In the fall of 1998 I stole a Pokémon trading card in Shanghai, China. It was a Kadabra, I remember now. It was slipped discretely from a child’s backpack and into my pocket. He noticed an hour or so later. I was discovered and interrogated, but I eventually lied my way out of it. The Kadabra was placed into a plastic binder filled with other cards, some “shiny”, some not. It was wrong to do, I know now, but at the time I didn’t care. I was nine-years old and I had to catch them all.
The first introduction to my future Pokémon obsession was to Pokémon Red/Blue when the games first came out for Nintendo’s GameBoy. Thanks to a timer attached to each play-through, I know that I have since spent full days training and battling in those virtual worlds. I had the games, I had the cards, I had the trading cables (the most genius/evil marketing scheme ever unleashed on a nine-year old). I was in China when Pokémon fever hit and I got it bad. But as I got older, I didn’t stay with it. My binder full of rares has since disappeared. I have refused to play the other games like the newest Pokémon X/Y out of some misplaced hipster angst. I have moved on from wanting to be the very best, like no one ever was.
But no matter what my relationship to Pokémon is now, I can’t deny that it was one of the driving forces in my nerdy life. And like any fanboy or girl who has ever played the original games, Pokémon was singular in that it provided me the first life-altering choice in my young life: Which of the starting Pokémon—Squirtle, Charmander, or Bulbasaur—should I pick? It felt like a digital “Sophie’s Choice,” with any decision rendering two Pokémon forever un-catchable, destined to be used against me by my rival.
So, for all the nerds who have forever wondered, for all the kids who will second-guess themselves for the rest of their lives, it’s time to direct the same dedication that drove me to steal a trading card towards answering the question once and for all, with science.
You Teach Me and I’ll Teach You
Recently, one of my favorite computing services—the amazingly useful WolframAlpha—decided to add the stats, pictures, and descriptions of over 600 Pokémon to its database. With so much data now at anyone’s disposal, it’s the perfect time to settle the age-old starting Pokémon question. But first, it might be interesting to see how Pokémon, from a data perspective, has changed since I first played back when the original games debuted. Using WolframAlpha’s data, I plotted the average (median) statistics for all Pokémon over the last five “generations” (everything up to the latest releases, X/Y):
Over time, it doesn’t look like Pokémon have changed much (unlike how science fiction starships have). In subsequent generations since Red/Blue there have been many“legendary” Pokémon that have likely pulled averages up a bit, but all the stats are in a pretty good grouping.
The next question to ask is the big one: What starting Pokémon should you have picked? Let’s start by looking at the statistics for all three starting Pokémon and their evolved forms:
In terms of starting stats, it looks like all the starting Pokémon are on a similar footing. And if you calculate the percentage increase for each statistic for the three Pokémon’s evolved forms—how much better they get the longer you train them—no Pokémon yet jumps out in front. The starting stats at least don't appear to point the better initial investment. So, we have to look at other factors. Early game, you have two tough trainers to face, as well as a draining slog to make (Mt. Moon). Squirtle does have the highest starting defense, and its attacks will be super effective against the first gym and those on the Mt. Moon trek. However, Bulbasaur too will breeze past the first two gyms, so where does that leave us?
Your Pokémon’s stats aren’t the only thing that matters—whom you battle makes all the difference. Randomly running into a level 2 Rattata in the tall grass is a much better encounter than running into your rival with level 50 Pokémon who you totally forgot to prepare for. The main challenges you face in Pokémon Red/Blue are the gym leaders that you must eventually defeat. And in terms of which starting Pokémon you pick, the difficulty of the first few gyms varies greatly. So, which of the three Pokémon will give you the best chance against the gym leaders? I present you with an exhaustively created chart:
Against the first two gym leaders, Brock and Misty, Bulbasaur is the better choice. Its grass-type attacks totally destroy the water and rock type Pokémon of those gyms. Squirtle and its evolutions also have the upper hand on Brock and his rocks, but have a hard time against other water-type Pokémon. Charmander has a frustrating time with both. (I make the point about the first two gyms in particular because after Misty, your team really begins to take shape and you grab battlers to deal with a wide variety of threats, making the starting Pokémon's type less important.)
If you want to hit the ground running then, Bulbasaur looks like the choice. However, like the starting stats, digging a bit deeper shows Squirtle’s overall advantages. Count up all the instances where each of the starting Pokémon have the upper hand (or at least an advantage) against the 12 gym leaders, and you find that while Bulbasaur might do great at the beginning of the game, it also will have the hardest time of all the Pokémon finishing off the rest of the leaders. Squirtle, on the other hand, has simultaneously the most advantages and the least amount of disadvantages against the leaders. Squirtle and its evolutions come out on top.
You won't just be bubblebeaming your way through these bosses--you're going to have to defend yourself. Which Pokémon has the best defensive chances against the gyms leaders? You guessed it, I have another chart:
Again we see that Charmander will have a hard time in those first two critical gyms, and both Bulbasaur and Squirtle will do a decent job defending against them. Bulbasaur in particular is well defended against the first four gyms. But overall, Bulbasaur and its evolutions have the most Pokémon with advantages against them, and Squirtle has the least. Squirtle also has the most amount of "normal" defensive matchups, meaning that most Pokémon won't have the upper hand on the little turtle. Squirtle comes out on top.
There are other, less data driven reasons why Squirtle is the Pokémon to pick. Speedrunners—gamers who make a sport out of completing videogames in the least amount of time possible—also favor the little turtle. They note that Squirtle learns more type-specific moves faster than the other two, has the ability to learn a number of powerful moves like “Dig” and “Mega Punch” that the other starters cannot, and is the only starting Pokémon that can learn “Surf”, a vital technique needed to complete the game.
Pokémon enthusiats have challenged me on these points. They say that while Squirtle might make for an easier late game, Bulbasaur makes for a quick early game, and that Charmander is a rarer type of Pokémon (and more "badass"). Make sure to read the comments from readers below, as they contain some of the best Pokemon nerdery I've ever seen, and decide for yourself.
Based on the data, the advantages against the games' bosses, and the advice from gamers who want a Pokémon that can help them beat the game as quickly as possible, the choice is clear: You should have picked Squirtle. Perhaps a third of you can now sigh with satisfaction, another third can start a giant, unassailable nerd-off, and the other third can lament attempting to use "ember" against a Geodude.
And while we are defending Pokémon with data, there is another question to good to pass up: Is Magikarp really the worst Pokémon? The short answer is maybe.
First of all, since subsequent generations of Pokémon have come out, Magikarp is no longer that bad of a battler in terms of total stats. Again using data from WolframAlpha’s Pokémon project, you can see that out of all the Pokémon with the lowest total statistics, Magikarp isn’t even in the five lowest:
However, total stats don't mean very much if you can't do anything with them. Magikarp's speed pulls the total up without really providing an advantage, as one of my incredibly astute commenters points out:
Pokemon has a mechanic known as Same Type Attack Bonus (STAB) which grants a 1.5 multiplier to the power of the move if the movetype matches the type of the Pokemon. Sunkern, Azurill, Kricketot, and Ralts all have offensive moves that have STAB. Caterpie, Weedle, and Wurmple also have damaging moves early on and will evolve quickly as well as requiring less experience to gain levels in comparison to Magikarp (research EXP groups). As you mentioned in the article above, Magikarp does not learn its first damaging move until level 15, a weak, non-STAB move that is further hindered by its paltry attack. Of course, its evolution into Gyarados is the reason you put up with it.
But if you can put up with it, the floppy fish has the greatest stat increase of any Pokémon.
If you can suffer the splashing long enough, you’ll end up with one of the best Pokémon you can get in Red/Blue—Gyarados. Of course, this is something that the Internet has known for a long time. Does a prolonged uselessness that bears dragon fruit make it worth it? <splash, splash>
Catch ‘Em All
Two years ago I traveled back overseas to visit a family member in China. I packed for the trip and the 12-hour flight ahead of me. Rummaging though a rarely used cabinet I saw it: my GameBoy Color and a dusty Pokémon Red cartridge. I ran upstairs to find some AA batteries. I blew on the inside of the cartridge to make sure it would work, flicked the ON switch, and was delighted by the intro animation that had been my childhood’s most consistent sight. As I ran through dungeons whose maps I didn’t need, I wondered if this was the time I would catch them all (including Mew, which yes, you can do). I never had before. Even with trading cables and a dedication that lead to playing in card tournaments where you get actual metal badges (I still have mine!), I only caught 148 out of the possible 151. I completed the game in 18 hours, reveling the whole time in blissful nostalgia.
The play-through was fun enough. I still keep the cartridge and the GameBoy as a “break this in case of a nerd-fire” kind of thing. For that last game, I picked Squirtle.
EDITED 10/24/13: Due to a large outpouring of "advice" from Pokemon enthusiasts, I have made substantial edits to the post to reflect Pokemon defenses, added actual base statistics (which WolframAlpha got wrong), and I clarified my position on Magikarp.