Satoshi Tajiri was a Japanese boy with a passion for catching arthropods. He went on to become the creator of one of the most successful videogame franchises of all time. The link between these two sentences is not obvious until you realise that Tajiri was the creator of Pokémon. His experiences of catching beetles and crayfish in a Tokyo suburb in the 1970s drove him to produce a game in which you “gotta catch ’em all”; a maxim befitting of all bug collectors. While Pokémon has gone on to include over 700 ‘species’ of 18 ‘types’ (Fire, Water, Electric, etc), the developers at Game Freak and Nintendo have remained loyal to Satoshi’s roots by including over 70 ‘bug-type’ Pokémon.
Every time I found a new insect, it was mysterious to me. And the more I searched for insects, the more I found – Satoshi Tajiri
Many Pokémon designs are based on everyday animals and plants (and even objects), but how similar are the bug-type designs to real life? ‘Bug’ refers to insects in the order Hemiptera (aphids, cicadas, whitefly, etc), but bug-type Pokémon are generally more arthropod-like; in fact, none have the characteristic rostrum mouthparts of the hemipteran order. Many designs are based unambiguously on insects, such as Vivillon (butterfly), Yanma (dragonfly), Spinarak (spider), Heracross (rhino beetle), Durant (ant), Leavanny (leaf insect) and even two described as ‘bagworm Pokémon’: Pineco and Burmy. Beyond insects, we have Dwebble (hermit crab) and Skorupi (scorpion). There is also a nod to times past: Anorith, a Pokémon that resembles Anomalocaris from the Cambrian era, can be resurrected from a fossil.
Transformation is a key part of the Pokémon universe, whereby creatures develop into more advanced forms upon gaining a certain amount of ‘experience points’ (a process infuriatingly referred to as ‘evolution’). For a few insect Pokémon, this pathway resembles holometabolous (‘complete’) metamorphosis: Caterpie, a lepidopteran caterpillar (albeit with only four prolegs), develops into the chrysalis Metapod, before emerging as the butterfly Butterfree (albeit with only two body segments and four limbs); Weedle has multiple prolegs like a hymenopteran larva, transforming into the exarate pupa Kakuna and emerging as Beedrill (correct number of segments, only four limbs). Hemimetabolous insects (those with ‘incomplete’ metamorphosis via a nymphal stage) are represented in a really interesting way: Nincada transforms into the cicada-like Ninjask, while its discarded shell forms Shedinja (amusingly in the ghost-type category). Paras is also cicada-like, but has been infected with a seemingly-benign parasitic fungus. When Paras evolves into Parasect, the fungus zombifies the Pokémon and takes control, just like how a cordyceps fungus can do this to insects in real life.
It has recently become possible to “compute ’em all” on the ‘computational knowledge engine’ Wolfram Alpha, allowing you to trawl for all sorts of Pokémon stats. The data show that the smallest bug-type Pokémon is Joltik (a spider, 0.1 m tall, 0.6 kg in weight), which is much larger than the (real-life) parasitic wasp Dicopomorpha echmepterygis, measuring in at a microscopic 139 µm. By contrast, one of the largest arthropods on record is a Japanese spider crab caught in 1921 with a 3.8 m maximum span and a weight of 20 kg, while the largest Pokémon is Scolipede, a sort-of caterpillar-centipede, at 2.5 m tall and weighing in at a ridiculous 200 kg. This would probably be a physical impossibility for real-world arthropods, given the problem of oxygen demand. Other than size, gender distributions tell us that five bug-types are 100% female (including Illumise), which is partially reflected in real arthropods by species that exhibit parthenogenesis or are infected with Wolbachia, such as aphids and some Hymenoptera. Or maybe I’m getting carried away.
While the goal of Pokémon is to collect all the ‘species’ and their metamorphoses, you also duel them in turn-based battles to win tournaments and prizes (and get one over on your friends). The bug-type is generally considered one of the weakest and this is reflected by the number of other types (seven) that are particularly effective at attacking them. This includes flying types, a group that includes many bird-like Pokémon, which are important predators of insects in the real-world. In turn, bug types are good at attacking grass types, which makes sense given the herbivorous nature of many arthropods. Some bug-specific fighting moves include ‘infestation’, which traps an opponent for several turns, mirroring how an infestation of ticks may overrun a mammal host, for example. The ‘string shot’, ‘sticky web’ and ‘spider web’ moves slow your opponent and stop them escaping, much like a spider might trap its prey, or a velvet worm (Onychophora) might spray its sticky slime.
Unfortunately for Satoshi Tajiri, the insect-collecting grounds of his boyhood were later paved over as part of the expansion of the Greater Tokyo Area. He has, however, encouraged a whole new generation of youngsters to take inspiration from his videogames and observe and enjoy the natural world around them. Or maybe they’ll try and battle caterpillars against their pet dog, who knows.
Here is an interesting article on nature-inspired Pokémon design.
Play Pokémon at your own risk; it could make you enter into the world of witchcraft!
Bonus note for Pokégeeks: I had 151 followers on Twitter at the time of publishing.