Right. Where were we? Almost done! I mean, perhaps not almost, because on top of the standard legendary Pokémon there’s a dozen Ultra Beasts in this generation, and then I think at some point I promised I would talk about all the older Pokémon with Alolan forms, and I need to talk about a bunch of the human characters too, and eventually those BASTARDS who DID THIS TO ME in the first place are going to announce generation VIII, which means people are going to want me to TALK about it, and I’m going to need to save up for a bloody Nintendo Switch, and-
Y’know what, let’s just do Turtonator; I feel like blowing something up.
Turtle and tortoise Pokémon are by now something of a storied lineage, with representatives in five out of seven generations (or six, or even all seven, depending on whether you count Shuckle or Avalugg – but personally I lean towards no; I’d call Shuckle a slime mould and Avalugg an iceberg). Turtonator isn’t even the first Fire-type one – following Torkoal, actually one of my favourite Pokémon of generation III because of the neat resonance between the tank-like nature of a tortoise’s shell and an old coal-fired boiler. Although Torkoal tends to hang out in volcanic areas, she isn’t strictly speaking a “volcanic” Pokémon and isn’t defined by volcanic powers, but is coal-themed, living by burning the coal that she mines out of mountains like a steam engine. She’s a slow-burning Pokémon, all smoke, steam and embers. Turtonator’s not having any of that $#!t. Turtonator is in this to blow things up – including, if at all possible, himself. Living in volcanic or geothermally active areas, like Ula’ula Island’s Blush Mountain, Turtonator feeds on the minerals associated with those kinds of terrain, particularly sulphur, and incorporates them into his shell, which apparently makes his shell explosive – probably because mixing sulphur with carbon and saltpetre (potassium nitrate) gives you gunpowder [disclaimer: it goes without saying that you should not try this at home]. Carbon is pretty mundane; it’s in all organic substances, and you can get charcoal from most any kind of wood. Saltpetre requires you to go a little more out of your way; it can be synthesised chemically or collected as an evaporite from some desert regions, but traditionally one of the best natural sources is bat guano, which is packed with all kinds of useful chemicals. The varied applications of these chemicals in both fertilisers and explosives actually made guano a surprisingly valuable commodity throughout the 19th century. The point is, I’m not saying Turtonator probably eats Zubat $#!t and turns it into gunpowder, but I am heavily implying it. We’re told by the Pokédex that Turtonator’s “exploding shell poses a real danger but is sensitive to moisture,” forcing him to hide in caves when it rains. My first thought on reading this was that maybe the compounds in his shell react violently with water, like metallic potassium, so that going outside in the rain would actually cause poor Turtonator to explode. On second thought, though, it seems more likely that the rain just makes the reactive compounds in his shell too damp to burn properly, causing his attacks to fizzle out like an early matchlock musket.
Turtonator also makes a couple of distinctive departures from the basic design of all the existing turtle and tortoise Pokémon. Turtonator’s weird, flat, diamond-shaped head is probably a feature of the mata mata, a “side-necked” freshwater turtle native to the northern Amazon basin. For the mata mata, the head is an adaptation for ambush hunting, since it looks like a ragged old leaf, and the fish it eats won’t suspect any danger until it’s too late. Turtonator doesn’t live in water, his brightly coloured head almost certainly wouldn’t pass for a leaf, and the Pokédex’s only references to his diet suggest that he feeds on minerals, so it seems like this is strictly a cosmetic borrowing, but I suppose it’s plausible that the colours and sharp angles might actually be a camouflage asset amongst the often-surreal scenery of geologically active zones. The same species of turtle also has a ridged, spiked shell, which could be behind the design of Turtonator’s prominent shell spikes, though personally I’m reminded more of the pyramidal shell projections of some more conventional tortoise species, and perhaps the star-shaped patterns of the Indian star tortoise, which conceivably could tie in with the “starburst” shape of Turtonator’s shell. The long tubular nose that spurts fire, as far as I can tell, was inspired by certain embarrassing cell phone footage of my reaction to an unusually enthusiastic vindaloo. The overall effect is a sort of “hunched, grouchy old man in a rice hat” aesthetic, which I am (perhaps unwisely) going to assume is intentional.
The other interesting thing Turtonator is known for is a bizarre weak spot: a hole in his stomach. This is verbatim what the Pokédex says, and we can see it in his in-game sprites; right in the middle of his plastron (that’s the technical term for the flat underside of a turtle’s shell; I’m an educator!) there’s a big, black, star-shaped hole. Exactly what happens if an attack slips in here is not made clear by the games (maybe there’s an anime episode that covers this?); I can imagine anything from a slightly more severe injury than normal up to Turtonator losing control of his powers and suffering a catastrophic implosion. As weird as this is, we can conjecture a perfectly respectable folkloric inspiration for it: the “chink in the dragon’s armour,” the idea that a dragon’s scales are impenetrable, but for a single weak spot, typically on the neck or belly, that the hero must find and pierce. This is how Sigurd slew the dragon Fáfnir in Norse mythology, it comes up in the final act of the Old English epic Beowulf, and Tolkien references it in The Hobbit with the death of Smaug. It also ties in with the extreme vulnerability of any part of a turtle’s body that isn’t protected by its shell (although, unlike a lot of animals, a turtle’s weakest point isn’t its belly, which is fairly well-armoured, but its neck, which side-necked turtles like the mata mata cannot fully retract into their shells).
Whatever the consequences, in order to avoid them Turtonator will almost always stride into battle backwards, as we can see in the games (though Kiawe’s Turtonator in the anime doesn’t seem to be quite as cautious). He keeps the face of his shell pointed towards the bad guys, and looks over his shoulder to see where he’s going. This doesn’t just keep that pesky weak spot out of sight; it also ensures that the most dangerous part of his body – his shell, which explodes at the slightest provocation – is pointed squarely towards the enemy at all times. A good solid strike on that sulphur-laden shell will trigger a powerful retributive blast that should make any enemy think twice about coming back for more, as Turtonator’s Shell Trap signature move illustrates in the games. The Sun and Moon website claims that the explosions are “triggered” from Turtonator’s back, but that the force of the blast is directed through his chest-hole, which on the one hand gives us a reason for the hole to be there, but on the other hand doesn’t square with depictions of the Shell Trap move in the anime, or with his backward stance in the games. In fact, I’m not even sure how the logistics of that would work, unless Turtonator were surrounded – otherwise he’d be attacking thin air at best, or his own trainer at worst.
So, let’s talk about that signature move. Shell Trap is an odd sort of inverse Focus Punch attack: at the beginning of a turn, Turtonator will prepare the attack, then the opposing Pokémon will take its turn. If it hits Turtonator with a physical attack (note, a physical attack, not a contact attack, although the latter seems like the more relevant classification flavour-wise – I often wonder if Game Freak’s developers just regret introducing the contact/non-contact distinction in generation III, so soon before the vastly more meaningful physical/special one), then at the end of the turn, Turtonator will counter with an extremely powerful Fire-type special attack. This is bursting with flavour, but unfortunately it’s bad for the same reasons as Focus Punch (which succeeds only if the user doesn’t take any attack damage): it’s unreliable, and once you’ve tipped your hand by using it once, it’s very easy for your opponent to play around, especially since physical attacks will not usually be anyone’s first choice for dispatching Turtonator anyway. The power just isn’t worth the turns you’ll almost certainly waste. In fact, Shell Trap is arguably even worse than Focus Punch, because at least Focus Punch works if the opponent switches. If you really feel like you have to use Shell Trap for the sake of letting Turtonator be Turtonator, you could try taking it alongside Taunt or Fire Spin (this is an egg move inherited from Charizard) to restrict your opponent’s options and force them to attack you on your terms. It’s not a good idea, but it’s a less bad idea than just slapping Shell Trap into a conventional moveset as your primary Fire attack.
As Shell Trap sort of exemplifies, Turtonator is made up of several pieces that don’t really fit together. He’s a Dragon/Fire dual-type, and while that isn’t as powerful a combination as it would have been in the pre-Fairy-type era of the game, it’s still fairly solid, since not many Fairy Pokémon resist Fire attacks (watch out for Azumarill, Diancie and Mega Altaria). Turtonator isn’t an aggressive Pokémon who’s well set-up to take advantage of that strong type combination, though. His stat distributions are frankly somewhat unfortunate all around. His special attack is solid but not outstanding. He has a couple of good physical attacks like Earthquake and Stone Edge, but a sub-par attack stat. Excellent defence and decent special defence are stymied by poor HP and a lack of self-healing moves; Turtonator isn’t a bad tank, but he’s missing elements that would make him a great one. He gets Shell Smash, which can turn almost anything into a powerful set-up sweeper (if you don’t play Pokémon much, there’s more about this move in my Minior entry), but is so extraordinarily slow that even Shell Smash’s speed boost can only do so much for him. The good news is that Fire and Dragon both have attacks that are powerful enough to make up for a merely “good” special attack stat: Draco Meteor, Overheat, Fire Blast. Draco Meteor and Overheat could form the basis of a Choice Specs moveset, though their accumulating special attack penalties make them iffy for Shell Smash sweep attempts; Fire Blast and Dragon Pulse should probably form the core there. You can round things out with Focus Blast or Solarbeam, which are both powerful attacks that do a lot to support Fire-type offensive coverage, with attendant downsides – Focus Blast’s poor accuracy, or Solarbeam’s reliance on Sunny Day support. Flash Cannon beats the living daylights out of Diancie, but is otherwise not a particularly versatile or useful move. One of those aforementioned physical attacks might not hurt, if you’re worried about Blissey or something, but you should probably split his training to include some investment in physical attacks. If you really want to embrace the spirit of Turtonator… well, there’s always Explosion. Against targets with balanced defence and special defence, it won’t outdamage Overheat and Draco Meteor, but it’s not a bad last-ditch move against Pokémon with very high special defence.
I’m not enthusiastic about Turtonator as a tank, for reasons outlined above, but without Shell Smash it’s what his stats point to, and if you beef up his HP in training, he’s not terrible at it. Like most Fire Pokémon he can burn opponents with Will’o’Wisp, thus weakening their physical attack power. In combination with his stellar defence stat, that makes him fairly difficult to break through without hefty super-effective damage. While I’m still not convinced by the Taunt/Shell Trap combination, Taunt on its own is rarely an awful choice for a support Pokémon, and is worth considering. Dragon Tail to force switches is at least moderately interesting. I want there to be fuel for some kind of Rest/Sleep Talk moveset in here somewhere but honestly I’m just not seeing it. There’s not a lot of other decent options that I can find; Turtonator simply isn’t a particularly flexible Pokémon (which may be for the best; flexible Pokémon with access to Shell Smash tend to be dangerous). If nothing else, there is a halfway decent ability. Turtonator’s only ability choice is Shell Armour, for immunity to critical hits. It’s not great because it’s not really possible to use it proactively, but for a tank it’s fine, and it gives physical attackers one less way of fighting through Turtonator’s impressive defences after being hobbled by Will’o’Wisp (since critical hits ignore attack penalties).
Turtonator is… let’s say, one of those Pokémon that I can’t help but love because of how incredibly dumb he is. I don’t quite understand why volcanoes, sulphur and gunpowder seemed like they ought to go with a turtle Pokémon, let alone one with such a weird and distinctive appearance, but the result is certainly memorable. Shell Trap is a big let-down, because the concept is actually pretty cool – you hit Turtonator, he explodes at you, because Turtonator isn’t going to take any of your bull$#!t and you’re just getting what’s coming to you, you little dumbass. Some kind of variation on Protect might have worked better, or maybe even a unique new entry hazard. With the signature move left in a somewhat lacklustre state, there’s not much that’s unique about how Turtonator is put together aside from the Dragon/Fire type combination, which is just not worth what it used to be – kind of a shame for a Pokémon with such an off-the-wall take on the tortoise template.