Poor Magikarp. At best, tolerated as a necessary step in obtaining a Gyarados. At worst, the unwanted refuse of the Pokémon kingdom. While the leviathan that Magikarp eventually evolves to is alluring in its draconian power, getting one also means putting Magikarp, and yourself, through 20 levels of training. This is made worse by its meager move set, Splash and Tackle. One does minimal damage, while the former famously does nothing at all.
But contrary to popular belief, Magikarp is no underdog. While there are those that insist Magikarp is useful only on the path to Gyarados, on the contrary: Magikarp possesses a rare, enduring appeal that other Pokémon just don’t. The truth is, we’ve all underestimated the little fish. Pokémon isn’t just a bloodsport to the death (although when it comes to that, Magikarp definitely comes up short).
It is so much more.
In the many cities you visit as a trainer, it’s easy to see that Pokémon aren’t just tools for winning battles. They are friends. Kin. Siblings. Family. While some people aspire to become trainers, rigorously training their Pokémon to become the very best, others keep them as pets. Pokémon beauty pageants are also a frequent event. Throughout their journey, the player is reminded that these creatures should be treated with kindness. Central to this universe are compassion and respect, not cold, calculated violence.
Magikarp fits within this universe not as a fighting machine, but as a sarcastic nemesis to the tremendous power of Gyarados and other absurdly powerful Pokémon. This is precisely why it is so memorable. As part of the first generation of Pokémon, Magikarp was introduced as a joke character. His signature move, Splash, is the only Pokédex that has absolutely no effect. In fact it even puts the Magikarp in danger, leaving it vulnerable to predators like the Pidgeot.
Punctuating Magikarp’s mythic status as the ultimate obscene gesture to overpowered Pokémon are rumors of its secret abilities. The longest living Magikarp are said to be able to scale mountains with the height of their Splash attack, and some even say that Splash has a 0.001% chance of instantly killing its opponents. Another rumor has it that Magikarp with this specific Splash ability are only sold by the con-man in Pokémon Red and Blue, while yet another claims that Magikarp can eventually evolving into the legendary Pokémon, Mew, when it reaches level 100. These rumors have yet to be either proven or debunked but one thing’s for certain: Magikarp inspires legend.
This mythic quality would have been impossible to achieve without the joke status Magikarp earned as a wimpy precursor to Gyarados. Magikarp is popular precisely because it’s hilarious and endearing, like a class clown. But it was also brought to life by anecdotes of Asian carps leaping ten feet out of the water and smacking people in the face, by Japanese myths of carps transforming into dragons, by the very namesake Asian carps now classified as an invasive species due to their sheer numbers. Magikarp are ubiquitous in the Pokémon games as they are in real life.
Secretly, for all its poor reputation, Magikarp can actually be pretty useful. Underneath that sad, flopping façade lies a creature with immense potential and nope, I’m not referring to the overachieving monstrosity Gyarados. Magikarp can learn a move called Flail, which inflicts more damage on an opponent the lower their hit points are. The move can only be learned at level 30, forcing the player to put off their evolution of Gyarados. Gyarados himself can never learn the move either. Nevertheless there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to this fish.
Do all these traits make Magikarp an underdog? No. Underdogs are underdogs because whatever their personal failures, they make up for it with heart. And frankly, the Pokédex already has an entry with a lot of heart. Because it’s a literal heart: Luvdisc.
A water-type Pokémon introduced in the third-generation games (seen above, as heart-shaped fish), Luvdisc’s base stats are so low that it’s almost useless in battle. Its design is banal and uninspired, and its origins disappointingly bland (according to the lore, it earned its name after a couple in love spotted the species and reported it to Pokémon scientists). As a single evolution Pokémon, it is doomed to its weak body, its only gimmick the ability to soar through the skies when kissed by another Luvdisc. In many ways it felt like a Pokémon the developers created as an afterthought, lazily cobbled together in a hasty sprint to the finish line. Don’t get me wrong; it’s no doubt an immensely challenging task to come up with new hundreds of new Pokémon each generation, especially after two decades. But Luvdisc is a weak Pokémon that serves as a perfect example of its creators’ exhaustion.
Meanwhile Magikarp, for all his flaws, in nothing short of unforgettable. On the surface it appears weak, but that does not reflect a lack of thought in the creation process. It’s existence is still a labor of love, one that has turned into a legacy. It even inspired a song.
Magikarp is a story of perseverance, its influence spreading far and wide even into pop culture. In the mobile hit Pokémon Go, where catching Pokémon becomes an exercise in frantic screen-swiping, Magikarp has become famous to an audience that may not have even played the original series. With a whopping 400 Magikarp candies needed to evolve to a Gyarados, his face is as omnipresent as ever. And with a power ten times that of his original form (a trait unique to his species), the Gyarados evolution is as rewarding as ever.
In many ways, Magikarp’s life and evolutionary experience embodies the archetypal nerd journey, mirroring the journey from unpopular child to adulthood sensation like a Silicon Valley success story. Magikarp resonates with every geek. It’s relatable to anyone who had ever pushed themselves to their limits in pursuit of greatness.
Wear your Magikarp badge with pride, folks. Because Magikarp is one of us.