I have a little personal conjecture about how Incineroar was designed.
Game Freak deeply, sincerely, earnestly didn’t mean to make a fourth Fire/Fighting starter Pokémon. They were just going to sit down and come up with some unique, entertaining and vaguely Hawaiian-inspired Fire-type. But then Incineroar just rose up, unbidden, out of the primal mists of Game Freak’s collective id, embedded himself in their tortured psyches, and refused to leave. Aware that they were making another Fire/Fighting starter Pokémon, but horrified by their inability to stop, they desperately called on Yveltal for help, and the vicious and cunning death god answered their prayers by corrupting Incineroar into a brutal Dark-type.
I mean, obviously some of that is speculative, but I think the general outline is close.
Litten, Torracat and Incineroar are our Alolan Fire-type starter Pokémon line. As Fire-type cat Pokémon they are a little in danger of being a sequel to generation VI’s Litleo and Pyroar, but fortunately their final stage, Incineroar, takes a very different direction. Litten is a kitten whose oily fur is highly flammable, causing him to hawk up flaming hairballs. That’s… a bit of a weird fighting style, but at least an elegant way of bringing the Fire element to a cat Pokémon, so we’ll call it a win. Likewise, instead of shedding hair all over the place, Litten just sets all his fur on fire and burns it up in seconds (something I occasionally wish my cat could do). Litten’s notoriously withdrawn and standoffish nature is appropriately cattish as well, and possibly meant to anticipate his eventual evolution into a Dark-type. That progresses to a highly aggressive, but simultaneously petulant, attitude in Torracat (again, not unlike a bad-tempered housecat…). Torracat’s most distinctive physical feature is the little fiery bell at his throat, actually his fire-producing organ, which makes a ringing sound when Torracat uses his powers. Presumably this mimics the bells that cat owners sometimes give their pets to warn off prey, which I suppose constitutes another interesting way of manifesting Torracat’s Fire type. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t go anywhere, though; Incineroar loses the bell for a flaming navel and fiery belt. I would have liked it if Torracat’s bell somehow manifested in Incineroar’s wrestler design as the bell that rings between rounds of a wrestling match; it seems like a really good opportunity to unify the design that was missed. There are a lot of cat Pokémon now (Meowth in two regional forms, Skitty, Shinx, Glameow, Purrloin, Litleo, Espurr…) and to be honest Litten and Torracat don’t do enough on their own to convince me that we needed another, but it’s Incineroar who was tasked with taking this design in a new direction. So let’s talk about that.
Incineroar has the species designation “the Heel Pokémon,” which makes pretty clear that we’re dealing with the evil counterpart to Hawlucha – a Pokémon based on a villainous persona from the world of professional wrestling. Incineroar comes from a similar masked wrestler tradition to Hawlucha, where a mask is supposed to give you a whole new identity to fight under, and you fight for the honour of that identity (often a totemic animal). Incineroar, as a villainous version of this idea, is not only a jerk, but ostentatiously a jerk, specifically going out of his way to be destructive and chaotic, just as a heel is supposed to. I’ve seen people specifically locate Incineroar’s inspiration with one Japanese wrestler in particular – or rather, one masked persona, used by five wrestlers over the years: Tiger Mask. And at first I was sceptical, but the deeper I go down this particular rabbit hole the more I think he probably is iconic enough in Japanese pop culture to actually be referenced by a Pokémon design (besides, according to the WWE website “it would be difficult to overstate [his] influence,” and I try not to question heavily-muscled men in capes and speedos). The only problem is that Tiger Mask is emphatically not a heel. The wrestling persona was originally inspired by a 1968 manga, where the character was a Japanese wrestler who had played heel in the United States and turned “face” when he returned home, but the real-world Tiger Mask has always been a heroic character, as have his anime adaptations (because of course there is a Tiger Mask anime; there was even a reboot last year). There is a corresponding heel character called the Black Tiger, who has a red-and-black colour scheme in the anime, but he doesn’t seem to be as well known, and also the wrestler was arrested for drug smuggling back in 2012 (this is the kind of trivia I just know now; SEND HELP). Anyway, if you were going to create a Pokémon that paid homage to the Tiger Mask mythos, why go for the derivative villain rather than the iconic hero? Something about it doesn’t quite ring true – and kinda brings me back to my (only partly tongue-in-cheek) introduction.
I had a whole debate with Jim the Editor over what Incineroar’s type should be, because his feeling is that it doesn’t make sense for this Pokémon not to be a Fighting-type, that Incineroar’s Dark-type traits are secondary to – dependent on – his Fighting-type traits; as a heel wrestler, he can’t be a villain without first being a martial artist. He’s typed wrong, and this is a blemish on the design. My counterargument was that the concept of a heel involves an element of theatricality that you could say makes them primarily villains and only secondarily fighters (i.e. pro wrestling is fake; fite me irl). I’m also inherently disposed to liking this line of reasoning because I have a pre-existing idea that one of the characteristic traits of Fighting Pokémon is that they are supposed to be honourable, so it actually makes a great deal of sense for an ostentatiously villainous Pokémon like Incineroar to be specifically excluded from the type. Having said that, “Fighting = Honour” isn’t exactly an obvious inference from any official source, and doesn’t fit all Fighting Pokémon (i.e. f#&%ing Primeape), so if you don’t particularly buy into my personal brand of nonsense, Fire/Fighting is arguably a better fit than Fire/Dark for Incineroar – probably because they started from “wrestler” and then looked for ways to justify a type other than Fire/Fighting, rather than actually starting from an idea that was demonstrably Fire/Dark. Jim the Editor’s suggestion for such an idea, to be submitted here to the court of public opinion, was to have Incineroar be a sort of arsonist/con artist, starting fires outside to draw attention and lure people out of their homes while gangs of Litten and Torracat plunder all their stuff (Incineroar could easily pull off a sort of circus strongman or ringmaster look that would be appropriate to this concept with only minor physical changes). Litten in this scheme could then be street performers and pickpockets, which gives them a more interesting identity too. Feel free to heap scorn on this idea in the comments, lest Jim get a swelled head. That’s enough on the design and flavour side, though; I should get on with how Incineroar works.
Incineroar is a physical tank in the tradition of Ursaring or Machamp: you’re slow and can’t avoid hits, but in theory you can survive them long enough to hit back. This is an odd thing for a Fire Pokémon to be, and arguably the only pre-generation VII Pokémon who can even do it are Emboar and Arcanine (no, Magcargo and Torkoal, you do not count), so we’re in a field with little competition. His hidden ability is Intimidate, which would be a wonderful thing for a Pokémon like this to have (or, well, almost any Pokémon to have; a free attack debuff every time you switch in is just really good), but alas, for the moment this is not to be, so we’ll have to make do with the generic Fire-type starter ability, Blaze. Incineroar has a really solid selection of attacks; in addition to his Dark-type signature moves, he gets Flare Blitz, Earthquake and Cross Chop, all powerful attacks that threaten an excellent variety of types. Outrage is interesting, but probably not recommended; Dragon attacks have great neutral type coverage, but that’s not one of Incineroar’s flaws anyway, and they hit almost nothing super-effectively (not to mention that being locked into Outrage can stop being fun abruptly). For some reason, Incineroar can learn Leech Life, which Sun and Moon buffed into a surprisingly solid attack, and honestly, health drain is probably quite a good thing for a Pokémon with Incineroar’s stat profile to have. Alternatively, U-Turn is also on offer as a source of Bug-type damage and tactical flexibility; it does less damage, but Incineroar isn’t short of power moves anyway, and being able to tank an attack for the Pokémon you’re switching in is a decent use of Incineroar’s bulk. Swords Dance is there too, to send his attack stat into the stratosphere, but bear in mind that Incineroar is just not fast enough to sweep anything. It really hurts in general that he’s so slow, and that Fire/Dark is not a great defensive combination: Fire attacks are great; being weak to Rock, Water and Ground is decidedly not, and Dark adds a nasty Fighting weakness to boot.
If you are inclined to buck Fire Pokémon stereotypes and push the defensive, tanky side of Incineroar, there are some support options that he can take for that, although it is maybe a bit of a waste of his excellent physical attack stat. Will’o’Wisp is nice because burns cripple physical attackers, and doubly nice if we can eventually get Intimidate on him. Taunt can stop support Pokémon from messing with you, but again, his poor speed hurts; you ideally want Taunt on a fast Pokémon that can actually anticipate and counter a support move, not just shut them down after the fact. Bulk Up might be interesting, especially in combination with Will’o’Wisp or Leech Life; Incineroar is already far from a pushover defensively, so if your opponent seems to be missing special attackers that can easily take him out, there might be some merit to going all in on buffs. Body Slam is nicely thematic, and being able to paralyse opponents is good for Incineroar and probably for the rest of your team too; it’s just unfortunate that Normal attacks are terrible. In an entirely different vein, you could try to turn him into a sort of bastardised surprise physical sweeper by speeding him up with Flame Charge. It’s no Agility, and the move itself is so weak that you do pretty much have to pack a second Fire attack (there’s no room for, say, Swords Dance), but if you play your hand close to your chest you might be able to confuse someone to death in the late game. Finally, Incineroar does get Nasty Plot, with a passable selection of special attacks (Flamethrower/Fire Blast/Overheat with Dark Pulse and Focus Blast), but unlike Decidueye his base special attack score is average at best, so the very most I would suggest is putting Overheat on a physical attacker set to maybe surprise a physical wall (bonus points if you make a Z-move out of it).
Because Incineroar is a pro wrestler, and pro wrestlers have a love for signature moves that goes beyond all logic and common sense, he has not one, but two: Darkest Lariat and Throat Chop. Of these, Darkest Lariat is the one you generally want. It’s actually one of the strongest Dark-type attacks in the game, though I should stress that this isn’t saying much, since Dark has no really high-powered attacks. Darkest Lariat helpfully ignores defence and evasion bonuses, and until recently I might have written that off as mostly useful for screwing with the AI, since defence and evasion buffs aren’t common in competitive games. Specifically in doubles, though, Darkest Lariat does have the peculiar advantage of beating the living $#!t out of the infamous Infinite Defence Palossand (of course, Palossand also has Ground attacks to blow up Incineroar, but it’s something). The other signature move is Throat Chop, and this is much more niche. It’s slightly less powerful than Darkest Lariat, and has the unusual effect of disabling the target’s sonic attacks by striking them in the windpipe. There aren’t a lot of powerful or common sound moves, so Throat Chop is mostly useful against a few Normal-type special attackers, like Exploud and Pyroar, who use Hyper Voice as a major source of damage. However, I do find it really amusing that Throat Chop can quite badly screw over Incineroar’s Water-type counterpart, Primarina, by disabling her Sparkling Aria. In practice you still wouldn’t choose to take that fight as Incineroar, because Primarina might just have a different Water attack, but it’s interesting that the designers built in this little reversal of the standard Grass-Fire-Water starter dynamic. As far as I can tell, Decidueye doesn’t have any similar thematic advantage over Incineroar, nor Primarina over Decidueye.
I’m not as convinced by Litten, Torracat and Incineroar overall as I am by Rowlet, Dartrix and Decidueye. They have the same sudden, fairly radical shift to a different sort of design at the third stage that I noticed in Dartrix, but it doesn’t quite fit as well – there isn’t really anything tiger-like about Incineroar (tigers being famously ambush hunters), probably because he’s tiger-via-masked-wrestler, but then again, Hawlucha’s the same thing, and her human and animal inspirations do slot together a bit better because of the focus of lucha libre on “aerial” moves. And… well, to be honest, the whole “slow physical bruiser” thing just hasn’t been a great game plan for most Pokémon who’ve tried it in the past; Emboar has never been especially prominent, and Incineroar is trying to do something fairly similar. I mean, there’s nothing I think is especially poorly done here, but not a lot that excites me. I’m calling this one a solid meh-out-of-ten.