Pokemon Ruby & Sapphire’s Team Magma And Team Aqua Are Still The Best Villains In The Series
Offering an opinion about which radical group of morons is the best Pokemon antagonist is always a point of high contention in the community. While many people favour the lovable but idiotic Team Rocket, others often appreciate the more nuanced depiction of Gen 5’s spacesuit numpties. I personally love Alola’s Team Skull, mostly because I think their brazen stupidity is actually quite endearing.
But none of these teams are able to contend with Gen 3’s Team Magma and Team Aqua. Almost 19 years later, these nefarious and moronic organizations still stand as the best villains Game Freak ever put in a Pokemon game, and it’s not just because of the fact that Ruby & Sapphire reckoned with themes far larger than themselves. Ultimately, Maxie and Archie are two of the most charismatic and intriguing figures in Pokemon history – a fact that is accentuated even further by the way they treat you.
For those unacquainted with earlier gens, Pokemon Ruby & Sapphire are predominantly concerned with the ills of environmental manipulation. Team Magma wants to expand the world’s landmass, Netherlands polder style, while Team Aqua simply wants to drown everybody. Both motives are boasted with certain Pokemon in mind – the Camerupt are running out of space, says Maxie, and so we need to reclaim the sea. But what about the poor Relicanth at the bottom of said sea, Maxie? They’ve got gills and can’t breathe the way we do. Archie reckons they should have even more water to swim about in, even if it comes at the cost of somebody’s gaff in Lilycove. Listen, lads – have either of you ever heard of the fact that the world already has both land and water?
That last bit is important, because obviously both views are lacking nuance. You cannot simply expand or deplete the earth’s landmass on a whim. Also, we don’t live in Pangaea – you’re getting into really murky regional territory here. Sometimes I think Archie just got a bit too old to be a pirate but didn’t want to stop wearing a bandana, so he invented a political cause purely out of his love for naval fashion. And yet, regardless of how expectedly stupid these two lads are, they’re still the best of Pokemon’s baddies because they’re genuinely interested in you.
A typical storytelling point in Pokemon is that the Big Bad wants to recruit you, a ten-year-old, into its shadowy affairs. You thump a shady mob boss around and everyone instantly thinks you’re the Beedrills Kneedrills. I mean, enlisting the Pokemon League Champion to be part of your muscle is a fairly apt way of ensuring you continue to strike fear into the hearts of all who oppose you, so it makes sense.
But most of the time this structure isn’t far off from meme material. A Rocket grunt telling you to join the team is laughable, and even Giovanni himself recognizes you’re not the criminal type. Despite his interest in you, he knows you’re fundamentally opposed to what he stands for, and doesn’t really bother wasting his breath in an attempt to entice you onboard. Other Pokemon villains are similar – Cyrus is a bit more philosophically inclined, but he’s still an idiot.
But in Gen 3 – and only in Gen 3 – Maxie and Archie actually care about you. When you stomp your way through the typical list of grunts beneath them and inevitably beat them in a battle, they are sincere in their attempts to persuade you to join them. They’re far less bitter than most Pokemon villains, despite being invested in literal terraforming. In their eyes, you’re just a disillusioned but bright kid, somebody who they could hypothetically convince to join their side and rise up the ranks in their honor. I think Archie in particular secretly wishes you’d complement his pirate bandana and say, “Alright, you’ve got me. Let’s flood the biggest metropolis in Hoenn with no concern for human life.” He’d love that.
I think Pokemon Ruby & Sapphire have a lot of intriguing things to say about the current state of the world. They interrogate our response to climate change, grapple with the brutal reality of habitat destruction, and challenge the ideas of what conservation ultimately means. This is much more nuanced and clever than Team Rocket losing their minds once Giovanni does a legger and saying, “OK, let’s find loads of Slowpokes and rip their tails off.”
But outside of that, the antagonistic teams in Ruby & Sapphire feel like a far more integral aspect of the story than their counterparts in other games. I still remember taking on Archie in Seafloor Cavern before Kyogre wakes up, and knocking Maxie’s Mightyena’s teeth in during the battle at Mossdeep Space Centre (which only happens in Emerald – the best Pokemon game). This isn’t really because of their messages, though, or even because of the Legendary Pokemon these lads are trying to wake up. It’s to do with how personable they are with you, and how they’re allowed to exist outside of the political messages they spent less than a minute creating. These messages are at the heart of the story, sure, but by bigging up the characters who tout them, the story is able to become much more three-dimensional and memorable.
When we think about Pokemon villains, we often look to the bombastically stupid caricatures of most generations. But Gen 3’s baddies – while still stupid – are so much more than that. Yes, they do not know that terraforming the world to make a home for some Pokemon destroys the homes of others. Yes, they do not know that waking up a slumbering Legendary Pokemon is a bad idea. Yes, they constantly lose Pokemon battles to a ten-year-old with a name that is most likely a bad joke.
But they’re not bad lads, really. I mean, obviously they are terrible. But they are also capable of immense warmth. I think if they met somewhere in the middle – a beach, say – they’d see that their Crobats are actually mates, and say, “Wow, this sand stuff is like, the perfect happy medium for us.” Then maybe they’d stop trying to attack space centres and awaken ancient powers.
Basically, while Gen 3 had one of the most nuanced and resonant antagonistic arcs in the entire Pokemon series, it also extended that attentiveness to the baddies themselves. Archie and Maxie are much more than a near-endgame battle to prep you for the Elite Four – they’re the best villains Pokemon ever had, mostly because of the fact that they’re capable of other things than villainy.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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