Xerneas and Yveltal

Xerneas.

To my amazement, we’re already coming quite close to the end.  Only a handful of Pokémon from eastern Kalos remain, then I’ll have to think of something else to pass the time until I pick up Alpha Sapphire or Omega Ruby (at the moment it’s looking like I’ll finally do that series on the rival characters that I’ve been putting off forever).  Meanwhile, my unfathomable whims decree that now is the time to take on the flagship Pokémon of X and Y: the divine guardian of life and the terrifying shadow of death, Xerneas and Yveltal.  I’m not even going to bother talking about stats or moves or any of that nonsense; I know I usually do, but you really don’t need me to tell you that these things are godlike, right?  Stick some attacks on them and go commit brutal murder; whatever.  I’mma talk about themes and stuff.

I will admit, I was not terribly inspired by these two when they first appeared in the teaser trailer for X and Y last year.  “Wait, so they’re… based on the letters X and Y?” I asked myself.  “What?  Why would you- what does that add?  What is the point of that?”  I’m still not really sold on the alphabet thing, and only partly because it led to that ridiculous line where Professor Sycamore says the only thing he knows about Xerneas is that it “resembles the letter X.”  No, it doesn’t; it resembles a massive f#%$ing stag.  I suppose there doesn’t really need to be any point to it, though – there was no reason for Palkia to associated with pearls and Dialga with diamonds, and Xerneas and Yveltal have plenty of other significance to them.  It’s just rather strange, after the previous generation used the titles Black and White to tie in with the Yin-Yang ideas and the themes of balance and duality that those games were so insistently pushing, that the best anyone can come up with for X and Y is that Game Freak and Nintendo were just really proud of their 3D graphics.  It wouldn’t exactly surprise me, and it even makes some sort of sense with Y conventionally representing the vertical dimension (Yveltal can fly) while X and Z are the two horizontal dimensions (Xerneas and Zygarde have two different modes of earthbound movement), but it’s not really a satisfying conclusion.  Maybe it was just coincidence that the titles and associated legendary mascot themes of Black and White worked so well – or maybe there’s something tremendously dramatic planned for Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby (which, of course, also include letters of… well, an alphabet) that will make sense of everything; I don’t know.  In any case, that’s not what I most want to talk about here, and again, I don’t think it matters.  Their curious alphabetic structures do nothing to detract from Xerneas’ obvious majesty or Yveltal’s palpable malice.  These are Pokémon who know which notes they want to strike, and do so quite effectively.  What I really want to do with this entry, for the most part, is take apart the Norse mythology interpretation of Xerneas and Yveltal that seems to have so thoroughly convinced the internet.

 Yveltal.

At some point shortly after that first trailer, someone latched onto a variety of figures from Scandinavian myth, primarily inhabitants of the great ash Yggdrasil, as the most likely source of inspiration for Xerneas and Yveltal’s designs, and I think everyone’s just had trouble letting go of that idea – sometimes to the exclusion of all common sense.  Personally I struggle to find much merit in the interpretation.  It sounds really clever when you take it as a whole because it gives you an eagle, a stag and a snake that all have something in common (a tie to Yggdrasil), but the individual identifications make little to no sense.  The original argument seems to have wanted Xerneas to be based on a quartet of stags who live in the branches of the World Tree and feed on its leaves.  They are described in the Grimnismal (Sayings of Grimnir), one of the poems that make up the Poetic Edda, the major surviving body of pre-Christian Norse myth.  Nothing else is known about them aside from their names: Dain, “the Dead One,” Dvalin, “the Slumberer,” Duneyr, whose name’s exact meaning is uncertain but possibly something like “Murmur,” and Durathror, who is again obscure but perhaps means “Delay.”  These, of course, all make such perfect sense for a Pokémon whose raison d’être is to invigorate life, particularly “the Dead One,” that it’s hard to believe anyone could doubt there is a connection.  The idea also seems to have circulated that each stag had a different coloured gem in its horns – red, yellow, blue and purple, the colours of the glowing projections in Xerneas’ horns – but as far as I can find there’s actually… like… no evidence for that… anywhere… so yeah.  Yveltal, similarly, is linked to an eagle who roosts at the top of Yggdrasil, a figure to whom the Eddas do not even give a name, and spends his days insulting the dragon Nidhoggr (who lives at the bottom of the tree and gnaws on its roots), by way of a squirrel messenger named Ratatoskr.  Like the four stags, the eagle forms part of the scenery of the World Tree but is otherwise not a terribly important figure, and, also like the four stags, seems to be the subject of an erroneous detail that seems to have been concocted to make the whole concept seem more likely – namely, someone seems to have put it about at some point that the mythical eagle was blind (…it wasn’t) and suggested this as an explanation for Yveltal’s unsettling blue eyes.  Finally, again like the four stags, it’s difficult to see what the Yggdrasil eagle could have given to Yveltal other than simply being a mythical bird of prey.  He’s not really linked with death or destruction, any more than the stags are linked with life.

Bulbapedia offers related alternatives to each, which do little to improve my estimation of the idea.  Yveltal, in their view, might be based on Hraesvelgr, a giant who takes the form of an eagle and lives at the edge of the world; I think the main attraction is his badass name, which means ‘Corpse-Swallower.’  This guy is a seriously obscure character.  He’s attested in a poem called the Vafthrudnismal (or Sayings of Vafthrudnir), another part of the Poetic Edda, which is basically about Odin asking the giant Vafthrudnir stupid questions.  Odin’s ninth question is “where does wind come from?” and Vafthrudnir answers “there’s a huge f#$%ing eagle-giant at the edge of the world who flaps his wings really hard” (that is, of course, my own literal translation from the Old Norse, or whatever this stuff is supposed to be written in).  The later Prose Edda quotes this passage word-for-word, and that is the sum total of what Hraesvelgr does in the extant Norse texts; how he got his sinister name is never touched on.  You may as well just say Yveltal is based on a really big eagle.  Similarly tenuous links are drawn from Xerneas to the great stag Eikthyrnir, who stands on the roof of Valhalla chewing branches of Yggdrasil and distilling the sap into the water that supplies the world’s rivers.  This one, I will grant you, actually does make some degree of sense because Eikthyrnir, like Xerneas, is a sort of wellspring of life, in the form of fresh water, though I would rather expect Xerneas to have water-related powers if that were the case – I mean, it’s not like you need a lot of justification to put something in a legendary Pokémon’s movepool, and this is literally the only thing we know about the character being identified as the inspiration for Xerneas.

 The four stags, Dain, Dvalin, Duneyr and Durathror.

All of this was discussed ad nauseam before X and Y were ever actually released.  People thus inferred that the third legendary Pokémon, whom we now know as Zygarde, would be based on Nidhoggr, and successfully predicted that it would therefore be serpentine (seriously, though, it had to have a Z-shaped body; what else could it possibly have been?).  In some ways this is the most appealing identification to me because a terrible serpent who lives underground certainly sounds like Nidhoggr, and the –garde termination could well be a reference to Asgard and Midgard (though it could equally just refer to Zygarde’s position as, well, a guardian).  In other ways it actually makes the least sense of the lot because, rather than simply being generally nondescript like most of the other beings we’ve talked about, Nidhoggr has enough of a personality to be strongly opposed to the role Game Freak appear to have in mind for Zygarde.  He’s described as “the Order Pokémon” and is supposed to be a guardian of balance in Kalos’ ecosystem, which sounds as though he’s supposed to fill a Rayquaza-like role in checking the excesses of both Xerneas and Yveltal (since overabundant life and unchecked destruction could both devastate an ecosystem; the way his ability relates to theirs reinforces this idea).  Nidhoggr, by contrast, is a far more malevolent character than any of the minor figures suggested as an inspiration for Yveltal; he spends his time chewing on the corpses of the dishonoured dead in Hel, and seems to be one of the figures on the side of evil and chaos in Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse.  If Zygarde is based on Nidhoggr, why isn’t he the Pokémon who symbolises death instead of Yveltal?  Similar attempts to locate Zygarde’s origins with the World Serpent Jormungandr – the arch-enemy of the universally loved and admired Thor, and a major player in bringing about the end of the world – are, if anything, even worse.  In any case, there will be more on Zygarde when he gets his own entry.

Finally, just to cap it all off, people point at Xerneas’ dormant form – a white tree – and say “ooh, look, it’s clearly a reference to Yggdrasil.”  Xerneas is a stag, for heaven’s sake; stags being associated with trees and forests is really nothing unusual; it’s certainly not specific to Norse myth.  Besides, where does that leave Yveltal’s cocoon?  There’s no reason Yveltal couldn’t have lain dormant as a black tree, and if Yggdrasil were really as important a unifier as this concept makes out, it would have made a great deal of sense, whereas a cocoon doesn’t give you anything to work with.

The Yggdrasil eagle, along with the hawk that inexplicably roosts between its eyes (the hawk, evidently, was important enough to be given a name - Vedrfolnir.).

 

So, now that I’ve spent all this time picking apart why I don’t think the currently popular mythological identifications work, am I now going to present something much cleverer that explains Xerneas and Yveltal perfectly?  No, actually, I’m not.  I’m really not sure there is one.  Legendary Pokémon are not usually based on specific mythological characters in this way; with a few notable exceptions, they more often tend to be the Pokémon world’s expression of generalised archetypes.  They may very well relate to mythological characters, but in most cases (again, with notable exceptions) I don’t think trying to pin them on specific characters from specific mythologies is a productive exercise.  In fact, you can count on one hand the number of specific mythological figures who are clearly identifiable in the designs of legendary Pokémon: the phoenix (Ho-oh), and the Japanese gods Fujin, Raijin and Inari (Tornadus, Thundurus and Landorus).  I suppose you can also argue the nine Muses for Meloetta, Nike for Victini, or the golem of Prague for Regigigas and friends, but I don’t think those are nearly as solid.  We don’t actually need an answer to this question.  There’s nothing that should lead us to expect that there is one.  If we have to find a mythological antecedent for them, I rather prefer the idea that the forces represented by Xerneas, Zygarde and Yveltal correspond to the three deities of the Hindu Trimurti, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – or, more accurately, not to the deities themselves but to the forces they represent, creation, preservation and destruction.The idea that Yveltal is a reference to the Black Death, I’m also fairly partial to; first of all, it’s got ‘death’ in the name, and although Game Freak shied away from actually calling Yveltal “the Death Pokémon” (going for “Destruction” instead), it’s pretty clear that that’s what it is, in opposition to Xerneas, “the Life Pokémon.”  The Black Death is generally understood to have been caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis – starts with a Y, which is apparently one of Yveltal’s defining features.  Like Yveltal, the Black Death appeared mysteriously to ravage a huge region centuries ago, then vanished just as mysteriously (and, if certain current ideas about the Justinian Plague of 6th century Byzantium are to be believed, it had already done so once before).  Locating such a Pokémon in a European region would also make sense.  The physical designs of Xerneas and Yveltal, though, I think were dictated partly by the X/Y theme and partly by the general feeling the designers wanted to get across.  Stags appear in a lot of fiction as guardians and avatars of nature – look no further than the stag-like forest spirit from Princess Mononoke, whom I would accept as a possible influence on Xerneas far more readily than Eikthyrnir – and Xerneas’ rainbow horns evoke the vibrancy and diversity of life.  Birds of prey can descend from the sky to snatch life away without warning, an unsettling trait that is reflected in stories found around the world of giant birds that can prey on people, like the Roc and the Thunderbird.  Xerneas and Yveltal are best seen as the Pokémon universe’s take on these broader ideas, not as attempts to ape specific mythological animals whose stories don’t even fit them.

That isn’t exactly the way I envisioned this entry going; I suppose dissecting these mythological identifications was more important to me than I realised, and in fact I’m coming to realise I haven’t actually said much about Xerneas and Yveltal themselves.  A quick assessment to finish, then.  Life and death were bold choices, and I feel there’s a lot more room to play with this story than we saw in X and Y – Zygarde will doubtless complicate the relationship between these forces a great deal.  The designs are perhaps a little over-the-top, even in comparison to previous legendary Pokémon – I mean, Xerneas is almost literally “rainbow crystal stag Jesus” – but they certainly work.  They also led to the creation of an interesting kind of threat in Team Flare and Lysandre, although I’m on the record as believing that Lysandre isn’t nearly as morally ambiguous as the game seems to think he is.  In short – if you ask me, these Pokémon work.

Inkay and Malamar

Inkay.
Inkay.

One of my companions for much of my X playthrough, Malamar is one of the more eccentric Pokémon out there.  Inkay has one of the weirdest evolution methods yet – reach at least level 30 while holding the 3DS upside down (heaven knows what that means from an in-universe perspective – possibly that Inkay’s evolution is, appropriately enough, completely unpredictable).  Add to that several unusual and subversive skills, a unique type combination, and a personality midway between Niccolò Machiavelli and Oscar the Grouch, and this Pokémon is anything but typical.  Let’s take a look.

Continue reading “Inkay and Malamar”

Froakie, Frogadier and Greninja

Froakie.

My unfathomable whims have decreed that it’s time to wrap up the Kalos starters.  The third and last is the Kalosian Water-type starter Pokémon, Froakie, a little blue frog with a good head for deception and evasion.  His second form, Frogadier, also happens to have one of the most fun English names to say of the entire sixth generation, energetically tripping off the tongue in the same way as Octillery or Galvantula.  As for the fully adult ninja frog… well, at some point, quite early on, I realised that the pink scarf thing around Greninja’s neck is probably his long froggy tongue, and ever since then I’ve been so weirded out by it that I can never quite accept him without doing a nervous double take.  I’m now forced, whenever I see him, to contemplate the mental image of my own tongue stretched out to twenty times its normal length and wrapped a couple of times around my neck.  I can see what it adds to the design; ninja are regularly portrayed with masks or headbands that leave strips of cloth fluttering free, and the tongue allows Greninja to mimic that appearance, while also providing a visually striking colour contrast between its bright pink and the deep blue of his body.  Hell, if my tongue went that well with my outfit, maybe I would wear it as a scarf.  Anyway.  Past Water starters have generally been bulky Pokémon with a ‘tough guy’ aesthetic, so Froakie’s very different take on the type is a welcome bit of diversity, and also establishes him as a very different Pokémon from either Chespin or Fennekin.  Let’s take a closer look.

 The legendary ninja Jiraiya atop his majestic giant frog steed.

These Pokémon are ninja frogs.  Frogs and ninja are connected in a variety of modern fiction, apparently because of one very famous ninja hero from Japanese folktale, Jiraiya, who was the subject of a classic Japanese novel of the 19th century (which, as is the way of such things, was only loosely based on a wide variety of different version of older tales).  Jiraiya seems to have had a thing for frogs and toads; he supposedly had the power to transform into a toad, and is often depicted riding a giant magical toad whom he saved from a marauding serpent.  Snakes as villains seem to be a unifying thread of the Jiraiya tradition.  In fact, one sequence in the 19th century novel even describes a rock-paper-scissors relationship – almost exactly like the one that exists between trios of starter Pokémon – between Jiraiya’s frog powers, the snake powers of the story’s villain Orochimaru (which are apparently strong against frog and toad magic), and the slug and snail powers of Jiraiya’s love interest Tsunate (which can overcome snake magic, for reasons which I imagine made perfect sense at the time).  Or something.  Look, I haven’t actually read it; I just looked for summaries on the internet.  What do you people want from me?  The fact that Froakie, Greninja and Frogadier seem to be referencing Jiraiya makes me wonder whether there’s any significance to the presence, in the previous starter trio, of a snake Pokémon whose powers can defeat theirs – Serperior.  Obviously Serperior wasn’t designed with such a relationship in mind, but maybe Greninja’s creators got a kick out of it – and if they did, they would probably also have noted that there are slug and snail Pokémon in the game as well, and that these Pokémon, although not actually starters, are Fire-types.  Although it’s rather a stretch to think that they planned it this way, Greninja, as well as being a starter, actually completes a weird little cross-generational trio of his own.

Anyway, that’s why ninja frogs are a thing.

A Water-type ninja as one of the sixth generation starters is also an interesting choice following the Water-type samurai we got in Unova, Samurott, given that samurai and ninja tend to be set up as opposites in popular culture – samurai are seen as large, powerful warriors, devoted to honour and often more than a little flamboyant, while ninja are depicted as stealthy, agile, deliberately understated, and perhaps more unscrupulous.  Water seems like it should be a natural element for that kind of Pokémon; it’s changeable, being the only substance in nature that exists on Earth as a solid, a liquid, and a gas, it flows around obstacles as easily as smashing through them (as Misty explains at length to a rival Fire trainer in the anime episode Some Like it Hot), and it is regularly associated with subtlety and deception.  The mutable nature of water is particularly evident in Greninja’s signature move, Water Shuriken, which magically compresses water into sharp-edged discs that slice through his enemies’ flesh with pinpoint accuracy.  Bulky, powerful Water Pokémon that draw on the unparalleled fury of a stormy sea are common, but ones focussing on the constantly shifting, intangible nature of water are few and far between; the only ones I can think of are Golduck, Vaporeon and possibly Starmie and Jellicent.  Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but I find it surprising that Water Pokémon like Greninja aren’t more common, and the contrast between Greninja and Samurott almost seems to draw attention to it. 

 Frogadier.

Chesnaught and Delphox are both perfectly competent, as starters normally are, but Greninja has hit the jackpot.  He seems made to be a mixed attacker, employing both physical and special attacks to confound heavy wall Pokémon who focus on only one side of their defences, although his movepool pushes him much more towards a special focus.  His special attack is great, his attack isn’t far behind, and he’s so fast that he can probably afford not to invest the greatest possible effort in speed, leaving more to divide between his attack stats if you want to pick up one or two of his physical moves.  His need for heavy speed training is further diminished by Water Shuriken, which gives him access to a fairly strong physical priority attack.  Because Water Shuriken is a multi-hit attack, its power fluctuates a great deal; it will sometimes be weaker than Aqua Jet, though not by much, and it will usually be stronger, sometimes by quite a lot.  The truly lovely thing about Greninja isn’t his stats, though; it’s his hidden ability.  Chesnaught and Delphox have pretty neat hidden abilities, but Greninja’s blows both out of the water.  It’s called Protean, an English adjective derived from the name of shapeshifting Greek ocean god Proteus, and it automatically changes his type to match that of any move he’s about to use.  Effectively, Greninja gets STAB (Same-Type Attack Bonus, +50% damage) on everything and, thanks to his excellent speed, can sometimes shift his type to gain resistance or immunity to incoming attacks, hopefully keeping his lacklustre defences from having their full impact – but bear in mind that he’ll always have his native Water/Dark typing when he switches in; Pokémon with actual resistances or immunities are safer.  Basically, it’s like Kecleon’s Colour Change, only it’s actually useful (and, indeed, Kecleon now shares Protean as his Dream World ability and gets to suck a little bit less).  Of course, life’s a bit grim if you want to use the Froakie you got from Professor Sycamore, whose ability will be Torrent, but hey, no-one ever said Pokémon was fair.

Protean Greninja can use both physical and special attacks of any type with roughly equal competence, though his physical movepool leaves much to be desired (maybe future games will change that).  Surf, Hydro Pump, Dark Pulse, Ice Beam and Extrasensory form the core of his offensive capability.  Grass Knot punishes other Water types, provided they belong to high weight classes, although be careful they don’t return fire with Ice Beam after you become a Grass-type.  Hidden Power deserves special mention on Greninja because of the way it can be used to exploit Protean; if you want Greninja to be able to shift his type to resist, say, Dragon attacks, which would otherwise be impossible since he doesn’t learn any Fairy or Steel attacks, you can try to trade or breed for a Greninja with Hidden Power: Fairy and net him a quasi-immunity [EDIT: I HAVE MISLED YOU; Hidden Power cannot take a Fairy type, probably because that would have meant reassigning all the other types to different personality values and therefore screwing up Pokémon with Hidden Power transferred from older games].  Water Shuriken and Power-Up Punch are the high points of his physical movepool – trying to use a pure physical Greninja is a bad idea since his physical moves just aren’t very powerful, but Power-Up Punch will spell doom for any Blissey who thinks she can take you, and again, Water Shuriken is on average pretty powerful for a priority attack.  U-Turn is worth it whether you’re training his attack stat or not, because free switches are always welcome.  Acrobatics is difficult to use at the moment because Flying Gems don’t exist on X and Y and it’s depressingly weak if you can’t reliably use up Greninja’s item, but when Game Freak gets around to introducing gems in the sixth generation, it could be interesting.  Rock Slide and Night Slash are there, but just not powerful enough to be worth it.

 Greninja.

Support duty almost seems like a waste of Greninja’s amazing offensive potential, but he has a couple of very helpful support moves – most importantly, Spikes and Toxic Spikes; one or both could find its way onto a moveset to amplify his own and other Pokémon’s offensive potential.  He also gets Taunt and has the speed to use it effectively, anticipating and cancelling support moves coming from defensive Pokémon.  There’s a second signature move that deserves a mention, if only to explain why it shouldn’t be used – Mat Block, which references the ninja technique of blocking a thrown weapon by flipping up one of the woven straw mats used as flooring in traditional Japanese houses.  Mat Block is only useful in double or triple battles, where it acts as a sort of mass Protect attack, guarding all of your active Pokémon from damage… with three important flaws: 1) it doesn’t have priority, so anything that outruns Greninja can bypass it, 2) it doesn’t block status moves, so stuff like Thunder Wave and Will’o’Wisp can bypass it, and most importantly 3) like Fake Out, it can only be used on the first turn after Greninja enters play, something the move’s description conveniently neglects to mention and leaves players to discover for themselves.  Don’t worry, Chesnaught and Delphox – Greninja may have two signature moves to your one, but the second is nothing to be jealous of.

Before we wrap up today, I promised I’d talk at some point about the starters as a group, and in particular about the warrior/spellcaster/rogue interpretation that has become so popular: the idea that Chesnaught, Delphox and Greninja are based on a trio of common roles or classes from role-playing games.  Chesnaught is the warrior, fighter, knight or whatever; Delphox is the wizard, sorcerer, or black mage, and Greninja is the thief, rogue or assassin.  Strength, magic, and skill, the classic three fantasy RPG archetypes.  You can divide some other starter trios along similar lines – Venusaur, Charizard and Blastoise, for example, could be parsed as spellcaster, rogue/scout/fast warrior (remembering that Charizard originally had only average special attack in Red and Blue) and knight/paladin/bulky warrior; Meganium, Typhlosion and Feraligatr work as white mage, black mage and warrior.  For that reason, and also because the Pokémon community is often overeager to construct patterns out of things (says the guy who writes character studies and lengthy speculative discussions of this stuff), I was a little sceptical of the idea at first, though in the end the set of human-influenced designs – knight, witch and ninja – make this way of looking at things particularly appropriate to the sixth generation, and it’s entirely plausible that RPG classes were, if not the creators’ starting point, at least an influence.  To me, all of this is just one example of a general principle of designing starter trios: the starter Pokémon occupies a place of special importance as your partner and as the first point of contact most players have with the game, so it’s vital that everyone (or at least as many people as possible) be able to find one that appeals to them.  To that end, it’s sensible to have starter trios with strongly contrasting aesthetics, fighting styles and personalities.  Sceptile, Infernape and Greninja, for example, would make a poor starter trio because they’re all different takes on the same idea – a fast, active warrior-type.  They continue to be nicely designed Pokémon in themselves, and nothing can diminish their individual appeal, but they don’t provide the same breadth of choice.  Some people would love all three, others wouldn’t like any of them.  A trio of Torterra, Emboar and Swampert would be similarly ill-conceived.  The existence of fighter/magic-user/rogue as a recognisable trope has its roots in the same basic concept; RPG players want to be able to play a hero whose powers have particular appeal to them.  People like choice; it’s really pretty simple.  They also like not to be penalised for their choices, which is where the notion of game balance comes into it, but that’s another topic entirely.

I quite like this Pokémon, in spite of his alarming combined approach to fashion and oral hygiene.  Frogadier makes the cute-to-badass transition remarkably smoothly in comparison to what most starters manage, and the ninja frog thing is a bit weird if you’re not in on the joke, as it were, but was very interesting to learn about.  As for his battle capabilities… well, Protean is a game-changer, there’s no other way to describe it.  Expect Greninja to make a serious impact on any battle he sticks his aqueous ninja stars into.

Pancham and Pangoro

So, our next Pokémon is a literal kung fu panda.  Sure, why not?

 Official art of Pancham by Ken Sugimori.

With Ursaring and Beartic in the back of my mind, I’m beginning to wonder whether Game Freak are capable of doing a bear Pokémon that isn’t a bipedal hulking brute with a bad temper and tremendous physical strength.  Pandas are such different creatures from grizzly bears or polar bears that I’m a little disappointed Pangoro turned out to be so very similar, type notwithstanding.  There’s some neat stuff in there as well, though.  Teddiursa and possibly Ursaring have some kind of weird lunar imagery going on that doesn’t really tie into anything at all (except maybe for the fact that there are constellations called the Great Bear and Little Bear), while Cubchoo has magic ice snot or something ridiculous that I never fully understood and doesn’t carry over to Beartic at all, but Pancham and Pangoro appear to be trying to tell a story through their designs and evolution.  There’s something there, and I’m going with it.

Bulbapedia posits that the principle source of inspiration for these Pokémon is a stereotypical depiction of a male Japanese juvenile gang leader, or banchou, from certain manga genres – particularly visible in Pangoro’s ‘cape,’ possibly a representation of a long coat, and in the sprigs of bamboo they hold in their mouths.  This being well outside my normal area of expertise, I naturally turned to the universal wellspring of all pop-cultural knowledge, TvTropes.org (obligatory warning: TvTropes will ruin your life), which confirms the prevalence of these clichés, among others, as a visual shorthand for juvenile delinquency in Japanese fiction.  The real giveaway seems to be a pompadour hairstyle, something Pangoro easily could have had and I’m glad he doesn’t, but constantly chewing on a twig, a blade of grass or a stalk of wheat (something which tends to signify ‘country yokel’ in Western fiction) is another big one.  A long coat, typically worn over the shoulders – leading to the appearance of a cape that we see on Pangoro – is similarly widely recognised. Whenever a character who matches the banchou archetype is actually important in a story, it will often be because his callous exterior conceals a warm, caring soul or some bullsh!t like that.  This makes a great deal of sense in the context of Pangoro’s personality as it is described to us: violent and quick to anger, but ultimately motivated by a sense of justice.  It also has personal appeal to me because it fits the way I like to characterise the Fighting type, namely that I believe the common thread uniting them is a preoccupation with honour as much as aptitude for martial arts; banchou characters, from what I’m given to understand, certainly like to think of themselves as being in some sense honourable.  The tension between theoretically noble goals and the use of ‘dark’ emotions or underhanded actions as a source of strength makes a lot of sense for a Dark/Fighting Pokémon.  This contrasts strongly with Pancham, who typically wants to be seen as tough and dangerous, but is really just mischievous and playful, lacking a true Dark-type’s readiness for anger and deception.

What’s neat about the transition is their unusual evolution method – Pancham can evolve into Pangoro starting from level 32, but only if there is a Dark Pokémon in the party as well.  Evolution influenced by another Pokémon is pretty rare, and all the other examples I can think of are pretty closely tied in with the nature of the Pokémon’s powers – Shedinja splits off from Ninjask, Mantyke needs Remoraid to become Mantine, Karrablast steals Shelmet’s armour – so it seems reasonable to think the designers meant something by making Pancham evolve in this way.  The obvious answer seems to be that a Dark-type companion can mentor Pancham in ruthlessness, in much the same way as parents fear the ‘influence’ their sweet children could be exposed to by hanging out with delinquents.  Where the analogy breaks down is that this process is not only perfectly natural for Pancham, being the only way for them to reach maturity, but is probably facilitated in the wild by the parents themselves, the adult Pangoro who surely provide the Dark-type presence that allows most wild Pancham to evolve.  Pangoro’s berserker rage supplies the great physical strength with which they defend themselves and put a stop to unfairness wherever they find it, and of course evolution in general tends to be depicted as a positive thing on the whole (Ash and Pikachu’s neuroses on the subject notwithstanding).  Still, both Pancham and Pangoro have interesting personality traits, and the development from one to the other makes sense, and I’m prepared to chalk that up as a victory.

 'Oh, I could get up, but what's the point? I'll never find another stick like it... I may as well just lie down and die.' Good grief; even Farfetch'd isn't this neurotic.

I want to mention the anime episode that focuses on Pancham and Pangoro, since I watched it last night and it was really quite silly.  Normally I love the anime because it gives Pokémon a chance to show off what’s unique about their abilities, but this episode… Well, in this episode, damage to Pangoro’s bamboo sprig caused by a panicked Pin Missile from Chespin causes him to experience an instant and catastrophic collapse of all willpower and fighting ability, leaving him a miserable, unresponsive wreck, even in the face of capture by Team Rocket, until Ash is able to replace it.  This change is so rapid that it can even happen mid-attack, completely cutting off a charge Pangoro was directing at Chespin!  I don’t know about you, but personally I think it’s a bit of a pathetic weakness to have.  What if someone attacks Pangoro with a Fire attack and burns the twig to ashes?  In some ways, this total and ludicrous dependence makes a strange kind of sense as a reference to the real giant panda’s laughable inability to survive on any sort of food other than bamboo (or at least, it would be laughable if it weren’t one of the factors driving the ridiculous things toward extinction).  It also might reference the importance of the twig to the ‘tough guy’ image of the stereotypical banchou character, essentially suggesting that Pangoro just can’t imagine himself as a powerful and competent fighter without this ‘charm’ of sorts.  Luckily, Pangoro in the games suffers from no such mind-blowingly stupid flaw.

 Pangoro.

Dark/Fighting, formerly an exceptionally powerful attack combination resisted only by Toxicroak and Heracross, has lost a good deal of its lustre following the introduction of Fairy Pokémon, most of whom resist both types.  Fairy attacks also sting Pangoro with a nasty double-weakness.  However, it’s still a reasonably powerful combination, and since Fairy-types are really the only major hole in what you can hit with those two moves, it shouldn’t be hard to find room for Poison Jab, to at least make it more difficult for Fairy Pokémon to switch in.  Pangoro sadly lacks the extra-powerful attacks that characterise Fighting-types – no Superpower, no Close Combat, and no Hi Jump Kick – so your main options are instead Sky Uppercut and Hammer Arm, both of which, luckily, get a 20% damage bonus from Pangoro’s Iron Fist ability.  Hammer Arm slows you down, but honestly Pangoro isn’t in much of a position to outrun anything important anyway, so that probably doesn’t matter as much as it might for some Pokémon.  Crunch is a slightly lacklustre secondary attack, which most Dark-types just have to deal with, though he’s slow enough that Payback could be a reliable alternative.  If you go for a straightforward Choice Band tactic, which is the sort of thing Pangoro seems to be built for – powerful, slow, tolerably resilient – there are plenty of options to fill things out, the most important being Earthquake and Stone Edge, which are always great for scoring super effective hits.  X-Scissor and Dragon Claw are mostly inferior, but it’s nice to know they exist.  On the other hand, since it apparently works for Ursaring, you could try Swords Dance with Pangoro; it’s a dangerous thing to try on a Pokémon so slow, but maybe you’re a scary badass who lives fast, dies hard, and can’t be happy with an attack stat less than 700, so whatever; your funeral.  I would avoid Bulk Up myself, since Pangoro doesn’t have any effective ways of healing – Drain Punch seems like it should be a no-brainer on a Pokémon like this, particularly with Iron Fist, and Slack Off would surely be appropriate for a panda Pokémon, but neither is accessible to him (Drain Punch is high on the list of moves that are likely to show up through tutors in later sixth-generation games though, since it’s been a TM in the past, so watch this space).  Sucker Punch is another move that would be awesome for Pangoro and make perfect sense but that he doesn’t get (this one doesn’t actually get an Iron Fist boost, despite the English name, but for a slow, physically powerful Dark-type it would be a godsend).  Also strange that no non-Fighting-type punching attacks feature.  Really there just seem to be a lot of attacks missing from what this Pokémon wants to be able to do.

Pangoro’s other abilities are worth mentioning, because they both happen to be excellent ones; it’s just unfortunate that Pangoro isn’t really the best candidate to use either of them and probably needs Iron Fist more, to keep his Hammer Arm competitive.  Mold Breaker is great for anything that relies on Earthquake a lot since it bypasses Levitate, though Pangoro is unlikely to get much else out of it.  Scrappy, his hidden ability, makes it possible to hit Ghost Pokémon with Normal or Fighting attacks, which is obviously great for a Fighting Pokémon, but since Pangoro is a Dark-type as well, they aren’t really the biggest threat to him.  Still, given how much Pangoro loves his Choice Band, it’s easy for him to get locked into unfavourable attacks.  Give Scrappy some thought if you’re using a Choice item.  Otherwise, stick to Iron Fist.  Other weird things you could use on Pangoro include Taunt for messing up support Pokémon (great, but he’s probably too slow to do so effectively), Rest for healing (he’s no pushover defensively, but he’d need to be tougher to use Rest and Sleep Talk properly – maybe a Bulk Up set with Scrappy and a Fighting attack would be fun?), and Power-Up Punch (could work with Leftovers, I guess?).

 'You talkin' ta me, punk?'

The real reason to use Pangoro over any of the other perfectly good slow, powerful Choice Band-type Pokémon out there is his nifty signature move, Parting Shot.  This move is a godsend for fragile sweeper-type Pokémon who have difficulty switching in safely – like U-Turn, Baton Pass, or Volt Switch, Parting Shot causes Pangoro to leave play, but rather than doing damage or transferring buffs to a recipient, Parting Shot reduces the attack and special attack of its target.  In some cases, this may force your opponent to switch as well on the following turn by making their attacks ineffectual, netting you free time to entrench your position.  Pangoro’s poor speed has mixed implications for this attack, depending on what you’re using it for; on the one hand, it’s likely Pangoro will take the full damage of an incoming attack on the turn it’s used, whereas a faster Pokémon would be able to offload a diminished attack onto your incoming Pokémon, but on the other hand, if you’re using Parting Shot as a way of getting a Pokémon with mediocre defences into play, maybe you want Pangoro to soak the attack first.  Like all moves that switch you out after you use them, Parting Shot is a perfectly respectable option to use with a Choice item.  Because the attack is based on shouted insults (appropriately enough for a gangster-inspired Pokémon), Pokémon with the Soundproof trait are immune to it, but since all the Pokémon who get Soundproof have much better abilities to choose from except for (arguably) Electrode, that’s probably not going to come up very often.  With that caveat out of the way, have fun with Parting Shot!

I am on the record as disliking Pokémon based on modern clichés, subcultures or stereotypes, although I have to admit the way Pangoro does it is a good deal more subtle than Gothitelle or Scrafty, the Pokémon who first prompted me to articulate that dislike, and manifests in ways that don’t seem altogether incongruous for a bear Pokémon.  I honestly don’t find him all that interesting, and he’s rather lacklustre as a battler, although I suppose in both respects he outdoes Beartic quite handily (not that that’s saying much).  In a word… meh.

Umbreon

Official art of Umbreon, by Ken Sugimori; blood for Nintendo, skulls for their skull throne.Dark is a strange type.  Dark Pokémon aren’t necessarily connected with darkness or the night at all, although many of them do prefer the dark.  ‘Dark type’ is actually a somewhat imprecise translation of the Japanese term literally meaning ‘evil type,’ but that just throws up more questions – whole species of Pokémon that are just ‘evil’?  That can’t be right, can it?  Dark Pokémon are associated with evil, and also with trickery, and often with fear, but they aren’t necessarily evil themselves; they’re part of that old stereotype of the ‘misunderstood brooding dark hero.’  Dark Pokémon may well work towards good, but they can and will lie, cheat and steal to do so, and they will not on any account fight fair, because the ends justify the means.

Umbreon is one of the game’s oldest Dark-types, and naturally he grabs this concept with both hands.  Umbreon is a badass, but in a very different way to Jolteon: dark and dangerous, but in an understated, subtle way.  The yellow-on-black of his ring markings is bold, like the light of the moon against the black of the night sky, but minimalistic.  This is not a Pokémon who goes in for glorious battle and flashy displays of power; this is a Pokémon who gets things done quickly, quietly and, if at all possible, without ever being seen.  He’s noted for his poisonous sweat (oddly, Umbreon doesn’t naturally have any Poison attacks – maybe Game Freak always anticipated that everyone would teach him Toxic?) and for his supernatural ability to cause fear in others when the rings on his body glow in the moonlight.  An ambush hunter, he prefers to move around at night, when he can remain hidden and wait for his prey to present a vulnerability.  Umbreon seems to be empowered somehow by exposure to moonlight (hence his in-game ability to heal himself with Moonlight, a move analogous to Espeon’s signature Morning Sun but shared originally by Clefairy and Oddish) but the exact nature of his powers seems to be mysterious.  The result of all this is that Umbreon’s particular brand of charm falls somewhere between Jolteon and Espeon, based on a combination of decisive power and elusive mystique, exactly the combination that captured the imagination of Karen, leader of the Johto Elite Four, all those years ago.  Personally Espeon is still my favourite, but I can definitely see Umbreon’s appeal too.

As I’ve been looking at Eevee’s evolutions so far, I’ve been interpreting them with a view to understanding the environments that might have caused Eevee to develop all of these forms in the first place.  In Espeon’s case I concluded, based on the stimulus that triggers her evolution and the nature of her powers, that she represents a form of Eevee specially adapted to domestication, and particularly to the defence of settled communities.  Now, Umbreon evolves from Eevee in more or less the same way as Espeon – by forming a particularly close bond with his trainer – except that Eevee can become Espeon during the day and Umbreon during the night.  Logically, one assumes that partnership with humans had some hand in the development of Umbreon as a species as well, but why the split between the two?  I think the answer is in what it means to be a Dark-type.  Espeon is all about community and empathy; she developed her psychic powers to defend homes and families.  Umbreon, by contrast, is all about solitude and individualism – this species evolved at the same time and for similar reasons, but for different purposes.  Espeon is a protector, active during the day, staying close to the settlement and looking after the old and the very young as they go about their domestic work.  By contrast Umbreon, a strain devoted to survival, efficiency, stealth and cunning, developed out of the Eevee who partnered with hunters and scouts whose tasks were related to the night – although they do live in settled villages, they fulfil their most important roles beyond the community’s borders.  This is where Umbreon’s whole attitude and demeanour come from.  The quintessential Dark-types, they do their work out in the wilderness where they have no-one to rely on but their human partners, and where no-one else will rely on them, hence the ‘ends justify the means’ approach they take to combat.  They work for the good of their communities, but out on the frontiers they have no time for rules.

Umbreon stalking the night, by Apofiss (http://apofiss.deviantart.com/).

Where his brothers and sisters tend to combine powerful support skills with dangerous attack options, Umbreon is instead a totally defence-focused Pokémon.  He’s slow, his attacks are weak, and like all the others, his movepool is limited, but for all-around defensive ability, Umbreon is difficult to beat.  Back in the heady days of Gold and Silver, an Umbreon with Rest or Moonlight and some nasty trick like Charm or Confuse Ray was nigh indestructible, free to fling Toxic around and then wait patiently for everything to die.  That was really all you needed to do with him (aside from keep him away from Poison- or Steel-types, obviously), although, like most of Eevee’s other evolved forms, Umbreon had a nifty trick to use with Baton Pass: Mean Look.  Mean Look traps an opposing Pokémon in play until Umbreon switches out or faints – wonderful if it’s something Umbreon can handle.  If not, though, Baton Pass will take Umbreon out of play and replace it with another Pokémon who can deal with the victim… and keep the trap effect, which would be ended if Umbreon were to switch out normally.  This would eventually become Umbreon’s main tactic.  He gained Taunt and Wish in Ruby and Sapphire, which were useful toys for ruining other support Pokémon and keeping his teammates healthy, respectively, and the addition of physical Dark attacks in Diamond and Pearl made it possible to use Umbreon as a slow physical tank with Curse (Payback, which is more powerful when the user moves after its opponent, is noteworthy – if you’re using Curse, you’ll be slower than anything else around anyway).  The combination of Mean Look and Baton Pass was his big trick, though; it’s a difficult strategy to pull off, but succeeding at it would almost certainly doom at least one opposing Pokémon, trapped in play against a Pokémon of your choice, and Umbreon is tough enough that he could and did make it work.

And then they took it off him.

For reasons that escape me, Mean Look was removed from the list of effects that can be transferred by Baton Pass in Black and White.  It couldn’t have been for thematic reasons, since there’s never been any real logic to what gets transferred and what doesn’t (and how is Baton Pass imagined to work, anyway?).  Could it have been for balance reasons?  Well, only a handful of Pokémon could ever do this anyway.  Absol was terrible at it, and murdering things with Swords Dance is a much better use of her time.  Smeargle, likewise, had better things to do unless you wanted to put him into a Baton Pass chain, and even then he has more important moves.  Essentially, the only things that changing the mechanics of Mean Look did were stealing Umbreon’s favourite specialty tactic and finally eradicating the only reason ever to use Ariados (who used Spider Web in place of Mean Look).  Since it is an inescapable truth that no-one in the world has ever actually used Ariados anyway, I am forced to conclude that Game Freak just woke up one morning and decided they hated Umbreon.  It’s just such a bizarre thing to change, when there are so many other inane things that they insist on keeping the same.

Okay; rant over.

Umbreon fading out against the night sky, by MusicMew (http://musicmew.deviantart.com/).  I'm pretty sure Umbreon can't actually do that but it looks awesome so who cares?

Don’t get me wrong.  Umbreon is still a wonderful defensive Pokémon – in fact, he’s the toughest Dark-type in the game; only Mandibuzz is comparable, and Umbreon leaves her in the dust for special defence.  His Wishes aren’t as potent as Vaporeon’s, but he’s still a decent Pokémon to put on healing duty, and he can threaten to put things to sleep with Yawn.  Curse remains an option too if you want a more aggressive Umbreon, and it looks like Black and White 2 have given him Foul Play, a powerful Dark attack that circumvents Umbreon’s poor attack stat by allowing him to use his opponent’s instead.  His abilities are fairly plain, as abilities go; Synchronise is nice to have but not particularly useful, as for Espeon, but unlike Espeon his Dream World ability is garbage – Inner Focus?  Immunity to flinching?  I guess if you really hate Togekiss or Jirachi… but Togekiss will just smack Umbreon in the face with a super-effective Aura Sphere, and Jirachi is immune to Toxic, which means Umbreon can’t actually hurt her anyway.  This is, essentially, the crux of the matter for Umbreon: passing Mean Look was easily the most threatening thing he could do; now anything immune to poison just doesn’t care about him anymore.  Steel-types in particular, who resist Dark attacks, no longer have any reason to pay attention to Umbreon.  They can just get along with their own thing, and Umbreon will have no choice but to flee, maybe dropping a Wish on the way out if he’s lucky.  Vaporeon, by way of contrast, is much harder to block completely; sure, Water-types will largely ignore her main attacks, but thanks to Water Absorb and her good special defence, she’ll ignore them right back!

In spite of my rant, I really do think that Umbreon works.  He’s sleek but bold, not quite like any of the others, and as such he appeals to, once again, a different segment of people.  His total defence focus is different as well, not just from his brothers and sisters but from the stereotypes of his element as a whole.  I just have to slam the mechanical change to Mean Look one more time because it actually reduces diversity and uniqueness instead of increasing it by eliminating a previously difficult but powerful and interesting tactic; I just find it fundamentally absurd on grounds of design philosophy.  Umbreon is far from ruined, though; if you need a bulky Dark-type, there’s none better.