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Hello, there! Have I got a deal just for you! I'll let you have a swell MAGIKARP for just ¥500! What do you say?
You got MAGIKARP! Do you want to give a nickname to MAGIKARP?

In 1998, shortly after my ninth birthday, I received a copy of Pokémon Red and a Gameboy Color. This would start a lifelong love affair with both video games and the Pokémon series, but I didn’t know that back then. All I knew was that I was a brand new trainer, and I had Pokémon to catch.

Truth be told, I don’t remember a lot from the first time I played Pokémon. It’s hard to recall more than a few brief highlights after so many years, and even those are fleeting. I know I started with Charmander, I know I completed my Pokédex on Yellow (one of the two times I’ve done that), I know I spent way too much time trying to find Mew behind that truck. I know I accidentally corrupted my first Red save right after catching Moltres and had to restart. I know I had a level 100 Articuno, although I think I used a bunch of Rare Candies courtesy of Missingno. to get it there.

What I don’t remember is whether I used a Gyarados.

I think I did, though. Because I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t fall for a sales pitch like “hey, I’ll give you this Pokémon for ¥500!”

Of course, I would have very quickly realized that Splash was useless. I would soon figure out that the only way to level up this useless fish was to send it out first and then swap one of my other, better Pokémon in. And at level 20, my efforts would have been rewarded with a Gyarados.

So what do you actually do with a Gyarados, in the first generation?

Red/Blue: Rarely seen in the wild. Huge and vicious, it is capable of destroying entire cities in a rage.

The fact of the matter is, Gyarados doesn’t have a particularly good learnset. It can learn some surprising TM moves, like Thunderbolt and Fire Blast, but, well. When I was eight, my idea of a good moveset was something to the effect of four moves of the same type. Maybe two if I was feeling generous. I memorized the type chart, and that was enough.

So maybe I didn’t do much with Gyarados when I was young. I didn’t have to. Gyarados was cool, and that was enough.

The one thing I could never figure out, though, was what it was.

Yellow: Brutally vicious and enormously destructive. Known for totally destroying cities in ancient times.

When I was a kid, I couldn’t understand why Gyarados wasn’t a Dragon-type Pokémon. It looked like a dragon, after all, and it could learn Dragon Rage — the only actual Dragon-type move. The only other Pokémon that learned that move was the Dratini family. Besides, Lance, the self-defined dragon master, had a Gyarados. That had to mean something.

And yet Gyarados was... a Water/Flying-type? Where did the Flying part come in? The Water-type made sense, Gyarados was clearly a fish, but... flying? Was I supposed to believe it flew? It didn’t learn any Flying-type moves.

Like many Pokémon, the answer for its typing and design comes from the legend it’s inspired by. There is a Chinese legend that if a carp can swim up the Yellow River and leap a waterfall known as the Dragon’s Gate, it will transform into a dragon. The story goes that many carp swim from the sea up the river’s strong current and gather at the base of the waterfall every year. Through perseverance and dedication, they try to leap to the top of the waterfall in the hopes of transforming into dragons. This legend is summarized as the proverb “the carp has leaped through the dragon’s gate.” (Source).

If that doesn’t describe the painstaking process of training a Magikarp, I don’t know what does.

With that in mind, I do think Water/Flying is a fitting typing for Gyarados, rather than Water/Dragon. It pays homage to its origins as a leaping carp and acknowledges its dragon side with the moves it can learn.

Also, check out this image from the anime of Gyarados as a koinobori — a carp-shaped wind sock traditionally flown in Japan. More information here.

The other thing is that I feel that the original 151 Pokémon were really about introducing the initial ideas of the franchise. In most of the types, there are only a handful of Pokémon families. Water is a notable exception, but given how much aquatic animal and plant life exists in the real world, it’s really no surprise. The Dratini family is the only Dragon-type, and they’re right at the end of the Pokédex. There’s a good reason they’ve long been considered pseudo-legendaries — dragons are something unique, something special. They’re hard to find, and they’re very powerful, which only increases as they grow stronger. You know that from the moment you get them, and they’re valued for that reason.

Magikarp, in contrast, are available in every stream and pond. They’re sold cheaply. They’re considered worthless. They have an attack that does nothing. But if you take the time with them — if you leap through the dragon’s gate — then you get something much more valuable. Perseverance brings its own success.

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