So, our next Pokémon is a literal kung fu panda. Sure, why not?
With Ursaring and Beartic in the back of my mind, I’m beginning to wonder whether Game Freak are capable of doing a bear Pokémon that isn’t a bipedal hulking brute with a bad temper and tremendous physical strength. Pandas are such different creatures from grizzly bears or polar bears that I’m a little disappointed Pangoro turned out to be so very similar, type notwithstanding. There’s some neat stuff in there as well, though. Teddiursa and possibly Ursaring have some kind of weird lunar imagery going on that doesn’t really tie into anything at all (except maybe for the fact that there are constellations called the Great Bear and Little Bear), while Cubchoo has magic ice snot or something ridiculous that I never fully understood and doesn’t carry over to Beartic at all, but Pancham and Pangoro appear to be trying to tell a story through their designs and evolution. There’s something there, and I’m going with it.
Bulbapedia posits that the principle source of inspiration for these Pokémon is a stereotypical depiction of a male Japanese juvenile gang leader, or banchou, from certain manga genres – particularly visible in Pangoro’s ‘cape,’ possibly a representation of a long coat, and in the sprigs of bamboo they hold in their mouths. This being well outside my normal area of expertise, I naturally turned to the universal wellspring of all pop-cultural knowledge, TvTropes.org (obligatory warning: TvTropes will ruin your life), which confirms the prevalence of these clichés, among others, as a visual shorthand for juvenile delinquency in Japanese fiction. The real giveaway seems to be a pompadour hairstyle, something Pangoro easily could have had and I’m glad he doesn’t, but constantly chewing on a twig, a blade of grass or a stalk of wheat (something which tends to signify ‘country yokel’ in Western fiction) is another big one. A long coat, typically worn over the shoulders – leading to the appearance of a cape that we see on Pangoro – is similarly widely recognised. Whenever a character who matches the banchou archetype is actually important in a story, it will often be because his callous exterior conceals a warm, caring soul or some bullsh!t like that. This makes a great deal of sense in the context of Pangoro’s personality as it is described to us: violent and quick to anger, but ultimately motivated by a sense of justice. It also has personal appeal to me because it fits the way I like to characterise the Fighting type, namely that I believe the common thread uniting them is a preoccupation with honour as much as aptitude for martial arts; banchou characters, from what I’m given to understand, certainly like to think of themselves as being in some sense honourable. The tension between theoretically noble goals and the use of ‘dark’ emotions or underhanded actions as a source of strength makes a lot of sense for a Dark/Fighting Pokémon. This contrasts strongly with Pancham, who typically wants to be seen as tough and dangerous, but is really just mischievous and playful, lacking a true Dark-type’s readiness for anger and deception.
What’s neat about the transition is their unusual evolution method – Pancham can evolve into Pangoro starting from level 32, but only if there is a Dark Pokémon in the party as well. Evolution influenced by another Pokémon is pretty rare, and all the other examples I can think of are pretty closely tied in with the nature of the Pokémon’s powers – Shedinja splits off from Ninjask, Mantyke needs Remoraid to become Mantine, Karrablast steals Shelmet’s armour – so it seems reasonable to think the designers meant something by making Pancham evolve in this way. The obvious answer seems to be that a Dark-type companion can mentor Pancham in ruthlessness, in much the same way as parents fear the ‘influence’ their sweet children could be exposed to by hanging out with delinquents. Where the analogy breaks down is that this process is not only perfectly natural for Pancham, being the only way for them to reach maturity, but is probably facilitated in the wild by the parents themselves, the adult Pangoro who surely provide the Dark-type presence that allows most wild Pancham to evolve. Pangoro’s berserker rage supplies the great physical strength with which they defend themselves and put a stop to unfairness wherever they find it, and of course evolution in general tends to be depicted as a positive thing on the whole (Ash and Pikachu’s neuroses on the subject notwithstanding). Still, both Pancham and Pangoro have interesting personality traits, and the development from one to the other makes sense, and I’m prepared to chalk that up as a victory.
I want to mention the anime episode that focuses on Pancham and Pangoro, since I watched it last night and it was really quite silly. Normally I love the anime because it gives Pokémon a chance to show off what’s unique about their abilities, but this episode… Well, in this episode, damage to Pangoro’s bamboo sprig caused by a panicked Pin Missile from Chespin causes him to experience an instant and catastrophic collapse of all willpower and fighting ability, leaving him a miserable, unresponsive wreck, even in the face of capture by Team Rocket, until Ash is able to replace it. This change is so rapid that it can even happen mid-attack, completely cutting off a charge Pangoro was directing at Chespin! I don’t know about you, but personally I think it’s a bit of a pathetic weakness to have. What if someone attacks Pangoro with a Fire attack and burns the twig to ashes? In some ways, this total and ludicrous dependence makes a strange kind of sense as a reference to the real giant panda’s laughable inability to survive on any sort of food other than bamboo (or at least, it would be laughable if it weren’t one of the factors driving the ridiculous things toward extinction). It also might reference the importance of the twig to the ‘tough guy’ image of the stereotypical banchou character, essentially suggesting that Pangoro just can’t imagine himself as a powerful and competent fighter without this ‘charm’ of sorts. Luckily, Pangoro in the games suffers from no such mind-blowingly stupid flaw.
Dark/Fighting, formerly an exceptionally powerful attack combination resisted only by Toxicroak and Heracross, has lost a good deal of its lustre following the introduction of Fairy Pokémon, most of whom resist both types. Fairy attacks also sting Pangoro with a nasty double-weakness. However, it’s still a reasonably powerful combination, and since Fairy-types are really the only major hole in what you can hit with those two moves, it shouldn’t be hard to find room for Poison Jab, to at least make it more difficult for Fairy Pokémon to switch in. Pangoro sadly lacks the extra-powerful attacks that characterise Fighting-types – no Superpower, no Close Combat, and no Hi Jump Kick – so your main options are instead Sky Uppercut and Hammer Arm, both of which, luckily, get a 20% damage bonus from Pangoro’s Iron Fist ability. Hammer Arm slows you down, but honestly Pangoro isn’t in much of a position to outrun anything important anyway, so that probably doesn’t matter as much as it might for some Pokémon. Crunch is a slightly lacklustre secondary attack, which most Dark-types just have to deal with, though he’s slow enough that Payback could be a reliable alternative. If you go for a straightforward Choice Band tactic, which is the sort of thing Pangoro seems to be built for – powerful, slow, tolerably resilient – there are plenty of options to fill things out, the most important being Earthquake and Stone Edge, which are always great for scoring super effective hits. X-Scissor and Dragon Claw are mostly inferior, but it’s nice to know they exist. On the other hand, since it apparently works for Ursaring, you could try Swords Dance with Pangoro; it’s a dangerous thing to try on a Pokémon so slow, but maybe you’re a scary badass who lives fast, dies hard, and can’t be happy with an attack stat less than 700, so whatever; your funeral. I would avoid Bulk Up myself, since Pangoro doesn’t have any effective ways of healing – Drain Punch seems like it should be a no-brainer on a Pokémon like this, particularly with Iron Fist, and Slack Off would surely be appropriate for a panda Pokémon, but neither is accessible to him (Drain Punch is high on the list of moves that are likely to show up through tutors in later sixth-generation games though, since it’s been a TM in the past, so watch this space). Sucker Punch is another move that would be awesome for Pangoro and make perfect sense but that he doesn’t get (this one doesn’t actually get an Iron Fist boost, despite the English name, but for a slow, physically powerful Dark-type it would be a godsend). Also strange that no non-Fighting-type punching attacks feature. Really there just seem to be a lot of attacks missing from what this Pokémon wants to be able to do.
Pangoro’s other abilities are worth mentioning, because they both happen to be excellent ones; it’s just unfortunate that Pangoro isn’t really the best candidate to use either of them and probably needs Iron Fist more, to keep his Hammer Arm competitive. Mold Breaker is great for anything that relies on Earthquake a lot since it bypasses Levitate, though Pangoro is unlikely to get much else out of it. Scrappy, his hidden ability, makes it possible to hit Ghost Pokémon with Normal or Fighting attacks, which is obviously great for a Fighting Pokémon, but since Pangoro is a Dark-type as well, they aren’t really the biggest threat to him. Still, given how much Pangoro loves his Choice Band, it’s easy for him to get locked into unfavourable attacks. Give Scrappy some thought if you’re using a Choice item. Otherwise, stick to Iron Fist. Other weird things you could use on Pangoro include Taunt for messing up support Pokémon (great, but he’s probably too slow to do so effectively), Rest for healing (he’s no pushover defensively, but he’d need to be tougher to use Rest and Sleep Talk properly – maybe a Bulk Up set with Scrappy and a Fighting attack would be fun?), and Power-Up Punch (could work with Leftovers, I guess?).
The real reason to use Pangoro over any of the other perfectly good slow, powerful Choice Band-type Pokémon out there is his nifty signature move, Parting Shot. This move is a godsend for fragile sweeper-type Pokémon who have difficulty switching in safely – like U-Turn, Baton Pass, or Volt Switch, Parting Shot causes Pangoro to leave play, but rather than doing damage or transferring buffs to a recipient, Parting Shot reduces the attack and special attack of its target. In some cases, this may force your opponent to switch as well on the following turn by making their attacks ineffectual, netting you free time to entrench your position. Pangoro’s poor speed has mixed implications for this attack, depending on what you’re using it for; on the one hand, it’s likely Pangoro will take the full damage of an incoming attack on the turn it’s used, whereas a faster Pokémon would be able to offload a diminished attack onto your incoming Pokémon, but on the other hand, if you’re using Parting Shot as a way of getting a Pokémon with mediocre defences into play, maybe you want Pangoro to soak the attack first. Like all moves that switch you out after you use them, Parting Shot is a perfectly respectable option to use with a Choice item. Because the attack is based on shouted insults (appropriately enough for a gangster-inspired Pokémon), Pokémon with the Soundproof trait are immune to it, but since all the Pokémon who get Soundproof have much better abilities to choose from except for (arguably) Electrode, that’s probably not going to come up very often. With that caveat out of the way, have fun with Parting Shot!
I am on the record as disliking Pokémon based on modern clichés, subcultures or stereotypes, although I have to admit the way Pangoro does it is a good deal more subtle than Gothitelle or Scrafty, the Pokémon who first prompted me to articulate that dislike, and manifests in ways that don’t seem altogether incongruous for a bear Pokémon. I honestly don’t find him all that interesting, and he’s rather lacklustre as a battler, although I suppose in both respects he outdoes Beartic quite handily (not that that’s saying much). In a word… meh.