All right; let’s get this catastrophic $#!t-show on the road. Grass-type starter time!
Since I have shown no signs at all of becoming even slightly less infatuated with the Grass type in the three years since I started this blog, selecting Chespin as my starter was something of a foregone conclusion. The little tyke eventually found himself overshadowed in my affections by the return of my one true love, Bulbasaur, but he nonetheless remained a faithful companion throughout my playthrough of X version and has always been ready to pull his weight. Where else to begin but with my first Kalosian Pokémon?
I begin with the Kalos Pokédex’s inaugural silly quote. “Such a thick shell of wood covers [Chespin’s] head and back,” it faithfully explains, “that even a direct hit from a truck wouldn’t faze it.” It is unlikely anyone will ever attempt to test this claim, Chespin being as adorable as he is, so we shall probably have to take the Pokédex’s word for it, but his sturdy spiked ‘helmet’ should at least afford solid protection from threats his own size. I am a little readier to believe it of the human-sized Chesnaught, his final evolutionary stage – a bulky creature of uncertain mammalian extraction with a spiked tortoiseshell-like structure (presumably wood again) covering his back and shoulders, and spiny ‘gauntlets’ protecting the outsides of his forearms. This guy’s shoulder-barges would surely be lethal. So, Chespin nails ‘cute’ and Chesnaught nails ‘tough’ (particularly with the ‘come at me’ pose he adopts in both the official art and his battle stance), but as is often the case with Pokémon who have to make this transition, Quilladin is caught in a strange middle ground between the two; he seems to go for a little of both, mixed with a side of ‘impish.’ His long, pointed nose, the tuft of hair on his forehead, and his round sparkling eyes, together with his nigh-spherical body shape, all give me the disconcerting impression that Crash Bandicoot has seriously let himself go, and is disguising himself as a cactus to hide his shame and start building a new identity. In some ways he doesn’t seem to fit smoothly as an intermediate between Chespin and Chesnaught; he’s more rotund than either of them, with short, stocky arms and legs, and the transition from Chespin’s helmet to Quilladin’s all-over body armour seems to go backwards again with Chesnaught, who seems to be more reliant on his tortoiseshell plate and armoured forearms. None of that messes with the things I really like about these designs, though.
The inspiration for these designs is the spiny outer shell of the chestnut. Nuts, berries and fruit have been underexploited by Grass Pokémon designs in the past, and chestnuts are distinctive and appropriate for a physical tank Pokémon. There may even be a cultural allusion in play, to the horse chestnuts or ‘conkers’ beloved of British schoolchildren in the 19th and early 20th centuries – in traditional schoolyard games, the hard nuts are hung from strings and smashed together until the weaker one cracks and must be discarded, with veteran conkers that survive multiple such battles being especially prized (Roald Dahl gives a characteristically whimsical account of the game and its strategies in the book My Year). Only the nuts themselves are used in the game, without the tougher but softer skins, but the nature of the game is so appropriate to Chespin’s physical bruiser battling style, as well as the habit Quilladin have of tackling each other in order to build their strength, that I can’t help but suspect a reference. Chespin’s ‘helmet’ also resembles the tough, warty outer skin of the horse chestnut more closely than that of a true chestnut, with its dense thicket of bristly, almost needle-like spines. What I particularly like about the way Chespin and his evolutions use chestnuts is that it ties together the Grass and Fighting elements. They aren’t ‘chestnut Pokémon’ although that could very easily have been a workable starting point, since there are basically two ways to do a Grass Pokémon: ‘plant creature’ and ‘animal with plant characteristics,’ all Grass starters being the latter. The Grass-type aspect of the design comes through in Chespin’s ‘helmet,’ Quilladin’s ‘armour,’ Chesnaught’s tortoiseshell plate, and their thorn shield signature move, which are also the things that convey their similarity to a human warrior or knight – in other words, the things that make them Grass-types are also the things that make Chesnaught a Fighting-type. The combination of the two elements isn’t superficial; they work together. It’s not always easy to make that happen, but I’m always fond of Pokémon who manage to pull it off.
Chesnaught handles in a similar manner to Torterra in battle, being a slow physical tank. Probably his biggest problem is that he has rather a lot of weaknesses for a slow, defensive Pokémon, including a dangerous double-weakness to Flying attacks, but he does resist the powerful and popular Earthquake/Stone Edge combination, so it’s not all bad. His biggest strength is the high power of his staple attacks, combined with a small but useful support movepool to keep opponents guessing. His strongest Grass attack is Wood Hammer, which retains its 120 power rating in a generation where many of the strongest attacks in the game are being toned down; the recoil hurts, though, and doesn’t mesh well with the standard Grass-type ability Overgrow (because once you’re injured enough for the Grass-type damage boost to kick in, one or two more Wood Hammers have a good chance of dropping you), so Seed Bomb is also an option depending on what exactly you want to do with him. Most Fighting-types have a wide selection of Fighting-type moves, but Chesnaught really only has two worth speaking of: Hammer Arm, which sacrifices speed for power (not that Chesnaught cares much about speed anyway) and Power-Up Punch, one of X and Y’s new moves, which boosts attack with every use (potentially a worthwhile choice for a more defensive Chesnaught who can afford to hang around for a couple of turns). Grass with Fighting is not a particularly strong combination offensively – well, okay, let’s be fair, Grass with just about anything is not a particularly strong combination offensively, but Grass with Rock is one of the less bad ones, and Chesnaught can do that too, with Stone Edge. Stone Edge is also important to make it a little bit harder for Flying Pokémon to walk all over him. On the support side, there are basically two moves you can build sets around: Leech Seed, the eternal Grass-type favourite which also works well with Chesnaught’s signature move, discussed below, and Spikes, which is just universally useful. Bulk Up and Swords Dance are both viable ways of increasing Chesnaught’s offensive presence, since he’s tough enough to take a neutral attack while setting up and scary enough to force some Pokémon to retreat. Don’t count on a sweep, though; Chesnaught is just too slow.
All three Kalos starters have been blessed with a signature move to emphasise what is unique in their styles of fighting, and Chesnaught’s is Spiky Shield. In mechanical terms, this thing is pretty neat. It’s strictly an improvement over Protect, the standard option available to most Pokémon for blocking an incoming attack to stall for time; the advantage to Spiky Shield is that it additionally deals a small amount of damage if it blocks a ‘contact’ attack. It’s a shame Spiky Shield damage can’t be stacked with the similar effect of a Rocky Helmet, because that would make Chesnaught a seriously daunting proposition for most physical attackers – perhaps not to the same extent as Ferrothorn, who can stack Rocky Helmet with his Iron Barbs ability, but then again, Ferrothorn actually has to take damage to cause recoil while Chesnaught doesn’t, so maybe that would have been too much ‘something for nothing.’ Besides, Protect is hardly a bad technique, particularly for Grass Pokémon who can use it to stall for damage and healing with Leech Seed, or in double battles where a Pokémon can potentially take two attacks in one turn, and Spiky Shield is, again, unambiguously better than Protect.
Finally, you have two options for healing, besides Leech Seed. Synthesis is the one you should use if you’re serious, because the sixth generation’s nerfing of Drizzle, Sand Stream and Snow Warning makes it much more likely you’ll be able to use the technique unobstructed. I want to talk about Pain Split, though, because Pain Split is interesting from a flavour perspective. Most of the Pokémon who learn Pain Split are Ghost- or Psychic-types, and of those who aren’t, most are in the Amorphous egg group and lack clearly defined anatomy, like Weezing and Swalot (even when it was available more widely, via move tutor, it was most prevalent among Pokémon with overtly magical powers or indistinct anatomy). It seems to be implied that the attack normally functions on the literal sharing of pain with the opponent, usually through supernatural means, which makes it odd that Chesnaught can learn it at all, let alone as a level-up move. Probably the intention here is to stress the retributive nature of Chesnaught’s defences, in line with Spiky Shield; the Pokédex is adamant that these Pokémon don’t start fights, but are happy to finish them. This could possibly be pushed even further by suggesting that, since Pain Split is regularly associated with Pokémon who have mental powers, Chesnaught’s ability to use it stems from a deeply and firmly held belief in ‘eye-for-an-eye’-style justice.
Chesnaught also has an odd signature ability, Bulletproof, the in-game manifestation of his supposed ability to withstand bomb blasts, which grants total immunity to a select list of ball-, bomb- and bullet-themed attacks. The most important of these are probably Shadow Ball, Sludge Bomb (which is super-effective against Chesnaught and more popular now that Poison attacks are strong against Fairy-types), Focus Blast and Aura Sphere, and to a lesser extent Seed Bomb, Energy Ball and Electro Ball (which Chesnaught resists anyway) and Gyro Ball (which does more damage to faster Pokémon, something Chesnaught is most definitely not). Most of the others are either too weak or too rare to be major sources of concern. Probably the main draw of this ability is that it makes him an unorthodox and somewhat risky but very interesting answer to Gengar, who relies heavily on Sludge Bomb, Shadow Ball and Focus Blast. Aura Sphere immunity also makes him a good possible response to Clawitzer and Mega Blastoise – just watch out for Ice Beam – as well as special Lucario (though Lucario is more commonly a physical attacker).
In summary, then, Chespin and his evolutions have a pleasing design that take inspiration from an unusual place, and their most unique powers support that design well and create consistent characterisation. They also combine Grass/Fighting more fluidly than the other representatives of that pair, Breloom and Virizion (though Breloom, it should be noted, is a kick-boxing dinosaur). If I have complaints, they are mainly with Quilladin’s odd aesthetics – he could stand to be slimmed down, with more emphasis on his spines and perhaps more elaborate ‘armour’ to anticipate Chesnaught’s grand tortoiseshell plate – and with the more general problem that Grass is just a bad type and probably always will be. That’s a complaint for another day, though…