The Pokémon franchise has always courted controversy – the popularity of the series in the late nineties made a lot of people uncomfortable, and anyone who didn’t entirely understand why kids were becoming so obsessed with Pikachu generally tended to view the entire craze as something dangerous.
Over the years, though, the controversies haven’t stopped. Every now and then, a new Pokémon will be introduced that people find offensive, and there have been plenty of occasions when Nintendo have had to alter Pokémon designs or perform damage control when things go wrong.
Here are some of the Pokémon that have created the biggest controversies in the years since the franchise first debuted.
Shortly after Pokémon debuted in the West, the ice/psychic-type Pokémon Jynx began drawing heat from various concerned groups, who weren’t too impressed with the character’s design.
One of the more humanoid Pokémon, Jynx’s original design featured black skin, large lips, and long golden hair. Many believed that this appearance was little more than a racist caricature, reminiscent of the practice of blackface, wherein performers used to paint themselves black and perform impressions of African Americans.
It’s not certain whether blackface performances provided the original inspiration behind Jynx’s design – many believe that the Pokémon is based on a ‘ganguro’ fashion trend from Japan which saw teenagers dying themselves as dark as possible with fake tans, and also dying their hair blond, in an attempt to emulate, rather than make fun of, American black culture.
Regardless of where the original inspiration for Jynx might have come from, the Pokémon is certainly tied to blackface in the minds of many critics. As such, Nintendo altered the character’s design to have purple skin, in order to distance the Pokémon from the controversy surrounding its design.
The Pokémon Kadabra is an unlicensed caricature of celebrity psychic Uri Gellar – at least, that’s what Gellar himself has argued. There are definitely certain similarities between Gellar’s stage performances and Kadabra’s battle strategy – Kadabra uses a spoon to channel its psychic energy, while Gellar’s most famous stage trick involves bending spoons with his mind.
Considering that an episode of the Pokémon cartoon series which features Kadabra also includes a group of psychics who are learning to emulate Gellar’s trick and bend spoons with psychic powers, it’s hard to ignore the similarity.
According to Gellar, though, not only does this similarity go beyond fair use laws, the claimed psychic also finds the parody offensive: "Nintendo turned me into an evil, occult Pokémon character." Gellar sued Nintendo, and while the full details of the case have never been made public, Nintendo has since ceased printing on all Pokémon trading cards featuring Kadabra.
Registeel is a lesson in how a small decision regarding the pose of a character can make a big impact to the way it is received.
While Registeel, which was introduced in the third generation of Pokémon games, is based on the Jewish legend of the golem (a large clay statue that comes to life), the character’s sprite had to be edited for the European version of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl because its pose in the original version of the game, involving a single raised arm, looks suspiciously similar to the Nazi salute.
Nazi imagery is banned in Germany and is considered deeply offensive throughout Europe – as such, Registeel’s pose in Diamond and Pearl had to be altered to avoid further controversy in these regions. The danger of Nazi association has also prompted Nintendo to abandon the offending sprite entirely, and all subsequent Pokémon games around the world have used a new sprite which doesn’t feature a raised arm.
With a big sombrero, a poncho, and a penchant for dancing in battle, Ludicolo clearly draws inspiration from Latin American culture – in fact, many people believe that the character draws a little too much inspiration.
It’s argued by many that Ludicolo is a parody of offensive Mexican stereotypes, playing on many of the common iconography associated with Mexican culture in the same way that Jynx resembles blackface. It doesn’t help that the Pokémon’s name is inspired by ‘loco’, the Spanish word for ‘crazy’.
While Ludicolo’s design hasn’t prompted enough outrage to require a change in design on Nintendo’s part, there is certainly a lot of evidence to support the notion that the design is inspired by Hispanic culture – whether the connection is a deliberate parody or merely a tribute to cultural icons, though is up to interpretation.
Nosepass, a creature first introduced in Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, is based on ancient statues found on Easter Island – this connection is clear, as the rock-type Pokémon looks strikingly similar to these statues, known as maoi, and the appearance that they often take on in popular culture as large stone heads (even though the real statues also have bodies which were often buried underground).
The evolution of Nosepass, introduced in later games, takes further inspiration from maoi statues by adding a large hat and big eyes to the design, as well as a bushy moustache which is made from iron filings that build up under its magnetic nose.
Unfortunately, many who didn’t understand the actual inspiration for the Pokémon took these design additions as anti-Semitic parodies of Jewish stereotypes. While this may not have been the original designers’ intended interpretation of the character, it’s easy to see where the confusion could come from for those who haven’t carefully studied the inspiration behind various Pokémon.
Lopunny bears an unfortunate resemblance to a Playboy bunny. There’s no getting around the fact: it's a tall, slim Pokémon with human proportions and a curvy design, which has large rabbit ears and flowing blond hair. It also doesn’t help that the Pokémon, while humanoid in form, appears naked, further fuelling the connection in many peoples’ minds with nude models for a risqué men’s magazine (even humanoid Pokémon like Jynx and Machoke appear to be dressed in clothing of some sort).
When returning to the Pokémon a few years later to produce its mega evolutionary form, Nintendo took various steps to distance this new version of the character from rumors surrounding its Playboy inspiration – while the design remains humanoid in appearance, Mega Lopunny loses its curvaceous hips, along with its bust, and gains a thin pair of ripped leggings. This, however, hasn’t stopped eager fans from drawing fanart of the Pokémon in compromising positions and poses.
Porygon itself is not original source of the controversy that surrounds the character – unfortunately for the digital Pokémon, it gets a lot of blame for the actions of Ash’s Pikachu.
Before Pokémon had even become a worldwide global success, its anime series was already gaining popularity across Japan as children began falling in love with the weird and wonderful creatures that make up the series. One episode featuring Porygon, however, has lived on in infamy long after being pulled from re-broadcastings of the show – the episode features a particularly dazzling thundershock from Pikachu, which presented an array of flashing lights which triggered seizures in a large number of the children watching it.
As such, Porygon has never again appeared in the Pokémon cartoon series, and the creature is typically connected in many people’s minds with child epilepsy – even though Porygon itself did nothing wrong.
Religion has always had a strained relationship with Pokémon – while plenty of churches around the world are currently enjoying an increase of footfall brought on by Pokémon GO and its gyms and Pokéstops, traditionally, many fundamentalist Christians have expressed a deep abiding hatred for the series. At the peak of Pokémania in the ‘90s, many churches openly held public burning ceremonies where they would set fire to mountains of Pokémon merchandise, under the belief that the series teaches satanic worship.
It’s interesting, then, that Nintendo ultimately decided to poke at this particular bubble of controversy, by creating a Pokémon that is, essentially, the god of the Pokémon world. Arceus, the creator of all life in the Pokémon universe, is a rare and powerful Pokémon – although this is hardly enough to stop it from being captured by eager Pokémon trainers and used in battles against others.
Needless to say, not all Christian ministers have been thrilled with the idea of Pokémon players enslaving a deity for the purpose of participating in organized fighting rings.
Pokémon fans are a creative bunch. Where games and television shows have created a narrative and a story behind some elements of the Pokémon franchise, fans of the series have gone to extremes developing new, interesting theories which add greater depth to the Pokémon lore and make the connections between various Pokémon even more nuanced – if you’re willing to believe this kind of thing.
One such theory suggests that if Arceus is the god of Pokémon, Giratina must be its counter, taking the place of the devil in the franchise. Giratina, according to Pokédex data, was cast out by Arceus to live in an alternate, dark reality, which some gamers see as a parallel to the story of Lucifer in Christian theology – what’s more, the Pokémon’s horned, serpent-like appearance helps to strengthen this connection. This theory suggests that in Pokémon Platinum, the player descends into Hell in order to capture the devil, which is a concept that doesn’t sit too well with many parent groups.
It’s safe to say that Heatmor’s design was not entirely well thought out – the Pokémon, a fire-type anteater, features a few inconsequential design elements that haven’t been interpreted in the way that they were intended.
Many of the fifth generation Pokémon feature prominent veins as part of their design – Timburr, Gurdurr, and Conkeldurr are all covered in veins which draw attention to their physical strength and large muscles. With Heatmor, though, similar veins (which also double up as steel pipes in a design that’s partially inspired by a flamethrower) are unfortunately located between the Pokémon’s legs, meaning that many casual viewers believe them to be a particularly controversial anatomical inclusion.
Heatmor isn’t the only Pokémon to be accused of an inappropriate design – the original generation’s Cloyster often draws heat for its resemblance to part of the female anatomy, which has led many to question how carefully Nintendo consider their Pokémon designs before approving them.
The Frankenstein’s Monster of Pokémon, Mewtwo is a complex character with a nuanced past – much of which most American audiences aren’t aware of due to translation changes from the original Japanese. While in the English dub of the first Pokémon movie, Mewtwo is a villain through and through, in the original Japanese film, the character, while still dangerous and not without flaws, is far more sympathetic, grieving for a childhood friend while struggling to find a meaningful place in a world that doesn’t value cloned life.
When 4Kids Entertainment, the company which produces the Pokémon cartoon localization, first began plans to create an English dub of the first movie, it was decided that Mewtwo’s complex past was too controversial for western children, who were far more used to overtly evil villains. What’s more, the complex approach to cloning was a sensitive subject at the time (Game Freak had already decided to axe a Pokémon based on Dolly the sheep for fear of backlash), and as such, Mewtwo’s nuanced backstory was cut from the film.
As the mascot for Pokémon, Pikachu is often the character which receives the brunt of attention whenever a Pokémon controversy appears on the horizon (except for in cases where Porygon provides a better scapegoat).
One such case of Pokémon controversy has seen Pikachu become the face of a string of protests throughout Hong Kong. Unlike other controversies on this list, Pokémon trainers of Hong Kong aren’t concerned over the content of Pokémon games, but rather, their translation language.
Recently, Nintendo announced that for the first time, its main series Pokémon games would be translated into Chinese. While this might sound promising, Hong Kong fans were dismayed to discover that this meant a standardized Mandarin translation for the series across the whole region – including in Hong Kong, which had previously seen their favorite Pokémon receive Cantonese names, matching the native language of the region.
Across Hong Kong, the Mandarin language is seen as a tool of communist oppression as Mainland China attempts to force Hong Kong to integrate with its neighbors through converting to a new language. As such, Pikachu became the symbol for a series of protests as Hong Kong Pokémon fans fought to keep their local translations, rather than being forced to use a new set of names which are designed for Mandarin audiences.
The Pokémon cartoon series has an unfortunate habit of courting controversy. When it’s not giving children seizures, or featuring heavy amounts of gun violence, the show occasionally hits on particularly topical subjects that are the subject of significant controversy.
Such is the case with several episodes of the original cartoon series which were removed from broadcasting schedules in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. An episode called ‘Tower of Terror’ was temporarily banned due to its unfortunate name, despite not featuring any direct references to terrorism.
Most notably, though, an episode which features a giant rampaging Tentacruel destroying a coastal city and toppling buildings with its tentacles, while ostensibly an homage to Japanese monster movies, was temporarily removed from broadcasting schedules due to the imagery of skyscrapers being toppled, which was deemed too sensitive a subject in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
Pokémon fans are not an easy bunch to please. Each new wave of Pokémon is subjected to scrutiny and critique from the fan community, with many Pokémon fans believing that later additions to the series lack the charm of the original 151 Pokémon.
No Pokémon has received more negative reactions from fans than Vanilluxe, the Pokémon which is an anthropomorphic ice cream cone. Cited by many as proof that Game Freak had officially run out of ideas, the Pokémon and its evolutions have gone down in history as the design that drew the most fan ire out of any that have featured in official Pokémon games.
A runner-up for the title of most universally reviled design, though, came in the same game: Trubbish, the living bag of garbage, is also taken by many fans as a literal interpretation of Pokémon’s worsening designs.
While these Pokémon and others from more recent generations have their fair share of fans, sometimes there’s no pleasing longstanding Pokéfanatics who feel that some later designs just aren’t up to par.
Poor Gardevoir. The psychic Pokémon, which debuted in the third generation of Pokémon games, has been unfortunate enough to develop a fan following which is, if anything, a little too devoted.
Gardevoir is one of the more humanoid Pokémon, and with its long legs and slender waist, it’s attracted a lot of attention from fans who have become very attached. A quick image search for the character (which we do not recommend) reveals Gardevoir in a variety of compromising positions, as fan art for the Pokémon often revolves around its similarity to attractive human females, and the possibilities that this opens up in the eyes of some of the more dedicated Pokéfans. From subtly suggestive to downright lewd, all possibilities have been considered.
Be warned: for those who are easily startled, it’s probably best to keep Safe Search on while searching for pictures of Gardevoir, and even then, there’s no guarantee that some of the more explicit Pokémon fan art won’t slip through Google’s cracks.
Pokémon is a phenomenally popular series, and with that popularity comes speculation, controversy, plenty of opposing opinions about how appropriate various designs are for children. With well over seven hundred Pokémon to catch, it’s no surprise that a few of them are considered a little less than family-friendly.
Which controversial Pokémon are missing from this list? Which controversies do you think were taking things too far? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.