If you had asked me last year, I’d tell you without any hesitation that Charmander is the best original starter. I’ve spent years picking fire starters in Pokémon games, never once giving consideration to the other elements.
I mean, really. Water? Leaves? How could anything compare to the fiery rawness of a flame? What else can inspire the terror and respect of a blaze? After all, you can never feel too comfortable around fire. It’s a force of nature that must be reckoned with, respected above all else. Maybe that’s the Aries in me talking, but I’ve always been innately drawn to fire Pokémon.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Detective Pikachu]
All this said, I could at least see why some people might be into Squirtle. The water turtle evokes an image of a laid back person, someone who goes with the flow. There’s a reason that one of the most iconic moments in the Pokémon anime involves Squirtles wearing sunglasses. Squirtle is a cool dude. I can get down with that.
But Bulbasaur? That cabbage? How could anyone pick something so delicate? Where other people saw a cute buddy, I saw only weakness. Not once have I been tempted to pick a grass-type Pokemon. That’s not me, I thought.
And then I saw Detective Pikachu, a movie that takes great care in depicting realistic, believable monsters. Suddenly, the terror of a full-blown Charizard looming large over its trainer washed over me. Holy shit! To think that Ash Ketchum ever walked around with an untrained Charmeleon. What an idiot. My love for Charmander didn’t diminish, but I felt humbled.
There’s a scene near the end of the movie, when Pikachu gets hurt while scrambling across the backs of massive Torterra. You get the feeling that this is it — the yellow rodent might very well die. Tim Goodman, the protagonist, sets Pikachu down. He looks around, unsure of what to do. He’s scared he’s going to lose Pikachu. And out comes a baby Bulbasaur, eyes wide with hope.
Left with no options, Tim pleads with the Bulbasaur. Please, he says. Help me find a Pokémon with a healing ability. My partner is dying. Tim’s desperation feels palpable, and it’s made worse by the realization that we have no idea if Bulbasaur even knows what he’s saying. We’re told that Pokemon can feel a connection to humans, which allows them to communicate, but in order to do that, the trainer must open their heart. Tim, meanwhile, has spent a lot of time closed off to the world, unwilling to take up a Pokémon partner. There’s no telling if Bulbasaur might come through when he disappears into the distance.
Oh, but he does. Dozens of bright green bulbs appear from the tall grass, beckoning Tim towards help with tiny chitters. It was like seeing a Corgi’s round butt, or a Maine Coon’s furry, unruly belly. My body had a visceral reaction to Bulbasaur’s heft and Bulldog-like waddle. I made involuntary noises as an inexplicable urge to touch Bulbasaur came over me. I’d never felt anything like that for a fictional creature before.
Perhaps this shift was inevitable. I spent a lot of my early twenties chasing ambition, and that drive consumed me with the constant promise of more. I fed the fire until it burned me out, and now, a year later, I’m still grappling with the aftermath of that destructive drive.
When I ask people what draws them to Bulbasaur, they use specific words, gentle words. Polygon reporters Cass Marshall and Julia Lee describe the green pal as “unassuming and sweet,” a creature who makes a “lovable friend.” Comics editor Susana Polo highlights Bulbasaur’s nurturing nature, reminding me of a storyline where the grass starter is the only one in the anime who can stop Togepi from crying. “Bulbasaur was often the group caretaker,” she says. “Bulbasaur is baby, but also: Mom,” she adds.
Polygon managing editor Chelsea Stark tells me that she’s noticed an age gap when it comes to Pokémon preferences. “I think a lot of people when they are younger, don’t appreciate grass types, or plants for that matter,” Stark says. Plants take time, they take patience. More than that, plants take maturity, a willingness to step outside of yourself. Most progress will be quiet and private, held within the confines of a clay pot. You learn to be happy with any growth, no matter how small. Here is a thing you’re keeping alive. That is enough.
All my life, I’ve mistaken Bulbasaur’s inherent vulnerability for weakness. Detective Pikachu gave me a new word to grapple with: bravery.