Our next starter is a chicken? Really, Game Freak? A chicken?
It’s… well, not as odd as it sounds. A good friend of mine grew up on a farm and had a number of pet chickens over the course of her childhood. Not only are they actually quite good pets, each with distinct personalities as interesting as any dog or cat’s, the brighter ones can be taught tricks (my friend won prizes at her primary school for doing just that). Chickens may not have the same kind of awesomeness potential as more conventional pet animals, but they’re really quite underrated. So, there you have it. Setting off from home accompanied only by a firebreathing chicken is… admittedly still not a very good idea, but not a markedly worse idea than leaving with a magic frog or a perfectly ordinary baby crocodile. Torchic basically has generic Fire Pokémon characteristics, other than a note that she doesn’t like darkness and, to my knowledge, this really is a noticeable trait of real chickens; they have poor night vision, so they don’t like to move around when it’s dark. That seems a little odd for a Fire Pokémon (especially one whose name is derived from “torch”), since Torchic can presumably just produce flames to light up a dark area, but I guess I’ll go with it. She becomes more interesting when she evolves into Combusken, and then Blaziken: battle-chickens that pummel their foes with flaming punches and kicks, and can clear huge obstacles with their powerful legs. This fits well enough; after all, how do flightless birds defend themselves? They kick you, and some of the bigger ones, like cassowaries, can and do kill people this way; Blaziken wouldn’t be much bigger than a cassowary. Their take on Fire abilities – why just kick things when you can kick things with fire? – is not especially brilliant but it’s also not really something any Fire Pokémon had ever done before (except for Magmar, to a limited extent) so it’s a good variation on the traits of the element. In short, six foot tall flaming chicken that explosion-kicks you to death: sort of offbeat but in a good way I guess?
What’s more worrying is the fact that when these Pokémon were designed someone almost certainly had the unsavoury sport of cockfighting in mind – the practice of training chickens, specially bred to have aggressive temperaments, to attack each other with vicious metal spurs tied to their legs. Given that, when people are making moralistic complaints about the Pokémon franchise, the accusation that it glorifies blood sports (and, in particular, sports that pit animals against each other in a ring or arena) is something of a chart-topper, the decision to make a literal cockfighter Pokémon seems not so much ill-advised as potentially suicidal. Considering the drama that once surrounded Jynx, leading to her disappearance from the anime and subsequent recolouring with purple skin, it’s sort of bizarre that no-one seems to have picked up on this. I don’t know; maybe animal cruelty just isn’t as touchy a subject as racism in the US? Anyway… like any fan, I’m sceptical of the idea that Pokémon as a whole promotes blood sports; the franchise’s internal ethical framework is a lot more complex than that, but even I have to wonder about the message that a fighting chicken Pokémon sends. It’s not even that it’s inherently a bad idea, because you could totally write flavour text or even whole episode plots for Combusken and Blaziken that tackle this thing head-on, and it would be really interesting to see how that turned out. Just casually tossing it out there, though? That, I have to question. People aren’t wrong to be concerned about a game that, on the face of it, is all about forcing wild animals to beat each other’s brains out. Pokémon isn’t supposed to be about violence or animal abuse; it’s supposed to be about partnership and discovery, but that isn’t necessarily obvious until you get into it, especially if you’re initially exposed to the games rather than to some other medium – so why design a Pokémon that draws attention to real-world instances of the former unless you’re deliberately trying to create a contrast that promotes the latter?
This is starting to make my head hurt. Let’s talk about something less complicated.
Blaziken is the first of three Fire/Fighting starter Pokémon; she did it before it was cool. Infernape and Emboar would subsequently come in and steal her schtick, but until then, she was a totally unique and quite dangerous mixed attacker. Blaziken’s not really fast, and she’s not really tough but, boy, can she hit hard. With Sky Uppercut, Earthquake, Rock Slide, and a downright terrifying physical attack stat, Blaziken could throw punches no-one wanted to be on the receiving end of. However, she also came with an excellent special attack stat to back up her Fire techniques, so just having massive physical defence wouldn’t necessarily keep you safe from her (in particular Skarmory, one of the most reliable ways of saying “no” to physical attackers at the time, is helpless against Blaziken’s Fire Blast). Fire, Rock, Ground and Fighting are four of the strongest offensive types in the game, and Blaziken knew how to use all of them. Things just kept getting better when Fire Red and Leaf Green gave her access to Swords Dance, and she got Thunderpunch on Emerald just to keep the Water-types guessing. She was still a little sluggish, of course, but it took a pretty big, mean Pokémon to absorb one of her attacks. Then came Diamond and Pearl. Diamond and Pearl gave Blaziken some cool new stuff – physical Fire attacks like Flare Blitz, Focus Blast in case she wanted a special Fighting attack, Brave Bird since her offensive movepool clearly wasn’t big enough already, Stone Edge if Rock Slide just wasn’t powerful enough, Agility if she didn’t feel like being slow anymore, and even Baton Pass if for some reason she felt someone else would make better use of her boosts than she could. Unfortunately Diamond and Pearl also made Blaziken largely obsolete, since they introduced Infernape. Infernape will get an entry of his own soon enough, so for now we’ll just say that he’s much faster than Blaziken, and doesn’t care that he’s even more fragile and not quite as strong because Fire Blast, Flare Blitz, Focus Blast and Close Combat (the last of which Blaziken doesn’t get) are so powerful that, realistically, if Infernape isn’t one-shotting his targets before going down in a blaze of glory he’s doing it wrong. Infernape could also learn Nasty Plot, the special equivalent to Swords Dance. Basically, he did Blaziken’s job, only better.
…so Blaziken retreated to the Dream World to plot her revenge…
Dream World Blaziken is an unholy terror who can rip entire teams to shreds singlehandedly if you’re not prepared with a sure-fire way to kill her immediately. She really only has two qualities of any importance that she didn’t in the previous generation. One is Hi Jump Kick, which gives her a much stronger replacement for Sky Uppercut to stand opposite Infernape’s Close Combat. The other is her Dream World ability, Speed Boost. A Pokémon with Speed Boost gets faster every turn (note that you can use Protect to get what amounts to a free turn in most cases). Speed, realistically, was the only thing that ever truly held Blaziken back – and, unlike Agility, she gets it for free; she doesn’t have to spend a turn using it. If you’re particularly skilful and/or lucky, you might even be able to do without spending a moveslot on Protect. You can stop her; Jellicent and Slowbro are probably decent bets, Gyarados, Salamence or Dragonite could take a fair crack at it if she doesn’t have a Rock attack, and anything with a strong Aqua Jet should do the trick if she isn’t on a sun team (which, let’s face it, she probably is), but under sunlight it’s very difficult to do anything about her. Smogon University declared Blaziken ‘uber’ (unsuitable for standard rules of engagement) as a result of this lunacy, and it’s rather difficult to argue with them on this one. If you’re lucky enough to have a Dream World Blaziken, it’s probably best to refrain from using it unless your opponent has agreed to an ‘anything goes’ match, simply as a matter of courtesy.
Things were going so well with Blaziken. Not a bizarre design, but an odd one; powerful, but not obscene, with a unique combat style. Then along came Infernape to steal her schtick, and the developers went and overcompensated… Speed Boost is one of those abilities that you absolutely do not hand out on a whim, Game Freak! I mean, yes, now she has something Infernape can’t take from her; on the other hand she is now, effectively, a faster, stronger and tougher version of Infernape, who is a pretty damn top-notch Pokémon himself! I… just… I…
…please excuse me; I have to go and shoot myself in the head.