Right; I’m going to leave Carbink for now and do her with Diancie at the end, by which time I’ll hopefully be clearer on how they work, so that leaves only one Pokémon in the Coastal Kalos subregion: Hawlucha, the… lucha libre Pokémon… which is another one stricken from the list of phrases I never thought I would live to say. Game Freak are responsible for a disconcerting number of those. Funnily enough, though, Hawlucha’s been making more and more sense the more time I spend on this entry, and may even be one of my favourites of this generation now, which I didn’t really expect. Let’s have a look.Continue reading “Hawlucha”
So, our next Pokémon is a literal kung fu panda. Sure, why not?
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.
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.
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?).
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.
All right; let’s get this catastrophic $#!t-show on the road. Grass-type starter time!
Since I have shown no signs at all of becoming even slightly less infatuated with the Grass type in the three years since I started this blog, selecting Chespin as my starter was something of a foregone conclusion. The little tyke eventually found himself overshadowed in my affections by the return of my one true love, Bulbasaur, but he nonetheless remained a faithful companion throughout my playthrough of X version and has always been ready to pull his weight. Where else to begin but with my first Kalosian Pokémon?
I begin with the Kalos Pokédex’s inaugural silly quote. “Such a thick shell of wood covers [Chespin’s] head and back,” it faithfully explains, “that even a direct hit from a truck wouldn’t faze it.” It is unlikely anyone will ever attempt to test this claim, Chespin being as adorable as he is, so we shall probably have to take the Pokédex’s word for it, but his sturdy spiked ‘helmet’ should at least afford solid protection from threats his own size. I am a little readier to believe it of the human-sized Chesnaught, his final evolutionary stage – a bulky creature of uncertain mammalian extraction with a spiked tortoiseshell-like structure (presumably wood again) covering his back and shoulders, and spiny ‘gauntlets’ protecting the outsides of his forearms. This guy’s shoulder-barges would surely be lethal. So, Chespin nails ‘cute’ and Chesnaught nails ‘tough’ (particularly with the ‘come at me’ pose he adopts in both the official art and his battle stance), but as is often the case with Pokémon who have to make this transition, Quilladin is caught in a strange middle ground between the two; he seems to go for a little of both, mixed with a side of ‘impish.’ His long, pointed nose, the tuft of hair on his forehead, and his round sparkling eyes, together with his nigh-spherical body shape, all give me the disconcerting impression that Crash Bandicoot has seriously let himself go, and is disguising himself as a cactus to hide his shame and start building a new identity. In some ways he doesn’t seem to fit smoothly as an intermediate between Chespin and Chesnaught; he’s more rotund than either of them, with short, stocky arms and legs, and the transition from Chespin’s helmet to Quilladin’s all-over body armour seems to go backwards again with Chesnaught, who seems to be more reliant on his tortoiseshell plate and armoured forearms. None of that messes with the things I really like about these designs, though.
The inspiration for these designs is the spiny outer shell of the chestnut. Nuts, berries and fruit have been underexploited by Grass Pokémon designs in the past, and chestnuts are distinctive and appropriate for a physical tank Pokémon. There may even be a cultural allusion in play, to the horse chestnuts or ‘conkers’ beloved of British schoolchildren in the 19th and early 20th centuries – in traditional schoolyard games, the hard nuts are hung from strings and smashed together until the weaker one cracks and must be discarded, with veteran conkers that survive multiple such battles being especially prized (Roald Dahl gives a characteristically whimsical account of the game and its strategies in the book My Year). Only the nuts themselves are used in the game, without the tougher but softer skins, but the nature of the game is so appropriate to Chespin’s physical bruiser battling style, as well as the habit Quilladin have of tackling each other in order to build their strength, that I can’t help but suspect a reference. Chespin’s ‘helmet’ also resembles the tough, warty outer skin of the horse chestnut more closely than that of a true chestnut, with its dense thicket of bristly, almost needle-like spines. What I particularly like about the way Chespin and his evolutions use chestnuts is that it ties together the Grass and Fighting elements. They aren’t ‘chestnut Pokémon’ although that could very easily have been a workable starting point, since there are basically two ways to do a Grass Pokémon: ‘plant creature’ and ‘animal with plant characteristics,’ all Grass starters being the latter. The Grass-type aspect of the design comes through in Chespin’s ‘helmet,’ Quilladin’s ‘armour,’ Chesnaught’s tortoiseshell plate, and their thorn shield signature move, which are also the things that convey their similarity to a human warrior or knight – in other words, the things that make them Grass-types are also the things that make Chesnaught a Fighting-type. The combination of the two elements isn’t superficial; they work together. It’s not always easy to make that happen, but I’m always fond of Pokémon who manage to pull it off.
Chesnaught handles in a similar manner to Torterra in battle, being a slow physical tank. Probably his biggest problem is that he has rather a lot of weaknesses for a slow, defensive Pokémon, including a dangerous double-weakness to Flying attacks, but he does resist the powerful and popular Earthquake/Stone Edge combination, so it’s not all bad. His biggest strength is the high power of his staple attacks, combined with a small but useful support movepool to keep opponents guessing. His strongest Grass attack is Wood Hammer, which retains its 120 power rating in a generation where many of the strongest attacks in the game are being toned down; the recoil hurts, though, and doesn’t mesh well with the standard Grass-type ability Overgrow (because once you’re injured enough for the Grass-type damage boost to kick in, one or two more Wood Hammers have a good chance of dropping you), so Seed Bomb is also an option depending on what exactly you want to do with him. Most Fighting-types have a wide selection of Fighting-type moves, but Chesnaught really only has two worth speaking of: Hammer Arm, which sacrifices speed for power (not that Chesnaught cares much about speed anyway) and Power-Up Punch, one of X and Y’s new moves, which boosts attack with every use (potentially a worthwhile choice for a more defensive Chesnaught who can afford to hang around for a couple of turns). Grass with Fighting is not a particularly strong combination offensively – well, okay, let’s be fair, Grass with just about anything is not a particularly strong combination offensively, but Grass with Rock is one of the less bad ones, and Chesnaught can do that too, with Stone Edge. Stone Edge is also important to make it a little bit harder for Flying Pokémon to walk all over him. On the support side, there are basically two moves you can build sets around: Leech Seed, the eternal Grass-type favourite which also works well with Chesnaught’s signature move, discussed below, and Spikes, which is just universally useful. Bulk Up and Swords Dance are both viable ways of increasing Chesnaught’s offensive presence, since he’s tough enough to take a neutral attack while setting up and scary enough to force some Pokémon to retreat. Don’t count on a sweep, though; Chesnaught is just too slow.
All three Kalos starters have been blessed with a signature move to emphasise what is unique in their styles of fighting, and Chesnaught’s is Spiky Shield. In mechanical terms, this thing is pretty neat. It’s strictly an improvement over Protect, the standard option available to most Pokémon for blocking an incoming attack to stall for time; the advantage to Spiky Shield is that it additionally deals a small amount of damage if it blocks a ‘contact’ attack. It’s a shame Spiky Shield damage can’t be stacked with the similar effect of a Rocky Helmet, because that would make Chesnaught a seriously daunting proposition for most physical attackers – perhaps not to the same extent as Ferrothorn, who can stack Rocky Helmet with his Iron Barbs ability, but then again, Ferrothorn actually has to take damage to cause recoil while Chesnaught doesn’t, so maybe that would have been too much ‘something for nothing.’ Besides, Protect is hardly a bad technique, particularly for Grass Pokémon who can use it to stall for damage and healing with Leech Seed, or in double battles where a Pokémon can potentially take two attacks in one turn, and Spiky Shield is, again, unambiguously better than Protect.
Finally, you have two options for healing, besides Leech Seed. Synthesis is the one you should use if you’re serious, because the sixth generation’s nerfing of Drizzle, Sand Stream and Snow Warning makes it much more likely you’ll be able to use the technique unobstructed. I want to talk about Pain Split, though, because Pain Split is interesting from a flavour perspective. Most of the Pokémon who learn Pain Split are Ghost- or Psychic-types, and of those who aren’t, most are in the Amorphous egg group and lack clearly defined anatomy, like Weezing and Swalot (even when it was available more widely, via move tutor, it was most prevalent among Pokémon with overtly magical powers or indistinct anatomy). It seems to be implied that the attack normally functions on the literal sharing of pain with the opponent, usually through supernatural means, which makes it odd that Chesnaught can learn it at all, let alone as a level-up move. Probably the intention here is to stress the retributive nature of Chesnaught’s defences, in line with Spiky Shield; the Pokédex is adamant that these Pokémon don’t start fights, but are happy to finish them. This could possibly be pushed even further by suggesting that, since Pain Split is regularly associated with Pokémon who have mental powers, Chesnaught’s ability to use it stems from a deeply and firmly held belief in ‘eye-for-an-eye’-style justice.
Chesnaught also has an odd signature ability, Bulletproof, the in-game manifestation of his supposed ability to withstand bomb blasts, which grants total immunity to a select list of ball-, bomb- and bullet-themed attacks. The most important of these are probably Shadow Ball, Sludge Bomb (which is super-effective against Chesnaught and more popular now that Poison attacks are strong against Fairy-types), Focus Blast and Aura Sphere, and to a lesser extent Seed Bomb, Energy Ball and Electro Ball (which Chesnaught resists anyway) and Gyro Ball (which does more damage to faster Pokémon, something Chesnaught is most definitely not). Most of the others are either too weak or too rare to be major sources of concern. Probably the main draw of this ability is that it makes him an unorthodox and somewhat risky but very interesting answer to Gengar, who relies heavily on Sludge Bomb, Shadow Ball and Focus Blast. Aura Sphere immunity also makes him a good possible response to Clawitzer and Mega Blastoise – just watch out for Ice Beam – as well as special Lucario (though Lucario is more commonly a physical attacker).
In summary, then, Chespin and his evolutions have a pleasing design that take inspiration from an unusual place, and their most unique powers support that design well and create consistent characterisation. They also combine Grass/Fighting more fluidly than the other representatives of that pair, Breloom and Virizion (though Breloom, it should be noted, is a kick-boxing dinosaur). If I have complaints, they are mainly with Quilladin’s odd aesthetics – he could stand to be slimmed down, with more emphasis on his spines and perhaps more elaborate ‘armour’ to anticipate Chesnaught’s grand tortoiseshell plate – and with the more general problem that Grass is just a bad type and probably always will be. That’s a complaint for another day, though…
OH DEAR GODS IT’S INFERNAPE RUN YOU FOOLS
These are Pokémon to inspire terror. You wouldn’t know it to look at them, but trust me, they are. Not because of sheer power – Charizard, Typhlosion and Blaziken are more powerful than Infernape – but because of two things that, in Pokémon, are often far more important: speed and versatility. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Ladies and gentlemen: Chimchar, Monferno and Infernape.
The first thing you notice about these Pokémon is that they don’t really have a lot of heft to them. Charmander, Cyndaquil and even Torchic are more solidly built than Chimchar, and that doesn’t change as they evolve. This is because Chimchar marks a (small) divergence, at last, from the fire-as-destroyer archetype and focuses on a closely related quality of fire – its speed. Like Rapidash and Arcanine, Chimchar, Monferno and Infernape are Fire Pokémon whose element manifests not as huge destructive power but as phenomenal agility. They are among the few Fire-types who are not described as fighting primarily with their fire; one assumes that they do, and they do learn attacks like Ember and Fire Spin, but they seem to prefer using fire to intimidate enemies rather than to incinerate them directly (Monferno and Infernape’s bright facial markings, blue and red respectively, likewise seem meant for intimidation, as in mandrills and similar species). There’s actually something of a disconnect here, in that Infernape is really just as good at special attacks as at physical attacks, but this bothers me far less than all the Pokémon who aren’t good at the things they are supposed to be, so I’ll leave it. Rather than using fire, Chimchar and his evolutions use flurries of lightning-quick blows from all of their limbs simultaneously and from every possible direction to batter foes into submission – as might well be expected from anthropomorphic monkeys with prehensile limbs and tails (or a practitioner of ‘monkey’ style kung fu). This kind of acrobatic, literally off-the-wall combat style, familiar to us all from martial arts films, has few other exponents in the world of Pokémon; before Infernape, I can think of maybe Hitmontop, and after him, Mienshao. Is it especially clever creating a monkey Pokémon based on monkey kung fu? Perhaps not, but it makes sense, and it’s pretty damn kickass. Aesthetically speaking… aesthetically Chimchar bugs me; his proportions seem off, his head too big for his scrawny body and limbs – it’s a common feature of most primates, I think, that infants have disproportionately large heads, but you can go too far (the effect is reduced in the in-game sprites, but it’s still there). I suspect they may have made him too human; his hands, eyes and hair remind me, disconcertingly, of a human baby, but then he has no nose… if you’re familiar with the ‘uncanny valley’ effect, this is what Chimchar makes me feel. Monferno and Infernape lose that, though, so I suppose I’m okay with it. It’s also a little strange that Infernape loses his flaming tail and gains a crown of flames instead, but I can’t deny it does look cool, as does the spiral motif that develops out of the swirls visible on Chimchar and Monferno’s chests, adding to the overall impression of fluidity.
As we learned in Blaziken’s entry, however, Infernape has committed a fairly serious sin: he pretty much stole her schtick, in the process becoming the nexus of just about the biggest balance clusterfuck this franchise has ever seen (or would have seen, if game balance had ever been a thing in Pokémon anyway). Blaziken, when she was introduced, was the only Fire/Fighting type, and a powerful and terrifying mixed attacker with a wide range of dangerous attacks. Come Diamond and Pearl, she was still a powerful and terrifying mixed attacker with a wide range of dangerous attacks… but Infernape had all that, and blinding speed to back it up. Most offensive Pokémon are best used by focussing solely on either physical or special attacks; likewise, you’ll get the most mileage out of many defensive Pokémon by focussing solely on one type of defence. You can use Infernape and Blaziken this way, and they will perform wonderfully. However, they also perform wonderfully as mixed attackers, called ‘wallbreakers’ for their ability to consistently pick on the weaker defensive sides of powerful defensive Pokémon like Weezing and Snorlax. Now, yes, Blaziken’s attack and special attack stats are higher than Infernape’s. However, we’re talking here about two Pokémon whose job is to use some of the most powerful attacks in the game (Fire Blast, Flare Blitz, Earthquake, Close Combat, Focus Blast, Hi Jump Kick) to hammer Pokémon who are specialised in the wrong kind of defence. At this point, extra power isn’t all that big a deal. Speed, on the other hand, is the only all-or-nothing stat in Pokémon – you’re either faster than your opponent or you aren’t – and as such, a few points of speed can be disproportionately useful or useless depending on exactly how fast you are. In this case, extra speed means outrunning some of the most powerful Pokémon in the game and potentially landing a fatal hit where you might otherwise wind up sprawled on the ground. With access to both Swords Dance and Nasty Plot, Infernape can buff either of his offensive stats to ridiculous levels anyway, should you so desire. To add insult to injury, Infernape gets U-Turn, which Blaziken lacks, the so-called ‘best move in the game,’ for its ability to switch a Pokémon out after seeing whether your opponent will do the same, and if so, what’s being switched in (the fact that it does damage as well is the icing on the cake). It’s hard to think of a reason to use Blaziken over Infernape… or at least, it was in Diamond and Pearl, before part two of that balance clusterfuck happened and Blaziken got Speed Boost, and you can read all about that in her entry.
So, assuming no Speed Boost for Blaziken (and Dream World abilities for starter Pokémon aren’t exactly easy to get; all of the released Dream World starters are male, which makes breeding them impossible) Infernape is, essentially, ‘Blaziken, only better.’ Swampert had a similar thing going on with Feraligatr, but Feraligatr later staked out his own territory, and the fact that Blaziken and Infernape share the same specific type combination, Fire/Fighting, accentuates our natural impulse to compare the two. If Infernape existed in a vacuum, so to speak, I would regard this as a job well done. He’s one of those Pokémon that can swing matches very quickly, but he’s also quite delicate and has a couple of nasty common weaknesses, so I don’t think I’d say he’s too strong, taken in isolation. Infernape doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though. I don’t think the designers necessarily realised that Infernape is better (or, more adequately, has more potential) than Blaziken, since it’s pretty clear they don’t think about individual Pokémon in the same way or under the same conditions as studied competitive players, but it must surely have occurred to them that the two Pokémon have very similar sets of powers, and that their position as successive Fire starters would encourage comparison. My default stance is that it’s bad form to design one Pokémon that usurps another, whether successfully or not, and while Infernape and Blaziken definitely have very distinct flavour they have the same type combination, the same strong points, and similar tactics. If this were my last year’s Unova Pokédex series, when I was dealing with a whole new generation, I would either shout incoherently for a while and slam a big heavy “I hereby deny this Pokémon’s right to exist” on Infernape’s head, or sheepishly admit that the second attempt really was better and maybe recommend some additions to the older Pokémon. The trouble is Game Freak already did try improving Blaziken, bless their little hearts, and totally failed to comprehend the enormity of what they were giving her, so now I have no idea where to go with this; I have a fairly solid doctrine in place for complaining about new mistakes, but I’m still not totally sorted on how to handle old ones.
Infernape is an awesome Pokémon; I love his aesthetic qualities, his concept, while not as clever as Torterra’s, is still at the very least amusing, and he’s one of the best non-legendary Pokémon in the game. And… frankly, Game Freak shouldn’t have made him. I guess I’m feeling paradoxical today. I think that, for Blaziken’s sake, this design should have been worked into something quite different. For a primate design, I would be very tempted to work with fire as a symbol of creativity and inspiration, particularly focussing on Infernape’s crown of fire, and make him a Fire/Psychic-type, focusing on special attacks, although that doesn’t work with the whole ‘monkey kung fu’ thing, and would imply a total art redesign, so a more practical suggestion would be to go with the old monkey-as-trickster archetype and turn Infernape into something more like what Mienshao later became – a hard-hitting Pokémon whose greatest strength isn’t actually hitting hard, but spreading disruption and chaos. Basically, since the flavour side of things is where Infernape really is quite different from Blaziken, I’d want to work with that to create mechanical distinctions as well. In the end the resulting Pokémon probably wouldn’t be as powerful… whether that’s a bad thing or not, I leave up to you.
Our next starter is a chicken? Really, Game Freak? A chicken?
It’s… well, not as odd as it sounds. A good friend of mine grew up on a farm and had a number of pet chickens over the course of her childhood. Not only are they actually quite good pets, each with distinct personalities as interesting as any dog or cat’s, the brighter ones can be taught tricks (my friend won prizes at her primary school for doing just that). Chickens may not have the same kind of awesomeness potential as more conventional pet animals, but they’re really quite underrated. So, there you have it. Setting off from home accompanied only by a firebreathing chicken is… admittedly still not a very good idea, but not a markedly worse idea than leaving with a magic frog or a perfectly ordinary baby crocodile. Torchic basically has generic Fire Pokémon characteristics, other than a note that she doesn’t like darkness and, to my knowledge, this really is a noticeable trait of real chickens; they have poor night vision, so they don’t like to move around when it’s dark. That seems a little odd for a Fire Pokémon (especially one whose name is derived from “torch”), since Torchic can presumably just produce flames to light up a dark area, but I guess I’ll go with it. She becomes more interesting when she evolves into Combusken, and then Blaziken: battle-chickens that pummel their foes with flaming punches and kicks, and can clear huge obstacles with their powerful legs. This fits well enough; after all, how do flightless birds defend themselves? They kick you, and some of the bigger ones, like cassowaries, can and do kill people this way; Blaziken wouldn’t be much bigger than a cassowary. Their take on Fire abilities – why just kick things when you can kick things with fire? – is not especially brilliant but it’s also not really something any Fire Pokémon had ever done before (except for Magmar, to a limited extent) so it’s a good variation on the traits of the element. In short, six foot tall flaming chicken that explosion-kicks you to death: sort of offbeat but in a good way I guess?
What’s more worrying is the fact that when these Pokémon were designed someone almost certainly had the unsavoury sport of cockfighting in mind – the practice of training chickens, specially bred to have aggressive temperaments, to attack each other with vicious metal spurs tied to their legs. Given that, when people are making moralistic complaints about the Pokémon franchise, the accusation that it glorifies blood sports (and, in particular, sports that pit animals against each other in a ring or arena) is something of a chart-topper, the decision to make a literal cockfighter Pokémon seems not so much ill-advised as potentially suicidal. Considering the drama that once surrounded Jynx, leading to her disappearance from the anime and subsequent recolouring with purple skin, it’s sort of bizarre that no-one seems to have picked up on this. I don’t know; maybe animal cruelty just isn’t as touchy a subject as racism in the US? Anyway… like any fan, I’m sceptical of the idea that Pokémon as a whole promotes blood sports; the franchise’s internal ethical framework is a lot more complex than that, but even I have to wonder about the message that a fighting chicken Pokémon sends. It’s not even that it’s inherently a bad idea, because you could totally write flavour text or even whole episode plots for Combusken and Blaziken that tackle this thing head-on, and it would be really interesting to see how that turned out. Just casually tossing it out there, though? That, I have to question. People aren’t wrong to be concerned about a game that, on the face of it, is all about forcing wild animals to beat each other’s brains out. Pokémon isn’t supposed to be about violence or animal abuse; it’s supposed to be about partnership and discovery, but that isn’t necessarily obvious until you get into it, especially if you’re initially exposed to the games rather than to some other medium – so why design a Pokémon that draws attention to real-world instances of the former unless you’re deliberately trying to create a contrast that promotes the latter?
This is starting to make my head hurt. Let’s talk about something less complicated.
Blaziken is the first of three Fire/Fighting starter Pokémon; she did it before it was cool. Infernape and Emboar would subsequently come in and steal her schtick, but until then, she was a totally unique and quite dangerous mixed attacker. Blaziken’s not really fast, and she’s not really tough but, boy, can she hit hard. With Sky Uppercut, Earthquake, Rock Slide, and a downright terrifying physical attack stat, Blaziken could throw punches no-one wanted to be on the receiving end of. However, she also came with an excellent special attack stat to back up her Fire techniques, so just having massive physical defence wouldn’t necessarily keep you safe from her (in particular Skarmory, one of the most reliable ways of saying “no” to physical attackers at the time, is helpless against Blaziken’s Fire Blast). Fire, Rock, Ground and Fighting are four of the strongest offensive types in the game, and Blaziken knew how to use all of them. Things just kept getting better when Fire Red and Leaf Green gave her access to Swords Dance, and she got Thunderpunch on Emerald just to keep the Water-types guessing. She was still a little sluggish, of course, but it took a pretty big, mean Pokémon to absorb one of her attacks. Then came Diamond and Pearl. Diamond and Pearl gave Blaziken some cool new stuff – physical Fire attacks like Flare Blitz, Focus Blast in case she wanted a special Fighting attack, Brave Bird since her offensive movepool clearly wasn’t big enough already, Stone Edge if Rock Slide just wasn’t powerful enough, Agility if she didn’t feel like being slow anymore, and even Baton Pass if for some reason she felt someone else would make better use of her boosts than she could. Unfortunately Diamond and Pearl also made Blaziken largely obsolete, since they introduced Infernape. Infernape will get an entry of his own soon enough, so for now we’ll just say that he’s much faster than Blaziken, and doesn’t care that he’s even more fragile and not quite as strong because Fire Blast, Flare Blitz, Focus Blast and Close Combat (the last of which Blaziken doesn’t get) are so powerful that, realistically, if Infernape isn’t one-shotting his targets before going down in a blaze of glory he’s doing it wrong. Infernape could also learn Nasty Plot, the special equivalent to Swords Dance. Basically, he did Blaziken’s job, only better.
…so Blaziken retreated to the Dream World to plot her revenge…
Dream World Blaziken is an unholy terror who can rip entire teams to shreds singlehandedly if you’re not prepared with a sure-fire way to kill her immediately. She really only has two qualities of any importance that she didn’t in the previous generation. One is Hi Jump Kick, which gives her a much stronger replacement for Sky Uppercut to stand opposite Infernape’s Close Combat. The other is her Dream World ability, Speed Boost. A Pokémon with Speed Boost gets faster every turn (note that you can use Protect to get what amounts to a free turn in most cases). Speed, realistically, was the only thing that ever truly held Blaziken back – and, unlike Agility, she gets it for free; she doesn’t have to spend a turn using it. If you’re particularly skilful and/or lucky, you might even be able to do without spending a moveslot on Protect. You can stop her; Jellicent and Slowbro are probably decent bets, Gyarados, Salamence or Dragonite could take a fair crack at it if she doesn’t have a Rock attack, and anything with a strong Aqua Jet should do the trick if she isn’t on a sun team (which, let’s face it, she probably is), but under sunlight it’s very difficult to do anything about her. Smogon University declared Blaziken ‘uber’ (unsuitable for standard rules of engagement) as a result of this lunacy, and it’s rather difficult to argue with them on this one. If you’re lucky enough to have a Dream World Blaziken, it’s probably best to refrain from using it unless your opponent has agreed to an ‘anything goes’ match, simply as a matter of courtesy.
Things were going so well with Blaziken. Not a bizarre design, but an odd one; powerful, but not obscene, with a unique combat style. Then along came Infernape to steal her schtick, and the developers went and overcompensated… Speed Boost is one of those abilities that you absolutely do not hand out on a whim, Game Freak! I mean, yes, now she has something Infernape can’t take from her; on the other hand she is now, effectively, a faster, stronger and tougher version of Infernape, who is a pretty damn top-notch Pokémon himself! I… just… I…
…please excuse me; I have to go and shoot myself in the head.