Pokémon are, almost by definition, creatures with incredible abilities, often ones which exceed the boundaries of what we believe to be possible. Normally I like to make a fuss of the aspects of the Pokémon world that have nothing to do with the powers, like history and ethics and society and culture and all the rest, but let’s face it, I’m at least partly in it for the thrill of having a flying murder-dragon with four different kinds of exploding death lasers. What you can do and what you can’t is fundamentally a part of who you are, and what Pokémon can and can’t do is expressed in the games through their stats, their abilities, and in perhaps the greatest variety through their moves. I like to say that Pokémon “should be good at the things they’re good at” – that is, they should possess the skills we would expect them to, based on their designs, and those skills should in turn contribute to the way we see them and use them. Mechanics and flavour should work together – well, at least that’s what I think. Let’s talk about how that works (or fails to).
As of the release of X and Y, there are 609 moves in the Pokémon games: 609 effects which are available in various combinations to different species. Some are basic, and others are complicated. Some are effective in a wide variety of situations, others require a great deal of forethought to be useful at all (with varying degrees of payoff). Some are powerful, others are weak. Some are available to many Pokémon, or to almost all of them, others to only one or two. All of them say something about the Pokémon capable of using them – and that includes the ones that would never see any use competitively, or even in a normal playthrough! Let’s take as our first example the unanimously agreed worst move of all: Splash, which has no effect whatsoever, and is useful only in the most contrived of situations (say, if your opponent is trying to stall you down to Struggle, and Splash’s 40 PP allow you to sit on your butt for longer without running out of moves, or something). For all that, only a handful of Pokémon are actually able to learn this non-technique; indeed in Red and Blue it was unique to Magikarp, hailed in-universe as the weakest Pokémon of all – the only one so pathetic it had a move that allowed it to flop around doing absolutely nothing. Since then the move has been bestowed (either as a level-up move or a hereditary one) upon Poliwag, Horsea, Hoppip, Cleffa, Delibird, Azurill, Wailmer, Spoink, Feebas, Wynaut, Luvdisc, Buneary, Finneon, Mantyke and Clauncher. What is the common thread with these Pokémon? Like Magikarp, some of them are portrayed as being particularly helpless, like Poliwag, who can barely walk on land, Hoppip, at the mercy of the breeze, Wynaut, whose evolved form is unable to take spontaneous action, or Spoink, whose heart actually stops if he doesn’t continually keep bouncing around uselessly. Most of them are on the cute end of the spectrum as well, adding to the impression of vulnerability. The enduring message is that these are Pokémon who require particular nurturing and attention in order to grow and succeed (although they won’t necessarily be helpless forever – Gyarados certainly proves that, as does Kingdra). One of these things is not like the others, though – what’s Clauncher doing on this list? To me, the fact that Clauncher starts with Splash conveys a certain weakness that would not otherwise be immediately apparent from his design – and it’s not entirely inappropriate, since he isn’t exactly a physically imposing Pokémon. I would also suggest a link with the fact that Clauncher is incapable of learning many of Clawitzer’s most powerful attacks, like Dark Pulse and Aura Sphere; more than most Pokémon, he has a lot of growing to do, and is especially vulnerable in his infancy.
X and Y added a lot of moves with very specific uses; in particular, there are a number of support moves which seem like they would only be useful in a triple battle, and only then with a fair amount of planning. Take Rototiller, for instance, which raises the attack and special attack of all Grass Pokémon in battle. To begin with, only two Grass Pokémon – Paras and Cacnea – are capable of learning this move (and even them by chain-breeding via Buneary), so for most Pokémon it can only be useful in a double battle. Even then, a Rototiller boost is functionally equivalent to the boost provided by Growth… which, y’know, most Grass Pokémon can learn… so really in order to get the proper bang for your buck you want to set things up in a triple battle so that two Grass Pokémon at once are getting the bonus. As contrived a situation as it takes to make Rototiller useful (and believe me, as a card-carrying Grass Pokémon Master, my next project is to contrive the heck out of it for a Battle Maison triples team), as a move that expands what we know about the Pokémon who learn it, it’s solid gold, because it conveys the ecological function that the Pokémon who possess it – Sandshrew, Dugtrio, Onix, Rhyhorn, Linoone, Bibarel, Lopunny, Watchog, Excadrill, Dwebble and Diggersby – have in aerating soil and helping plants grow. In the case of Dugtrio and Excadrill, we knew that already, but for the others it’s neat new information (although one does wonder how important a desert Pokémon like Sandshrew would be in that capacity). For a Pokémon like Rhyhorn, who doesn’t really dig tunnels habitually, it even prompts me to imagine early human farmers hitching up their first rudimentary ploughs to domesticated Rhyhorn. Another bizarre little trick is Vivillon’s signature move, Powder, a priority attack that causes a Pokémon to explode and take damage if it tries to use a Fire attack during that turn. There are numerous disadvantages here – 1) you have to predict an incoming Fire attack, 2) it’s unlikely to work more than once in a battle, especially given that Vivillon’s defences are so bad it doesn’t really take a super-effective attack to bring her down, and 3) it requires you to actually use Vivillon in the first place. On the other hand, I feel like all that is totally worth it to see an attack backfire in such a spectacular fashion, and it does establish Vivillon as a clever, tricky Pokémon who will take no $#!t from anyone. Probably my single favourite ‘WTF’ attack in X and Y is Ion Deluge, another priority technique which turns all Normal attacks used that turn into Electric attacks. Again, it seems like this could only be useful in double or triple battles, because although most of the Pokémon that learn it do have some kind of ability that lets them absorb Electric attacks, you still have to predict an incoming Normal attack, and even then the benefit you get is not huge. Even in doubles or triples, I have difficulty imagining a situation (let alone thinking of a reliable way to set one up) where it would not be equally useful just to… y’know… use an Electric attack, something all Pokémon with Ion Deluge can do. I’m not sure what kind of ‘characterisation’ Ion Deluge is supposed to create either, which is a shame.
Other times, we get Pokémon whose techniques conspicuously fail to express what they’re supposedly all about. My favourite example is probably Gigalith, whose ‘thing’ is his ability to store, magnify and direct solar energy using the crystals on his body, creating devastating blast attacks that can destroy mountains. Great, except that Gigalith needs a TM to learn Solar Beam, and has a very discouraging special attack stat to back it up. Drowzee and Hypno, famously, still require human intervention to learn Dream Eater after all these years, despite the fact that eating dreams is literally how they survive. In Red and Blue this almost made sense because the Dream Eater TM could only be used by Hypno, Gengar and Mew anyway, so it was sort of an unlockable signature move like Softboiled (which no Pokémon learned on its own, but could be taught to Chansey with TM 41). Now, though, there are literally hundreds of Pokémon, including some who can’t even induce sleep like Ambipom, Lickilicky and Aurorus, who are just as good at eating dreams as the dream-eater Pokémon themselves. Just as strange is Sceptile, introduced in the last generation before moves started to be assigned “physical” or “special” individually rather than by type. By now, Game Freak had gotten the hang of the way their own system worked. Sceptile seems like a physical Pokémon but, like poor Feraligatr, all his best flavour-appropriate attacks – Leaf Blade, Dragon Claw and Crunch – were special, so they made Sceptile a special attacker. Things became very weird when Diamond and Pearl rolled around, though; all Sceptile’s favourite moves were suddenly keyed to the wrong stat. As a result, he now favours Dragon Pulse, Focus Blast and Leaf Storm, and is actually quite bad at using his own signature move. Would it not have made more sense if, when Sceptile’s entire movepool flipped from special to physical, he had flipped with it? A happier example is Lickitung, whose key characteristic is his enormous tongue. The obvious problem with Lickitung, in the mad old days of Red and Blue, was that he couldn’t actually learn Lick. The interesting problem was that although he got Lick in Gold and Silver, it was much longer before he gained effective attacks that could be visualised as using his tongue. Slam was his mainstay from the beginning, but Slam is terrible. Wrap, which he got in Gold and Silver, is scarcely worth mentioning. Knock Off in Ruby and Sapphire was an improvement, but it was really Diamond and Pearl that gave Lickitung and Lickilicky properly useful attacks that fit the way we’re supposed to imagine them fighting: Power Whip and Wring Out, which relatively few other Pokémon learn. They’re not the best attacks around, but both can argue for a place on a serious moveset, and they provide a good example of updating an old Pokémon in an appropriate and interesting way.
Then there are attacks that everything learns, or almost everything, at any rate: Hyper Beam, the ultimate expression of a fully-evolved Pokémon’s might, Protect, the standard “no” technique, and Hidden Power, whose universal availability hints at a kind of soul energy that can be drawn upon by all living things. There are also things which are… harder to explain or justify. All Pokémon can learn Toxic. What? I’ve actually been asked to explain this before, and settled on the idea that since Toxic is supposed to be a ninja technique – that is, a human technique – it probably uses principles that are accessible to humans, and to all Pokémon. Pokémon who’ve been taught Toxic can recognise, collect, store, and use poisonous substances that they might not actually be able to secrete on their own. A bit unfortunate, perhaps, for the poor Poison-types, who have to live down the fact that their most powerful ability is available to nearly every Pokémon in existence, but at least X and Y threw them a bone by giving Toxic perfect accuracy when used by a Poison Pokémon. It gets worse, though; most Pokémon can create illusionary duplicates of themselves, with varying degrees of substance – almost all can learn Double Team and Substitute. Weather manipulation, too, is shockingly common; Sunny Day and Rain Dance are normally denied only to Pokémon who would specifically be disadvantaged by them in some way. I have to imagine that, in all but a few cases, these techniques are more like prayers (to Groudon or Kyogre?) than actual exercises of a Pokémon’s own powers – think of the connotations that the phrase “rain dance” has in English, and the fact that Rain Dance’s Japanese name, Amagoi, refers to a prayer for rain – while the rarer and seemingly effortless Drought and Drizzle abilities imply a real connection with the weather on some level.
Other moves available by TM are not quite so universal, but in general they are still far more often seen than most Pokémon techniques. Many of these are go-to attacks for competitive movesets – staples like Thunderbolt, Ice Beam, and Surf. Being so widely available means that these moves don’t tell us all that much about the specific Pokémon who learn them, but their prominence in strategy means that they contribute something to how the types themselves are portrayed. When we think of the Ground type, for instance, we don’t just think of Ground-type Pokémon – we think of the ubiquitous Earthquake, one of the best physical attacks in the game. When we think of Fire, we think of Flamethrower, but also of Fire Blast, which, being more accurate than Thunder or Blizzard and often a better choice than Flamethrower, is much more likely to come to mind than its Ice or Electric equivalents, so that Fire becomes a type associated with overwhelming power (Overheat only adds to the effect – Grass has an equivalent attack, Leaf Storm, but very few Pokémon can learn it, while Overheat is widely available). The closest thing Psychic has to a go-to physical attack isn’t a physical attack at all, but a special attack which hits the target’s physical defence, Psyshock, thus reinforcing the typical view that Psychic types do not rely on their bodily strength. Conversely, Rock has no common special attack at all. The popularity of U-Turn and Volt Switch, accessible to many Pokémon through TMs, links Bug and Electric with speed, cleverness and changeability. Sometimes I am concerned that the steady proliferation of techniques with every generation will eventually erode the differences between the types completely; we’re moving steadily closer to a situation where every type has both a physical and a special attack with a power rating of 80-90 and 100% accuracy, which would rather be throwing the baby out with the bathwater as far as establishing balance. On the other hand, if only a few Pokémon get to flout the stereotypes of their elements – like Lucario and Beartic do, like Gigalith could have – then what we’re really getting is opportunities for specific Pokémon to be awesome in specific ways, which is the primary virtue that should be kept in mind here.
Finally, since we’re talking about TMs, we inevitably come to my pet hate, a move that not everything can learn, by any stretch of the imagination, but available to a truly bizarre selection of Pokémon who seem as though they should have no business learning it: Aerial Ace. I offer first the usual disclaimer: I know Aerial Ace in Japanese is called “Turning Swallow Cut” and is named after an old katana technique. Fine. I have no problem with this move being available to Pokémon who can’t fly. However. The move’s description implies that it involves great speed and agility, which is why it never misses. Also, it’s a Flying-type move and the Pokémon who learn it on their own are mostly birds, continuing that theme (the exceptions being Heracross, who can fly, Honedge, who is a living sword, and Gogoat, who… um… yeah, I got nothing). And indeed, many of the Pokémon who learn it out of TM 40, as well as favouring cutting or slashing attacks, possess either great speed or flight… but then there’s Slaking. Bouffalant. Tyranitar. Shelgon. Ferrothorn. Mr. Mime. Crustle. Aggron. Regigigas, of all things.
And, of course, my favourite: Slowbro, but not Slowking.
Mechanically, very little separates Slowbro and Slowking. Slowking’s special defence is higher, and he can learn Nasty Plot, Swagger, Power Gem, Quash, and Dragon Tail. Slowbro’s defence is higher, and he can learn (in addition to a few moves that Slowking could get as a Slowpoke by delaying his evolution) Aerial Ace. That’s the one move Slowbro has that Slowking can’t mimic. Think about this in the context of everything else I’ve talked about in this over-long entry, and it all adds up to one thing.
Someone over there has a very strange sense of humour.