Last one!  Let’s do this!  Booyeah!  Volcanion!


I’ve wanted to see a Water/Fire Pokémon for a long time (and indeed my readers were kind enough to give me one early last year), mostly because I’m interested in the relationship between the two elements.  They’re often considered opposites, and Water is Fire’s greatest and best-known weakness, but the combination of the two produces something that’s incredibly powerful in its own way – steam, which drove many of the machines of the industrial revolution and is still an important component of multiple ways of generating electricity today.  The fact that we even deal with steam on a regular basis is pretty amazing in itself, because there’s actually no other compound besides water that naturally exists on Earth as a solid (ice), a liquid, and a gas, which is one of the many things that make water a bizarre and incredible compound.  Volcanion commands this stuff, the most dynamic and potentially destructive form of the substance all life on Earth depends on – not a bad gig for a legendary Pokémon, if you ask me.

Continue reading “Volcanion”

Fennekin, Braixen and Delphox

Official art of Fennekin by Ken Sugmori (praise be to Nintendo, etc).Probably one of the most popular commonplaces of fan-made Pokémon design for years and years has been the Pokémon with pyrokinetic abilities – the use of psychic power to manipulate heat and fire – and it looks like we’ve finally got one.  I’ll be honest, though: when I first saw Fennekin I was not optimistic.  A fiery fox Pokémon with a mystical streak?  That… sounds awfully familiar.  When all’s said and done, Vulpix and Ninetales are a lot more straightforward as far as their physical design goes; aside from the split tail thing they are basically foxes, and what’s interesting about them is mostly in their mystical powers and their obsession with vengeance.  Fennekin develops into something a bit more complicated with more of a mixture of influences going on, eventually ending up looking more like Lucario or Zoroark than anything else (Japanese sure do like their magic foxes).  That’s something we should probably talk about first, actually; let’s talk about the anthro-fox thing.

I know there are people who don’t like Lucario or Zoroark, or presumably Delphox either, because the anthropomorphism offends their sensibilities on some level, which is something I don’t quite ‘get,’ personally (now, whether we really need quite so many fox-like Pokémon is another matter entirely, but I spend enough time bitching about that kind of thing already).  The concept of anthropomorphic animals is literally as old as civilisation, even if depicting them physically as human/animal hybrids isn’t quite so universal, and I think everyone recognises the apparent callbacks from Lucario to Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god of burial and funerary rites.  It’s not just some weird fetish thing of the last couple of decades, it’s actually kind of a millennia-old universal mythic archetype that resonates with people of radically different cultural backgrounds all over the planet.  Just to prove my point, I would like to note that, in fact, if you Google the phrase “anthropomorphic fox,” the first result is the Wikipedia page for a mediaeval French trickster-hero named Raynard or Renart (so an anthropomorphic fox actually makes a great deal of sense in a region based on France), whose principal rival is an anthropomorphic wolf named Isengrim.  It’s really quite amazing how much I learn from writing this bull$#!t.  The trope also makes a lot of sense in the context of some of Pokémon’s core themes, like the desire for balance between civilisation and nature – anthropomorphic animals straddle the line and can symbolically act as intermediaries or go-betweens in much the same way as Pokémon trainers can from the other direction.  Foxes in Japanese folklore are regularly depicted as shapeshifters as well, and are often quite fond of assuming human form for a variety of whimsical purposes, so it makes a great deal of sense that we should see fox-like Pokémon in particular filling this role (even if, again, I might wish for more variety in that respect, as elsewhere…).  Basically what I’m saying is that any complaint that anthropomorphic foxes are just inherently a dumb idea will be met with several heavy and fast-moving books.  Moving on.


My favourite thing about Delphox is probably her name, which evokes ancient Delphi in Greece, a place closely associated with oracular foresight – and, lo and behold, Delphox can see the future by staring into the flames at the tip of her wand, and also learns Future Sight (though of course among Psychic Pokémon this is far from an unusual attack; it’s much more interesting with respect to flavour when it appears on a Pokémon of a different element).  Maybe it’s just me, but I also can’t help but see one of the ancient Greek words for fire, phlox, in there.  In contrast to Ninetales, who is a very faithful rendition of, essentially, a purely Japanese kitsune spirit, Fennekin and her evolutions seem very keen to bring western ideas into the design – which, again, makes sense both in the context of Kalos as a French-inspired region and of Pokémon’s growing interest in portraying itself as an international entity.  Braixen in particular, and Delphox as well to an extent, have a very strong east-meets-west thing going, combining the mystic foxes of Japanese folklore with the witches of European fairytale, whose signature broomstick is clearly visible in the shape of Braixen’s tail.  Delphox, likewise, directs her fire powers through a wand which also acts as a focus for her psychic abilities.  It’s a shame Braixen can’t use her ‘broomstick’ to fly, but then again, neither making her a Flying-type nor sticking Levitate on her would have been all that practical.  Potion-making abilities or herbal lore might have been nice too, but similarly difficult to reconcile with the Fire/Psychic typing, requiring a mixture of Grass- and Poison-type powers.

I cannot get over this line’s majestic ear hair.  I didn’t notice it at first because it just looks like they have big red ears at a glance, but when you actually look at them, it’s clear that those are huge bushy tufts of hair or fur sprouting from inside their ears, apparently meant to mimic the appearance of bursts of flame.  It confuses me so much because, although a fennec fox’s large heat-dissipating ears are one of its most noticeable traits and are referenced in the fact that Fennekin emits blasts of heat from her ears to frighten attackers, their ear hair, while admittedly impressive if you look at it with that in mind, is not really anything special.  In humans ear hair denotes age, so I guess you could say that it’s meant to be a sign of wisdom, but it’s usually in men that we think about prominent ear hair, and Delphox seems to very aiming at a feminine design.  Also, ear hair tends to be grouped with the less desirable traits of old age, like senility.  Maybe in Japan impressive ear hair is considered a good thing…?  Where does one go on the internet for information about the symbolic associations of ear hair in different cultures, anyway?  How has my life even gotten to the point where this is a question I am legitimately interested in knowing the answer to?

…yeah, I’m just going to talk about Delphox’s battle capabilities now.


Delphox has an unusual type combination, shared only by Victini and Zen Darmanitan (who, of course, doesn’t count): Fire/Psychic, which comes with quite a lot of resistances but also some very nasty weaknesses, particularly Rock, Ground and Dark.  Offensively it’s a viable combination but not a brilliant one; Fire and Psychic share no weaknesses, but don’t cover each other’s weaknesses particularly well either.  Overall, it’s sort of a mixed bag as far as type combinations go, and the rest of Delphox’s traits follow suit.  The odd thing about this Pokémon is that her stats suggest a special sweeper – very good speed and special defence with excellent special attack, and poor physical stats – while her movepool and hidden ability are very much those of a supporter.  Aside from her core attacks – Flamethrower or Fire Blast, Psyshock or Psychic – Delphox really only has Grass Knot and Shadow Ball for coverage.  Grass attacks go great with Fire, but Grass Knot’s dependence on the target’s weight makes it a bit of a tricky move (the types that are weak against Grass – Ground, Rock and Water – do tend to have disproportionately heavy Pokémon, though, so it can work pretty well as a secondary attack).  Ghost attacks are also moving up in the world now that Steel-types no longer resist them, leaving excellent neutral coverage, but that’s not really a huge priority for Delphox, who already has a pretty solid offensive type behind her.  Calm Mind is difficult for a Pokémon whose physical defences are as weak as Delphox’s, although she’s pretty frightening with a special attack boost behind her.  Her support movepool has some great stuff: Light Screen, Will’o’Wisp, Switcheroo, Hypnosis, hell, if you’re good at reading your opponents she can even muck around with Magic Coat (although, if you really want to reflect status effects back at their users, just using a Pokémon with the Magic Bounce ability is a lot easier, albeit predictable).  Switcheroo could make for a neat Choice Specs set.  It’s worked for other Pokémon in the past and Delphox certainly has the stats for it; act as a traditional special attacker with a nasty Choice Specs power boost until you see a support-oriented Pokémon who won’t deal well with being locked into a single attack, then swap items with Switcheroo and hopefully cripple them.  The other moves are just universally useful, although it’s not exactly easy to see why you’d pick a relatively frail Pokémon like Delphox to use them.

Like Chesnaught and Greninja, Delphox enjoys access to a signature move, Mystical Fire.  This attack looks decidedly underwhelming at first glance since it’s simply much less powerful than the traditional ‘gold standard’ moves like Thunderbolt and Earthquake.  What’s interesting about it, though, is that on top of its damage Mystical Fire also reduces its target’s special attack, which is a surprisingly rare effect; only a handful of moves can do that, and many of them will not do so consistently (Moonblast only does so 20% of the time, Captivate only works on Pokémon of the opposite gender, and so on).  Considering that Delphox can also partially neutralise most physical attackers with Will’o’Wisp, the ability to reliably dampen special attackers as well is pretty cool.  In a similar vein, her hidden ability, Magician, is almost unique, shared only by the mischievous Klefki (who really has better things to do, since his other ability is Prankster, the greatest blessing any support Pokémon has ever received).  Magician basically adds the effect of Thief to all of Delphox’s direct attacks for free – if she’s not already holding an item, she’ll steal whatever her target is holding.  A lot of Pokémon rely quite heavily on their items, and being able to nab these reliably without taking up a moveslot is pretty cool, especially if you happen to gank something Delphox can actually use herself.  Combine this with a consumable item like an Air Balloon or a Fire Gem (once Fire Gems actually exist in X and Y) and you could seriously mess with even Pokémon who don’t think Delphox can harm them.  All in all, it’s probably best to think of Delphox as a special attacker whose greatest strength is actually not her special attacks, but her capacity to screw with people.  Make sure to pack at least one nasty little spell, and spring it when your opponent is least expecting it.

Delphox might actually be my favourite Fire starter so far – and only partially because we have finally broken the curse of Fire/Fighting.  She balances power and cunning in a way that’s quite rare in a Fire-type, and just being able to shrug off her attacks doesn’t necessarily mean she can’t leave your head spinning.  Like mythological foxes the world over, she’s clever and possesses mystical insight into the world of spirits and magic, embracing the magical quality of fire like few of her predecessors ever have.  You know, I think I’m good with that.

Litleo and Pyroar

Official art of Litleo by Ken Sugimori.

We should probably talk about these ones next.  I didn’t use Litleo for very long, because my Fletchling unexpectedly evolved into a Fire-type and I didn’t want two of them.  Still, I had one on my party for a little while, and I feel like I got to know her, so it makes sense.  So, these Pokémon are lions.  I am notoriously ill-disposed to Pokémon that are just animals, because I want more.  Granted, of course, these are lions that breathe fire, but hey, Beartic is a polar bear that shoots icicles and just look how well I got along with him.  That was three years ago, though; I’m being nice now.  Well… okay, ‘nice’ is a bit much.  I’m being marginally less irritable now.  Let’s give these two a shot and see what I can make of them.

So let’s start with the obvious: gender differences.  Pyroar is one of only two Pokémon in X and Y with major sexual dimorphism, the other being Meowstic.  In Pyroar’s case, it obviously mimics one of the most famous and recognisable examples of sexual dimorphism in the real world: lions have manes, lionesses don’t (although female Pyroar get that long flowing crest so that they don’t seem too boring).  Sort of an predictable choice for a lion Pokémon, but major gender differences are something that Pokémon underexploits, so I’m hardly going to complain about seeing more of it.  The way the pattern of red-and-yellow stripes on a male Pyroar’s mane recalls the distinctive shape of a Fire Blast attack – the Japanese symbol for “large” or “great” – is also a nice touch.  The divergences between male and female Pyroar also come through in their behaviour, which is nice – you can compare Nidoking and Nidoqueen, or contrast Jellicent and Unfezant, who draw attention to gender but don’t make much of it.  Male Pyroar, specifically the male with the most impressive mane, are said to be the leaders of their prides, which obviously draws on the male leadership of real leonine social structure.  It’s also worth noting that only ¼ of all Pyroar are male, reflecting the composition of real prides, which will generally include only 1-2 males and perhaps 5-6 females.  Interestingly the Pokédex chooses to emphasise the females’ role in raising cubs, when in fact real lionesses are generally responsible for hunting (something for which the stronger but slower males are less suited) and tend to leave the males to protect the cubs in their absence; otherwise the males and females are equally involved.  I suspect the reversal comes from the fact that the activity of raising children tends to be gendered ‘female’ in most human societies, while hunting is more likely to be gendered ‘male,’ and the designers attributed a standard feminine activity to female Pyroar without thinking about what lions actually do.  It’s a little disappointing that Pyroar should be made to conform to human gender stereotypes in this way when there exists such an obvious reason for them not to (I always thought the role of lionesses in literally bringing home the bacon was fairly well-known, but perhaps not…).

 A lion and a lioness.

Litleo and Pyroar don’t subdue prey with claws, teeth, and brute strength like real world lions – why bother with any of that when you can breath fire?  Probably because of the sunburst shape of the males’ manes, there’s a long-standing association between lions and solar imagery going back to the Near Eastern Bronze Age, which male Pyroar are happy to accentuate.  That does make Fire something of an obvious choice, granted, but not as obvious as Ice on a polar bear.  I sort of wish they had played up the solar idea a bit, maybe with a sun-related ability (goodness knows none of Pyroar’s current abilities would be missed).  Another critical aspect of what these Pokémon are about is also drawn from real lions – their roar.  Lions roar; aside from the males’ glorious manes, their fearsome roar is probably the most iconic thing about them (for fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, think of the crest and motto of House Lannister: respectively, a golden lion and the phrase “Hear Me Roar”), and Litleo and Pyroar have two skills related to that: the relatively rare Hyper Voice attack, and their signature move, Noble Roar.  This, I think, is the reason they’re Normal dual-types and not straight Fire, which would otherwise make just as much sense; they rely as much on their explosive vocal range as on their fire, and sonic abilities remain among the ‘miscellaneous’ powers still associated with the Normal type (compare Jigglypuff, who became Fairy/Normal in X and Y while Clefairy is now pure Fairy).

The other interesting thing about Pyroar is that the male seems almost made to be Lysandre’s signature Pokémon (and Lysandre is, to my recollection, the only NPC in the game who uses a male one): the bright red mane is reminiscent of Lysandre’s extravagant hairdo, the species designation “the Royal Pokémon” matches Lysandre’s royal Kalosian heritage, lions are a common symbol in Mediaeval heraldry, perhaps furthering the ‘royal’ associations, and they are traditionally associated with pride (to the point that the word even became the collective noun for a group of them), which is probably Lysandre’s most significant flaw – the pride that led him to believe he had the right, indeed the duty, to decide who would live and who would die all around the world.  Even the fire abilities recall the name of Lysandre’s organisation, and Lysandre himself is regularly described metaphorically as ‘burning’ with passion.  This wouldn’t be the first time a human character has taken certain cues from a Pokémon – Wake’s lucha mask is modeled on a Swampert (though he doesn’t actually have a Swampert, in any of his incarnations), Chilli, Cilan and Cress match the distinctive hairstyles of Simisear, Simisage and Simipour, Alder’s hair seems to be styled after Volcarona, and I believe Gardevoir inspired Diantha’s dress.  The intended implication may be that Pyroar was Lysandre’s first Pokémon (Gyarados is now his strongest, but seriously what kind of troll Professor starts a kid off with a Magikarp?) and the one with whom he has the deepest relationship.  Can you push that even further?  Maybe – Pyroar’s ‘royal’ designation might come from being a traditional starter Pokémon given to children of the Kalosian monarchy, and even today given to their descendants. 

 Male Pyroar, with his distinctive mane.

Pyroar seems intended to serve as a special sweeper.  Although her defences are poor and her physical attacks not worth the effort, she’s very fast, and her special attacks pack quite a punch.  Defensively, Normal/Fire is a mixed bag – six resistances (including Fire, Ice and Fairy) and a Ghost immunity (something which is shaping up to be quite valuable in this generation) are nothing to sniff at, but Pyroar’s four weaknesses are all to powerful and common offensive types: Ground, Rock, Fighting and Water.  Offensively, though, Fire Blast and Hyper Voice are a pretty solid combination, even if they leave her in a bit of trouble against most Rock-types.  The neat thing about Hyper Voice is that sound-based attacks have been improved in X and Y and can now bypass Substitute, which makes Pyroar very dangerous to certain Pokémon who rely on Substitutes to stall for time.  Beyond that, options are sadly limited – there’s Dark Pulse on the side, and if you’re planning a sun team, Solarbeam is an option, though bear in mind that weather in general is substantially weaker now that the effects of Drought et al. have limited durations.  The usual package of alternate Fire moves is available – Flamethrower for greater reliability and Overheat for single-shot power.  Other than that, you’re probably looking at either Hidden Power or a support move for the final slot.  Hidden Power is easier to use now, since its power rating is always 60 rather than randomly determined for each individual.  A Grass-type Hidden Power is probably the best complement to Pyroar’s main attacks, if you can get it, but a move with 60 power is not exactly a brilliant deal.  The signature move, Noble Roar, seems like more of a flavour thing than something that would be especially useful in battle – it reduces the target’s attack and special attack, which is irritating, but can be shaken off by switching out and won’t protect Pyroar from critical hits.  The nice thing about Noble Roar is that it’s good for catching Pokémon as they switch in, since it doesn’t matter whether the target favours special or physical attacks.  Still, it might be better suited to a somewhat tougher Pokémon.  Burning incoming opponents with Will’o’Wisp is probably a better option if you’re looking to give Pyroar stronger defensive capabilities.  Yawn could also be interesting; most people will switch out after being hit by Yawn rather than let a Pokémon fall asleep the next turn, so that could be good for keeping Pyroar’s most dangerous opponents off her back.  Finally, she’s fast enough to make good use of Taunt, and can more effectively break defensive Pokémon that way by denying them access to their support moves.

 Female Pyroar, with her impressive crest.

None of Pyroar’s abilities are much use, sadly.  Rivalry gives a damage bonus against Pokémon of the same gender, but a corresponding penalty against Pokémon of the opposite gender – certainly flavour-appropriate for a Pokémon with strong gender differentiation, but too unpredictable to plan strategies around, since there’s no way to know the gender of Pokémon you’ll be facing ahead of time.  Moxie is an attack boost every time you knock out an opponent – great, except Pyroar doesn’t use physical attacks.  If for some reason you do want to focus on Pyroar’s physical side, well, get used to disappointment, because her strongest physical Fire-type attack is Fire Fang, and her coverage options basically extend to Crunch and Wild Charge.  Flame Charge lets you do damage while increasing your speed, and is generally a good secondary attack, but speed isn’t really high on Pyroar’s list of concerns anyway.  Her final ability, Unnerve, prevents opponents from eating berries.  Whoop-dee-f*cking-doo.  In short, Normal/Fire is actually pretty solid and Pyroar certainly has the stats to back it up, but she’s just not a versatile Pokémon, and her lack of relevant, useful abilities makes it difficult for her to sparkle.

I think overall I lean a little on the ‘meh’ side with Pyroar.  On reflection I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with her; as far as the whole ‘being a lion’ thing goes, she does a solid job, and the focus on her roar as a weapon makes sense with the design while giving her a pretty good combination of primary attacks.  I come away from this one feeling like there’s room for more, though.  Playing up the royalty aspect somehow might have been more interesting, and Pyroar would be an excellent Pokémon to give a sun motif and solar abilities, which would also make a good combination with a royal theme, particularly in Kalos (given the presence in the background of Louis XIV, the ‘sun king,’ as a historical model for the Kalosian monarchy and the Parfum Palace).  Drawing on the heraldic associations of lions, maybe going for a more stylised look, might be a good way of doing that.  I like Pyroar well enough, particularly the female form which makes an effort to match the male form in overall majesty while still creating a very different impression of her nature, but I feel just a little underwhelmed.

Fletchling, Fletchinder and Talonflame

Official art of Fletchling by Ken Sugimori.

I didn’t do the Unova Pokédex in order, and I’m not going to do Kalos in order either (more for variety than anything else).  I’m planning to start with Central Kalos, then the Coastal Pokémon, and then the Mountain areas, but beyond that, I’m just going to play it by ear – starting today with the second Kalosian Pokémon to join my main party, Fletchling.  For obvious reasons, Fletchling didn’t exactly move me to excitement when I first met him: “oh, here we go again; another Normal/Flying fast physical songbird-to-raptor progression with wind powers and no other remarkable traits to eat the local obligatory caterpillar.”  One of the things I was particularly interested in decrying with my Unova reviews – something I’m still very easily annoyed by – is ‘template’ Pokémon, Pokémon who start not with an actual idea but with a principle that every game ‘should’ have a sequel to Pidgey, or Caterpie, or Pikachu.  It’s lazy, it’s boring, and most of all, it doesn’t actually provide any benefit.  There is nothing about these templates that makes the game better, except maybe that they provide an easy introduction to the concept that some Pokémon are just bad.  Part of the reason I’ve always been so irascible about these things is that, although all generations have them, Unova was particularly obnoxious about it, needing stand-ins for things like Geodude and Machop in addition to the usual suspects, which made the absence of any older Pokémon feel like nothing so much as an irritating charade.  Kalos is something else.  Kalos has the templates, but it tries much harder than previous generations to play with them.  On principle, we ‘needed’ a Normal/Flying songbird Pokémon for the early game – so Kalos decided to make one that was as badass as possible.

It’s a simple idea, really.  Take the standard songbird-to-raptor pattern, and set it on fire.  What could possibly go wrong?


The question here is, how far does a different type go?  Fletchling, Fletchinder and Talonflame still share a lot of traits with Pidgeot et al. – does the fact that they also have fire powers make that okay?  And what does that say about how we look at elements in Pokémon?  Most Pokémon have supernatural powers of one sort or another, and as I’ve recently discussed, it is to an extent the powers that make the Pokémon, but if the essence of Pokémon design is just giving elemental traits to an animal, the Normal-types who mostly lack such traits are damned from the start.  Part of designing these things is matching up the powers to the creature in a clever way.  Birds with wind powers are very straightforward as Pokémon go, since wind and flight ‘go together’ intuitively, while birds with fire powers are a little more interesting, and Talonflame doesn’t just take the obvious phoenix angle, which Moltres and Ho-oh have already done to death anyway.  On the other hand, what makes attaching fire-related abilities to a falcon particularly insightful?  The most interesting Fire Pokémon aren’t just “this animal, but on fire;” they’re ones that play with the idea of fire, either by combining it with another element (like Magcargo, whose body of lava hardens into a stone shell, or Chandelure, whose ghostly lights lead wanderers into another world), or by focusing on an unusual aspect of fire (like Torkoal, who mines and burns coal for energy).  If I like Fletchling and his evolutions, then I’m going to have to dig a little deeper than “new type” – I need to find the flourishes.  Let’s have a look at them.

 The hoopoe, the bird Fletchinder reminds me of (it helps that I named my Fletchling, Tereus, after a mythical Greek king who gets turned into a hoopoe).

Fletchling, obviously enough, is a robin, while Talonflame has made the transition to peregrine falcon, while keeping the distinctive red colouring of his juvenile form that also evokes his fire powers.  There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on exactly what Fletchinder is, but he reminds me very much of the hoopoe, a medium-sized bird common throughout most of Eurasia who shares the red colouring of his head, as well as the striking black-and-white striped pattern of Fletchinder’s tail.  The hoopoe is also a larger and more powerful bird than a robin, but not a major predator like a falcon, so he’d be a sensible intermediate.  All three stages incorporate arrows into the design as well, in the form of the distinctive shape and stripes of their tails, like the fletching of an arrow – perhaps making their beaks serve metaphorically as the arrowheads.  The swept-back posture of Talonflame’s wings in the official art might even be meant to recall the shape of a bow, with an ‘arrow’ nocked and ready to fire, formed by the line from his beak to his tail… but maybe that’s getting a little far-fetched.  The famed 310 kilometer per hour dive of the peregrine falcon (which Talonflame insistently one-ups, at 310 miles per hour) is reminiscent of a falling arrow too, particularly in its effects on the health of whatever stands at its destination.  As generic bird Pokémon go, this is already quite a good one, without even mentioning the fact that it’s on fire.  What’s more, Fletchinder and Talonflame’s fire powers do relate in some ways to the rest of their design, adding a little depth to them.  Fletchinder supposedly flies faster the hotter his fire burns, for instance (linking the Fire and Flying elements, the way I talked about with Chesnaught), which makes a good tie-in to the presence of Flame Charge on his level-up set.  The assumption of fire abilities as the Pokémon ages could also be linked to his taking on a more predatory ecological niche as he becomes more powerful, and indeed Fletchinder hunts by starting fires to drive his prey out of hiding.  Flaming arrows, of course, were also a staple of a wide variety of ancient and Mediaeval armies, so giving fire to a Pokémon whose name and appearance are intended to evoke arrows makes good sense.  I actually would have liked to see a greater focus on the arrow motif, which is neglected in the English and French translations of Talonflame’s name, because that’s one of the cleverest things in terms of tying the whole design together.  In balance, though, I think it works.  Talonflame is far from a masterful Pokémon, but I can certainly appreciate the effort to do something unexpected with a highly standardised form, in a manner which integrates the new and different features with the common traits of the traditional early-game Flying-type.


Another common thread with Pokémon from the Pidgeot mould is that they are not normally very powerful.  Staraptor excepted, none of Talonflame’s predecessors have ever been important Pokémon for the competitive scene, though Swellow is a persistent dark horse.  The difficult thing about Talonflame, of course, is the double-weakness to Rock associated with his otherwise strong Fire/Flying type combination, because Stealth Rock is showing every sign of continuing to be a thing.  Like all Pokémon with this trait, Talonflame needs diligent Rapid Spin support to keep him from dying painfully, and also needs something pretty special to make him worth that support.  Good news: he’s got an amazing hidden ability.  I don’t want to knock Flame Body, because the combination of Flame Body and Fly makes Talonflame one of the best solo Pokémon to keep with you while hatching groups of eggs, like Volcarona on Black and White (Flame Body causes eggs in your party to gestate at twice their normal rate), but Gale Wings is where it’s at.  This ability gives all of Talonflame’s Flying-type attacks priority, which means, combined with his already excellent speed, that almost nothing will ever be able to outrun his devastating Brave Bird attack – he can beat higher base speed, he can beat Choice Scarves, he can beat Agility, and he doesn’t even care if you paralyse him (but he can’t beat Extremespeed, so watch out for that).  In flavour terms it’s an odd ability because Talonflame doesn’t really have wind powers (‘Gale Wings’ sounds like something Pidgeot should get), but it also happens to make him one of the game’s best revenge killers – Pokémon whose job is to take advantage of the free switch you get after losing a Pokémon to come in and destroy a powerful aggressor – as well as just a frightening thing to face in general.  Flare Blitz provides a secondary attack just as powerful which turns out to combine quite well with Brave Bird; stay away from Rock-types, Heatran, Lanturn, certain legendary Pokémon you shouldn’t be tangling with anyway, and toasters, and you’re golden (you can always take Steel Wing for the Rock-types, but the low power combined with Talonflame’s merely average attack score may disappoint).  Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Talonflame still enjoys the one really spectacular feature shared by most bird Pokémon: U-Turn, which has been called ‘the best move in the game’ for allowing a player to postpone a switch until after seeing whether the opponent will switch that turn, and even doing damage into the bargain.

 Pidgeot actually gained +10 base speed in X and Y.  Pretty sure it hasn't helped.  I'm holding out for Mega Pidgeot, though.

So, what’s the bad news?  Talonflame’s other stats are mediocre all around; his attacks lack punch by the standards of offensive Pokémon, and he’s not tough either.  However, these failings are not as significant for Talonflame as they are for most of his ancestors.  The ease with which Talonflame can outrun his foes using Gale Wings, for instance, means that he doesn’t actually need the maximum possible training investment in his speed, and can afford to spend more time shoring up his defences than most offensive Pokémon (focusing on HP will make Flare Blitz and Brave Bird recoil sting less too).  Furthermore, it’s worth bearing in mind that Roost enjoys Gale Wings priority too!  This bird can be much tougher than his mediocre defensive stats suggest.  He also has options to boost his own attack power – Bulk Up and Swords Dance – which Pokémon like Unfezant, Pidgeot and even Staraptor lacked.  Talonflame really has to work for his power, though; a Choice Band makes Roost infeasible, and Life Orb recoil takes too heavy a toll when combined with Brave Bird and Flare Blitz, so things like a Sharp Beak, Expert Belt or Muscle Band will often have to do, supplemented by Swords Dance and the naturally high power of Talonflame’s main attacks.  Remember that his attack stat is only average, and make sure you look for opportunities for him to switch in and scare something away for a free set-up turn.  Other options… well, Taunt could be neat, to make Talonflame into a total nightmare for defensive and set-up Pokémon, especially with Roost to back him up in a more drawn-out fight, and Will’o’Wisp is weird on such an aggressive attacker but between the attack penalty from a burn and a potential Bulk Up boost Talonflame would actually be pretty hard for a physical attacker to take down.  Talonflame’s special attack is actually not far off his attack, but sadly his special movepool sucks – it’s pretty much just Fire attacks plus Solarbeam and, critically, no special Flying attacks to spam with Gale Wings.  In short, don’t go there.  Finally, and bizarrely, Talonflame is said to prefer devastating kicks when striking finishing blows against its prey – bizarrely because Talonflame has no kicking attacks.  A line like that seems tailored specifically to justify the inclusion of Blaze Kick on Talonflame’s level-up list, but the move fails to make an appearance, an odd lack of nuance for an otherwise quite carefully put-together Pokémon. 

Talonflame’s effective movepool isn’t really very wide – basically everything he can do is variations on the theme of Gale Wings abuse – so finding something for your team that can take at least two of those Brave Birds and hit back is the key here.  He’s not a subtle Pokémon, which makes sense for a bird of prey based on a flaming arrow, but he knows what he does, and he does it well.  Talonflame makes me optimistic for the future.  I feel like Game Freak is trying to say “we’re sorry for all the $#!t birds.  We’ll make better ones in future, and we’ll even make them more than just birds!  See?”  Now, if only poor Pidgeot got Gale Wings, maybe he could feel slightly less miserable about himself…


Official art of Flareon, by Ken Sugimori; I hereby pledge allegiance to Nintendo, etc.Oh, Flareon… I am so, so sorry.

The sad thing about Flareon is that she’s so like Vaporeon and Jolteon in so many ways.  Her stats, of course, are just as good.  She has an analogous ability, Flash Fire (rather than converting Fire attacks to health, as Volt Absorb and Water Absorb do, it converts them into extra power for her own Fire attacks, but the practical strategic implications are similar).  She has many of the same supports moves, like Baton Pass and Wish.  Somehow, though, it all just completely fails to come together.

Well, no, not somehow.  I know exactly why, and it’s incredibly boneheaded.


Let’s back up a bit.  Way back in Red and Blue, when Flareon was first introduced, Fire-types got shafted pretty badly: there were no Steel-types around for them to bully, very few of them had any attacks types outside of Fire and Normal, and the importance of powerful Rock Pokémon like Golem and Rhydon ensured that most teams had a very simple, no-nonsense way of saying “no” to them.  I mention this so that, when I say that Flareon looks back on Red and Blue as her glory days, you will understand exactly how grim things have been for her since then.  Back then, most Fire Pokémon relied on a moveset something like [Flamethrower/Fire Blast – Body Slam – Hyper Beam – XXX], where XXX is whatever rubbishy little support move that Pokémon happens to favour (maybe Reflect or something in Flareon’s case), and Flareon was actually very good at this moveset, thanks to her obscene attack stat and excellent special stat.  She was worryingly slow, but packed more power than any other Fire Pokémon with the exception of Moltres, which was something of a niche.  Sure, it was a crappy niche that made her a sitting duck against Golem, Rhydon, Onix, Kabutops, Omastar, and goodness knows what else, but it was hers nonetheless.  Then Gold and Silver split special into special attack and special defence.  Vaporeon and Jolteon suffered hits to their special defence, which hurt Vaporeon, but not terribly.  Flareon took the loss to her special attack instead.  Her Fire attacks were still quite potent, but were no longer the force they had once been.  On the other hand, she expanded her physical movepool with the addition of Shadow Ball and Iron Tail.  You win some, you lose some.  Curse is also an option from here on out, if you want to try turning Flareon into a physical tank, but I’m not convinced she’s really tough enough for that.  After that… well, honestly, after that Game Freak seem to have forgotten about Flareon.  She was mediocre, and mediocre she stayed.  Like all Fire Pokémon, she enjoyed the introduction of Overheat in Ruby and Sapphire, but did so while sighing wistfully at the memory of her long-lost special stat.

 The thing to remember about Flareon, as this piece by Viskamiro (http://viskamiro.deviantart.com/) attests, is that she will explode at the slightest provocation.

Diamond and Pearl, by all rights, should have revitalised Flareon, as they did so many other Pokémon whose stats and movepools were so sadly mismatched.  With physical Fire attacks on the scene at last, Flareon should finally have regained much of her former power… but she didn’t.  While Rapidash, Charizard and Arcanine paraded around showing off their shiny new Flare Blitz attack, Flareon sat in the corner with Fire Fang, wondering what she had done to deserve this.  Platinum gave her Superpower, which helped, and Lava Plume, which just rubbed salt in the wound, but Game Freak have never yet seen fit to let Flareon have a physical Fire attack that doesn’t suck.  Arguably, it might not help even if they did – Flareon’s offensive movepool suffers from the same narrowness that characterises her brothers and sisters, but with her weaker special attack, she can’t even rely on Shadow Ball as Jolteon can.  Superpower is great, and Fire and Fighting go well together, but it can only do so much, it makes Flareon’s physical stats weaker after she uses it, and it’s really all she’s got.  Jolteon and Vaporeon work around their restrictive movepools by adopting support roles, but Flareon is too fragile for Wish and too slow for Baton Pass – she has the weaknesses of both, and the strengths of neither.  Her stats seem to mark her out for some sort of Machamp- or Ursaring-like all-offensive approach, but she has nothing to attack with.  I… guess you could use Flareon as a special tank, since she does still have excellent special defence and good special attack, but it’s not like she’s good at that either; she doesn’t have a lot of hit points and her special movepool is even more limited than Jolteon’s (she doesn’t even get Signal Beam, for goodness’ sake).  Even her Dream World ability taunts her; Guts, which boosts a Pokémon’s attack in response to poison, paralysis, and so on, is an awesome ability for a physical attacker to have, but Flareon doesn’t actually learn any damned physical attacks.  In short, Flareon is terrible.  She really doesn’t deserve to be terrible, and there’s no real reason she should be terrible, but she is, and she will likely remain so until the end of time because, let’s face it, if Game Freak had any intention of fixing her, they would have done it by now.

Right; now that that unpleasantness is out of the way…

Flareon is a Fire Pokémon, and because she is a Fire Pokémon, the Pokédex feels a pressing need to explain to us, repeatedly and insistently, just how hot she is (just a hair under 900 degrees Celsius, her resting body temperature is hot enough to vaporise sulphur).  Her fluffy fur, apparently, is supposed to radiate heat to help regulate her body temperature, which… is not really how fur works; animals lose the most heat from regions that get a lot of blood flow, and fur doesn’t have blood in it, but I suppose we can guess that her hairs have some kind of dense heat-conducting core or something.  In terms of physical appearance, she’s the most like Eevee, and retains a similar aesthetic angle, aiming to be simply adorable where Vaporeon tries to achieve more of an untouchable beauty.  In fact, apart from her fiery colour scheme, Flareon barely changes at all from Eevee!  It’s not a bad thing, per se, that Flareon shares aesthetic goals with her juvenile form, and of Eevee’s seven evolutions, one of them had to be the one who was least altered.  It’s just something of a shame that it happened to be the perfectly generic Fire-type whose main distinguishing feature is just a little bit nonsensical, and even more of a shame that it happened to be the one who’s so very severely handicapped in battle.  I don’t dislike Flareon, and she fills an important place on the spectrum of Eevee’s evolved forms – two, actually, with both cuteness and firepower – but she’s one of those Pokémon that, in my opinion, have never been given the kind of attention they should have had.

 Kirree (http://kirree.deviantart.com/) has put Flareon in a very different, but rather more intuitive, environment to the one I have in mind.

Since it seems to be a theme I’ve talked myself into discussing, I should really look at Flareon’s environment.  What kind of ecosystem is she adapted for?  Well, first of all, we know that radiating body heat is a concern for her; that suggests that, contrary to the stereotype that Fire-types like to live in hot places, Flareon actually prefers a temperate climate.  A wet environment would cause problems for her since she relies on fire, but at the same time she probably wouldn’t live in a very dry place either; she’d risk causing perpetual wildfires.  We’re probably looking at somewhere with moderate temperature and humidity, then – somewhere like temperate grassland.  I imagine Flareon lying down for a nap in whatever shade she can find during the hottest part of the day, the way lions do, and letting her internal fire slowly burn down, burning just hot enough to keep going.  She hunts in the mornings and evenings, loosing sheets of fire to scorch patches of grass and flush out prey.  Flareon’s hunting practices actually serve an important ecological purpose too; by regularly engaging in controlled burning of small areas, she constructs natural firebreaks that prevent uncontrolled fires from getting out of hand.  Flareon’s own flames are so hot that they reduce the grass to ashes in moments, burning themselves out and exhausting all the available oxygen before they can spread.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  In summary, then, Vaporeon is a coastal or aquatic Eevee, Jolteon is a desert Eevee, and Flareon is a grassland or savannah Eevee.  More on what all this means later.

I don’t want to be too harsh on Flareon, because she’s likeable enough, but I honestly think they did her wrong.  She’s far from irredeemable; you could fix her mechanical problems by just, y’know, giving her attacks that don’t suck, and you could fix her flavour problems just by coming up with some way for her to be different from every other Fire Pokémon with a core temperature of 900 degrees.  Her art is fine; she’s maybe not as interesting as Vaporeon and Jolteon, but she still has, and achieves, clear aesthetic goals that distinguish her from the other two, so it’s not all bad news.  The good news for me is that Flareon is something of a low point – she has some of the trickiest problems of the family.  Not to say that her newer brothers and sisters don’t have their problems too… but we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.

Chimchar, Monferno and Infernape

Chimchar.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori; Nintendo is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.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.

 Monferno.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

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.

 Infernape.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

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 being awesome, by Endless Whispers (http://endless-whispers.deviantart.com/).  Be sure to check out his gallery!

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.

Torchic, Combusken and Blaziken

Torchic, Combusken and Blaziken. Artwork by Ken Sugimori; my momma always said, Nintendo is as Nintendo does.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. 

Two Torchic sheltering from the rain, by Princess-Phoenix (http://princess-phoenix.deviantart.com/).

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…

 Blaziken finds a new outlet for her badassery in this elegant reinterpretation by Silver5 (http://silver5.deviantart.com/).  Go read his flavour text for this picture too (http://silver5.deviantart.com/art/Realistic-Blaziken-sketchies-200676116); it's very different from the orthodox feel of the Pokémon world but pretty fun.

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.

Cyndaquil, Quilava and Typhlosion

Cyndaquil.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori; Nintendo is the way and the truth and the life, and no-one comes to Nintendo except through Game Freak.Cyndaquil has never caught my interest.  I’m not sure why; maybe I’m just prejudiced against mammals (Cyndaquil is, believe it or not, the only mammalian starter Pokémon of the first three generations; the vast majority were reptiles).  In principle, though, she’s based on a fairly neat idea; take a spiny mammal like a hedgehog or echidna and set its spines on fire, because fire is awesome.  A lot of Fire Pokémon earn their place in the ranks of their element purely by virtue of being able to breathe fire, so she’s clearly off to a good start in the creativity stakes by integrating her element with her design base in a pleasing way.  Personality-wise, although Cyndaquil herself is very shy and timid, her evolved forms, Quilava and Typhlosion, are stereotypical hot-headed Fire-types.  That’s not especially bad; there’s no point to Pokémon that defy the stereotypes without Pokémon who conform to them, and if you need to do something like that, the starters are the place to do it.  If there’s one place in the game where you want Pokémon to be exactly what players expect, this (arguably) is it.  On the other hand, Charizard did it so well that it becomes difficult to expect Typhlosion to live up to that standard.  I’m uncertain exactly what kind of animals Quilava and Typhlosion are based on; their colour scheme reminds me of badgers, but their general attitude makes me want to call them wolverines.  Either way, we’re looking at a feisty, tenacious animal that can be a terror when it’s cornered, but as far as “burn ‘em all, and let Arceus sort them out” goes, there’s just no contest when you pit them against a fire dragon.  Accordingly, those traits – stubbornness, defiance and the like – might have been better ideas to emphasise, especially since they would also make a more natural progression from Cyndaquil’s timid nature.  One of Typhlosion’s more unique tactics is her fondness for obscuring herself and distorting her opponents’ vision with heat haze.  This is one of Game Freak’s less clichéd ways of ramming down our throats just how hot a Fire Pokémon can get, but it feels like an intimidation tactic more than anything else, a way of avoiding fights, and not entirely consistent with the explosive rage that seems to be thought of as Typhlosion’s defining characteristic.  Again, I think Typhlosion would actually have made more sense and presented a more interesting take on Fire as an element if she’d been a far less aggressive, more reactive Pokémon.

Quilava.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.Since we’re here, let’s talk about Fire.  Fire traditionally has a wide range of symbolic associations that are consistent across many cultures; fire is destructive, but also creative because it provides the warmth that nurtures life; it symbolises passion – even today we talk about strong emotions ‘burning’ inside us – as well as invention, because of its importance to the development of civilisation, and purity, because it burns away the impure.  With a few notable exceptions, Fire Pokémon are a lot less varied.  Fire (in stark contrast to Grass and Water) is one of the more underrepresented elements in Pokémon, with fewer than fifty species (still a lot more than Ghost or Dragon, though), and most of them tend to place a lot of weight on the destructive aspect of fire, both in their powers and their personalities, some of the most notable examples being Charizard, Typhlosion, Magmortar, Entei, Houndoom and Camerupt.  Fire Pokémon also tend to be very fast, though not all of them are, by any means (Magcargo, for instance, is one of the slowest Pokémon in the game).  Pokémon that deviate from the idea of fire as a swift-spreading force of destruction are much fewer.  A few, like Ninetales, Arcanine and Rapidash, actually have little to do with fire in terms of their flavour; they just happen to breathe fire on top of everything else they do.  Magcargo and Torkoal are weird and clever and creative and really deserved to be much more powerful than they are, but in any case they have very specific associations with particular manifestations of the idea of fire, so they aren’t really a part of this.  The only Pokémon I know of that really embrace different symbolic meanings of fire are Ho-oh, Volcarona, Victini, and Reshiram (Moltres arguably counts too, for a story told by one of Blaine’s gym trainers about how Blaine was rescued by a fiery bird, presumably Moltres, when he was lost on an icy mountain).  Ho-oh and Volcarona, as a phoenix and an avatar of the sun, respectively, wholeheartedly embody the concept of life-giving fire, while Reshiram and, to an extent, Victini seem to draw on fire as a symbol of inspiration.  Notably, these are all legendary Pokémon (well, okay, Volcarona… arguably though Volcarona is thematically speaking a ‘legendary’ Pokémon in that she is a Pokémon of legend, and worshipped as solar deity).  The point I am by slow degrees trying to construct here is that Fire as an element does not automatically straightjacket you into creating a Pokémon dedicated to blowing things up.  A Fire Pokémon could easily be something that uses fire to keep others warm on cold winter nights, sear away mould to nurture plants, or captivate people by creating visions of beauty.  If I were constructing a history of the Pokémon world, I’d even be tempted to make a Fire-type the first Pokémon ever to take a human partner… but now I’m getting too tangential.  Let’s get back to Typhlosion.Typhlosion throwing out an Overheat, by SuellenB (http://suellenb.deviantart.com/).

Typhlosion.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.Typhlosion’s base stats are actually identical to Charizard’s, so she’s basically fast and likes blowing things up.  Her big draw over other Fire-types in Gold and Silver was her ability to learn Thunderpunch (which, remember, was a special attack before Diamond and Pearl) to smite Water Pokémon.  She also learned Earthquake but was held back somewhat by her lower physical attack stat.  She was a relatively simple point-and-shoot Pokémon, but by the standards of the time she was pretty good at it.  Ruby and Sapphire took Thunderpunch from her, but she got it back in Emerald, and like most Fire-types she was delighted by the introduction of Lavaridge Gym Leader Flannery’s signature move, Overheat, a move more powerful and accurate than Fire Blast which came at the tiny, tiny cost of half of the user’s special attack stat.  The third generation didn’t change her much, though.  Diamond and Pearl, on the other hand, shook things up considerably.  Thunderpunch was now a physical attack, which, combined with its relatively low power, took it off Typhlosion’s list of favourite moves.  In its place, along with most of the other Fire Pokémon in the game, she got Solarbeam, a very fun move for smacking around Water-types but one to be used with caution because of its reliance on fine weather.  Like many of the older starters, she also gained Focus Blast; it may be inaccurate but a strong Fighting attack is nothing to sniff at, even if you already have a way to break Steel-types as Typhlosion does.  Those aren’t the big changes, though; the big change to Typhlosion in Diamond and Pearl was the addition of Eruption to her list.  This highly exclusive move deals damage based on the user’s current health; an uninjured Pokémon with Eruption is capable of tremendous destruction.  The other Pokémon that get it are all either too slow to fire off an Eruption without getting hit first or physical attackers anyway, which gives Typhlosion a unique niche as the only truly competent user of this devastating attack.  This remains Typhlosion’s main draw in Black and White, which have so far brought her little of interest.  Flash Fire, Typhlosion’s Dream World ability, will make an awesome bonus once it’s available; immunity to Fire attacks is merely amusing when you already resist them anyway, but actually boosting your own Fire attacks when you absorb them is, as Rapidash and Houndoom will gladly attest, something else, especially for a Pokémon whose biggest draw is her ability to make one single massive Fire attack.

For reasons I’ve already discussed, Typhlosion doesn’t do much to dissuade me from my belief that Gold and Silver had the ‘worst’ starters, but, like the rest of them, she’s not actually a bad Pokémon.  Like Meganium, she’s one of those that prompt me to make exaggerated sighing noises and ramble at length about wasted potential.  I won’t deny, though, that there is something quite satisfying about Cyndaquil’s growth from a timid, trembling child into the intimidating walking explosion that is Typhlosion.  As a battler, I think Typhlosion really came into her own when Diamond and Pearl gave her Eruption, because that’s what made her unique and special; it’s a shame, though, that this coincided with the advent of Stealth Rock, which makes it very hard to keep her uninjured.  If Typhlosion’s your kind of driven pyromaniac, more power to you – she can be tricky to use, but those Eruptions are worth it.

Charmander, Charmeleon and Charizard

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

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

 Charmeleon.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

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

 Charizard.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

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

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

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

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