Remember when Lavender Town was POKÉMON’s central horror spectacle? Do you recall the haunting lull of its melody and the iconic myth of the Lavender Town Syndrome that circulated the web years back? When the eeriest lore revolved around the ghost of a deceased Marowak who was killed by Team Rocket to protect its young? While we understand the implications of Team Rocket’s murder, the series lets you infer it rather than state it outright.
Considering its target audience at the time, and the spook Lavender Town gave us, POKÉMON has often incorporated darker themes to its series in small, cautious steps after POKÉMON RED and BLUE (1996). Who can blame them? Their target demographic is young children to teenagers. But a good majority of us grew up with the game series, so that audience is now 20+ years old. As we have grown, thankfully enough, so did POKÉMON.
We ventured far. We went to the Pokémon Mansion (2004). The mansion is one of two places where we can find a Ditto, which some fans consider as the byproduct of Mew’s failed cloning. We saw a lot of dodgy experimentation and a volcanic eruption, but the mansion only scratched the surface. When POKÉMON DIAMOND and PEARL (2006) were released, we got the fear factor kicked into high gear for an E-rated game with the Old Chateau.
The spirit of a butler is your company, along with the ghost pokémon inhabiting the area, and not to mention some creepy ghost girl who watches you then vanishes. You get all the spooky vibes from the Old Chateau, including a portrait with glowing red eyes and a “malevolent” tv that “stares.” These were amazing stepping stones, but POKÉMON saw room for improvement in its tone and characters.
We moved past two-dimensional characters. For antagonists, we didn’t really get that much of a scope about them. We get glimpses of Giovanni and tidbits of his relationship with your rival in POKÉMON HEARTGOLD and SOULSILVER (2009). We know almost nothing about Cyrus besides his zealous ambition to become a god of new world order.
Until the remakes of POKÉMON RUBY and SAPPHIRE (2002), even Maxie and Archie were known as some gruff and nerdy-ish bad guys who either want to make the world suffer an eternal drought or become an endless ocean. These characters never had much substance when it comes down to it.
Until much later in the series, of course, when POKÉMON worked on its characterization at long last. The series, which tip-toed around implications, worked its way up to transparency. We get true antagonists, characters with emotional depth. Characters with something inherently off about them.
POKÉMON BLACK and WHITE (2010) were revolutionary games despite the graphics. Rather than having a villain seeking some regional or worldly conquest, we have N Harmonia, the anti-villain whose heart is in the right place, but his intentions? Not so much. It was something new – the liberation of pokémon was something that deviated from the usual conventions of the series’ storyline. We’re able to experience how someone with noble goals was under the psychological abuse of his father. How his room reflected his innocent, childish mentality to improve the world without fully understanding the ramifications of his father’s organization. We progressively learn about N: his fast speech pattern (an evident sign of social deprivation), his emotional vulnerabilities, his convictions, as well as his desire to understand you as a trainer and the differences between your moral compass and his.
Remarkably, the game allows us to see N’s world and the cruelty he faces from others and from his own father. POKÉMON didn’t beat around the bush, either. Your friends in the game often offer remarks about N, mostly negative and wary. N’s father, Ghetsis, groomed him from the beginning, only showing him hurt pokémon in order to see the world through one unpleasant, manipulative perspective.
Then, after beating N in his castle, Ghetsis allows us to watch his frustration unfold by calling his own son “good-for-nothing” and a “warped, defective boy.” Until POKÉMON BLACK and WHITE, we never witnessed a character getting thoroughly dehumanized.
But that’s exactly what POKÉMON finally did right: a character full of tragedy, misunderstanding, and someone who never fits into place with his world. A character who lets us see him for who he is as a person and as an anti-villain.
Creepy Rooms and Creepier Houses
What defines N as an individual is his room, which provides us more context about his personality than the textual disclosures he provides the player. This teenager lives in a child’s room decorated with toys for small kids (notably used recently, according to the game).
The vibrancy of the room would be welcomed in any other circumstances, but not by N. A toy crate, building blocks, a train set, a floor decorated with clouds — all things someone his age shouldn’t have. The musical score for N’s room is just as eerie as the contents. A haunting music box chimes in our ears and the room becomes extremely off-putting.
Then, if you remember it, the sequel to the game changed the room’s mood. A music box chime clinging to life, nearly broken, escalating and softening — it’s an immersion into his broken childhood.
POKÉMON BLACK 2 and WHITE 2 (2012) unravel the mystery about the region. POKÉMON bumps it up a notch as it experiments with the unsettling with the Strange House. The ghost of a girl appears briefly in POKÉMON BLACK and WHITE, but we find the outcome of her fate within the confines of this old, rickety house.
The ghost girl rearranges the room, only permitting you to see and read what she wants. It doesn’t have a happy ending, especially after discovering that the girl was tormented by a malicious dream sequence by Darkrai, who made it impossible to ever wake up. POKÉMON fostered this tragic tale from something sinister and disturbing.
It worked up its horror genre inclusion, and boy does it know how to do it well.
POKÉMON XY (2013): Creepy Houses Version 2 and a Genocidal Villain
The Scary House doesn’t measure up to the creepiness of Strange House, but it’s one of the points of interest in the Kalos region. It’s an easy spot to overlook, but it might have been the series’ attempt to replicate the atmosphere of the Strange House.
It was an experimental attempt considering the Strange House provided clues to the house’s tragic mystery. The Scary House, on the other hand, has a man who shares a tale of a “horde of faceless men” and if you refuse to tip after he tells you the story, he warns you that “you might see something really scary.” It’s foreboding, but it’s no Strange House. However, I commend the series for its attempt.
It’s something different, but not as chilling as it could be.
Our most fashionable antagonist’s desire to watch the world crash and burn rivals Cyrus’s goal to become a god. We’ve had our share of extremists antagonists, but mostly our villains wanted to utilize pokémon. For someone who wants to preserve beauty, Lysandre’s bright idea includes exterminating all pokémon so they won’t be harmed or stolen.
Cyrus might have wanted to eradicate the world, but at least he acknowledged he needed Dialga and Palkia to seize his end goal. If that isn’t enough, let’s not forget Lysandre’s plan to also eliminate all humans and pokémon who aren’t aligned with his organization.
For someone who is so civil with your character, Lysandre’s mentality and state of mind are so far gone it’s disturbing. Even when he acknowledges the repercussions of his plans and cries over it (talk about emotional vulnerability) we get a truly deranged antagonist with actual, progressional depth.
The Extents of Obsession
The culmination of POKÉMON’s efforts comes together in POKÉMON SUN and MOON (2016). We have a spectrum of extremists. One side is for Lysandre and the other for Lusamine. N’s circumstances, upbringing, and relationship with his father would be closer on the spectrum to Lusamine. But even N has a semblance of sanity that Lusamine does not. Her obsession to love and adore pokémon steers her toward cryogenics.
The game presents us with the pokémon she froze, including a slowpoke and a Pikachu in her trophy room, or, as she calls it, her private collection. The trials and errors of the series reach fruition: POKÉMON has perfected its sinister elements. This is the height of its transparency rather than previous games providing a mere implication. We are horrified that this E-rated game went to such unsettling lengths. But it’s awe-inspiring because this is exactly what older audiences crave from the series.
At this rate, if POKÉMON is adapting the darker themes of EARTHBOUND, then, by all means, go right ahead, Nintendo. Lusamine trumps Ghetsis’s neglectful parenting skills by emotionally and psychologically damaging not just one child, but both of her children. She openly calls her daughter Lillie ugly for reaching out to other people. Lusamine dehumanizes her.
She unashamedly places her love and obsession for pokémon and the Ultra Beasts above her children. Her personality, initially friendly if not suspicious, plummeted into a downward spiral of a newfound level of madness. Her amicable beginning to her unbalanced and unstable end is carefully executed. We see the breaks in her façade at just the right pace. Lusamine is the successful result of POKÉMON’s effort in formulating the perfect realistic villain for its aging audiences. POKÉMON finally went there.
Keep it up, Nintendo
There’s a lot to commend Nintendo and POKÉMON for, especially for such stellar advancements it has attempted. The past was all about linear storylines and an equally linear gameplay. Unlike its predecessors, the future looks bright for the franchise. Perhaps the series will delve further into darker themes than it did in POKÉMON SUN and MOON. Perhaps we will get another character as distinct, unique, and as psychologically and socially inept as N.
All these “what if”s and “maybe”s keep me ecstatic for each new installment. I get all star-eye emoji when trailers for a new game come out because all I can think is, “Boy! What creepy thing am I gonna see this time?” Or, as of now, “Can this villain top how unhinged Lusamine was?”
Cheers to newer protectives, newer characters, and newer regions to explore for the inner trainer in all of us.