Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A reader tries to explain the thinking behind Pokémon “evolution”

The Piplup evolution tree, as seen in the Pokémon anime. (Screenshot: Bulbapedia)
The Piplup evolution tree, as seen in the Pokémon anime. (Screenshot: Bulbapedia)
Keyboard GeniusesKeyboard Geniuses is our occasional glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the community’s discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity.

Intelligent Design

This week saw a For Our Consideration op-ed from William Hughes about the bitter battles and unexpected camaraderie of Pokémon Go. A local church played a prominent role in the essay, because it just so happens to also be a Pokémon gym, a crossover that seems to be more common than one would think especially when considering the emphasis these games put on “evolution.” But as El Santo points out Pokémon evolution isn’t exactly evolution:

The weird thing is, the way it’s portrayed, it really doesn’t seem like evolution at all. The starter Pokémon always look like babies, and the later evolutions always look like adult versions. So they can always go around it by saying that it’s more like they’re further down their natural life cycle. Shoot, the bug Pokémon go from caterpillars to cocoons to a winged insect. That’s not how evolution works.


And in a mammoth post, Pgoodso tried to explain this strange semantic choice:

There’s actually lots of speculation as to exactly why the Pokémon “evolve” instead of a more apt term like “transform” or “metamorphose.”

The origin of the game itself comes from the lead developer’s insect-collecting hobby, so he obviously had metamorphosis in mind when developing the game. However, the Japanese term for what, say, a butterfly does as it matures, is “dappi,” which indicates a shedding of the skin or molting. It is apt for insects, but isn’t exactly a clear description of what the non-insect Pokémon do. Charmeleon isn’t a pupa or chrysalis stage between Charmander and Charizard, or a Charmander shedding a carapace. It’s seemingly an immature or pubescent stage in a continual maturation process.

Another Japanese word for metamorphosis or transformation is “henshin.” Now, “henshin” is also the term used for what certain Rangers who are Mighty and have Power do, as well as certain robots in disguise. So it’s possible the writers of Pokémon decided “shinka,” which means evolution or progress, would be better suited and more apt for transforming animals, as well as less likely to get them sued or, at least, less likely to relate the Pokémon to superheroes and shape-shifting robots.

The best word for metamorphosis, which more specifically refers to the insect life cycle changes we would ascribe that word to in biology is actually “hentai,” which, literally translated, doesn’t mean “pervert” or “pornographic anime” but “body change,” with a connotation of mystery, ickyness, or weirdness. Obviously that word has come to have many other connotations in and out of Japan the developers might have wanted to avoid, even if it was used in the proper context. So again, shinka/evolution may have just worked out better for all involved.

One much more mundane possibility is that it could be down to file size. Pokémon was one of the most data-packed cartridges ever produced for the Game Boy. Due to the limited space, there wasn’t any room for a direct translation of the Japanese script of the game because of how much more information is communicated in a single written kanji character than in an English letter. “Metamorphosis” is 13 characters long in English and, no matter which word you actually use, is just two characters long in Japanese.

So the entire text had to be rewritten in English in much smaller and/or simpler terms. As such, it’s entirely possible that the reason the word “shinka”/“evolution” was used instead of “hentai”/“metamorphosis” or “henshin”/“transformation” was because, quite literally, those few additional letters in the English version of the game could have either hit the limit on the cartridge’s RAM or ran off the edge of the screen. You can see the other effects of the limited space in the variable way the text will either spell out numbers or just use their single characters (sometimes “one,” sometimes “1”), as well as the removal of spaces in certain phrases: Squirtle is described as a “tinyturtle” in the Pokédex, for example. They were looking to shrink words and concepts in as many places as possible, so “evolution” may not be an inaptly used concept, typo, or mistranslation but a simple tightening of the editorial belt.

You Mess With JRPGs, You Go In The Grinder

Screenshot: Chrono Cross/The Chrono Wiki
Screenshot: Chrono Cross/The Chrono Wiki

Also this week, Samantha Nelson reviewed the latest game in Square’s Star Ocean series of sci-fi tinged JRPGs. Unfortunately, it sounds like Integrity And Faithlessness wasn’t the revival Star Ocean needed. Among Samantha’s criticisms was its reliance on grinding—throwing yourself at repetitive battles and quests for hours just to get your party up to snuff with, or overpowered for, what lies ahead. Down in the comments, Wussypillow wondered if this tradition will ever go away:

One of these days, an RPG is going to just have a “turn off grinding” option. We’re already partway there: We have “fast travel” in many games, where you can warp to previously visited locations rather than tromping through the wilderness. More and more games are also allowing you to turn off random encounters (or you can get items like Holy Water in the Dragon Quest games that give you a temporary break from them). What I think comes next is “fast leveling”: Upon beating one plot-relevant boss, you gain 100% of the necessary experience to take on the next boss.

The final step would be “make shorter, more tightly plotted games in general.” That, of course, is decades away, requiring as-yet-undreamt-of advances in technology.


Unexpected Dave reminded us of a few RPGs that looked for alternatives:

There are all kinds of games that have had alternatives to grinding and random encounters, yet the classic grinding model persists. In 2000, Chrono Cross had a leveling system based solely on boss fights and no truly random encounters. A year or two earlier, Final Fantasy VIII had enemies that level alongside the player, ostensibly negating the need to grind. This is now pretty standard practice for a lot of Western RPGs.

Pen-and-paper RPGs have been trying alternatives to the classic Dungeons & Dragons “kill factor” for XP since the 1980s at least. The latest published D&D adventures suggest a “milestone-based” experience model, where you level up whenever you accomplish a significant goal. Quest and mission-based computer RPGs, such as Mass Effect 2 and Fallout 3, have gone a similar route, where the bulk of the XP you earn comes from completing a mission rather than killing an enemy.

The recent iOS release of Final Fantasy VII included the ability to turn off random encounters, as well as the ability to increase your attributes to their maximums without needing to level up.

But in spite of all the alternatives, the classic grind is still prevalent. The main Pokémon series remains popular, and it’s as grindy as ever. Rather than declining in use since 2000, grinding has been embraced by genres outside RPGs. The mechanic for leveling-up weapons and health in the second Ratchet & Clank game was so well received that it was added to this year’s remake of the original game.


Snarky Name Here gave us an anecdotal alternative:

Best alternative to XP I’ve seen is the one my DM uses: You gain XP when you find money. Find 100 gold, get 100 xp. This means you have an incentive to get the loot a monster might be guarding and get rewarded for it, but you don’t have to kill the monsters if you can get the loot without doing so. Or, you get XP for solving puzzles, finding secrets, etc. There’s also a tradeoff because you don’t get XP for items you don’t sell. So you either sell the magical doohickey for the money/XP, or keep it and forego money/XP.


And Stepped Pyramids informed us that the “XP for gold” rule goes all the way back to the original Dungeons & Dragons:

1 gold=1 XP goes back to the beginning of D&D. Original D&D actually gave more XP for gold than for kills, and ultimately it served as a progression-based XP system. You found small or large hoards of loot based on accomplishing small or large feats. Advanced D&D still awarded XP for gold, but Advanced D&D 2 got rid of it entirely.


That’s it for this week, Gameologerinos. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!