I didn’t really intend to leave these Pokémon so late, but I kind of forgot about them for a while, and here we are, with only one other set left in the Central Kalos sub-region. It’s not like I forgot they exist or anything like that; I think I just assumed I must have done them already. By contrast, I regularly forget that Mothim exists. It used to be an oversight, but now it’s become a matter of principle. Butterfly and moth Pokémon are one of the stock design types like Normal Bird, Normal Vermin and Electric Rodent; at least one appears in every region aside from Johto, and the rapid caterpillar-cocoon-butterfly succession originally seen in Butterfree (and paralleled by her vicious opposite, Beedrill) was repeated by Beautifly, Dustox, and now Vivillon herself. Years ago I declared Beautifly and Dustox the joint third-worst Pokémon of all time on a combined assessment of their nonexistent battle capabilities and the highly derivative character of their designs, which borrow a great deal from Butterfree and Venomoth. Game Freak’s decision to come out with yet another of these things represents, to my warped psyche, something of an invitation to a grudge match. Let’s get to it.
There is an undeniable attraction in the idea of metamorphosis – just ask the Roman poet Ovid. What could be more magical (or more easily lent to metaphor and allegory) than a creature that transforms from one shape into another? As an aside, while we’re on the subject, here is a page explaining a wacky and controversial conjecture on the true nature of a caterpillar’s metamorphosis, which would put a really interesting and kind of dark twist on Pokémon evolution. Go read it and come back; I’ll wait.
Neat, huh? Anyway.
Given how important metamorphosis is in Pokémon, it makes sense that the iconic caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation would be such a favourite commonplace, and that it would often form part of the introduction of new players to evolution. It’s understandable. Having said that, I still want the relevant Pokémon to be interesting in their own right. Butterfree? Pollinating butterfly with telekinesis and the ability to scatter poisonous powders. Pretty sure those things are Mothra references, but that’s fine. Venomoth? Nocturnal moth with telekinesis and the ability to scatter poisonous powders. Don’t think we really needed both, but they were just starting out so I’ll let them have it. Beautifly? Pollinating butterfly with the ability to scatter poisonous powders – no telekinesis this time, but seems to have been developed, starting from generation IV, into a bloodsucking predator, who… eats mainly nectar? Whatever. Dustox? Nocturnal moth with telekinesis and the ability to scatter poisonous powders. They’re phoning it in at this point. Then there’s Masquerain, who has the whole ‘intimidating glare’ thing going, and also has water powers but can’t fly if he gets wet? That’s… well, it’s different, sure. Mothim is… unfortunate. The interesting thing about bagworms like Burmy is that the females conspicuously fail to metamorphose completely – hence Wormadam – but this only becomes an interesting element of the design through being paired with a male moth, who is really just an accessory to his female counterpart. It goes without saying that Mothim has telekinesis and poisonous powders, but he isn’t a pollinator. In fact, Mothim steals honey from Combee, which seems like it must be a reference to the infiltration tactics of the death’s-head hawkmoth, the indisputable most badass lepidopteran of all time. The fact that Mothim neither pursues this line of inspiration nor bothers to incorporate any influence from Burmy’s cloak (which would have been a really easy way to make him more interesting) leaves me with more of a feeling of wasted potential than almost any other Pokémon of that generation. Basically, the butterfly brigade comprises a morass of repetitive and poorly thought-out ideas, and Volcarona. Imagine, then, my untrammelled joy when my Scatterbug evolved into a Spewpa, and my Spewpa evolved into a butterfly with telekinesis and poisonous powders.
Vivillon’s claim to fame is that she comes in a wide variety of different colours and patterns that vary depending on the real-world geographical location to which you have registered your 3DS. My 3DS, for example, is registered to New Zealand, so Vivillon I catch, evolve or breed (including any Scatterbug eggs I trade away) have the deep green with red spots of the Garden pattern, something New Zealand has in common with Britain, Ireland, parts of Poland, and Tasmania. This remains true regardless of my actual location (the 3DS doesn’t know that I’ve moved to the USA, or that I’m going to Italy next week). In all, there are eighteen patterns, plus two more ‘special’ ones – a ‘Fancy’ pattern, pink and green with flowers, which is scheduled for release in a Nintendo event that will occur upon the approaching milestone of 100 million Pokémon trades on the Global Trade Centre, and a Pokéball pattern that is presumably being saved for a future event as well. The point of all this is obvious: people will want to collect all the different Vivillon patterns, and to do that they’re going to have to trade with people all over the world (well, or with people who’ve set their 3DS systems to believe they live in faraway places, but it’s the principle of the thing). Pokémon has been encouraging this for a while with things like unlockable foreign language Pokédex entries, extra experience boosts for Pokémon from foreign language games, and greater chances of hatching shiny Pokémon when breeding parents from two different language games. It also ties into the way Pokémon has been overtly positioning itself as an international phenomenon by setting generations V and VI in regions based on New York and France, in contrast to the purely Japanese-inspired regions of generations I through IV. Game Freak value and want to reward not just foreigners buying their games, but playing those games with each other and with people back at home in Japan. In Vivillon, they’ve hit the jackpot: she is consistently the most traded Pokémon on the Global Trade Centre. Now, I don’t know if this makes Vivillon a good Pokémon. Everything else about her is still very conventional. I don’t do a lot of trading myself anyway, but even beyond that I’m simply very uneasy with mechanics that encourage people to collect Pokémon they have no intention of using, which emphasises the disconnect between the way Pokémon plays as a game and the partnership themes it tries to convey. However, I think the important thing here is that we can all agree Mothim is terrible.
In the interests of not selling Vivillon short, I should note that in battle she is unarguably superior to Butterfree, who is herself leagues ahead of Dustox and Beautifly. Butterfree basically has two things going for her: 97.5% accurate Compoundeyes Sleep Powder/Stun Spore, and Quiver Dance, which can turn just about anything into a special sweeper by raising special attack, special defence and speed all at once. Although it requires her to forgo Compoundeyes, Butterfree also got Tinted Lens as her hidden ability, which negates most resistances and makes her attacks surprisingly difficult to stop once she gets a Quiver Dance or two going. Ultimately you have to ask yourself “why am I not using Venomoth for this?” since Venomoth also gets Tinted Lens, is tougher and significantly faster, and has a marginally less awful type combination, but the point is that Butterfree has self-respect of the kind Beautifly would kill for. Vivillon doesn’t have Tinted Lens, but she does have Compoundeyes, and unlike Butterfree she actually learns something other than Sleep Powder and Stun Spore that will make use of it: Hurricane. Vivillon’s Compoundeyes Hurricane is conceptually identical to Galvantula’s Compoundeyes Thunder. The ability to use such a powerful attack with impunity lets her significantly outpace Pokémon who’d normally be much stronger – and there’s no Thunderbolt for Flying-types either; Pokémon like Togekiss and Noivern have to make do with relatively weak attacks like Air Slash, and Vivillon’s Hurricane can significantly outstrip their damage output. She even gets U-Turn, which is amazing as always, although Vivillon has trouble stuffing everything she wants into one set. So, with a souped-up wind attack, a near-perfect sleep technique and one of the best set-up moves in the game, what could possibly go wrong? Well, Vivillon pays dearly for her Hurricane attack and the extra speed she has over Butterfree. There are precious few Pokémon who can’t inflict serious injury on her. Most attacks she doesn’t resist will blow a huge hole in her. Almost any proper super-effective attack will one-shot her, and the thing about Bug/Flying is that there are a lot of common attacks you’re weak to. What’s more, ‘faster than Butterfree’ doesn’t exactly mean a whole lot until after your first Quiver Dance, and if Vivillon switches in while your opponent has Stealth Rock in place, she’s all but dead on arrival. Getting her into play safely is hard, getting her a chance to use Quiver Dance without being counterattacked is equally hard, and even once you’ve done all that successfully, there are still Steel-types who resist all of her attacks, and priority moves that can maim or destroy her.
The other interesting things about Vivillon are a signature move and an almost-signature ability. Powder is a priority move which will interrupt any incoming Fire attack, causing an explosion that will damage the Pokémon trying to hit Vivillon. It’s such a cool idea that it’s almost worth using just for the one time it will actually work and make enemy Fire-types’ plans literally blow up in their faces, but once you’ve used it once, your opponent just won’t use Fire attacks on Vivillon. Heck, if they’re smart they might just avoid using Fire attacks on her from the beginning. Against most Pokémon, being prevented from using super-effective attacks might be a crippling disadvantage, but it bears repeating that you don’t actually need super-effective attacks to do pretty heavy damage to Vivillon. Since an incorrect prediction with Powder results in a wasted turn and a hit you can’t really afford to take, it strikes me as one of those moves that are more useful for the threat that you might use it than for what happens when you actually use it. The almost-signature ability is her hidden ability, Friend Guard, which a few other Pokémon have, though Vivillon is the only one who keeps it when fully-evolved. Friend Guard reduces damage to allied Pokémon by 25% in double and triple battles, gearing Vivillon more towards a support role (for which she can also make use of Aromatherapy and Light Screen). It doesn’t shield Vivillon herself, and will draw a great deal of fire from your opponents, but even this is potentially exploitable if you give her Protect. I’m doubtful whether the protection of Friend Guard is enough of a benefit to be worth the hassle of trying to keep such a fragile Pokémon alive for more than a few turns in a fast-paced environment like doubles, but it’s cool she has something unique. Personally, I would have liked to see each of Vivillon’s forms get a special move or ability to themselves – imagine the potential havoc an Icy Snow Vivillon could cause with Compoundeyes Blizzard, or a Monsoon Vivillon forgoing Compoundeyes for Drizzle and retaining her high-accuracy Hurricane (I would totally give all Vivillon Weather Ball as well; their theme of adapting to different climates makes it at least plausible thematically). Given the sheer number of Vivillon forms, though, Game Freak’s reticence is understandable.
Considering how comprehensively the deck is normally stacked against Bug/Flying dual-types, as well as early game Pokémon in general, it’s something of a miracle Vivillon manages to be usable at all, but skilled players have been known to pull off some quite spectacular manoeuvres with this little eye-catcher. I’m not exactly going to forgive the designers for doing another Butterfree, but they’ve made her far stronger than her predecessors and given her a clever feature which, though I honestly find it just plain gimmicky, has won the hearts of trainers all over the world and contributed to the wider vision of the franchise. Touché, Game Freak. You win this round…