I think it’s time to explore some of the more hostile reaches of Alola, with the volcano-dwelling salamander Pokémon, Salandit and Salazzle. Salandit and Salazzle could be based on any of several things, or a mix of all of them, or none of them. Physically they resemble fire belly newts (genus Cynops), a group of newt species native to Japan and southern and eastern China (in the strictest scientific sense, newts are a branch of the salamander family and, compared to other salamanders, remain more aquatic even after leaving their tadpole stage; the words are often used interchangeably though). Fire belly newts are so called for their black colouring with bright red or yellow flame-like markings, which warn predators that they are poisonous and unsafe to eat – so we have a ready-made fusion of the Fire and Poison elements right there. Salamanders also have a very long history of being associated with fire, with stories that they bathe in flames going back at least as far as Aristotle. We could almost stop at that – Salandit and Salazzle are fire salamanders that breathe fire, and they’d hardly be the first Pokémon to come out of “real animal + appropriate-sounding elemental powers” (*cough*Beartic*cough*). But no; there’s more to these crafty amphibians, and as so often in Alola, we can look for answers in the real archipelago of Hawai’i.
Salandit and Salazzle are best known among players of Sun and Moon for their unusual gender mechanics. Like Combee in Sinnoh, Salandit are overwhelmingly more likely to be male than female, with a 7:1 gender ratio, and only the females will evolve. The Pokédex puts this down to malnutrition, a result of female Salandit using pheromones to compel males to give them all their food, but even male Salandit that the player raises from birth will never evolve. This is a more complicated social structure than real salamanders display – but the concept of an all-female salamander species like Salazzle has some interesting real-world antecedents. To get there, we have to talk about hybrids. Hybridisation in the animal world is… tricky, particularly for mammals. Two similar mammals may be physically capable of mating, and genetically close enough to produce offspring, but those offspring will usually be sterile if the parents had different numbers of chromosomes (e.g. horses have 32 pairs, donkeys have 31, so mules have 31 pairs and a spare, which breaks meiosis and prevents sex cells from forming). Simpler species, especially plants, can usually get away with this, but more complex species require progressively stranger and more improbable genetic accidents for fertile hybrids to exist. Amphibian or reptile hybrids can sometimes reconcile their patchwork genetics by ditching their males entirely, leaving females capable of parthenogenesis – “virgin birth.” They can lay fertile eggs without male “intervention,” although, interestingly, it does seem to be necessary for pairs of females to, as it were, “go through the motions.” The result is an all-female species, with every individual a genetically identical clone of her mother, all the way back to a first-generation hybrid.
Undoubtedly the most famous animals to have achieved this asexual existence are certain species of whiptails, members of a family of otherwise-unremarkable lizards native to the southwest United States. However, some of the common gecko species introduced to Hawai’i in ancient times, such as the mourning gecko, are also exclusively female. So, we have a potential Hawaiian all-female gecko species to act as inspiration for Salazzle. It’s not a salamander (geckos are reptiles, and lay shelled eggs that can survive on land; salamanders are amphibians, and lay gelatinous eggs that hatch into tadpoles – but, then again, all Pokémon lay shelled eggs, Salazzle has no tadpole stage, and her species designation is “the Toxic Lizard Pokémon”), and arguably it would have been better-represented by just making Salandit an all-female species, rather than using a Combee-esque gender divide, but I’d accept either or both of these animals as influences on the Pokémon. If we’re willing to leave Hawai’i, though, we can find some all-female salamanders too – assorted hybrids of five species of salamanders of the genus Ambystoma, from the Great Lakes region of North America. These all-female hybrids practise an even more interesting reproductive method, observed only in amphibians: kleptogenesis, or “stolen birth.” They require male sperm from one of the five origin species to stimulate their eggs to develop, but they can apparently “choose,” by unknown mechanisms, what to do with that sperm’s genetic material: add it to their own complete genome (resulting in offspring with up to five sets of chromosomes), replace one of their own sets of chromosomes (“refreshing” the hybrid gene pool), or just discard it completely, so that the egg produces a clone of its mother. Because this can be viewed as a kind of sexual parasitism or exploitation, hence the “theft” referenced by the name, it might explain some of the trickier aspects of this design, like the way a Salazzle or female Salandit will dominate a “harem” of male Salandit in her territory, or Salandit’s otherwise-bizarre bandit or robber aesthetic (seen in the bandanna-like appearance of his head). Their social structure and deceptive tendencies are essentially a PG version of unusual reproductive strategies that Game Freak can’t directly describe in a kids’ game. That may not be all that’s going on here, though; Salandit and Salazzle may have mythical inspirations too.
Bulbapedia offers the suggestion that Salazzle is actually based on a Hawaiian entity known as a mo’o. Mo’o is the Hawaiian word for a gecko or other lizard, but in folklore some of them are more like dragons; they can achieve great size and incredible magical powers. Along with sharks and owls (like Decidueye), they are some of the most common forms of ‘aumakua, familial guardian spirits of Hawai’i, and one of the greatest of their number, Kihawahine, was among the patrons of Kamehameha the Great, the king who unified Hawai’i in the 18th century. Although males exist, most of them are female, and they are almost invariably described as a glossy black (like Salandit and Salazzle). Most importantly, mo’o can shapeshift, and like many shapeshifters of folklore and myth across the world, they are known for using this power to take the form of beautiful human women in order to seduce men (and then, ah… eat them – mo’o are not always benevolent spirits). This provides another angle on Salazzle’s harems, and her powerful domination pheromones, which can occasionally affect even males of other species (including humans, according to the Sun and Moon website!). It’s an attractive identification, as several previous designs have shown that Game Freak often looked to specifically Hawaiian inspirations for their Alolan Pokémon. On the other hand, although mo’o are often honoured at fire altars, they are typically very strongly associated with water, as bringers of rain and guardians of rivers, springs, pools and the like… and Salazzle is a Fire-type, with no water-related powers whatsoever. That doesn’t make it impossible that Game Freak had these mythical beings in mind, but it’s very much not a choice I would have made. As we’ve seen, though, this design is something of a mash-up of several related but distinct influences, including not just the Hawaiian mo’o but the unusual reproductive habits of several species of reptiles and amphibians, and the classical association between salamanders and fire. Overall, I think the mixing works quite well.
Moving on to gameplay, Salazzle is put together in a refreshingly straightforward way for an Alolan Pokémon: poor defences, lots of special attack, even more speed and a decent special movepool, the basic ingredients of a fairly conventional special sweeper. Most of what makes her interesting to play is her unique type combination, Fire/Poison. There are few really good offence-focused Poison Pokémon, and Poison is a very poor offensive type because of its few type advantages and inability to damage Steel Pokémon. With Fire attacks to cover Poison’s most important weakness, though, Salazzle can do all right, and because Poison is one of only two types whose attacks are super-effective against Fairy Pokémon, she has a nice little niche terrorising powerful Fairy-type special tanks, like Florges, Clefable and Sylveon. Because Fire/Poison also has a fairly impressive eight resistances (three of them – Grass, Bug and Fairy – being doubles) there are quite a few Pokémon that will struggle to bring down Salazzle quickly, in spite of her lacklustre defences. She therefore has a realistic chance of being able to cast Nasty Plot and send her special attack stat through the roof before her opponents can get in position to stop her, letting her do significant damage even with type coverage that is, for a sweeper, mediocre. Her basic movepool choices are between Flamethrower for accuracy or Fire Blast for power, and between Sludge Wave for a small power edge (and area of effect in multiple battles) or Sludge Bomb for a much greater chance to poison the target (but note that Sludge Bomb is blocked by Kommo-o and Chesnaught’s Bulletproof ability). Overheat could be interesting on a more “revenge kill”-oriented Salazzle that uses Choice Specs or a Choice Scarf, but the special attack reduction caused by its recoil makes it a bad choice for combining with Nasty Plot. After that, Salazzle’s next most powerful special attack is Dragon Pulse, but because Dragon attacks are only super-effective against Dragon Pokémon, that’s arguably not her best choice to round out a Nasty Plot set. Most of the Pokémon that her primary attacks have trouble with are Rock- or Water-types, so a Grass-type Hidden Power adds some general flexibility, or you could take aim at specific threats by selecting another type like Water, Ice or Fighting.
In keeping with her flavour as a tricky, deceptive Pokémon, Salazzle has quite a few disruptive moves, though it’s debateable how much space she has for them, since she doesn’t have the stats to act as a true support Pokémon. Taunt and Encore are both really interesting ways of screwing over defensive tanks and supporters by either locking down their support moves or forcing them to keep using those moves over and over, often uselessly. Disable or Torment might be fleetingly interesting if you can switch Salazzle in against a Pokémon who needs a specific attack to counter her (this works best if the opponent has just used that attack to knock out one of your other Pokémon, and you can send in Salazzle to quickly lock the move before it can be used against her), but in general less flexible than Taunt and much harder to get value from. Will’o’Wisp gives her a little bit of utility in countering physical attackers that she can’t destroy outright. Finally, Foul Play (available from move tutors) is an interesting option to diversify her attack spread, since it’s a physical attack that doesn’t rely on Salazzle’s own lacklustre attack stat, subverting the target’s instead. Of course, that means it’s only useful against the fairly narrow range of Pokémon who have high physical attack power, weak physical defence, and resistance to both Fire and Poison or weakness to Dark, and even against those, you’re probably better off with an appropriate Hidden Power or Dragon Pulse.
We should also spare a moment for Salazzle’s unique ability, Corrosion. In the abstract, Corrosion is a cool trick, but unfortunately it makes no sense for Salazzle to have it. Corrosion makes it possible to inflict the poison status condition on Steel-types and even other Poison-types. That could very well be useful for a tankier Poison-type like Muk. It’s just that this isn’t what Salazzle is doing – the rest of her kit all emphasises doing damage directly and quickly. She doesn’t really have the time to sit and use Toxic on Poison- or Steel-type opponents, so Corrosion will only come into play with random poisonings from Sludge Bomb or Sludge Wave. Unfortunately, Poison-types resist Poison attacks, so you’ll almost never choose to use one of these attacks in preference to Flamethrower against a Poison-type – it’ll probably only happen on a switch-in. Steel-types are even worse, because although you can theoretically poison them, they’re still immune to Poison attacks, so Corrosion can only affect them through non-damaging moves like Toxic. And even if Corrosion bypassed that immunity, you still wouldn’t use Sludge Bomb on a Steel-type because Steel-types are weak to Fire – it would, again, only be useful for hitting Steel-type switch-ins (and, I suppose, slightly improving Salazzle’s catastrophically bad matchup against Heatran). Corrosion doesn’t even make much sense thematically; nothing else in Salazzle’s lore or movepool suggests that she has acid-related abilities or that she’s particularly known for the great strength of her toxins. Unfortunately, Salazzle’s other ability choice is Oblivious, which (aside from being her hidden ability and therefore a bit of a hassle to get) provides only a narrow and not especially useful selection of immunities: immunity to infatuation (a fairly rare condition) and to the moves Captivate (even rarer) and Taunt (common, but not a huge problem for Salazzle because it only disrupts non-damaging moves). Both are of such limited use that it’s really a question of taste, though if you plan to teach your Salazzle only directly damaging attacks, you should go with Corrosion.
So that’s Salandit and Salazzle – probably one of my favourite Pokémon of generation VII, and not only because my first playthough of Moon featured a Salazzle in my party. There’s genuinely a lot going on here, and chasing the question of where Salazzle’s gender mechanics come from has led me down some interesting rabbit holes (we’ve all heard of whiptails by now, but the first published research on salamander kleptogenesis is only a decade old), which has become a big part of my own personal experience of Pokémon’s core theme of discovery in the years I’ve been working on this blog. As for Salazzle’s mechanics… well, I wish that Corrosion had been given to a Pokémon that would make better use of it, and that Salazzle could have had some other signature more appropriate to her playstyle. Still, she’s a perfectly lethal Pokémon as is, in spite of her frailty and a couple of common weaknesses, and her role is such an unusual one for a Poison-type, that I’m willing to let that slide. Just, uh… don’t turn your back on her.