A Pokémon Trainer Is You! III: A Battle You Has!

Last time, on A Pokémon Trainer Is You:

What do you do when Oak offers you a Pokémon?
– Ask Professor Oak to let the Pokémon decide.

You turn to Professor Oak.  All three of these Pokémon are great, you explain, and you feel confident that any of them would make a powerful and versatile partner, but it seems unfair to make this choice without their input.  Maybe it should be up to them, which one goes with you?  Blue rolls his eyes, but the Professor nods sagely and smiles at you.
“I think that would be a very interesting way of making this decision!  Well, everyone, come on out!”  With a single fluid wave of his hand, he somehow activates all three Pokéballs at once, and the three Pokémon inside them emerge in a blaze of blue-white light: Bulbasaur, Charmander, Squirtle.

Continue reading “A Pokémon Trainer Is You! III: A Battle You Has!”

A Pokémon Trainer Is You! II: For Real This Time, ‘Cause You’re Getting A Pokémon!

Last time, on A Pokémon Trainer Is You:

Are you a boy or a girl?
– Yes

What are your special skills?
– Compassion: You are less of a $#!tbag than most kids your age, allowing you to empathise with people and Pokémon, and intuit their desires or concerns.
– Science: You hang around Professor Oak’s lab a lot, and have picked up a lot of debatably useful trivia about everything from astronomy to marine biology.
– Tactics: You watch televised Pokémon battles obsessively.  You know Pokémon type advantages by heart, and know how certain moves can be used in creative ways.

What is your rival’s name?
– I think it’s like a colour or something

Okay, let’s get on with it!

You’re at Professor Oak’s lab, ready for the beginning of the rest of your life!  The floor is tiled in pristine white – or at least, it used to be; they do a lot of experiments here and the cleaners can’t keep up.  You can still pick out most of the stains that are your fault.  Thick textbooks on Pokémon behaviour and anatomy line every wall and are scattered over most of the tables, complex machines with lots of enticing buttons litter the main room, and the lab assistants are that particular kind of dishevelled that says “we barely know how to feed and clothe ourselves, but give us grant money and we’ll work 36 hours a day!”  You nod cheerily to each of them as you pass.  You have a lot of fun memories in this place – culturing bacteria in Petri dishes, mixing chemicals to create violent colours and beautiful explosions, learning to predict the weather from air pressure measurements, helping the Professor’s assistants to draw up charts of Kantonian habitats and biomes.  It’s almost a shame to be leaving, but there’s so much to do out in the world: people and Pokémon to meet, natural phenomena to explore, battles to win!  Professor Oak is standing, magisterial and dignified, but with a kindly smile on his face, just next to a high bench with three glittering round objects.

Continue reading “A Pokémon Trainer Is You! II: For Real This Time, ‘Cause You’re Getting A Pokémon!”

X Nuzlocke, episode 4: A Lot to Swallow

Route 5

Ruby: I’m telling you, I was fine.  There was just… a little more magical energy in the Charizardite than I anticipated.  I would have brought the explosions under control sooner or later.
Spruce: And when you say “under control”…
Ruby: I mean they would have been happening in a direction of my choosing.  Broadly speaking.
Fisher: I really must advise more caution, my lady.  A stone of fiery power, leading a young fox Pokémon down the path of temptation… that is a pattern the followers of the Blessed Helix know all too well.  I fear the hand of the Dome is at work in this matter.
Melissa: But we all need to get stronger and learn new ways to use our powers for the greater good!  The risks don’t matter!
Ruby: Please don’t tell me my only sensible minion is the over-excitable insect in fanatical service to an all-devouring hive mind.
Luna: Not at all.  I think you were doing a splendid job just as you were.  The smell of the humans’ flesh as it was atomised in your cerulean holocaust was nothing short of exhilarating.
Ruby: …somehow your approval is not as reassuring as I had hoped it would be, cat.
Spruce: Um… not that I don’t love hearing about Luna’s favourite smells or anything, but there’s a human just… standing in the road up there…
Boy: You there… stop…
Ruby: Who commands us so, insolent child?  Do you know to whom you speak?
Boy: No life… no voice… not without… the master…
Ruby: Hmm.  Vacant expression.  Limited vocabulary and poor sentence structure.  Glassy eyes.  Slow, laboured speech.  It’s remarkable; he’s almost exactly like ours.
Boy: Lie down… lie down and die…
Ruby: You know, in some respects this might even be an improvement.
Melissa: His thoughts smell… weird.  I can’t quite put my needle on it… It’s sort of like the parasites I stole from that wicked Vivillon we fought, how they don’t have any minds of their own.
Ruby: Mmm.  Probably because he’s being psychically dominated by the Kadabra that Lavoisier asked us to despatch.
Spruce: What?  He’s here!?
Ruby: Almost certainly. [Shouting] Come out of hiding, coward!  You are challenged to a duel of sorcery!
Kadabra: [Teleports into view] Ha-HA!  Sorcery-games, I’ve gotten so bored of, little-foxy!  Don’t we rather fancy instead a trifling little game of riddles?  Riddle me this, foxy: what walks on three legs in the evening, has a bed but never sleeps, makes some men blind but helps others to see, and is like a raven and a writing-desk?
Ruby: …you- I don’t- what?
Kadabra: You!  CONFUSION!
Ruby: That doesn’t even make s-aaaaaaaauuuughh!  Ooof!
Fisher: Treachery!  Villain, I shall smite you as the Voices will it!  FOR THE HELIX!
Kadabra: Your ancient fossil god has no power over me, little-shouty-duck-thing – for watch, and be amazed, as I bend the very nature of reality itself, and… THIS SPOON!
Fisher: …I beg your pardon?  The spoon bends, but- is it a metaphor for something?  Do you imply that I too, a faithful servant of the one true god, am like putty in your telekinetic ‘hands’?
Kadabra: CONFUSION!
Fisher: Aaaaaarrrrghh- oof!  Oh, alas, I am undone!  Bird Jesus, I implore you, send your divine wind to uplift the wings of your blessed child!
Ruby: …he means you, Spruce.
Spruce: I know, I know!  Face me, villain!
Kadabra: You have no hope!  BEHOLD, THE SPOON!
Spruce: Um… there… there is no spoon; you’re not actually holding anything.
Kadabra: CONFUSION!
Spruce: I don’t- you’re not even using an attack; you’re just yelling “Confusion!”
Ruby: It’s your Keen Eyes, you idiot; you can see through the illusions he’s creating with his Kinesis technique!  Hurry up and get him before he uses a real Psychic attack!
Spruce: Wow; neat!  Uh… hey, you!  It’s time you paid for your, uh-
Ruby: Oh, for- work on your combat banter later!  Just hit him!
Spruce: Oh!  Right!  QUICK ATTACK!
Kadabra: [thud]
Spruce: …did… did I… is he dead?
Luna: Hmm… let me see… [CRACK] He is now.
Spruce: …
Luna: What?

Continue reading “X Nuzlocke, episode 4: A Lot to Swallow”

X Nuzlocke, episode 3: Cat’s Paw

Route 4

???: [calling] Oh, help me!  Please, won’t someone help me?
Spruce: Do you hear that?
Ruby: No.
Spruce: It sounds like someone’s in trouble!
Ruby: Oh, the tragedy of this cruel world.  If only someone could help them.  Alas.
Spruce: Ruby, we can help them.  We’re powerful adventurers; this is what we do!
Fisher: Surely this is divine providence, my friends!  The Helix leads us ever onward to new challenges, and we must not shirk them!
Melissa: Yeah!  The hive sent me out here to fight and get strong, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do!
Spruce: Well, that’s settled, then.
Ruby: [sigh] I repeat: alas.

Continue reading “X Nuzlocke, episode 3: Cat’s Paw”

Pokémon Origins: Episode 1

Professor Oak introduces us to the mysterious creatures of his world.

For those not familiar with it, Pokémon Origins is what might be called a ‘reboot’ of the Pokémon anime.  Released late last year, it is a four-episode miniseries which follows the adventures of Red – the protagonist of the original Pokémon games – and is closely based on the events of Red Version, Blue Version, and their third-generation remakes, Fire Red and Leaf Green (the visuals mainly taking their cues from the latter pair of games).  This stuff is pure nostalgia fuel, for people who were introduced to Pokémon by Fire Red and Leaf Green, for those of us who are old enough to have clear memories of when Red and Blue were first released, and, hell, probably for Game Freak and the animators too.  Each episode opens with the CONTINUE/NEW GAME/OPTIONS screen and ends with the SAVE screen from the original games, the first episode begins with Professor Oak’s “introduction to the world of Pokémon,” followed by the battle between Nidorino and Gengar familiar from the opening cinematic (on Red’s TV), and even the dialogue often quotes directly from the games.  This last point, if you ask me, may have been pushing it a bit far, since the English translations of Red and Blue didn’t exactly have the best-written dialogue in video game history – the quotes stand out for being, frankly, a little wooden.  Enough of the general style, though; let’s talk about the plot.

Continue reading “Pokémon Origins: Episode 1”

Anime Time: Episodes 43, 44 and 46

The March of the Exeggutor Squad – The Problem with Paras – Attack of the Prehistoric Pokémon

Ash’s location: Belgium.

I have way too much to talk about in this entry so I’ll just get going.

...I...I don't know.  I just don't know.Ash, Pikachu, Misty and Brock find a carnival!  Hooray!  Ash and Brock promptly get changed into… I don’t even know.  Frills.  Misty and Pikachu, in a fit of embarrassment, ditch them and run into a down-on-his-luck magician named Melvin and his Pokémon partner, an Exeggcute.  Misty foolishly agrees to fill in as his beautiful assistant for a little while… and is mortified when Ash and Brock turn up to watch the show.  Melvin has zero stage presence, lacklustre juggling skills, and a fire spell that singes the audience and sets off the tent’s sprinkler system, causing everyone to leave in disgust.  Ash tells Melvin not to give up, and devises his own magic act by stuffing his Pokémon into a chest and pretending to conjure fire and water.  Misty watches in mock amazement until Charmander accidentally sets the others on fire and the whole thing dissolves into chaos.  Ash notes that Exeggcute doesn’t do much… so the Pokémon uses Hypnosis to turn Ash into Melvin’s obedient mind-slave.  They run off into the nearby Leaf Forest, without Brock and Misty, where Ash helps Melvin to capture a herd of Exeggutor, so he can brainwash people into… enjoying his magic show.  Dream big, Mel.  Dream big.  Team Rocket appear and capture the ineffectual magician, and his Exeggcute evolves to save him, but unfortunately his newfound powers drive the other Exeggutor insane and start a stampede.  By the time Misty and Brock find Ash and get him back to the carnival, the ringmaster has planted a bomb to destroy the rampaging Exeggutor before they cause too much harm.  Ash quickly realises that only Charmander’s fire can snap them out of their trance, but Charmander isn’t strong enough to deal with all of them at once.  Misty convinces Melvin that his fire spell WILL work if he really tries, and he does, and it does.  The stampede ends, the Exeggutor go home, un-exploded, and Charmander is rewarded for his perseverance by evolving into Charmeleon.

Ash, stop it.  Where are you even getting these clothes?I really have only a couple of minor points to bring up for this episode.  The first is that Hypnosis, which in the games just puts Pokémon to sleep, is used here (as in some other episodes) as a mind-control power.  The fact that a power of this nature exists is clearly awesome, if a little worrying.  The second is that Melvin’s Exeggcute apparently manages to evolve without the use of a Leaf Stone, as did, presumably, all the other Exeggutor in the herd.  No-one questions this at the time; Ash is too stoned to care, Melvin probably doesn’t know how Exeggcute are supposed to evolve anyway, and Brock and Misty aren’t there.  I can think of three explanations for this.  1) The writers screwed up… and, let’s be honest, this one has Occam’s Razor on its side here.  2) Stones aren’t the only way to make Pokémon that use them evolve; they’re just the easiest way, which, of course, massively affects the arguments in play in Electric Shock Showdown and the Battling Eevee Brothers.  3) The area is named the “Leaf Forest” because there are actually Leaf Stones buried there, or crushed and mixed through the soil, or something similar, and these unusual conditions allow Grass Pokémon to evolve there when they wouldn’t otherwise be able to (years later, it was established in an episode of the Johto series that Leaf Stones and Sun Stones can in fact remain potent if crushed and distributed on the wind, though obviously the writers of this episode didn’t know that yet).  You may decide for yourself which seems most likely.

Paras in a secluded grotto, surrounded by glowing spores, by Aeris Arturio (http://aerisarturio.deviantart.com/).A few days later, near a hick town called Mossgreen Village, Meowth succumbs to a terrible fever.  Jessie and James shrug; “he’s got eight lives left.”  They are approached by a woman called Cassandra, who admonishes them for not taking better care of him and gives them some powerful medicine to cure the fever.  Meowth, who has a bit of a human fetish, immediately falls in love with her.  Later, looking for a Pokémon Centre and finding none, Ash himself meets Cassandra and learns she has a problem.  Cassandra and her grandmother run a small shop selling herbal medicines, and she wants her Paras to evolve into a Parasect so she can use his spores in creating new miracle potions, but he’s too cowardly to fight, and can’t gain any experience points.  Ash tries to challenge Cassandra and throw the match, but even the tiniest spark from Pikachu and the gentlest spray of water from Squirtle send Paras reeling… and then Ash tries Charmeleon.  Charmeleon has no interest in toning things down and chases Paras off with a Flamethrower.  In the woods, Paras falls in with Meowth.  Meowth thinks that Cassandra will love him if he helps Paras, and drags Jessie and James into the scheme with promises of the vast wealth Cassandra’s miracle potion will bring.  He quietly sabotages Arbok and Weezing when they battle Paras, and then pretends to faint from a gentle poke.  Drunk on Exp., Paras goes to challenge Pikachu to a rematch, which Pikachu throws once again, this time successfully.  Charmeleon remains unruly, but Team Rocket show up to cheer for Paras, who manages to stab Charmeleon into submission and evolves into Parasect at last, before finishing Charmeleon off with Spore.  Unfortunately for Meowth, Cassandra refuses to take him on as the mascot of her company – she could never break up his team!  Besides, her grandmother has just dragged in a random wild Persian that will serve just as well.


The Problem with Paras
is a weird episode.  It’s one of a scant handful of episodes that explicitly mention “experience points,” and seems to go out of its way to imply that they work exactly the same way as they do in the games, which is so counterintuitive it becomes absurd.  How on earth is Paras ‘gaining experience’ or becoming stronger in any concrete sense by repeatedly having his ass saved by Meowth in his battles with Arbok and Weezing?  The whole thing seems like a reference to the way we normally train weak Pokémon in the games – if you switch a Pokémon out of a battle, it will still gain an equal share of experience points, however little time it spent actually fighting (if any), but I doubt anyone thinks of this as anything more than an abstraction designed to simplify gameplay.  I am convinced that this episode is actually a stealth parody of the whole concept of experience points.  The repeated direct references to “experience points” are just so blatant, so far out of step with the series, and draw so much attention to the absurdity of what they’re doing that I really don’t see how they can be meant seriously.  What’s actually going on here, then?  The episode becomes far less logic-defying when viewed through the lens of evolution being a largely psychological phenomenon, which has always been hinted to be the case.  Paras isn’t kept from evolution by needing more of some kind of abstract ‘points’ which are accrued when a Pokémon is formally declared the winner of a battle; he’s kept from evolution by a major psychological block, born of his own conviction that he is a poor fighter.  When Paras appears to defeat Arbok, Weezing, Meowth and Pikachu, these false victories – although they do nothing to increase his actual strength – allow him to imagine himself as a winner (this remains true even if Paras is actually aware, subconsciously, that his victories are being staged; it’s still possible for him to become immersed in the fantasy).  The lucky shot he gets in against Charmeleon finally pushes him over the threshold, causing him to realise that there’s no physical reason for him not to have evolved a long time ago.

"Hooray!  Charizard's evolved!  He's going to save me!" FWWOOOSH! "Oh God!  Charizard's evolved!  He's going to kill me!"

So, now that we’ve seen Charmander become Charmeleon, and his reaction to his newfound powers, let’s see how he gets the rest of the way.  It all starts when Ash runs into Gary, who has joined in a Pokémon Fossil Rush at Grandpa Canyon.  Because Ash and Gary compete over everything, Ash joins the dig as well.  Team Rocket are lurking nearby as well, and planning to dynamite the whole place so they can scoop up the fossils at their leisure.  Ash finds them and, one botched explosion later, he, Pikachu, Jessie, James and Meowth are trapped in an underground cavern, surrounded by supposedly extinct Pokémon.  Pikachu’s electrical powers prove ineffective against the fossil Pokémon, so Ash brings out Charmeleon… who settles down for a nap.  Luckily, the fossil Pokémon hear something that scares them off.  Unluckily, that something is an Aerodactyl, who clocks Charmeleon on the head, grabs Ash, and breaks out through the roof of the cave, with Pikachu and Charmeleon clinging to his tail.  Once they’re on the surface, Charmeleon challenges Aerodactyl, who just taunts him and flies away with Ash.  Charmeleon decides he will take no more of this; he wants his wings NOW.  He evolves into Charizard and pursues Aerodactyl through the sky, sniping him with Flamethrowers.  Ash is overjoyed until he realises that Charizard will happily write him off as collateral damage.  Misty realises the same thing, finds Jigglypuff, and convinces her to sing Aerodactyl and Charizard down.  Aerodactyl drops Ash and falls back into the caverns, while Charizard grabs Ash as he falls and sets him down on the ground before falling asleep himself.  When everyone wakes up, Officer Jenny #869 declares that IT WAS ALL A DREAM AND WE ARE SHUTTING DOWN THE SITE NOW BECAUSE OF REASONS.  Ash remembers, though… and suddenly has a mysterious red- and blue-spotted egg in his possession…

The terrifying awesomeness that is Aerodactyl, by Kezrek (http://kezrek.deviantart.com/).

First things first: this episode is basically the poster child for evolution being triggered by psychological factors.  There is no way Charmeleon has gotten from level 16 to level 36 in three episodes; he evolves not by gaining experience but through a supreme act of will, brought on by his overwhelming desire to reduce Aerodactyl to cinders.  What I really want to talk about, though, is Charmeleon’s character development.  Ash is astonished by Charmeleon’s sudden disobedience in the Problem with Paras, which Cassandra’s grandmother puts down to Ash’s own insufficient skill and Charmeleon’s lack of respect for him.  It’s true that, by game logic, Charmeleon is an ‘outsider’ and can’t be expected to obey Ash past a certain level, but considering Ash’s strong relationship with his Pokémon, and the fact that Charmander was always so nice, it’s still a striking turnaround.  There is a hint at the end of March of the Exeggutor Squad that Charmeleon is going to be quite a handful, but I think the problem really starts in the next episode.  Charmeleon has just evolved, and was already Ash’s strongest Pokémon aside from Pikachu.  He was probably expecting to face ever stronger opponents in his new form… but instead, for his very first battle after evolving, Ash sends him against a cowardly weakling Paras, and tells him to go easy on it.  I think he found this unbelievably insulting, and was still in a bad mood when Ash called on him in Grandpa Canyon.  When he was able to evolve into Charizard all on his own, he came to the conclusion that he simply didn’t need Ash anymore, and decided to act accordingly until Ash was prepared to treat him with more respect.  Notably, though, he does have the presence of mind to catch Ash when Aerodactyl drops him, and bring him safely to the ground, even as he’s drifting off to sleep himself.  He still regards Ash as his human, and clearly still feels he has some responsibility to him.  I suggested in a recent entry that Ash’s relationship with his Pokémon has an almost parent/child cast to it; this works with relatively few problems when his Pokémon are small and cuddly, but grows problematic when they take on more mature, powerful forms.  It takes sixty episodes before he and Charizard finally start working as a team again.

Charmander, Charmeleon and Charizard

Charmander.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori; Nintendo is Luke's father.There’s something about Charizard.  Maybe it’s the inherent awesomeness of Fire as an element.  Maybe it’s the allure of his base set trading card, whose Fire Spin was pretty much the most powerful attack in the game.  Maybe it’s the fact that he’s a goddamn freakin’ dragon.  Charizard is easily the most popular of the first-generation starters and, despite my perpetual love affair with the Grass type, I have to admit that it’s easy to see why.  Charmander may be cute as a button but one look at his burning tail shows that he means business nonetheless.  Charmeleon has the look of a proud fighter who loves to punch above his weight.  Charizard simply demands respect, and incinerates anyone who denies him.  What more could we possibly want?

Charmander and his family are just what you’d expect from Fire-types: figuratively and literally hot-headed Pokémon who believe quite firmly that if there is a problem that can’t be solved with fire, it’s only because you aren’t using enough fire.  Although this seems like it would be the default stance for most Fire Pokémon, none of the other first-generation Fire-types (with the possible exception of Flareon) embrace “Flamethrower first, ask questions later” with the same gusto that Charmeleon and Charizard do.  Similarly, Charmander’s connection with fire is so strong that his tail flame is actually an indicator of his life force – the stronger and brighter the flame, the healthier the Pokémon.  It’s a very straightforward idea, but again, it helps to establish Charmander as the archetypal Fire Pokémon, to a much greater degree than Bulbasaur or Squirtle can be considered exemplars of their elements, which probably goes some way towards explaining his popularity.  The dragon factor is significant as well, especially since Charizard was – and arguably still is, even with Salamence around – the closest thing in Pokémon to a traditional Western dragon and, for much of Pokémon’s English-speaking audience, that’s a pretty big deal.  The actual Dragon-with-a-capital-D Pokémon of Red and Blue, for a Western audience anyway, don’t quite deliver; Dratini and Dragonair clearly have Eastern dragons in mind and, while Dragonite’s physical form owes something to the European conception of what a dragon is, he’s a softer-toned, almost ‘cartoonish’ (if I can even say that) representation of that idea; like a gentle parody of what Charizard is playing straight.  Dragonite’s personality, too, comes from a profoundly different tradition; he’s a benevolent ocean-dweller, very much at odds with the European dragons of, say, the Icelandic sagas.  Charmeleon and Charizard, on the other hand, have a definite malevolent streak, which brings me to something else I like about them, or rather about the way they’ve been handled – there’s definite evidence that the writers of the Pokédex have been trying to build up different aspects of their personality over the years to create a more detailed picture of these Pokémon.  The obsession with combat, for instance, seems to be something Charmeleon developed after the release of Red and Blue.  Also, remember the way Ash’s normally disobedient Charizard would voluntarily step up to the plate if he felt there was a worthy opponent on offer?  As of Ruby and Sapphire, that’s actually a recognised trait of Charizard as a species; in nature, they search constantly for powerful opponents to fight, and never use their fire against weaker enemies.  If you’ve been hanging around here long enough to be familiar with my philosophy of ‘doing more with less,’ well, this kind of thing – the gradual accretion of details that expand our view of a Pokémon’s nature and powers – is a big part of what I mean.  It’s really not that hard.

 Charmeleon.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

As Pokémon types go, Fire is pretty high up in terms of awe-inspiring elemental fury.  However, in Red and Blue, Fire actually got shafted pretty badly.  In a world where a lot of Pokémon relied on Normal attacks like Body Slam and Hyper Beam for type coverage, having primary attacks that were resisted by Rock Pokémon was not an enviable position, especially since most of the Fire-types had nothing else worth using – Magmar got Psychic and our dear friend Charizard managed to score Earthquake, but that was it.  Charizard had a further specific problem, which was that in Red and Blue his attacks were – despite what that awesome trading card might suggest – actually fairly lacklustre.  Not exactly bad but Venusaur, believe it or not, could do better; Charizard’s strength was not power but speed – very useful if you wanted to abuse the way Fire Spin worked in Red and Blue, but honestly, if Fire Spin abuse is your thing you’d probably be better off with Rapidash or Ninetales anyway.  Charizard’s attacks were lacklustre because neither his attack stat nor his special stat was particularly high – pretty good, but nothing to write home about.  Then, of course, Gold and Silver split special into special attack and special defence, and suddenly Charizard’s Fire attacks started looking a lot more attractive.  Until Diamond and Pearl came along he still had few workable special attacks other than Fire-type ones, but Gold and Silver also brought Charizard the gift of Belly Drum, which can turn him into a devastating physical attacker at the cost of half of his health.  Again, speed is his strength – Charizard was, and remains, the fastest Belly Drummer in the game (well, tied with Linoone now, but who’s counting?), an important attribute to keep other Pokémon from preying on his weakened health bar.

 Charizard.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

Diamond and Pearl eventually gave Charizard physical Fire attacks to use with Belly Drum and special Flying attacks (as well as Focus Blast and Solarbeam) to bulk out his other sets.  Unfortunately, they also gave the world Stealth Rock, a pox of a move that almost every serious player uses.  It’s similar in concept to Spikes, introduced in Gold and Silver, in that it creates a trap to damage Pokémon as they switch in, but with a number of differences.  Stealth Rock can be set up in a single turn, while Spikes takes two uses to match Stealth Rock’s average damage output, and three to exceed it.  Spikes is a relatively exclusive move, while Stealth Rock was available as a TM and therefore accessible to all and sundry.  Finally, Stealth Rock accounts for weaknesses and resistances.  Pokémon doubly weak to Rock attacks, like poor Charizard, lose 50% of their health just for switching in against a team with the foresight to set up Stealth Rock.  The notion of game balance has never really existed in Pokémon anyway, but if it had, Stealth Rock would have killed it by making a weakness to Rock attacks far more important than any other single aspect of a Pokémon’s resistance profile.  The point for us here today is that, from Diamond and Pearl onwards, you can’t use Charizard without a Pokémon with Rapid Spin to clear away Stealth Rock when it turns up.  Well, I mean… you can.  You’ll just lose.  Repeatedly.

 This little slice of awesome is from the Destroyed Steak Pokémonathon (http://destroyedsteak.deviantart.com/), a sadly short-lived attempt by two artists to draw every Pokémon in order.  Seems to have been pretty epic while it lasted, though.

The transition to Black and White didn’t significantly alter Charizard’s movepool; he’s never been much of a tank, so losing the potential for healing with Roost doesn’t bother him much, and Thunderpunch was nice but it’s not like he doesn’t have plenty of other physical attacks to toss around.  The big change for him, as for Venusaur, was his Dream World ability.  There’s nothing wrong with the standard Fire starter ability, Blaze, which adds a little spice to Fire attacks when your health is low, but Charizard’s new Solar Power ability – like Chlorophyll for Venusaur – is something else.  Only two other Pokémon, Sunflora and Tropius, possess this lovely ability, and both of them are far too slow to take advantage of it.  Charizard is another story.  Solar Power burns a little of Charizard’s health every turn while Sunny Day is in effect, but in return boosts his special attack by 50%.  Meanwhile, the normal effects of Sunny Day will be jacking up his Fire attacks anyway.  Keeping a solar Charizard alive for any length of time is profoundly difficult, since Charizard isn’t exactly renowned for toughness anyway, but even the toughest of Water Pokémon will wither in the face of his Fire Blast.

In some ways I think that Charmander, Charmeleon and Charizard provide the best example from the first generation of what a starter should be, a Pokémon that embodies the essential characteristics of its element – in this case, Fire’s destructive nature and passion for combat.  Unfortunately Red and Blue let them down a little, as they let down all Fire-types, but ever since Gold and Silver, Fire has held a prestigious position as one of the few elements able to reliably damage Steel Pokémon, and Charizard has been generally well-supported throughout the games’ development, in spite of his present difficulties in dealing with Stealth Rock.  In summary, then, while they aren’t my favourites, I believe these Pokémon are the result of strong designs that have been quite well-handled from start to finish – good pieces of work.

Anime Time: Episodes 15-17

Battle Aboard the St. Anne – Pokémon Shipwreck – Island of the Giant Pokémon

Fresh off Ash’s victory at the Vermillion Gym, Ash and his friends are given free tickets by a pair of teenage girls to a lavish Pokémon trainers’ convention aboard the world-famous luxury cruise liner, the St. Anne!  THERE IS NO WAY THIS COULD POSSIBLY BE A SCAM!

 This is going to be a boring day for art since I couldn't find any relevant fanart for these episodes; here's Sugimori's Raticate art instead.

We quickly learn that the ‘teenage girls’ were Team Rocket in disguise (yes, James too), and that they were giving out free tickets to all the trainers they could find on the orders of their shadowy Boss, Giovanni, who appears for the first time in this episode.  The Boss (who seems to be the closest thing Meowth has to a formal ‘owner,’ but has come to prefer his Persian – this will be a constant source of insecurity to Meowth during the series) is displeased with the time and energy they have expended failing to catch Pikachu, but still seems to have enough confidence to put them in charge of the ambush planned on the St. Anne.  His confidence, of course, is misplaced – not only do the Team Rocket goons fail miserably to steal even a single Pokémon, James also loses a ludicrous amount of money buying into a Magikarp-breeding pyramid scheme, and the entire ship capsizes and sinks with Jessie, James and Meowth still on board (not to mention our plucky heroes).  This, of course, is all totally incidental as far as I’m concerned.  I want to talk about what happens in the meantime: Ash encounters a dapper gentleman with a top hat and moustache, whose name is never given, challenging other trainers to exhibition battles with a powerful Raticate.  Ash, being Ash, takes up the challenge and finds that Raticate and his Butterfree are very evenly matched; however, just as Butterfree begins to gain the upper hand with Stun Spore, the Gentleman – to Ash’s annoyance – recalls his Raticate and suggests calling it a draw.  The Gentleman later proposes a trade, his Raticate for Ash’s Butterfree, which Ash hesitantly accepts but later regrets.  Luckily, the Gentleman reluctantly agrees to trade back at the end of the episode, just as the ship is sinking.

When you think about it, Pokémon trading is a pretty bizarre practice from the perspective of a trainer like Ash, who regards each and every one of his Pokémon as a close personal friend (which I think counts as further evidence that Ash’s way of doing things is actually quite unusual, since Pokémon trading manifestly isn’t).  The Gentleman’s ideas about trading are interesting ones – he believes that trading Pokémon is a way of deepening and widening new friendships and spreading relationships between trainers all around the world; basically, a form of social networking.  You could argue that he’s running what amounts to a scam here, proposing a trade for the first Pokémon he could find that was stronger than his Raticate and then dazzling the Pokémon’s kid trainer with some pretty rhetoric, but since he does agree to trade back when Ash asks him, I think it’s more likely he actually believes it.  Misty’s perspective on the situation is almost as interesting because it shows, I think, that she relates to Pokémon in a very different way to Ash: although she is sympathetic when he begins to regret trading away Butterfree, her response, “look on the bright side; you got a Raticate!” seems to indicate that she doesn’t really understand the depth of Ash’s attachment to his Pokémon yet.  I’m kind of disappointed to miss Brock’s opinion; Ash does ask him before the trade, but he’s too busy getting goo-goo-eyed over the Gentleman’s lady friend to offer a coherent response.  For a person like Ash, trading away a Pokémon is basically signing away the health and wellbeing of a close friend to someone else.  If Ash’s attitude is at all typical, you wouldn’t expect Pokémon trading ever to happen except between good friends but, again, this is manifestly not the case.  I think this indicates that for a ‘typical’ trainer, a Pokémon is less like a friend and more like… not a possession, but… perhaps a colleague, co-worker, or subordinate – basically, someone with whom you have a formal, rather than an emotional, relationship.  I should qualify that, like most complex issues, this is probably more of a spectrum than a dichotomy; Ash is at one end, and trainers like the Gentleman at the other, but a lot of people probably fall somewhere in the middle.

Anyway, the ship flips upside down and sinks, and due to the captain’s gross incompetence no-one notices that a few of the passengers were still on board.  There’s still plenty of air in the ship, but it’s steadily filling up with water from the bottom, and it’s balanced precariously on a huge spire of rock over a deep ocean trench…

 Fun fact: in the beta version of Red and Blue, Gyarados' English name was "Skulkraken."  It works on so many levels, each more terrifying than the last!  Artwork by Ken Sugimori; render unto Nintendo what is Nintendo's, etc.

Pokémon Shipwreck is kind of a ‘meh’ episode, if you ask me.  It’s basically supposed to be about Ash’s party and Team Rocket having to work together to escape their mutual dilemma, but it’s actually about Ash’s party working together to escape their dilemma while Team Rocket cling to their coattails and scream incoherently.  Suffice to say, they eventually escape the ship by blowtorching through the hull with Charmander’s Flamethrower and swimming to the surface with the help of their Water Pokémon (Team Rocket use the Magikarp James bought on the St. Anne and nearly die, but to Pikachu’s immense displeasure they recover).  Once they’re all on a raft cobbled together from the debris of the St. Anne, James throws a fit, kicks his Magikarp, and renounces his ownership of the useless thing… which, of course, prompts it to evolve into a Gyarados, summon its brothers, and go all you-ain’t-in-Kansas-no-more on their asses, which leads to the next episode, Island of the Giant Pokémon

I love Island of the Giant Pokémon.  If I had my way the whole damn series would be done like Island of the Giant Pokémon.  The set-up is that Gyarados’ waterspout separated Pikachu, Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander from the rest of the group on an island which is, for no immediately obvious reason, inhabited by Pokémon of unusual size (hereafter known as POUSes).  Ash, Misty and Brock do stuff in this episode too but it is irrelevant and distracting, because this is the episode in which everything the Pokémon characters say is subtitled, which means we get a closer look at their personalities.  Squirtle is laid-back and irreverent, and has something of a black sense of humour (among other things, he upsets Pikachu and Charmander by joking that Ash might have been eaten by wild Pokémon).  Bulbasaur is stoic, pessimistic and cynical; he’s the one who suggests that Ash might have abandoned them, which I think speaks to the way he views humans in general.  Charmander… well, Charmander is kind of boring, actually.  He seems nice.  He’s quite trusting, maybe a little naïve.  Mostly he just goes along with Pikachu (who, as we know from the rest of the series, is defined mainly by fierce loyalty to his friends).  Odd that there’s no foreshadowing of the problems Ash is going to have with him after he evolves into Charmeleon in episode forty-something; maybe they hadn’t planned that far ahead yet.  And then… there’s Ekans and Koffing.  They’ve also been separated with their trainers, along with Meowth, who orders them to attack Pikachu and his friends when they run into each other.  Ekans and Koffing seem to be portrayed as not particularly bright, even by Pokémon standards (especially Koffing, who mostly parrots Ekans); their dialogue is subtitled in broken English, and their worldview is basically “we do as our masters tell us”… and Meowth, they are most emphatic, is not their master.  They claim that if Pokémon do bad things, it’s out of loyalty to bad masters (contrast Meowth, who points out that his master is never around and he’s as rotten as Jessie and James on his own); they apparently understand morality but think it either isn’t important or doesn’t apply to them.  Alone, Meowth is easily overpowered and tied up, while Ekans and Koffing join the group.  As they eat dinner, and Squirtle taunts Meowth with the promise of food if he’ll just apologise (which, of course, he refuses to do), they hear a loud rumbling sound and are nearly crushed by a rampaging POUS.  Pikachu goes back to untie Meowth as the others leg it (like Ash, he’s a kind soul), and they eventually spend much of the night running away.  Then… then there is this one wonderfully mad scene in which, later that night, the whole group stops at a bar.

When I was a kid, I could accept this without any problem.  As an adult, I've played Pokémon: Mystery Dungeon.  Then again, even in Mystery Dungeon I'm pretty sure they never go to a bar and get wasted.  Screenshots from www.filb.de/anime.In the middle of the jungle.  Run by a Slowbro.  Bulbasaur and Squirtle get totally hammered and start drunkenly arguing over something (hard to say what, since this scene doesn’t have subtitles) while Meowth quietly passes out, and Pikachu and Charmander try to comfort Ekans and Koffing, who have been reduced to tears (and are presumably pretty deep in their cups themselves).  At a random bar in the middle of the jungle run by a Slowbro.

…I’m not even going to question it; I’m just going to accept it.

They all go to sleep together, curled up with Ekans coiled around everyone else.  This is a lovely scene; it illustrates very well how ready Ash’s Pokémon are to trust, even when Ekans, Koffing and Meowth have been their enemies for the whole season so far – or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that Ekans and Koffing work for their enemies.  Off-duty, they’re no more hostile than anyone else.  Anyway, the next day, they try to negotiate with the POUSes they encounter, fail miserably, wind up getting chased by them, and eventually run into Ash, Misty and Brock being chased by more POUSes, as well as Jessie and James in a mine cart dragging another one behind them (they… had an interesting couple of days, put it that way).  Everyone reunites, there is much rejoicing on both sides, and all the POUSes trip over each other, get tangled together, and are completely destroyed – they’re robots, it turns out, and the whole thing is a theme park called Pokémon Land (a theme park, incidentally, run by Giovanni, who gets a call shortly afterwards to tell him of its destruction).

Again, I wish every episode were like Island of the Giant Pokémon.  Most of Ash’s Pokémon are surprisingly expressive considering they can’t really speak, and Pikachu in particular builds up a reasonably developed character by sheer weight of screen-time alone, but the characterisation of and relationships between all the Pokémon characters we see in this episode are just wonderful stuff, if you ask me.  That they never did this again is probably one of my biggest regrets for the whole series.

Anime Time: Episodes 10-12

Bulbasaur and the Hidden Village – Charmander: The Stray Pokémon – Here Comes the Squirtle Squad

Okay, last entry was so long this is starting to get ridiculous, so I’ll try to blaze through the synopsis of these three episodes as quickly as I can so I can spend more time on commentary; here goes nothing!

 Bulbasaur surveying his domain, by Vermeilbird (http://vermeilbird.deviantart.com/).

These are the episodes in which Ash meets and catches, in rapid succession, his Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle, each under unusual circumstances.  Bulbasaur is the guardian of the ‘hidden village,’ a kind of halfway house deep in the forest for Pokémon abandoned by their trainers, run by a girl named Melanie, who patches them up and releases them back into the wild.  Bulbasaur is initially hostile towards Ash for intruding into the village and trying to capture one of the Pokémon, an Oddish, but warms to him when he, Brock and Misty help protect the village from Team Rocket.  Melanie suggests that Bulbasaur leave with Ash so he can grow stronger, and so the Pokémon of the village can get used to surviving on their own again, and Bulbasaur agrees on the condition of a battle with Ash – which, of course, Ash wins.  Soon after, Ash and his friends encounter Charmander waiting alone on a rock in the forest.  Ash tries to capture Charmander, but Pikachu establishes that he actually has a trainer already, so they decide to leave him and travel on to the next Pokémon Centre.  That night, they overhear a trainer named Damian bragging about his huge collection of Pokémon and explaining how he finally managed to ditch his useless Charmander in the wilderness by telling it he’d be back soon.  Brock is furious and Damian’s group nearly comes to blows with the heroes, but Nurse Joy #147 breaks up the fight.  Since a storm is brewing, Ash, Brock and Misty go back and look for Charmander, and manage to bring him back to the centre before his tail flame sputters out.  Early in the morning, Charmander escapes and wanders off to look for Damian again, but he stumbles across Ash’s group on the road and saves them from Team Rocket.  Damian shows up and wants Charmander back, but Ash convinces Charmander that Damian is a good-for-nothing jerk and the little salamander Pokémon joins Ash’s team instead.  Ash’s Squirtle, finally, leads a gang of juvenile delinquent Squirtle who terrorise a small town with pranks, vandalism, theft, and their awesome sunglasses.  The Squirtle Squad resent humans because all of them were abandoned by their trainers, and Meowth exploits this by tricking them into thinking that he owns and controls Jessie and James (which… let’s face it, is not far from the truth).  Meowth manipulates the Squirtle into capturing Ash, Pikachu, Misty and Brock, but they let Ash return to town to buy medicine since Pikachu is injured.  When Ash returns as promised, he finds that they have released his friends, since they aren’t a genuinely malicious bunch.  He then helps the Squirtle Squad when Team Rocket inevitably turn on them, and coordinates them to put out a forest fire started by Team Rocket’s weapons.  The Squirtle are reintegrated into society as part of the local fire brigade, and the leader joins Ash to travel Kanto with him.

 

Whew.

 An adorable Charmander by Yamio (http://yamio.deviantart.com/)

Let’s talk about Pokémon and their trainers.  As I said, Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle all join Ash’s team under unusual circumstances, and furthermore all of them had been abandoned by other trainers in the past (well, Charmander and Squirtle had; Bulbasaur could have been wild but I think it’s more likely that he was abandoned – how else would he have come to be working with Melanie? – and it would explain his somewhat aloof and suspicious nature), so all three of them presumably have somewhat skewed perspectives on humanity compared to wild Pokémon.  Given this, it’s interesting that only Charmander acts in the way you’d expect an ‘outsider’ to act in the games – growing rapidly and later becoming disobedient.  Part of the reason is probably that Squirtle and Bulbasaur had largely forgotten their trainers and washed their hands of humanity in general (except for Melanie, in Bulbasaur’s case) until Ash came along and forced them to totally rethink their attitudes towards people, while Charmander was still ‘loyal’ to Damian until making a snap decision to Flamethrower him in the head two minutes from the end of his episode.   He may have regretted that choice later, and may even have come to feel he’d been forced into it – Bulbasaur and Squirtle both had other reasonable choices, but Charmander’s options, besides Ash, were going back to Damian or wandering off into an environment he wasn’t very well suited to (as he had learned the hard way only the night before).  Finally, while Bulbasaur and Squirtle were both befriended by Ash specifically, it was actually Brock who did most of the work of rescuing Charmander, and Brock who decided to brave the storm to look for him in the first place.  In fact, Ash acknowledges that Brock has as much right as him, if not more, to become Charmander’s trainer, but Brock insists Ash catch Charmander because… y’know, I’m honestly not sure.  In short, Charmander may actually have legitimate reasons to be upset here.

Probably the single thing I find most interesting about these episodes is Bulbasaur’s insistence on a battle with Ash, which seems like a formality by that point – Ash and Bulbasaur have worked together, Bulbasaur clearly has at least some degree of respect for him, and Melanie has suggested that everyone involved would benefit if Bulbasaur joined the team, and given her blessing.  Honestly, I think it seems like a formality because that’s precisely what it is: trainers catch Pokémon, and Bulbasaur is not going to go easy on Ash just because he seems like kind of a decent guy; he is damn well going to be captured, because that’s what trainers are for.  Squirtle and Charmander don’t challenge Ash; they just join up because they feel he’s already earned their respect, and I think the fact that Bulbasaur does is at least partly because, as we’ll see in Island of the Giant Pokémon, he’s very stubborn and also a bit of a cynic (Squirtle the reformed gang leader, by contrast, isn’t so likely to be a stickler for tradition).  What does being captured actually mean for a Pokémon, anyway?  Theoretically they belong to the trainers who capture them, but we know they can break out of their Pokéballs whenever they really want to (case in point, Misty’s Psyduck, but others do it too, and not just for comic relief either), so there’s nothing stopping them from wandering off in the night and never coming back, but in practice they don’t.  The very act of capturing a Pokémon normally seems to instil a degree of loyalty, which tends to remain even when it’s not such a good idea, as with Damian and Charmander.  This is presumably why releasing a Pokémon is viewed as such a jerkass thing to do in the anime.  Speaking of capture, when Ash first tries and fails to catch Charmander, Brock observes that he’s quite weak and tired – in theory, an easy catch.  Now, what happens in the anime when you try to catch another trainer’s Pokémon is neither entirely clear nor totally consistent across different seasons, but here and now I think the only reasonable interpretation is that Charmander’s loyalty to Damian is what makes it so easy for him to break out of Ash’s Pokéball.  Even for a weak or injured Pokémon, being captured still involves an element of choice: no Pokémon can be captured unless it is at least receptive to being partnered with a human (with the caveat that most wild Pokémon will still want to test a trainer’s worth by battling first).  This gives an interesting perspective to Nurse Joy’s seemingly nonsensical comment, when she breaks up the fight with Damian, that it’s disrespectful to Pokémon to use them for settling personal disputes.  How is it any more disrespectful than using Pokémon to battle at all?  I suspect it’s meant to be implicit that practice battles and official challenges, as part of the advancement of a Pokémon’s career with a trainer, are in some sense “what they signed up for,” while “hey, Pikachu, beat up this guy’s Pokémon for me because he’s a douchebag” is unfairly bringing Pokémon into a wholly human dispute (although this particular example is something of a grey area; Damian’s mistreatment of his Pokémon could be considered just as much Pikachu’s business as Ash’s).

 Squirtle, wearing his trademark Squirtle Squad shades, gives us a lesson in awesome.  Art by Rebecca Weaver (missninjaart.tumblr.com)

To finish up for today, I want to take a closer look at Squirtle’s street gang.  For the Squirtle Squad, being abandoned by their trainers resulted in disillusionment with humanity in general, so clearly they had expectations of partnership with trainers which weren’t met – presumably power, knowledge and friendship.  Again, abandonment is regarded as an unambiguously rotten thing to do, by both human characters and Pokémon; in a sense it’s a breach of the implied agreement a trainer makes with any Pokémon who joins his team.  I suspect the Squirtle Squad are a Pokémon-world instance of the depressing phenomenon reported by real-world animal shelters, who invariably receive kittens and puppies in huge numbers after each Christmas – presents given to children who weren’t ready for the responsibility.  Squirtle, of course, are one of Kanto’s standard starter Pokémon.  It seems likely that the Squirtle Squad all belonged to new trainers who quickly realised that they weren’t cut out for the trainer’s life and ditched their starters in the wilderness.  Ash and Officer Jenny #604 are quick to blame the trainers, but honestly I think the Pokémon League is just as much at fault here; obtaining a Pokémon License seems to be literally just a matter of turning ten and showing up.

What I’m driving at with this entry is that – easy as it is to dismiss Pokémon training as slavery and thereby demonise the franchise – the ethics of Pokémon training are, even from an in-universe perspective, a great deal more complicated than that, which is why I’m so glad the games finally caught up in Black and White and produced a whole storyline about whether ownership of Pokémon is morally justified.  I still wish the story was a little more complex and the antagonists not so… well, cartoonish, but hey, it’s a kid’s series.  Baby steps.