With every new generation of Pokémon comes a fresh crop of the little critters. As of Pokémon Sun and Moon, we’re getting alarmingly, ridiculously close to a roster of one thousand. The series has come one hell of a long way in its twenty-year run.
Among each region’s new additions, you’ll find the usual suspects. There are the early route 'trashtastic-mon,' which may evolve into something truly damn powerful later on. There will also be a sprinkling of really OP new ‘mon, which will dominate competitive play. There’s the box legends. There’s the great crowd of meh. You know how this stuff works.
The pre-release hype among players, though, is usually centered around the starters. The Fire/Water/Grass trio you pick from at the beginning of your adventure is a common thread through all of the main series releases, and they take most of the limelight. For many fans, the designs of the starters and their evolutions are one of the things we want to see first when a new installment is announced.
The starter Pokémon are always a curious bunch, full of surprises. One that seemed initially awful at first may prove to be a competitive powerhouse or vice versa. You’ve got to pick right, so let’s take a look at the best and worst starters in the series.
15 Best: Mudkip
Let’s be frank here, everyone likes Mudkipz. Has a meme ever lied to us? You’re damn right it hasn’t.
That huge positive factor aside, though, Mudkip is a super solid choice. Sure, it’s a worthy companion throughout the main game itself, but when you look at the big picture, you’ve got a great all-round performer too.
Swampert has successfully established itself among the ranks of Pokémon’s biggest, bulkiest pains in the ass. By virtue of its stellar —and rare— Water/Ground typing, it has a sole weakness to Grass. Coupled with its great all-round stats, it serves perfectly as a tank. Let’s not forget its spangly new Mega evolution either, which bolsters its defenses further while also making it a lightning fast and terrifying rain sweeper with Swift Swim.
14 Worst: Pikachu
Just as the hype of Pokémon Red and Blue began to die down (when the game had been released and thoroughly played to death by the whole damn world), what was Nintendo to do next? Start the whole thing off again with Pokémon Yellow, that’s what. By so doing, not only could Nintendo execs everywhere afford that loft conversion they’d always wanted, but they also started a dangerous precedent: the triple dip. The third version.
Pokémon Yellow, of course, cast the series’ unofficial mascot in the lead role. This time around, Pikachu itself was to be your starter, and… well, it was kind of a bad time. It refused to evolve, for one, stunting its usefulness, and it was fairly hopeless against some of the gyms as it was.
13 Best: Torchic
The competitive community Smogon tends to (unofficially) call the shots when it comes to the meta. Players serious about Pokémon battling tend to play by their rules and tiers, just so that everyone understands each other and we’re all on an even playing field.
Down Smogon way, very few starter Pokémon have ever been declared ‘Uber’ and banished from OU (that is to say, ‘standard’ play). Do you know which was? Blaziken, that’s which. From its unassuming and adorable beginnings as Torchic, this thing evolves into a horrifying flaming chicken-monster from the depths of Hades.
Its hidden ability, Speed Boost, allows Blaziken to easily spiral out of control, and it packs more than enough power (and ways to boost it) to start a deadly sweep at a moment’s notice. There have been more than enough Fire/Fighting starters through the years, but this is definitely the most potent of them.
12 Worst: Oshawott
Oshawott, in my eyes, has always been the Pokémon equivalent of the kind of people in our lives we’d refer to as acquaintances rather than friends. You know them by sight, you offer a quick little hello or slice of small talk when you pass on the street, and that’s about the extent of it. They don’t do anything particularly good, or bad, or all that notable.
Samurott functions just fine as a mixed attacker in the lower tiers, with its limited but effective move pool providing all the tools it needs. I’m totally cool with its animations, too, particularly the way it takes Razor Shell far too literally. I can see how it would have its fans, but I just find Samurott a little uninspiring, a bit generic.
11 Best: Bulbasaur
I know what you’re thinking. As a general rule of thumb, Grass-type starters get much less love than their counterparts. Perhaps not in terms of their design or the main game, but none of them have ever quite set the competitive scene alight. Or, you know, really made an appearance at all.
Much of this is due to the Grass typing itself, which is among the worst when it comes to weaknesses and resistances. Still, Bulbasaur isn’t the kind of guy who’s assed about any of that. The true OG, number one in the Pokédex, it has stayed relevant thanks to its versatility. Will it mega evolve and become massively tanky, or will it go the speed and power route with its Chlorophyll shenanigans? Alongside Charizard, Bulbasaur (and its evolutions) made for a simple —but effective— one-two punch combo.
10 Worst: Popplio
I’m sure there are some of you out there who took your first look at Popplio and fell in love. There’s an odd kind of cuteness about the little guy, I guess, in a different way to the conventional wisdom on ‘cute’ Pokémon. Its silly-looking nature is kind of endearing, is what I’m getting at here. You’re totally free to think that way, nobody’s judging anyone here.
One thing we can’t deny, though, is that Popplio was most definitely in last place when it came to early approval ratings. We had the Litten brigade, those who wanted to be a bit cooler and edgier and went with the owl, and then we had the third camp, the Popplio hardcore. The former two made a meme out of Popplio and its dopey clown-looks.
9 Best: Froakie
I know. Prior to the release of Pokémon X and Y, this little thing was a bit of a joke. We saw the designs of the starters, and we mocked. We mocked Froakie like the mocking mocksters of mock that we are. Often, among the trio, there’s a runt of the litter, a Pokémon that just doesn’t quite garner the same insta-support that its fellows do. Froakie was that guy.
Still, we’ve got to eat ourselves some sweet, sweet humble pie. Many of us changed our tune when Froakie’s final evolution, Greninja, was unleashed. It’s quite the badass-looking ‘mon, and one of the most beloved shinies ever. It’s also a huge powerhouse thanks to its ability, Protean, which changes Greninja’s typing to that of the move it’s using. STAB on everything? Don’t mind if I darn well do.
8 Worst: Turtwig
Unlike Mudkip, who was blessed with the super solid Water/Ground typing, Torterra is lumbered with the distinctly shonky Grass/Ground. It’s exclusive, so I guess that’s kind of neat, but great Pokémon are combinations of all sorts of factors, and Torterra lacks all of them.
As with Meganium, this guy struggles to find a role in which it isn’t outperformed by something else. If you ever see a Torterra in battle (which you won’t), it will be Cursing it up, being generally bulky, and presumably using some of that fancy Ground STAB. In that sense, it’s a little different to the norm in that it isn’t a status machine, but the slow-as-a-grandma-on-a-mobility-scooter speed and craptacular typing does nothing for it.
7 Best: Snivy
This majestic snake evolution line didn’t have all that much to offer originally. It was happy enough in the lower tiers, busting out Reflect and Light Screen, and it made for a nice husband for Milotic, but that was about the extent of its usefulness.
A few generations later, Snivy’s line was given its hidden ability, and it had a quick slice of the limelight for itself at last. Contrary means that stat reductions and buffs will have the opposite effect, and is generally quite the niche ability to have. In this case, however, it was a huge boon, making Serperior truly relevant for one reason: Contray Leaf Storm. Who wouldn’t want to be able to fire off a hugely powerful attack and boost the user’s special attack two stages in the process? Serperior isn’t the greatest sweeper, but it can really crush some souls.
6 Worst: Tepig
As I say, there have been more than enough Fire/Fighting starters through the franchise’s history. Ample, you might even say. If I never have to see another one, I’ll be pretty happy. With Blaziken and Infernape already doing the rounds, you have to be damn special to pull off that Fire/Fighting thing around here, buddy boy. Sadly, Emboar totally fails by most accounts.
While it has high HP, its defenses are really poor, and its offenses are nothing too special. This makes it a tough cookie to use effectively, without trying to utilize Flame Charge to boost its speed or some odd sort of Trick Room set. It now has access to the ability Reckless, and some nice recoil moves like Head Smash and Wild Charge to use with it, but that more gimmickry than anything.
5 Best: Totodile
Some of us crave attention. They thrive on it, breathe it like the rest of us breathe air. They are the Kardashians of the world, constantly thrusting their oiled-up hindquarters at cameras for retweets and likes.
Others don’t go for that sort of thing at all. They don’t need or want the limelight. They know they’re freaking awesome, and they don’t need to step out of cabs sans underwear in front of the paparazzi to feel good about themselves. The quiet and unassuming Totodile line, for instance. With its spangly new Sheer Force ability in hand, Feraligatr is a great-if-not-top-tier sweeper that is often underestimated. Let this bad boy get a couple of Dragon Dances going, then tell me it’s not pretty damn good.
4 Worst: Chikorita
Now, I don’t have any real beef with Chikorita. Or, by extension, with Meganium. It’s a relatively solid Grass type, doing what most Grass types were born to do: spread status like a-holes, tank hits and/or be hit by one its umpteen million weaknesses and keel over like a drunken father at a wedding. That’s just the natural order of things. It’s doing what it was born to do, and I’ve no qualms with that.
My issue is, there’s no particular reason for it to exist. It doesn’t really have a USP over other similar Pokémon who do the exact same thing, and is outshined by several who do it better. Accessibility in the lower tiers is really all that it’s got on its side. That, and it is darned cuteness.
3 Best: Charmander
Granted, I do feel a kind of nostalgic attachment to Charmander. The teeny fiery lizard was the starter I chose during my very first ever Pokémon adventure, and that sort of bond is for life. I’m welling up, Mr. Flamey, I really am. We’ve been through so much together. I love you, man!
That aside, Charmander’s evo line has had a chequered history. It didn’t see much use in a long time, thanks to Stealth Rock instantly squishing its nuts into spam. Not to mention its lack of a particularly standout attack stat. With X and Y, however, Charizard became one of the most popular Pokémon in the format, what with its dual mega formes. Charizard Y is a fearsome sun attacker, while Charizard X is a potent physical Fire/Dragon (and the hipster choice). Pick your poison; they’re both amazing.
2 Worst: Chespin
Loathe as I am to say this, the Chespin line is another unfortunate victim of Grass Starter Syndrome. I really like the idea of Chesnaught, its concept, and its signature move, but it’s just such a drag to try and make it work effectively and consistently.
The Grass/Fighting typing is shared only by Virizion and Breloom. It’s a little mediocre, but it offers an interesting combination of resistances which can be a great help when it comes to ‘plugging holes’ in a team. Chesnaught does boast impressive bulk, and the Spiky Shield move to protect itself and chip the opponent a little in the process. It saw a smattering of success as a result of these qualities, but it was totally overshadowed in its trio by the power of Greninja.
1 Best: Litten
Now, we all like cats. Of course we do. They’re haughty little buggers who answer to nobody; renegade rebels who cannot be tamed and play by their own rules. They have no curfew, and they only call their mamas seven times a day. They’re like the main guy in a Clint Eastwood western, only furrier.
When Pokémon Sun and Moon’s starter squads were unveiled, something caused many of us to flock to the Litten camp in droves. Perhaps we’ve been brainwashed by all the viral videos of cats playing pianos that we’re bombarded with today. Whatever it was (the damn goofiness of the other two played a part as well), I think it’s safe to say that Litten was the winner as far as popularity was concerned. A Fire/Dark starter in Incineroar is a neat little novelty too.