When I was ten years old, I thought I knew everything about Pokémon. I could rattle off all 251 of their names, quote Pokédex entries by rote, and even tell you where to find a Lapras in Silver Version (at the far end of the underground lake beneath Union Cave, but only on Fridays). I even knew the rules of the arcane trading card game that everyone collected cards for but no one actually played.
As I grew older, however, I kept learning new things that I’d never noticed before. Everyone knew that Ekans and Arbok were just the reversed versions of “snake” and “cobra,” but who knew that the legendary birds (Articuno, Zapdos, and Moltres) were numbered in Spanish? I’d always known that Squirtle was a combination of “squirt” and “turtle,” but how had I missed the additional pun on “squirrel”? In retrospect, the bushy tail should have made it obvious.
Other things about the franchise began to bother me too. The Pokédex claims that Alakazam, the Uri Geller-inspired final evolution of Abra, has an IQ of over 5000 points and an eidetic memory to boot. IQ numbers are normalized to a median of 100 and a standard deviation of 15, so an IQ of five thousand is so high that it defies any attempt at comprehension. In comparison, even Jimmy Neutron only has an IQ of 210. An obvious question springs to mind: If Alakazam is so smart, why does it take orders from spiky-haired ten-year-olds? Are human trainers subtly and unwittingly being manipulated by these god-like intelligences, or are Alakazams compelled, by some quirk of fate or trick of the Pokéball, to obey the commands of their brutish, violent inferiors? If the latter, then the fate of a captured Alakazam is a true tragedy: a transcendent being is crammed into a tiny metal ball and released only for glorified dogfighting, and nobody seems to care.
But Alakazam is not the most tragic figure of Pokémon lore. That dubious honor goes to Cubone, the Lonely Pokémon. Unlike Alakazam, Cubone is sad by design. Red Version’s Pokédex claims that no one has ever seen Cubone’s real face; Yellow Version explains that Cubone wears the skull of its deceased mother. Perhaps Professor Oak was feeling poetic the day he wrote that entry: Yellow’s ‘dex goes on to say that “[Cubone’s] cries echo inside the skull and come out as a sad melody.”
Take a moment to let that sink in. Cubone is a Pokémon whose defining personality trait is sadness and whose defining physical characteristic is the skull of its dead mother. Those stains on its skull? Those aren’t cracks; those are made by tears. People use the phrase “lone wolf,” but no one ever says “lone Cubone” because there is no other kind of Cubone. Unlike other Pokémon who repeat their names to speak, Cubone never says “Cubone”; it just cries. Cubone makes Eeyore look like Winnie the Pooh.
This is pretty dark for a franchise ostensibly aimed at children. But it doesn’t stop there. As Cubone evolves into a Marowak (at level 28 unless an Everstone is deployed), its head changes shape to fill the skull it has been wearing for its entire life. Eventually, the Marowak (if female) will give birth and die, continuing the cycle by allowing the child to wear the skull (not the skull helmet, but the actual skull) of its recently deceased mother. But since the mother’s skull is necessarily smaller than the skull helmet worn by the mother (that is, the grandmother’s skull), the child’s skull must be smaller than those of previous generations, thus trapping the entire family of Cubones in a never-ending cycle of decreasing head size, presumably terminating only in extinction.
Perhaps this, and not sadness over the death of its mother, is why Cubone cries.
Even that isn’t the worst of it for Cubone. Each Cubone must take the skull of its dead mother—shortly after birth, since no Cubone has ever been seen without the helmet. Let’s ignore the macabre thought of a newborn Cubone clawing through its mother’s still-warm flesh to fashion itself a gruesome bone helmet. Instead, let’s consider what this means for the population’s growth rate: each female in the population can have no more than one offspring. Assuming a starting population that is half male and half female, and also assuming that male Cubones are as likely to be born as female Cubones, this means that the Cubone population will be halved each generation. The population of Cubones and Marowaks will consequently become extinct at an exponential rate—far faster, unless the starting population was quite large indeed, than they will die off from head size reduction.
The Cubone race has not one ticking time bomb strapped to it, but two.
Of course, Cubone apologists have come forward to defend the ill-fated species’ ability to survive. For example, it has been suggested that the skull helmet itself is malleable, changing shape to accommodate the growing head. If true, this would negate concerns over head-size extinction. However, rare depictions of Cubone indicate that its head is not, in fact, initially shaped like the skull helmet, which lends evidence to the theory that the inner skull, not the outer skull, changes shape, eventually growing into the cage the Cubone has worn since birth.
What implications might this have on our understanding of Cubones? In particular, what implication might it have on the possible head shape of a Cubone? If the Cubone’s head can grow into the shape of its container, then we can think of the mother’s skull as a necessary template for the growing Cubone: the familiar head shape is passed from generation to generation by the wearing of the skull helmets, not by genetics. If Cubone were to wear, say, a Voltorb skull on its head, then would it develop a round skull? If not provided with a skull helmet, would Cubone’s brain continue to grow until reaching deleterious dimensions? If so, Cubone’s development is a poignant metaphor for our own social development: without the expectations of our parents and our society (the mother’s skull, as it were) to shape us, what would we become?
This quality of uncontained head expansion also has interesting implications on Cubones bred in captivity. In particular, there may be no dead Marowak mother if the newborn Cubone is delivered by Caesarean section or mothered by a Ditto (the use of Ditto as a breeding tool, much like the possibility of Polyjuice Brothels in the Potterverse, is an interesting question in its own right but is too complex to be treated here in full). If our theory is correct, then this would result in massive, unsustainable cranial growth – meaning that the Cubones bred this way would end up dying prematurely. However, it might be possible to create artificial skull helmets of the correct shape, allow the Cubone’s head to develop properly. Indeed, designer Cubone skull helmets could become a commodity among fashionable Pokémon trainers: the ethics of such a market seem dubious, but in a world where quasi-magical, sentient beings are forced into captivity and gladiatorial combat on a regular basis, perhaps ethical considerations might be overlooked.
But what impact might this have on the psychological development of a Cubone? Just as the melancholy Dane is defined by his madness, Cubone is defined by grief. Marowak’s entry in the Pokédex describes it as a Cubone that has gotten over the death of its mother and become hardened and tough as a result. If a Cubone’s mother never dies, will it evolve into a soft, weak Marowak? Such a creature might be ideal for the purposes of companionship but would not last long in the competitive world of Pokémon battling. Would Cubone’s personality be flat and uninteresting without its signature grief? Or would Cubone finally have a chance to express a side heretofore masked by depression? As it is, Cubone and Marowak are the Pokémon world’s version of Batman—what would Bruce Wayne have been if his parents had never died?
The other well-known theory put forward by Pokémon fandom is this: Cubones are actually orphaned Kangaskhans. Indeed, there is some physical resemblance between the two species. This is easily dismissed, however, as it is well-established that Kangaskhan are marsupials, and neither Cubone nor Marowak display any evidence of this. (In fact, current scientific understanding indicates that all Kangaskhans are born with babies in their pouches, which is baffling in its own right.) Nevertheless, this line of thought is appealing because it provides stability for the Cubone race: as long as Kangaskhans continue to reproduce and occasionally die in childbirth, Cubones will continue to exist, unfettered by the one child per mother limitation discussed earlier.
But that theory is unlikely to be correct, no matter how appealing, and the plight of the Cubones continues to be an issue that we think about far too infrequently. Pokémon fans of the first generation often decry the rapidly growing number of Pokemon species, reminiscing over the days where the Pokédex stopped at 151. But will we really be happier if 649 current species become 647? For the sake of the Cubones, I hope not.