Three starters, two game versions, one difficult question: which starter Pokemon did Red pick for his Kanto Pokemon journey?
There are still two and a half long, arduous weeks remaining before eager trainers worldwide can begin their Pokemon journeys in the new Alola region. Though it’s easy to remain transfixed by the future and the obvious pick for Pokemon Sun and Moon starter, #TeamPopplio, Pokemon’s 20th anniversary this year has brought other starter trios to mind. Specifically, the original triad of Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle in Red and Blue: the ones that started it all.
We’re all guilty of arguing jovially with our pals (and editor-in-chiefs) over which starter was the “best,” a highly subjective decision for a game in which the strengths and weaknesses of each monster are predicated on the strengths and weaknesses of the other two choices. X and Y brought the choice to the forefront of our minds once again in 2013 by offering the three once again as traveling companions a short way into the game, and the re-release of Red and Blue on the Virtual Console earlier this year brought the issue up again. Which starter to pick?
While there are concrete answers for which starter is the strongest (Squirtle) and other, hazier answers favoring different in-game routes (Bulbasaur for an easier one, Charmander for more of a challenge), I want to focus on one aspect of the triad: their canonicity. Pokemon’s 20th anniversary has gifted us with both the Pokemon Origins anime and Pokemon Generations, a series of shorts revisiting past games. Between these and the in-game lore, we may finally be able to assemble a picture of which Kanto starter is the “canon” choice made by Pokemon Trainer Red: the true companion for anyone with lore-motivated reasons for selecting their first friend on their journey.
Here we go, in Pokedex order:
The case for Bulbasaur
I was surprised by how strong a case Bulbasaur has for being canon. I first noticed the possibility in the recent Pokemon Generations anime shorts, all the way back in episode one. We see a montage of the main character, Red, traveling through every region from past games alongside a trusty Pikachu (more on the Pikachu later). But was Pikachu his starter? No! It was Bulbasaur, who we see briefly in the familiar game intro and, for just a split second, in anime form before Red abandons him for a Pikachu in Viridian Forest:
This same event happened in the Pokemon Adventures manga, with Red choosing Bulbasaur and later capturing a Pikachu. But Bulba was hinted at as the winning choice long before Generations, via a piece of original artwork by Ken Sugimori for Red and Green in Japan:
Look who Red’s hanging out with! His trusty Bulbasaur, a perfect Pokemon for beginning trainers. While it’s easy to dismiss this as a one-off artwork, it’s fitting as an original piece to go with Pokemon Red and Green’s release in Japan, where Venusaur was a box art mascot. His importance, unfortunately, was muted when the game came overseas.
The case for Squirtle
Although Squirtle is my favorite of the three Kanto starters, I’m sorry to say there simply isn’t a good case anywhere in the anime or games for him being the canon starter. He’s objectively the strongest stat-wise, and he’s certainly the logical choice if you’re picking up a copy of Blue, but even as the mascot of one of the two-colored games, Squirtle’s case peters out quickly. Blue was only one of the original choices when the game was brought to North America. As we said above, Red was originally released alongside Green, with Venusaur as the mascot in Japan.
You should pick Squirtle anyway because he is strong, adorable, and the coolest cat in town with his squad (see image above), but as far as the storyline test goes, Squirtle fails completely.
The case for Charmander
So let’s look at Charmander, who seems the obvious best choice for a Pokemon trainer named Red–a fact that was given a solid foundation in Pokemon Origins, where Red selected the fire-type Pokemon to honor the name he was given by his father. Though the naming is given a lore-related reason in the anime, it does make sense, right? Red takes Charmander, and Blue, the rival, takes Squirtle–a Pokemon with a type advantage over Red’s and fitting for his name, too.
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Charmander holds the honor of appearing on box art in all regions, and probably of being the most popular. Which one of us, as kids, didn’t think Charizard was the most awesome card in the TCG? And how come he gets TWO Mega Evolution forms, while the rest of the starters only get one? It just makes sense that Charmander would get all the glory if his was the intended path.
While Bulbasaur and Charmander both seem to have a few claims to the crown of canonicity, there isn’t a clear winner just yet. It’s too bad we don’t see Red later in the games as a player character with a team of Pokemon that would clear all this up…oh, wait:
The case for…Pikachu?
While Yellow may have been intended as a weird homage to the growing popularity of the anime, its rendition of Red became canon with the release of Gold and Silver, when we met Red atop Mt. Silver and battled his team including all three Kanto starters, plus a high-level Pikachu. Since Yellow is the only game thus far where all three are obtainable, and the only game with a justifiable reason why Red would not have evolved his Pikachu, the version of events in Yellow has become widely accepted as the true one.
Recent Sun and Moon previews show Red’s return to the series as an adult. He’s helping out at the new Alola Pokemon League, is still “silent as ever,” and he’s still toting around that Pikachu. While it’s admittedly a bit weird to see a skilled trainer like Red go the Ash-route and not evolve his Pikachu as its level climbs into the stratosphere, there’s no denying what’s in the games: Red picked Pikachu, and left those who prefer Red or Blue over Yellow high and dry when considering the canonicity of their starter Pokemon.
Or did he?
A universe-altering decision
Enter one of the coolest NPCs in Pokemon, Lorekeeper Zinnia, the star of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire’s Delta episode and winner of the coolest battle music in a Pokemon game award. Without going into too much detail about the Delta Episode here, the outcome of ORAS’s endgame was that in some weird, meta, crazy way, version differences were made canon.
Put simply, Omega Ruby and the original Ruby have subtly different plots because they each take place in an alternate universe where things played out slightly differently. The further groundwork laid by ORAS means that Red and Blue have different native Pokemon in each version for the same reason–alternate universes. Even individually owned versions of the game were given a reason for existing alongside and trading with one another. Red in my copy of Blue trading with Red in your version of Yellow is the same guy in two slightly different versions of the timeline.
Sound bonkers? It is. But that’s the whole premise of the ending of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. Without it, the whole sci-fi space battle rationale falls apart. It’s a plot point that will need to carry forward if Game Freak intends to touch anything they did in X, Y, or ORAS again with a ten-foot Exeggcutor. And while I don’t know anything about their plans for Sun and Moon, they’ve recently shown a serious interest in drawing story connections between titles.
What this means is that all versions of Red are true. The Red on Mt. Silver with Pikachu, the Red with the Bulbasaur who caught a Pikachu in Viridian Forest, the Red with the Charmander in honor of his dad: all are canon. Heck, there’s even a canon Red out there who picked Squirtle and proceeded to be a total rock star, because he picked the best starter and none of the supposedly “canon” Reds knew what they were missing. Anything you can do in the games is canon. Generations, Origins, and even the manga and other spin-offs may tell slightly different versions of the story, but it all comes back down to what you, as the player character, can accomplish.
It means that Red having all four starters on Mt. Silver is less evidence for Yellow’s canonicity, and more a representation of all four games and their cover Pokemon. In that sense, Red represents everyone who played the original games, rather than just one version of his character. His return in Sun and Moon, complete with T-shirt reading “96” (release year for Red and Green) is an homage to those players who are now adults, and their Pokemon journeys from then until now.
Is it a cop-out answer? Maybe, just a little. But it’s also a little bit of a testament to how wonderful a game Pokemon is. It’s a game where we don’t have to speculate on which color choice the “true” ending was, or whether a romantic pairing is “real” or not. It’s written into the games themselves that the story we, as players, create for ourselves is always right–not merely as self-inserts, as many other games do, but as actors in the ongoing storyline and canon that is the Pokemon universe. “Our very own Pokemon adventure” is the one that’s about to unfold every time we start a Pokemon game for the first time. The canon starter choice is always the one we pick.
But, if you’re still trying to decide, trust me: you should just pick Squirtle. Obviously. He’s just too cool.
The views expressed in this article explicitly belong to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of, nor should be attributed to, App Trigger or FanSided as an organization.