I finally finished playing Pokémon Ultra Moon recently. As much as I like the changes that the Sun and Moon games brought to the series, I never found myself obsessing over them like I have with games of the past. Maybe the game’s repetitive nature is finally burning me out, or maybe I’m actually getting too old for the franchise finally, at the age of 29. The thing that drew me back into Ultra Moon after a break was the new post game story added: Episode Rainbow Rocket.
The story brings back not just Team Rocket, but the bosses from all the previous Pokémon games all thrown into the same spot thanks to the multidimensional ultra wormholes that are a focus of the game’s story. All these leaders, as they originally appeared in their debuts, come from alternate timelines where it seems like things went differently for them and in some cases a random pre-teen never came to put a stop to them.
This little nostalgic glimpse into the history of Pokémon made me think about the history of the villainous teams and get around to something I’ve had in mind for years but never got around to actually writing. This is my personal ranking of all the “teams” in the mainline Pokémon games, from worst to best.
Just to be clear, I’m not taking spin-off games into account. No Team Snagem showing up here, mainly because I haven’t played the Pokémon Ranger games or the second Pokémon Colosseum, so I’m just talking about the main, core games here.
Team Galactic | First Appearance: Pokémon Diamond & Pearl
Team Galactic suck. They’re a group of thugs who roam around and hassle people no no real reason other than they can. They’re dressed as rejects from a 60’s B-movie for no real reason. Even the game calls out his ridiculous they look. Despite begin pretty useless and pretty toothless, they have managed to acquire several plots of land throughout Sinnoh and erect a number of large buildings dedicated to their… business?
Which is weird considering all they seem to do is steal weak Pokémon from weaker trainers. All in all, there’s not much to say about the team themselves, they’re the most uninteresting villain team of the lot to be fair. They come across more comical than threatening in most cases. It’s when we get to their leader that the fun begins.
Cyrus is a fruitcake. His secret ambition, one he doesn’t share with anyone else in Team Galactic, is to destroy the entire universe and use the Pokémon of time and space to recreate it in his own image, so he can be god… Wow, that’s a total anime nonsense right there. And his motivation… His mommy didn’t love him. I’m not even joking.
Cyrus believes the world is full of strife. Something that comes up a lot in villain’s motivations but hardly seems to ring true in this world of Pokémon where everyone is happy to the point that it’s kind of creepy. Cyrus seems to think the cause of all this “strife” is human emotion. And because Cyrus is an emotionally stunted muppet he things he needs to remake the world as the Neutral Planet from Futurama.
He’d be more threatening if the game played him off as more unhinged, but he is ultimately emotionless, thus dull. Team Galactic felt like the inevitable point of escalation that sums up Diamond and Pearl.
Team Flare | First Appearance: Pokémon X & Y
Team Flare are cut from a very similar cloth as Team Galactic, and thus they’re a frustrating presence in, what I feel otherwise, is the best game in the franchise. To boil them down, here is Team Flare’s gimmick: They’re all wearing red, with flame motifs, and they’re all very sharply dressed, lending to the style and fashion centric theme of the Paris inspired Kalos region.
Other than Game Freak being obviously proud of themselves for coming up with that pun, there isn’t a whole lot more going on in regards to the team. Many of their grunts are total bumbling idiots, worse than Galactic goons. They’re motto seems to be about creating a “Beautiful and Better” world for everyone. When in reality the grunt level members amount to nothing more than sharply dressed thugs.
It’s not really clear their true motive until the player meets their leader; Lysandre. Another leader who seems a few moles short of a mole collective Pokémon. He hates that the world is full of “conflict” and “strife”, none of which exist mind you aside from that which Team Flare themselves create. So his ultimate solution to this; Kill everyone. Yep, apparently Kalos is home to some ancient super weapon that can imbue either everlasting life or death when it receives enough power.
Lysandre’s big idea is to kill literally everyone in the world, not just people though, Pokémon too, so that makes him extra evil. Then he intends to go and reforge a new world in his own image… Using soley members of Team Flare who survive the purge. Y’know, the people I just got done explaining were mostly dimwitted thugs.
It’s a good plan. As long as you think a barely functional post apocalypse full of dopes and petty criminals can be called a “beautiful” world.
I ranked Flare above Galactic because Lysandre straight up gets crushed to death at the end of the game. Also, he does look damn good in that suit.
Aether Foundation | First Appearance: Pokémon Sun & Moon
Aether Foundation themselves aren’t an evil organisation. They’re a pretty well supplied group whose focus is on Pokémon welfare, rescuing them from abusive trainers, reintroducing them into the wild and studying new ways to preserve the environment. They also research and combat the strange multidimensional threats known as the Ultra Beasts that are a major plot point in Sun and Moon.
But, spoilers, they do end up playing an antagonistic role in the games, mainly down to their president; Lusamine.
Lusamine is a terrible person, and generally sucks at being a human being. And it makes her a fascinating character and a really good villain in this game. She has a creepy, obsessive personality that makes her want to “love and care for” all Pokémon in the world, especially the aggressive Ultra Beasts. She freezes Pokémon, Han Solo in Carbonite style, for their “protection”.
She seems obsessed with beauty and appearance though, and when thinks that her daughter has betrayed her, she disowns her and verbally abuses her in front of the player. She even attempts to attack her when she has gone full fruit loop and fused with a big jellyfish Pokémon.
It was way further than I was expecting Game Freak to go in one of these games, making her broken relationship with her daughter a major plot point, whereas most of the Pokémon games historically avoid making any of their characters anything but misguided. Lusamine pretty much mentally snaps to the point she enters a vegetive state when she is defeated, one that never really gets a solid happy ending. It’s cool, and I appreciated that, at least the localisation team, made Sun and Moon slightly more mature in their themes and dialogue.
It’s actually one of the things I really didn’t like about Ultra Moon, they remove her as the major villain, instead just focusing on the legendary Pokémon as the major antagonist. It’s a way less interesting direction and makes the games weaker as a result for me. She had such an impact on me as a character in the original Sun though that I had to put Aether Foundation on this list for her alone.
Team Aqua/Magma | First Appearance: Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire
I’m bundling these guys together because they play the exact same role depending in which version you played. Team Aqua\Magma are terrorist organisations with the very questionable motive of wanting to either expand the landmass of the world or expand the oceans of the world. Both of which seem like very strange things to create a cult like group around.
I always thought it was kind of funny how one team’s end goal seem to make way more sense than the other’s. When playing Ruby back in the day, I could understand the reason behind Team Magma. Overpopulation is a problem, we need more space to live on and grow food. Thus we need more landmass. I’m not saying it’s smart, but there is some small amount go logic behind it.
Team Aqua on the other hand… We hate people, but we love fish… okay? Guess it legitimises the the pirate thing they have going on though.
It’s pretty cool in Ruby/Sapphire that these two teams directly oppose one another. Emerald’s story felt like like the properly realised version of events, containing both teams’ shenanigans at the same time. With both trying to summon a legendary Pokémon that is linked with either the land or the sea to achieve their goals. What’s dumb is that when they ultimately get what they want, it only leads them to realise “Duh, people dying for our goal might be a bad thing”.
It’s actually kind of hilarious that they go to such extremes to achieve their goals, and then the second they get what they want, they suddenly have a bout of conscious. They’re suddenly remorseful enough to help the player undo their actions in a heartbeat. And my absolute favourite thing about it all; they’re never actually punished by any form of authority for their multiple accounts of terrorism throughout the game.
A Gym Leader and the League Champion are right there and never bother to try to take them into custody. In fact, in the 3DS remakes, you see them wandering about as though they hadn’t committed several crimes that cost millions or could have led to many deaths.
They’re so dumb in concept and execution that I kind of love them for it, it’s why they appear so high on my list. And I really liked Ruby and Sapphire. If you want to say this is nostalgically motivated, I wouldn’t argue with you.
Team Skull | First Appearance: Pokémon Sun & Moon
I love Team Skull. You’d look at them and think they’re the most generic looking bad team ever. They’re a bunch of punks with a skull motif to them, trying way too hard to seem like they’re bad guys. Then you realise that’s exactly their charm. Team Skull are all a bunch of loveable dopes who walk around trying to talk and act tough, when in reality they’re never really anything more than a minor annoyance to the people of Alola.
Sun and Moon initially sets up Team Skull as the main antagonists of the game, we quickly realise that these are just a bunch of kids, throwing up would-be gang signs and often making themselves look dumb before we even have a chance to put them in their place. They are ultimately pretty toothless, and everyone knows it.
What makes them so endearing though is how completely devoted they are to their boy Guzma.
They love their boss, they’re all just one big dysfunctional family with a ton of heart. Guzma himself is a great character. He lives with this big chip on his shoulder because he couldn’t succeed as a trainer and rebels against the traditions of Alola, traditions he felt let him down. Guzma starts out as the only threatening member of Team Skull, but by the end warms to the player for their strength and ends up redeeming himself by the end.
Team Skull are a big old group of doofs and I love them for it. Their dialogue is amazing, as is their battle theme, topped off by the ridiculous hand signs they’re throwing up literally all the time.
Team Rocket | First Appearance: Pokémon Red & Blue
Of course Team Rocket would appear near the top, they’re the original villainous team. The ones that started this whole thing and set the standard for what the villains would be going forward. It isn’t just because Team Rocket were the first team that they are appearing so high on the list though. I spent signifiant time on this post explaining each team’s goals and how they plan to go about doing it, and often, how convoluted those plans could be.
Team Rocket are just straight up the Pokémon Mafia.
They’re just criminals. They don’t have some higher calling, some big grand plan to reshape the entire world in their own image for some reason or another. They’re just a group that wants to make a lot of money and they’re willing to do anything to accomplish that goal. And until the player character shows up to muck up their plans, they seem to have a pretty good racket going.
They own several businesses throughout Kanto and Johto, including a casino. They once operated a cutting edge Pokémon Laboratory on Cinnabar Island and were very likely the group responsable for the creation of the Pokémon Ditto, Porygon and Mewtwo. All in the name of generating cold hard Pokébucks.
Team Rocket also don’t generally come across as bumbling or incompetent either. I mean, they ultimately are, but their dialogue and behaviours are ones of genuine criminals who want to mess you up. They seem like criminals and behave as such.
Their Leader Giovanni is an interesting one too. He gives off an air of a “business man” who wouldn’t hesitate to order you a fitting for some concrete boots, but he seems to get a kick out of being tossed around by a ten year old kid. He almost seems proud when you eventually beat him at the end, then announces he is disbanding Team Rocket.
They ultimately reemerge a few years later in Gold and Silver, which gave us Silver, aka the best rival.
Team Rocket are classic for a reason.
Team Plasma | First Appearance: Pokémon Black & White
A lot of people didn’t like Pokémon Black & White. I can understand why, but this game gave us the absolute best villainous team that we’ve seen in any of the games. Not only that, it treated the villains as a genuine threat that served as the game’s final encounter, rather than a side show that get’s mopped up just in time for several more hours of game.
So first off, Plasma’s goal is great. They’re a group of Pokémon rights activists. Their first interaction with the player involves them giving a speech to a crowded street. During this they argue that maybe; taking Pokémon out of their natural environment, confining them in small balls and forcing them to fight one another is cruel. That, maybe people shouldn’t forcibly treat Pokémon like slaves/personal attack dogs. These are things fans and critics have joked about for years.
It’s a genuine moral quandary that is far deeper than we were ever expecting to see from a Pokémon game of all things. The player never has to feel too bad though, because Plasma grunts still bully people around and “liberate” their Pokémon by force.
Things get complicated again though when you meet their “king”; N. A young, green haired boy who looks like he could be a protagonist of his own game. N is completely genuine and caring of all Pokémon, he believes that Pokémon should never be “owned” by people and that people and Pokémon can life together without the need to capture them and force them to fight one another.
It all comes to a head when N is revealed to be a prophesied legendary hero of Unova. He befriends a legendary Pokémon and takes on the Pokémon league himself before the player, becoming its new champion. Defeating N and becoming champion isn’t the end though, as N’s father, Ghetsis crawls from the woodwork and reveals himself to be the real mastermind behind Team Plasma.
Ghetsis is a great piece of shit.
He brainwashed his son from a young age, making him believe that all people were evil and kidnapped Pokémon against their will. Hoping that his son could become this legendary hero of ideals and convince the world that people and Pokémon needed to be separated. All so he, and his organisation, could be the only ones to make use of Pokémon in order to gain wealth and power.
Ghatsis is a despicable excuse for a human being, having no regard for his own child, describing him as “barely human” and “a freak”. The lengths he went to for pure wealth and power were astounding and it makes for the most satisfying finale to any Pokemon game ever. After becoming Champion, you have to fight and defeat Ghetsis directly after he has monologued his slimy, disgusting plan to you. Then when you beat him the credits slam onto the screen. Boom.
It’s the best story telling Game Freak has done in the series. Making genuinely horrible people their villains and giving the defeat of them the gravity and attention it deserves. Rather than allowing that story to fade out long before the end like all the other games do. Even his reappearance in the Rainbow Rocket arc of Ultra Sun/Moon was amazing, living up to form as the true piece of shit that he is.
And there you have it.
I know Pokémon is a kid’s franchise, but so many people who have been playing since the beginning are in their 30s now. I’d love for whatever Pokémon on the Switch ends up being to have slightly more focus on appealing to their adult audience. Like Pokémon Black/White and Sun/Moon, I’d like to see a story with twists and turns and a finale that feels like a pay off rather than the traditional gauntlet through the Elite four again.