis nebulosa
    5) Desmodus rotundus

  6. tumorhead says

    Almost all the Pokemon are real-animal analogues anyway. Some very obviously are like pelicans, whales, bears, etc. There’s also fireflies, salamanders with gills as larva, deep sea lantern fish, and pachycephalosaurs.

    I’ve also had many conversations on how Pokemon biology makes no sense, so it’s proven to be a good branching off point to get in to science!

  7. Rheinhard says

    The best thing about this idea?

    It will completely remove the possibility of Pokemon’s dialog being just endlessly repeating their name (a la the youtube link from Ichthyic)!

    Can you imagine it? “Vampyroteut… Vampirotoot inferni… ah screw it!”

  8. Alverant says

    I always thought Pokemon was sick. What kind of society allows kids to go out with nothing more than a backpack to go into unexplored areas filled with bizarre and dangerous animals. No school, no money, not even a change of clothes. They then capture a few of these creatures in small balls to be enslaved and forced to fight each other for fleeting flame and badges.

    So what happens when these kids grow up and get tired of fighting their “pets”, what happens to the animals? Are they freed? If so, can they adapt back to the wild? Personally I suspect they are turned into Pokechow. You know that “name that pokemon” rap at the end of the episodes, well it’s actually an ingredients list.

  9. Epinephrine says

    Drosophila melanogaster,
    Rattus norvegicus,
    Meriones unguiculatus

    though they’re not exactly the flashiest of creatures – they’ve certainly been instumental in advancing science.

    Monodon monoceros, for the allusion to the mythical unicorn and for it’s incredibly innervated tooth, and Corvus moneduloides, a tool wielding dinosaur.

  10. https://me.yahoo.com/a/RPuarI8Lze61hZk1PGjwDbui2fIshFKUh6U8SM6lsg--#d17ca says

    I agree that pokemon is awesome. This is proof once again that PZ is no otaku.

  11. KATHYxx says

    If I had to breed several hundred generations to get my pokemon to evolve, I don’t think the game would have been quite as fun.

    It’s first and foremost a video game, and all the weirdness stems from making the mechanics playable. *shrug*

  12. Rutee, Shrieking Harpy of Dooooom says

    “sorry, to all you pokemon loving freaks…

    Eh, I haven’t played it in ages, though they’re good games. It’s less that, more that specialists have an annoying habit of taking out their IT MUST BE REAL rage on the wrong targets.

    Using my own specialty for a moment, I don’t watch most TV Shows about the law. They’re meant to be taken seriously, as accurate representations on how these things work.

    I happily watch Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, because it’s so silly that it’s obviously not commentary on the law (Sometimes on real life. I think everyone here would appreciate the episode covering Cavey Junior’s lawsuit of his Creationist Teacher).

    The biology equivalent, from a non-biologist at least, to me is… eh, let’s say Pokemon vs. Anything Michael Crichton Made Ever.

  13. Adam Atlas says

    I was into Pokemon when it was popular and I was 10 or so, but it is a bit sick, in retrospect. And, in the TV show, a bit absurd, the way it completely ignores the contradiction between developing deep emotional bonds with these apparently intelligent and feeling creatures, and forcing them into fights for the fame and glory of their owners.

    Much creepier than it seemed at the time. Damn.

    (However, I wouldn’t call it a “horrible mangling of evolution” — just a confusing repurposing of the word “evolution” to refer to stages of an individual’s lifecycle, analogous to a human’s progression from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood. I don’t think there was any explicit attempt to portray it as the same thing as actual biological evolution.)

  14. Sven DiMilo says

    I’d accept a lot of adjectives to modify “pokemon” but “awesome’? Not among ’em.

  15. SrrAB says

    Obviously Pokemon do not evolve by our standard earthly mechanism of natural selection. Must have been intelligent design!

  16. Hank Fox says

    Five favorite animals (as of this moment, anyway, and without all the Latin):

    Black Bear
    Golden Retriever
    Percheron Draft Horse
    Red Fox
    African Lion

    I’m eager to see how they get the Percherons into those little balls.

  17. SaintStephen says

    For all the non-biologists, I did all the heavy Googling:

    Vampyroteuthis infernalis:

    Architeuthis dux:

    Dosidicus gigas:

    Sepia latimanus:

    Enteroctopus dofleini:

    Phew! A man could use eight tentacles for that job.

  18. tdanielmidgley says

    I have wanted to see this for so long. Here kids are, learning stats about fictional animals, when there are lots of real ones to learn about.

    Plus, Pokémon is evil.

  19. Michael says

    My son was in preschool during the Pokemon craze. The teacher took us aside one day to say she was concerned about his hearing and was going to send him to the specialist hearing unit. Why we asked ? He mispronounces common words she replied. Like what ? He pronounces pigeon as pigeotto says she.

  20. lpolon says

    Pokemon’s world is OK if you think its just another universe created by a stupid theistic god

  21. jaybgee says

    I’m not a huge fan of Pokemon (played one or two games and watched it on TV while in middle school), but I don’t think anyone takes it seriously or think it actually represents our reality (as many have stated). I remember wondering, “what do they eat?” I think there were meat foods in the cartoon, but you never see where they come from. It seemed unthinkable they’d eat the pokemon, they’re like friends, but there weren’t any other animals around…

    Anyway, my five favorite animals:

    Cuttlefish (Cephalopods in general)
    Horseshoe crabs
    A member of polychaeta in family Phyllodocidae (I saw it in my invertebrate zoology class; it looks like a super tiny light-green dragon)

  22. Rutee, Shrieking Harpy of Dooooom says

    “Oh, and if anyone else has fun childhood memories of Pokemon that they’d like to have ruined, I can’t recommend anything better than this: the Pokemon Coma Theory.”

    I searched for, and found, Rule 34 of Ms. Frizzle and Carmen Sandiego. You’re going to have to go a lot farther then some minor little depressing fanfic :P

  23. delphi-ote says

    Acinonyx jubatus = fast cat
    Leptailurus serval = fast cat
    Falco peregrinus = fast raptor
    Aquila chrysaetos = fast raptor
    Isurus oxyrinchus = fast shark

    I’m going for speedy, high kill rate carnivores!

  24. skellington1 says

    I’m content to ignore Pokemon, as I would any similar pop-culture silliness. I don’t think it’s harmful. But the phylomon point is that kids recognize over 100 types of pokemon, but very few actual animals, and it would be COOL if they associated real biology with fun.

    I’ll probably be contributing art, (illustrator/designer here), and it’s because it’s a neat goal — not because pokemon must be destroyed or something.

    Hey, I like my ridiculous sci-fi and fantasy too, so I can’t complain about that.

  25. Sili says

    Oddly enough the above mentioned lack of wardrobe is usually what annoys me the most about these franchises.

    I was never a Pokèmon fan – my particular obsession was far more silly than that.

    Also: WoW sucks!

  26. finback says

    Sadly, I can think of an instance where this could backfire – people assuming that living species X evolved directly (or WILL directly evolve) into living species Y.

    Specifically, I’m thinking of a recent statement by Dr. John Horner, palaeontologist, who says that different genera of dinosaurs are singular forms in different stages of their life. Except.. well, for one, he says Triceratops is a junior form of Torosaurus. Except there are juvenile Torosaurus who look like the adults, and look nothing like Triceratops. This is in addition to the fact that to go from Triceratops to Torosaurus, you’d have to entirely rebuild the existing bone structure of the frill.. :S

  27. hotLunch says

    It’s just a franchise meant to sell merchandise. The artists who design the Pokemon are, I’m sure, encouraged much more to create appealing designs before considering whether those designs could be viable creatures in reality.

    I haven’t played any Pokemon games in over a decade, but from playing other Nintendo games like Smash Brothers, I’ve seen some of the new additions to the series. The original crop of Pokemon had a lot of designs that looked somewhat realistic. Ratatta was basically a big rat. Some of the new ones are completely off the wall and obviously just mean to be cool. Consider the entry on Deoxys from Wikipedia “a Pokémon formed from a mutation of an extraterrestrial virus exposed to a laser beam. It has psychokinetic powers and a high intelligence along with a crystalline organ on its chest that acts as its brain and shoots lasers.” If you’re a kid that might be damn cool. Attempting to stick to any kind of established biology the designers are not.

  28. David Ng says

    Thanks PZ for the link. Lots of heat here in the discussion, but it’s all good as far as I’m concerned. There’s two main things we’re hoping to accomplish with the project.

    1. See if we can divert some of that remarkable ability of kids to identify, characterize and catalog towards something that is at least important in the scientific (and arguably citizenry) context. This doesn’t necessarily presume we hate Pokemon – just that we think Biodiversity can also make for even more interesting fodder.

    2. See how web communities, and different communities at that, can interact with each other towards this goal. Especially, when the project itself involves folks who may come from pretty diverse backgrounds.

    Anyway, fingers are crossed. At the very least, my lab thinks it’s a project worth pursuing in earnest, and hey! It’s the International Year of Biodiversity, so not a bad time to try it out.

  29. francesco.orsenigo says

    Squilla Mantis (most intelligent of the arthropoda, greates eye in the animal Kingdom, punches like cal22 bullet)

    Glaucus Atlanticus (beautiful, eats jellies, can store the cnidocystis of its prey)

  30. shatfat says

    Oh, architeuthis might be awesome, but can it sing the Pikachu song in the forest at night? Didn’t think so!

    Pikachu, pikachuu-uu.

    And come on, PZ, have you forgotten that Nintendo Japan created a character called “Un-Gellah” (Anti-Gellar, as in Uri Gellar), known as Kadabra in the US, that carried a bent utensil? Uri took this as mockery and internet sued them in CA court from the UK. (He filed a press release, but as far as the JREF forum could figure out, didn’t actually file suit at all.) Nintendo deserves mad props for that one.

  31. shatfat says

    Is it me, or does Pokemon sound like gay Japanese porn?

    Well, it is an acronym for “pocket monster” so you do the math … hehe.

    But Chimpokomon was the real porn name (the South Park episode), as that comes from Japanese slang for “penis”. Daiji na mono, PROTECT MY BALLS. Good times.


  32. shatfat says

    Whoops, sorry, that song was from a completely different episode. Actually, Chimpokomon was completely boring due to an unimaginative punchline and the inability to come up with anything better than repeating the same halfway clever joke (big… American… penis) about five times. (No manatees choosing beach balls here.) Let us not speak of it again.

  33. rewarp says

    My five picks are:
    Architeuthis dux
    ⚡ Mosses;
    ⚡ Balboa trees;
    ⚡ Dipterocarps;
    ⚡ PZ Myers.

    Also, Adam Atlas. That was the most useful but pointless exegesis on Pokemon I have ever read.

  34. ambulocetacean says

    When that whole bird-flu thing was happening a few years ago, it turned out that Asian cockfighting fans were catching it from sucking the mucus out of their roosters’ nostrils. But do we ever see Ash sucking the snot out of Pikachu or Squirtle before a big battle?

    Pokemon should incorporate a bit of bird-flu education into its cartoons:

    ASH: “Wow! That Charizard sure gave Pikachu a hiding! His sinuses are all full of blood and snot. I’d better just give them a quick suck.”

    MISTY: “No, Ash! Don’t you remember? You can catch the H5N1 virus by sucking the mucus out of fighting animals!”

    Two little lines of dialogue that could save thousands of lives…

  35. ambulocetacean says

    As for my five faves, I hate to be a parochial Australian but…

    The Kookaburra: An overgrown kingfisher bird whose laugh is invariably dubbed on to the soundtrack of any movie set in Africa, the Amazon or any other place that has foliage. Its call puts the hyena and the howler monkey in the shade. Would be totally badass even if it didn’t eat snakes and spiders, which is considered a public service in Australia.

    The Wombat: A herbivorous burrowing marsupial whose playful nip will like as not sever your achilles tendon. Rap on the back of one of these little mofos and it sounds like you’re knocking on a wooden door. This is how they kill dingos. The dingos follow them down their oversized burrows and when they can’t bite through their backs they try to clamber over the top of them. The wombat then does a press-up and crushes them against the roof of the tunnel. Run over one of the little fuckers and it will smash your sump cover up into your crankshaft.

    The Kangaroo: Tastes good. Kind of like venison, but don’t overcook it.

    The Koala: Can only eat eucalyptus leaves that contain a seriously narcotic compound. To put it another way: the only thing on the planet that the koala can eat gets it incredibly stoned all day, every day. OK, that’s complete bullshit, but it’s still a cool story. Not a bear, by the way.

    Saltwater crocodile: Also tastes good and eats more tourists than locals.

  36. Carlie says

    I think a lot of the names are pretty clever- they do riff off of Latin and taxonomic nomenclature pretty heavily. The person who started Pokemon was into bug collecting. I don’t like the evolution bit (couldn’t they have said “pupate” or something?) but the little guys are cute.

    If any of them need any Pokemon pointers in developing Phylomon, my son is like the Rain Man of the genre.

  37. Prof-like Substance says

    However, it would be nice if a biodiversity project, such as this, actually looks at more than just animals. Ping.

  38. Tenebras says

    I don’t see this whole “kids learning 100s of Pokemon but not animals” thing. The vast majority of kids I’ve run across that were into Pokemon were also animal lovers, and had no difficulty in rattling off facts to surprise the adults. It’s not simply one or the other.

    But anyway, I hope these people have someone who’s experienced with games to help them. Because if it isn’t fun, it’s going to fail miserably. The draw of Pokemon is not just the cute/cool creatures or the fantasy of having freedom and power, but that it’s a well designed game.

  39. Evolving Squid says

    Pokemon may be awesome, but there’s something weird about people, especially kids, running around playing with their “pocket monster” (which is the intended meaning of “Pokemon” IIRC)… naming and fondling their pocket monster, whipping it out all the time, fighting to see who has the best pocket monster, and collecting all the pocket monsters you can handle. At least the pocket monsters are seldom killed, if I recall the lore… they just sort of wilt and slink away for a while until they are called into service again.

  40. toth says

    And anything would be better than Squirtle and Pikachu.

    Well, not ANYTHING. Not Kakuna or Metapod.

  41. David Marjanović says

    I’m going for speedy, high kill rate carnivores!

    High kill rate? Cheetahs? Surely thou jestest.

    Try Tyrannosaurus rex instead. It had to be said!

    Except there are juvenile Torosaurus who look like the adults, and look nothing like Triceratops.

    O RLY? That hasn’t been published, has it?

    This is in addition to the fact that to go from Triceratops to Torosaurus, you’d have to entirely rebuild the existing bone structure of the frill.. :S

    Which is exactly what you see start to happen in the largest Triceratops skulls. I watched Cannella’s presentation at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in September. The paper should come out in perhaps a year or maybe two.

    Its got to be the Tardigrade!

    All of them! All eleventyhundred species of them! ^_^ ^_^ ^_^

    The Koala: Can only eat eucalyptus leaves that contain a seriously narcotic compound. To put it another way: the only thing on the planet that the koala can eat gets it incredibly stoned all day, every day. OK, that’s complete bullshit, but it’s still a cool story.

    “The Giant Queensland Stinging Tree – it won’t kill you, but you’ll wish it had…”
    – Brian Choo

  42. recovering catholic says

    I just recently discarded my ancient, much-battered, plastic light-up Pikachu keychain after a small child in a grocery store pointed to it in tears, saying to his mom: “Mommy! Look what that lady did to Pikachu! His ears and his eyes and his nose are gone!”

  43. nathan.pozderac says

    I think they should do some viruses or bacteria (fungi maybe?). The other competitors would never see them, nor would they know how to kill them. They would be unstoppable.

  44. master.bratac says

    @32 I think Wooper were based on axolotls. They are also ridiculously cute.

    @55 Or Magikarp.

    PZ, so i herd u dun liek mudkipz?

  45. claire-chan says

    Pokemon is just a silly pastime. It’s not supposed to do Biology any justice.

    In any event, it’s better than Digimon and digivolving, at least I think.

  46. Aetre says

    My 5 nominees: Eudyptula minor, Ananas comosus, Odobenus rosmarus, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, Carassius auratus.

    I’m boring, maybe.

  47. ransara says

    My favs:

    – Tarsius syrichta (at 45 million years, it has the oldest contiguous fossil record of any primate. And they’re so damn cute!)

    – Vultur gryphus (one of the world’s largest and longest-lived flying birds. Looks like a badass too)

    – Balaenoptera musculus (largest animal ever to have existed – nuff said)

    – Regalecus glesne (indescribably cool. Look it up.)

    – Harpagornis moorei (okay, so it’s extinct. but bby virtue of its sheer badassery, I think it should be included.)

    PS… Just curious as to why you guys are consistently choosing the Giant Squid as one of your favs when the Colossal Squid is even bigger!

  48. pnrjulius says

    This only works if you develop a portable app (for iPhones, laptops, etc.) with all of this information on it, the PhyloDex (tm?), that can somehow be expanded through achieving in a video game.

    It’s the flow experience of “catching ’em all” that makes Pokemon so popular.

  49. Orson Zedd says

    Aw, come on, PZ. Pokémon is an incredibly awesome and complex game. Sure, it’s not the best biology textbook, but it is a good mathematical starter for budding mad scientists.

    Also, find me the verb form of “metamorphosis” that has the same ring as “evolve” does.

  50. Talen Lee says

    Of course the pokemon world isn’t going to look like our world. It was intelligently designed.

    Seriously. In-universe, there’s a pokemon which is mentioned as having created the world. This world is, by definition, intelligently designed, and expecting it to have ‘real’ biology in it is ridiculous.

    It’s also a great deal of fun, and talking about it with biologically inclined friends about how it MIGHT be working, about what it COULD be doing, is quite fun and enjoyable, and leads to us occasionally unearthing interesting nuggets of biological data we didn’t otherwise know.

    Or, I suppose, in other words, ‘fuck you pz, pokemon is awesome.’

  51. Erik says

    Pokemon is awesome! I’m still playing Diamond version.

    Though I will admit the evolution thing was a little strange, and the ball thing. Pokemon are still awesome though.