Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist

Pumpkaboo.

So, this may come as a bit of a shock to the Americans in the audience, but Halloween is not really a big deal in New Zealand, and certainly not for young adults; it’s normally just primary school children who get in on it.  We also don’t really do jack’o’lanterns, maybe because the whole principle of a jack’o’lantern is based on the fact that pumpkins are in season in autumn and for us October is in spring (then again, we use all the traditional winter imagery for our summer Christmases, so meh).  We actually don’t normally use the right sort of pumpkins anyway – ours have thin, grey skin – so, in my formative experiences, the orange ones that you use to make jack’o’lanterns are, like, the cartoon version of what a pumpkin looks like.  Of course, now that I actually live in America I just have to deal with it, along with everything else about this silly backwards little country, but it’s okay because seeing great big stacks of these bright orange things piled up all over supermarkets in October is absolutely hilarious to me and none of my friends here understand why.

Yes, this is NECESSARY BACKGROUND to understanding Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist.

 See, when you say 'pumpkin' I think of this.

Even to me, the cultural link between pumpkins and ghosts or spirits, via Halloween and the jack’o’lantern, is obvious enough.  Halloween is basically the Christian holy day All Hallows’ Eve – the last night on earth for the souls of all the people who died during the previous year, who might seize this last chance to cause havoc in the mortal world.  Traditionally, All Hallows’ Eve is a time to pray for these wandering souls, and to be especially wary of supernatural disturbances.  Like a lot of Christian festivals, elements of the tradition are also built on older pagan festivals at the same time of the year – in particular, the Gaelic harvest festival Samhain (which is not pronounced “Samhain,” because it is Gaelic), another time when spirits and fey supposedly had greater freedom to act in this world.  Exactly where jack’o’lanterns come from, whether they have anything to do with Samhain, and how they became part of the Christian tradition is not entirely clear because there are so many different explanations floating around.  The term “jack’o’lantern” was once another name for the will-o’-the-wisp, the mysterious floating lights seen by travellers in swampy areas and given a wide variety of mythological interpretations all around the world.  They’re commonly thought to be ghosts or spirits, and are often credited with leading travellers astray; probably the most likely scientific explanation for the phenomenon is the spontaneous combustion (or possibly phosphorescence) of gasses given off by decaying organic matter.  Hard to say how this eventually translated into the hollowed pumpkins you see at Halloween, though they’re probably something to do with warding off those marauding spirits – or else with leading the way for souls leaving the world on All Hallows’ Eve.  The Halloween jack’o’lantern has its own neat little origin story as well, which describes a character called ‘Stingy Jack.’  In life, Jack was a drunken blacksmith whose debauched lifestyle attracted the attention of the Devil himself, who came to claim Jack’s soul.  Jack was able to trick the Devil somehow (accounts vary, some kind of bet may have been involved), using a crucifix to trap him, and made a deal to release him in exchange for being spared condemnation to Hell.  Unfortunately, Jack’s plethora of sins ensured that he would never be allowed into Heaven either, and so his spirit was doomed to wander the mortal world for eternity, warmed only by a piece of the fires of Hell thrown at him by the Devil, which he keeps in a hollowed out turnip or pumpkin to make sure it doesn’t go out.

So how does all that relate to Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist?  Well, surprisingly closely, as it happens.  Much like Stingy Jack, Pumpkaboo is said to be a lost soul unable to leave the mortal world – and, although she can’t find her own way, she can lead other spirits to where they belong, like the prayers of worshippers on All Hallows’ Eve and some interpretations of the jack’o’lantern.  Their restless wandering on dark nights also recalls the belief that Halloween marks a time of unusual supernatural activity – and, of course, the related modern activity of trick-or-treating.  Pumpkaboo has little vampire fangs and a sort of mantle that you could liken to either bat wings or a dark cloak, maybe alluding again to the concept of dressing up as something menacing (common enough in the animal kingdom, after a fashion).  Gourgeist mixes it up with the full carved jack’o’lantern face on her belly and… “hairlike arms” that sprout from her head?  I’m… not totally sure I get that one; maybe they’re supposed to look like flickering flames or something?  Apparently, though, Gourgeist wraps up her prey in these arms and “sings joyfully” as it suffers, presumably from some sort of life-draining attack like Pain Split, or just from the general ethereal chill of her spectral touch.  Either way… bit of a sadist, I guess.  Her song, we also know, curses anyone who hears it, so being sung a creepily happy song by the Gourgeist who’s sapping your life away is probably not going to make you feel any better (odd that she can’t learn Sing or Perish Song; those seem like they should have been no-brainers).  I’m not sure where the singing comes from, although Gourgeist’s French name, Banshitrouye, contains a reference to the banshee, the wailing death spirit of Irish folklore, so maybe she’s one of the influences in there (would also go some way towards explaining the long hair).  The final thing that deserves mentioning here is that Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist have a weird little gimmick.  Like real pumpkins, they come in many different sizes (this isn’t immediately obvious in the game, although the largest ones do have a much deeper cry)… and, again like real pumpkins, the biggest ones are huge.  Has anyone ever looked at the actual size measurements given for these things?  The small, average and large sizes for Gourgeist range from 9.5 to 14 kilograms – and then there’s the super size Gourgeist, who is more than twice as heavy at 39 kilograms and is almost as tall as I am (like most Pokémon, she’s ludicrously light for her size, but in Gourgeist’s case that might actually make sense since her body is probably hollow).  That’s a hell of a jack’o’lantern!  Suddenly I’m not sure I feel safe wandering around Kalos’ route 16 at night…

Gourgeist.

 

As long as we’re talking about sizes, I may as well take the opportunity to make a graceful transition into how Gourgeist works mechanically, because her size does impact that: smaller Gourgeist are much faster, but larger ones are tougher and stronger.  A super-sized Gourgeist has pretty solid-looking stats for a physical tank, while a small-sized one seems more support-oriented, with her reasonably good speed and passable defences; you can also pick one of the two intermediate sizes if you feel like striking a balance between those extremes.  Gourgeist unfortunately lacks the more powerful Grass-type physical moves like Wood Hammer and Power Whip, meaning that Seed Bomb is the way to go; she also doesn’t have a wide selection of coverage moves (…Rock Slide.  She has Rock Slide), and there are no strong Ghost-type physical attacks, so in general it’s just very difficult for her to leverage her decent-to-good attack stat.  Because her special attack is rubbish and she doesn’t get Shadow Claw, her choices for Ghost attacks are Shadow Sneak and Phantom Force.  Even super-Gourgeist doesn’t have the power to do a lot of damage with Shadow Sneak, particularly as you’re likely to be investing the most effort in her defences, although I suppose the priority is nice on such a slow Pokémon.  Phantom Force, as I mentioned last time with Trevenant, is really not a good move to be stuck with, but as we’ve already established, Gourgeist really has to scrape the barrel for physical attacks.  Besides, thanks to Ghost’s excellent neutral coverage, it’s arguably not as bad as being stuck with, say, Fly or… *shudder* Skull Bash, and you can use it to stall for time with Leech Seed and Will’o’Wisp.  I mean… you could also do that with Protect and not be locked into your next move… but whatevs.  Those moves – Leech Seed and Will’o’Wisp – are staples for pretty much any size of Gourgeist, in lieu of more concrete offensive options… which brings us to the rather unfortunate point that most of what Gourgeist can do is very similar to what Trevenant can do – good physical defences, Leech Seed and Will’o’Wisp are some of her main selling points, and her abilities aren’t as useful for that role as Trevenant’s, who can get more efficient healing than what Leech Seed and Pain Split can provide (although Gourgeist is admittedly much tougher, physically).  Insomnia for sleep immunity: woo.  Frisk to snoop on enemies’ item choices: useful information, but not a huge help to Gourgeist herself.  Pickup to recycle items used by other Pokémon: kinda useful in doubles with appropriate planning but otherwise just silly.  So, what does Gourgeist have that Trevenant doesn’t?

I gotta admit, these things are pretty creepy when they're lit up at night...

 

Light Screen for covering her weaker special defence is worth note, particularly in combination with the protection from physical attacks offered by Will’o’Wisp and her naturally tough body.  Trick is normally a dangerous choice for tankish or support-oriented Pokémon because Tricking yourself into bagging a Choice item will do you more harm than good and it’s more difficult for you to carry items that will screw up your opponent in the first place – however, I mention it anyway because Gourgeist’s best ability is probably Frisk and knowing in advance what your target’s item is makes Trick a bit more interesting, if nothing else.  Explosion kinda stopped being worth it when Black and White cut its damage in half, but it’s there, and the idea of blowing yourself up and taking the enemy with you does have a certain je ne sais quoi.  Because Gourgeist is a jack’o’lantern, she has access to a small number of Fire attacks; unfortunately, most of them are special ones, but Flame Charge might be worth consideration on one of the larger, more powerful sizes to compensate for her poor speed, if you’re going to defy all logic and try to build some kind of godawful physical sweeper Gourgeist for some reason.  Small Gourgeist is one of the faster Pokémon in the game with the ability to use Destiny Bond, a move which really only makes sense on a fast Pokémon – she’s no Mega Gengar, that’s for sure, but I guess Gourgeist might catch an enemy off guard with a bit of luck.  Finally, there’s her fun little signature move, Trick or Treat, which makes more sense than Trevenant’s Forest’s Curse because the type it adds to the target (Ghost) is one that Gourgeist can deal super-effective damage to (though not, it must be said, very well), but is probably still more useful for helping a doubles partner score an unexpected knockout than for anything Gourgeist herself can do with it.  Trick or Treat also does bizarre and painful things to physical tanks who like to use Curse, since Curse is just a radically different move when used by a Ghost Pokémon.  This is much too specific an application to be useful.  However, it is hilarious.

Maybe judging them in comparison to Phantump and Trevenant is uncharitable to Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist – they can’t help but seem like very light, silly designs alongside them, and despite Gourgeist actually having superior stats to Trevenant she has surprisingly little else to recommend her, with their shared Ghost/Grass type combination making the comparison all too obvious (if she had been set up as a special attacker, I think it might have worked much better… ah, well, c’est la vie).  The designs are pretty fun though, I guess, and Gourgeist’s creepy songs and grasping hands are disturbing in a very different way to the more obvious bowel-evacuating terror that is Trevenant.  I don’t know if I think they’re bad, they’re just… very obviously not as good as the other ones – an unfortunate position for a Pokémon to be in.

Phantump and Trevenant

Phantump.

Ghost/Grass – another of those never-before-seen combinations that always make me so excited.  What’s more, we get not one but two interpretations of it – Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist, whom we’ll probably be looking at next time, and today’s Pokémon, Phantump and Trevenant.  These two Pokémon go for ‘sinister,’ and boy, do they nail it (I… immediately regret using the expression ‘nail it’ to describe a vengeful Pokémon made of wood).  Ghost Pokémon get to play with some of the most evocative ideas in the book, balancing between life and death, on the edge of the great unknown – let’s see where Phantump and Trevenant can take that.

As far as I know, these Pokémon aren’t based on any specific folkloric creatures (though Trevenant’s body shape and English name do seem to reference the treants of modern fantasy), just on more general ideas, fears and superstitions about old, dark forests.  How many fairy tales centre around dark and dangerous creatures that lurk in the deepest part of the woods?  The theme is a particular fixture of northern and eastern European tradition – Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Baba Yaga, to name a few – but is far from unique to that region.  Phantump aren’t really dangerous as far as we know, but their origins are pretty sinister and sound a lot like the bad ending we’re supposed to be scared of in some of those dark forest fairy tales.  Like Yamask, these Pokémon are explicitly believed to have once been human (raising all kinds of questions even more thorny than usual about the ethical position their trainers are in) – Phantump are said to be born from rotten tree stumps possessed by the spirits of children who died lost in the forest.  In fact, Phantump’s spiritual form, a thin black wisp, does look a lot like poor, haunted Yamask, as well as giving it a somewhat childlike appearance, helped by those wide, staring eyes.  As with all Ghost Pokémon, it may be worth questioning how seriously we’re supposed to take the ideas in the Pokédex – which is not above reporting myth and folklore as fact – but whichever way you slice it, Phantump is pretty creepy.  I see it quoted everywhere that Phantump can imitate the sound of a child’s voice, although I can’t figure out where that information is supposed to come from (no, internet, “[Source: Bulbapedia]” is not helpful); it’s not in the Pokédex, and Phantump hasn’t appeared in the anime yet.  It certainly sounds plausible, though, and it would explain how, rightly or wrongly, people came to believe that they were the spirits of lost children – if a mysterious creature with spiritual powers lives in the forest where your kid got lost and never came home, and sounds exactly like him or her, a grieving parent isn’t going to have a lot of time for scepticism.  The more worrying question is why Phantump have this ability.  Are they really just lost souls calling out for help, are they malicious spirits luring others to their deaths in the dark heart of the forest, or are they just pranksters looking to have a little fun?  None of these options, on the surface, strikes me as particularly implausible.

 There is one tree in this picture.

When they mature, Trevenant take on the role of protectors and avengers of the forest, and fill that role with a much more frightening tone than Phantump.  Where Phantump is maybe a little cute if you look at it in a certain light – or at the very worst, pitiable – Trevenant is like something out of a nightmare; crawling spider-legs, long, grasping claws, a single glaring red eye, and darkness obscuring the inside of its rotting wooden body.  They can curse people who harm the forest and cause them to become trapped there forever… which, as a reader pointed out to me a while ago, could potentially mesh with Phantump’s origins in a slightly horrifying way: this is how they reproduce.  Phantump are the spiritual remains of children who did something to attract the ire of powerful Trevenant.  Well, okay, they are a gendered species, so we know they can also produce eggs, but there’s no reason both couldn’t be possible, and this way is much cooler; besides, it’s not like anyone has ever claimed that the basic concept of Pokémon breeding makes a whole lot of sense.  If it’s true, it lends a lot of weight to a more malicious interpretation of Phantump.  There’s a lighter side to these Pokémon, though.  Trevenant also possess the ability to control the trees in its forest by connecting to them with its roots.  At a glance, this is just a really cool power that explains how it can trap people in the forest; by controlling trees, it can rearrange and obscure pathways at will, weaving branches together to block safe routes while creating appealing trails that just lead you spiralling into a thicket.  Perhaps even cooler though, it also sounds like it could be a reference to colony-trees like Pando in southern Utah – things that look like huge forests made up of hundreds or thousands of trees, but are actually single organisms, genetically identical and connected by enormous interlinked root systems.  These colonies are among the largest and oldest living things on the planet, and a potent symbol of the interconnectedness of all life.  Like Torterra, Trevenant is also said to provide homes to smaller Pokémon that live in its leaves, branches and hollows, and is supposedly very kind to them despite its fearsome exterior.  Trevenant are deadly when called upon to protect their homes, but as always in Pokémon, we shouldn’t necessarily take their actions towards humans as the whole picture.  Powerful Grass Pokémon are often portrayed as mediators of the balance of nature, and even rot is just another form of life.

 Trevenant.

On the face of it, Trevenant looks like it should be a fairly lacklustre Pokémon to use, because it seems to be basically a slow, fairly tough physical attacker.  Its Ghost/Grass typing comes with some nasty common weaknesses, but useful resistances and immunities too (including the new Grass-type immunities to things like Sleep Powder), so it’s not terrible.  The problem with being a Ghost-type is that physical Ghost attacks remain few and relatively poor – their new attack, Phantom Force, which is effectively a powered-down version of Giratina’s Shadow Force, has decent power behind it and is perfectly fine for fighting AI opponents, but because it takes two turns to use (even if you are invulnerable on the first turn), it means giving a human opponent a turn when they know exactly what you are going to do, without question, and that is rarely a good idea in this game.  Unfortunately, the next alternative, Shadow Claw, is almost unacceptably weak; pick your poison.  Wood Hammer, its strongest Grass attack, is much more powerful, but on the other hand it’s, y’know, a Grass attack.  Trevenant’s physical coverage options aren’t great either – Earthquake is always nice to have, but beyond that… well, Rock Slide is relatively weak, X-Scissor has quite a bit of redundancy with Grass attacks, and Poison Jab is Poison Jab.  It’s not really good at being a physical attacker – Grass-types usually aren’t.  This brings us to Trevenant’s real niche, though: again like many Grass-types, it can actually put together very nice support-oriented sets.  Will’o’Wisp makes Trevenant much more difficult and dangerous for physical attackers to take down by threatening to burn and cripple them.  Leech Seed is a Grass-type staple that needs no introduction.  Horn Leech isn’t a powerful attack, but it adds nicely to Trevenant’s survivability.  Reflect is an option, though Will’o’Wisp will usually be a better choice for dampening physical attackers since you don’t have to keep setting it up again and again.  Trevenant is also capable of using Trick Room, which is unusual enough to be worth consideration, and benefits from it quite a bit too since it’s quite slow.  It’s not an incredibly tough Pokémon, though Will’o’Wisp helps a lot and allows you to focus on its special defence.  Its poor speed is also detrimental.  It’s not an amazing Pokémon, but it’s certainly not bad either, if you stick to what it’s good at.

The real draw to Trevenant is that it has two fairly rare and rather lovely defensive abilities, both of which can make it a lot harder to kill.  Natural Cure heals a Pokémon’s status problems when it switches out, which is just generally useful since it means you don’t care about Will’o’Wisp, Thunder Wave, Toxic and the like, and also adds Rest to Trevenant’s list of usable healing options.  The other one is Harvest, which is Trevenant’s hidden ability and worth mentioning mainly because so few Pokémon get it – it’s shared only by Tropius and Exeggutor.  What it does is give Trevenant a 50% chance every turn (100% under Sunny Day) to regenerate a berry that it has previously used during the battle – the most obvious applications are self-replacing Sitrus Berries for extra healing or self-replacing Lum Berries for instant Rests and status recovery.  There are probably weirder options out there to explore, involving things like resistance berries and stat boost berries, but for the most part you probably want to go with something that increases your survivability, since Trevenant is giving up Natural Cure for this.  The fact that Knock Off got a huge damage buff in Generation VI (with an extra bonus for hitting an item!), and is also strong against Ghost-types like Trevenant, also makes Harvest a little more iffy since you can swat Trevenant’s berry and deal horrible damage in one move, but it’s still not like everything uses that.  Phantump and Trevenant, like many of X and Y’s Pokémon, also come with one more thing worth talking about: a nifty little signature move called Forest’s Curse.  Like Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist’s signature move, Trick or Treat, this thing works by adding an extra type to its target, namely Grass, until that Pokémon switches out.  The target keeps its original type, and in fact will be treated as having three types at once if it was a dual-type already.  Unfortunately, while it’s fairly easy to see how Trick or Treat can be useful – Ghost-types are weak to Ghost attacks, which of course Gourgeist uses – the only things Trevenant has that can take advantage of giving a Pokémon Grass-type traits are X-Scissor and Poison Jab.  Turning something into a Grass-type also confers Leech Seed immunity (it won’t remove an existing seed, though).  This is another one of those moves that has its greatest potential in doubles, where you can easily set up a partner to take advantage of its effects; in a single battle I’d stay away from it.

I love these two.  They hit all the right notes and are some of the creepiest Pokémon we’ve seen yet, with stunningly eerie design, chilling backstory, and potential for a complex portrayal with strong positive and negative aspects.  Their battling abilities are kind of niche, but they have an interesting combination of skills, and I’m curious to see whether anyone’s been able to make anything clever out of Forest’s Curse.  All in all, they’re definitely among my favourites from X and Y (and no, I’m not just saying that because they’re Grass-types.  Well… okay, maybe a little bit).

Skiddo and Gogoat

Hmm.

Have we done goats before?

No, I mean, it’s fine if we have; I just want to know if there’s something I should be comparing-

No?  Really?  Huh.

 Official artwork of Skiddo by Ken Sugimori; all hail Nintendo.

I think goats often get overlooked for being part of the usual farmyard menagerie we all learn to list in primary school, but the truth is they are actually pretty badass animals!  Goats can live in all manner of terrain types, will eat just about anything, often have big, elaborate, dangerous horns, and are in many cases perfectly capable of seriously messing you up with a good kick or headbutt.  They’re also among our earliest companions in this great epoch-spanning clusterf%ck we call ‘civilisation,’ having been domesticated around the beginning of the Neolithic period, possibly earlier than any other animal besides the dog (whose relationship with humanity is a bit more complicated), and at the very least contemporary with sheep, cows and pigs.  Isn’t it odd, then, that we’ve only just gotten around to having a domestic goat Pokémon?

I cannot help but admire the weirdness of choosing a goat to be Kalos’ primary riding animal.  In all the time goats have been domesticated, I don’t think they’ve ever been used primarily as mounts; in fact looking for information about riding goats on Google mostly turns up some very strange references to some kind of esoteric Masonic initiation ritual involving riding a bicycle that looks like a goat around a room while blindfolded (something which I don’t think is relevant to our interpretation here, though you never know…).  The choice is all the more interesting when you consider the lack of emphasis placed on riding by the Pokédex’s descriptions of Ponyta and Rapidash; it seems to be common sense that they would be used as mounts, and the anime testifies to that, but does so in amongst a slew of other riding Pokémon, some more appropriate than others (ranging from Dodrio to… Electrode…).  Certainly the thick, soft moss of Gogoat’s pelt would seem to make him a very appropriate choice for a riding animal, while Ponyta’s mane of fire is perhaps subtly less appealing to the discerning equestrian.  Skiddo and Gogoat, in contrast to Ponyta and Rapidash, really push the riding angle.  We’re told that, because of their naturally calm temperament, they were among the first Pokémon to live with humans (or has long domestication made them tamer?) and that Gogoat possess a kind of empathic sixth sense that allows them to judge a rider’s feelings and intentions, so that they “run as if one being.”  This sense functions through the touch of a rider’s hands on Gogoat’s backward-sweeping horns, which bear a slight resemblance to the handlebars of a bike.  The Kalosians do not hesitate to make use of this unique ability, employing Gogoat for environmentally friendly travel around Lumiose City, and a Skiddo ranch near Coumarine City affords players the unprecedented and unmissable opportunity to jump up ledges, a dream that has entranced our imaginations since the days of Red and Blue.  Gogoat is something of a gimmick Pokémon in that way, but like Furfrou’s it’s a gimmick I don’t really mind because it’s used for world-building.  Skiddo and Gogoat aren’t the only Pokémon ridden by the player in X and Y – Mamoswine also offers a lift through the snow, and of course Mother is a famous Rhyhorn jockey – but they are the mascots of a way of living and working with Pokémon that, as obvious as it might seem, the games haven’t been able to show us before.

 F%ckin' majestic.

The domestication theme brought up in Skiddo’s Pokédex description is further stressed by the fact that Gogoat is only the second Pokémon ever to learn Milk Drink, the move that signifies Miltank’s ability to produce the most nutritious milk in the Pokémon world.  Gogoat milk may not be the universally beloved panacea that Miltank milk is, and the availability of Moomoo Milk in parts of Kalos suggests that Miltank are pretty highly thought of in this region as well, but you don’t just hand out a move that’s been exclusive to a single species for four generations without meaning something by it (especially when Synthesis already fulfils a similar function Gogoat’s movepool, and we’re told that Skiddo can photosynthesise to obviate the need for food).  This Pokémon is an ideal mount and maybe the second-best milk-producing animal in the world (…even the males… which I’m suddenly going to stop thinking about…); it sounds like a godsend to an emergent civilisation, although presumably some of its more desirable qualities have been drawn out and emphasised by millennia of selective breeding.  It’s hard to say; wild ones seem to have the same traits as domestic stock, but they could easily be feral populations.  I privately like to believe that the very first Pokémon ever partnered to a human was a Fire Pokémon, largely because of the symbolic associations between fire and civilisation, but I’m certainly tickled by the notion of giving credit to a Grass-type for being one of the first, and not just because of personal predilections – domesticated animals are nice, but it’s the cultivation of plants that creates sedentary societies and, eventually, cities.  Skiddo happens to be both animal and plant, an unassuming but loyal companion on the road to the cultivated order of modern Kalos.

 Gogoat.

To top it all off, Gogoat is actually pretty powerful as well!  With a colossal HP stat, decent special defence and excellent attack and special attack, this goat is every bit as much a tank as a real one.  What’s more, thanks to Milk Drink, she doesn’t depend on calm weather for healing as most Grass Pokémon, reliant on Synthesis, do.  She can even augment that healing with Horn Leech.  Gogoat’s weak point is her comparatively poor physical defence, though she has a few potential workarounds to that.  Access to rapid healing is certainly helpful.  Her hidden ability, Grass Pelt (more on which later) can also contribute.  For now, though, let’s look at Bulk Up, which is a natural choice for a Pokémon with easy healing and can make her attacks more dangerous as well.  The difficulty with putting together movesets for Gogoat is that her primary attacking type is Grass (in the form of either Horn Leech or Leaf Blade), which is such a bad offensive type that it’s almost impossible to come up with a single complementary move that will give you decent coverage with it.  Gogoat really wants at least three attacking moves, which is a problem for anyone wanting to use both Bulk Up and Milk Drink.  Earthquake, for example, is a great move but combines with Grass pretty poorly, leaving you wide open to Bug-types, Flying-types, other Grass-types, an assortment of Levitating Pokémon, and goodness knows what else.  Rock Slide is pretty solid, and probably the best option if you want to go with two attacks, though its relatively low power is disappointing.  Payback is only properly effective against faster Pokémon, but Gogoat is slow enough that that shouldn’t be a huge problem, and Dark goes okay with Grass.  Brick Break and Wild Charge are just luxuries.  Losing either Bulk Up or Milk Drink will give Gogoat better attacking options at the cost of either power or survivability.  Choice Band or Choice Scarf sets could be interesting, but I suspect Gogoat should really be focusing on her durability, since that’s her biggest selling point.

 ...yeah, I... I got nothing.

Gogoat’s special attack stat is actually almost as good as her physical one, although she doesn’t really have the movepool to be a pure special attacker – Surf is really all she’s got aside from Grass attacks (although the fact that she can swim too is worth mentioning just to further emphasise how awesome she is).  You could try a mixed attacking set, throwing in Hidden Power: Fire if you can snag it, since Fire is one of the few attack types that actually does combine very well with Grass.  If nothing else it’ll keep people on their toes.  Leech Seed is probably worth mentioning for the extra healing it affords, but faster Pokémon have traditionally done Leech Seed better by combining it with Substitute, and Gogoat doesn’t really have any business trying to do that.  Finally, let’s look at those abilities.  Gogoat’s standard ability is Sap Sipper, a perfectly respectable ability for turning incoming Grass attacks into extra attack strength.  Gogoat resists Grass attacks anyway, but immunities mean free switches, and Gogoat can always use more power.  The hidden ability, Grass Pelt, is unique to Skiddo and Gogoat and therefore much more interesting – it triggers off Grassy Terrain, the new Grass-type field effect (there are three such moves – Grassy, Electric and Misty Terrain – which act like and stack with weather effects), and grants Gogoat a boost to her physical defence, which is exactly what she needs.  The standard effect of Grassy Terrain also powers up Grass attacks and provides gradual healing to all Pokémon touching the ground, which is just more great news for Gogoat (careful, though – it also reduces the power of Earthquake, one of Gogoat’s favourite attacks).  Furthermore, the effect is far less likely to be overwritten by another Pokémon than Grass’ traditional preferred field condition, Sunny Day.  The difficulty is that Gogoat can’t use this very exclusive technique herself, even if she had the moveslots to spare; only a handful of Grass Pokémon, plus Florges, can set it up, and unlike weather effects it has no handy item like a Damp Rock that will lengthen its duration (yet), so after taking time to switch, you’ll basically get three full turns of Grassy Terrain for Gogoat, and probably have to have two Grass Pokémon on your team to do it (if not more, in order to ensure you’ll be able to take advantage of the effect).  Gogoat on Grassy Terrain is a heck of a beast, but probably not worth the hassle, ultimately (at least, not in singles).

You know, I was totally underwhelmed by Skiddo and Gogoat when I first came across them playing X, but the more I look at them the more things I find to like about them.  I guess I’m so used to half-assed Grass Pokémon that I started to expect them without even thinking about it!  This game needs more badass Grass-types, and I have every intention of making sure this one enjoys a moment in the sun – maybe in that Rototiller triples team I keep promising myself I’ll put together…

Chespin, Quilladin and Chesnaught

All right; let’s get this catastrophic $#!t-show on the road.  Grass-type starter time!

Official art of Chespin by Ken Sugimori.

 

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.

 Quilladin.

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.

True chestnuts on the left; horse chestnuts on the right.  Chespin and his evolutions, to me, are more of the latter.

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.

Chesnaught.

 

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.

Some more typical users of Pain Split: Misdreavus, Litwick and Koffing.

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…

Leafeon

Official art of Leafeon, by Ken Sugimori; Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Nintendo wgah'nagl fhtagn.I’ve never been entirely sure what to think of Leafeon.  My initial impression, just to get it out of the way, was that ‘Leafeon’ is an incredible cop-out of a name; I’d always hoped a Grass-type Eevee would have a somewhat more creative name like ‘Arboreon’ or ‘Chloreon’ or something.  I guess the name isn’t that important, though – right?  Let’s look at what else he can offer us.

Leafeon is a pacifist.  He doesn’t fight if he can possibly avoid it, and frankly he doesn’t need to, because, unlike most of Eevee’s other forms, Leafeon isn’t carnivorous – in fact he doesn’t eat at all.  He’s instead adapted his cells to photosynthesise, like plant cells do, and spends most of his time basking in the sunlight.  Because of the way he sustains himself, Leafeon, in a reversal of the standard set-up for animals, breathes in carbon dioxide and releases oxygen, creating a permanent zone of fresh, clean air around his body.  The issue I take with this is that it’s really rather boring.  As I mentioned months ago when I complained about Sunflora, it’s just not interesting to talk up the fact that a Grass Pokémon photosynthesises when all Grass Pokémon photosynthesise, even the ones like Gloom and Amoonguss who are based on things that don’t.  This is, you may have noticed, something of a pervasive trend with Eevee’s evolved forms; often the most significant aspects of their designs are that they’re just like other Pokémon of their respective elements, which sort of makes Eevee more interesting by emphasising her potential for change at the expense of the evolutions themselves (more on this at the end of this series).  I suppose it’s true that the idea of purifying the air has never specifically been called out as an attribute of any other Grass Pokémon – again, it’s something that they all do, but the fact that photosynthesis, y’know, makes the air breathable is an aspect of the process that people often forget, and it does deserve to be emphasised once in a while.  I’d be much happier if it were actually related to Leafeon’s powers or art in some way, though.  It would make me feel like there’s some point to the design, which is currently rather lacking.

 A Leafeon surveying his forest domain, by Diaris (http://diaris.deviantart.com/).

Leafeon and Glaceon mark the point at which Game Freak finally committed to the idea floated in Gold and Silver that Eevee’s evolution into multiple different forms is triggered by exposure to different environments.  Leafeon will evolve in the presence of a Moss Rock, which is… well… exactly what it sounds like, a great big boulder covered in moss.  There’s one in the Eterna Forest in Sinnoh, and one in the Pinwheel Forest in Unova.  I’m not entirely sure why the rock is necessary.  Eevee doesn’t actually need to be near it; her evolution is tied to the whole wider game area in which the rock is located, the way Nosepass and Magneton are tied to Mount Coronet.  I guess the game designers just wanted to have some kind of marker.  Anyway, Leafeon’s evolution method makes the question of his environment relatively straightforward: Leafeon is an Eevee adapted to life in dense, old-growth temperate forests.  This, surprisingly, raises some odd questions.  Leafeon is an animal who is specifically adapted to use photosynthesis instead of hunting or grazing for food.  This makes absolutely no sense for a temperate forest environment, where biomass is plentiful but sunlight is at a premium, most of it drunk up by the tall, old trees that make up the forest’s canopy.  If you’re a plant anyway, it makes sense to go with it and learn to live on relatively little sunshine, or become an epiphyte and leech off larger plants, but if you started off as an animal (as Leafeon did), already reliant on eating plants or other animals for energy, there isn’t really any logical reason to make the change.  I suppose it would make some sense of things if Leafeon actually spent most of his time in the canopy, clambering around the highest branches where it’s reasonably bright and he doesn’t have to deal with tall trees hogging all the sun.  It would follow, then, that Leafeon is more dextrous and nimble than he appears, probably able to climb and jump with great speed and skill – like a peaceful version of the Malagasy fossa, a catlike relative of the weasel that can move on the ground and in the trees with practically equal ease.

It occurred to me, briefly, that I was probably reading way too much into this.  Then I remembered that reading way too much into things is kinda my schtick.

You people have no idea how awesome it is being me.  It’s like being a rich American on holiday; you strut around yakking, utterly fascinated by things that everyone else takes for granted, and people are nice to you for no discernible reason, even though no-one has any idea what you’re saying.

Anyway.

 A clean, minimalistic take on Leafeon by LyricaDreams (http://lyricadreams.deviantart.com/).

It is, unfortunately, one of Game Freak’s most important rules of design that Grass-Types Do Not Get Nice Things.  Furthermore, as we have established, it is another important rule that Eevee’s evolutions have an extremely limited selection of attacks.  These two factors conspire to make Leafeon very difficult to find a niche for.  His best stat is physical defence, but this is offset by his poor HP and special defence scores.  He has very good attack and speed, but his usable physical movepool is tiny.  Leaf Blade is an excellent start, but X-Scissor is almost totally redundant (Grass and Bug have four weaknesses in common and don’t really complement each other at all), Aerial Ace is just a little bit pathetic as far as damage goes, Normal attacks are Normal attacks, but at least they’re always good for neutral damage, and… and… yeah, okay, I think that’s it, actually.  I guess if you really enjoy basking in the awfulness of Leafeon’s movepool you can always give him Rock Smash; it’ll outshine all his other attacks against most Steel-types, not that this is saying much.  Leafeon can improve his attacks with Swords Dance, but they’re so easy to counter that this is unlikely to help.  He’s probably better off using Baton Pass to let someone else take those Swords Dance boosts, and with his good speed he’s actually not that bad at this.  The trouble is that, unlike his brothers and sisters who also favour Baton Pass, Leafeon doesn’t really have a niche here.  Jolteon is one of the fastest Pokémon in the game, and as such it’s very difficult to stop him from passing.  Umbreon is easily the toughest Pokémon capable of passing Curse.  Espeon was hands-down the best Calm Mind passer (aside from Mew) even before she got Magic Bounce.  Vaporeon’s massive HP stat allows her to create and pass very powerful Substitutes to soak enemy attacks.  When we come to Leafeon… well, there are quite a few Pokémon who can pass Swords Dance, and many of them are very good at it.  Leafeon has competition from the likes of Scyther and Scizor, Blaziken, Mienshao, Gliscor, Ninjask… hell, Scolipede is faster than Leafeon and has a much better physical movepool.  Naturally, Leafeon also has a few nice moves like Wish, Yawn and Heal Bell that the whole family shares… but if you use Leafeon for those moves, you sort of have to ask yourself why you aren’t using Vaporeon or Espeon.

 Leafeon sitting in a secluded hideaway, by Peach-Momoko (http://peach-momoko.deviantart.com/).

The final insult is that Leafeon has a Dream World ability which would be absolutely perfect for a Swords Dance sweeper (as Sawsbuck demonstrates, in fact) – Chlorophyll doubles his speed in bright sunlight, allowing him to outrun practically everything that he could possibly want to.  Unfortunately, as we’ve established, Leafeon is not really a good sweeper because of his appalling physical movepool, and no amount of speed is likely to change that.  The Chlorophyll boost can’t be passed either (although it does, admittedly, make it easier for Leafeon to get off a Baton Pass without being knocked out).  His regular ability, Leaf Guard, makes him immune to poison, paralysis and the like in bright sunlight, which is very useful to have, certainly, but you don’t actually need status attacks to beat Leafeon anyway, and if he happens to take one while the weather is less than clement, Leaf Guard does him no good.

In the end, Leafeon is disturbingly reminiscent of Flareon; a theoretically powerful Pokémon who is utterly hamstrung by a lack of synergy within his skillset and a small variety of options.  He’s also, to my mind anyway, that most sinful of atrocities – a boring Pokémon with no clear design goals, and no particular niche to distinguish him from either the rest of his family or the rest of his element.  I realise this will probably sound like ‘new Pokémon hate,’ a pervasive evil which I prefer not to condone, but I really do think that Leafeon and Glaceon passed the ‘too much’ threshold for the Eevee family.  Better not give away too much of the next entry, though…

Turtwig, Grotle and Torterra

Turtwig.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori; that is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even Nintendo may die.Okay; Diamond and Pearl.  The last three starters (since I’ve already covered Tepig, Snivy and Oshawott).  I’ve always liked these three; the designs are quirky, they’re all pretty powerful (if I had to use a whole trio on a single team, this is probably the one I’d go for, although the Ruby/Sapphire ones give them a run for their money), and the way they interact with each other is pretty interesting in itself.  Let’s take a look at Turtwig and see how he measures up.

As you’ve probably read by now, I love all the Grass-type starters.  However, I think Torterra is the only one whose design potentially equals or betters Venusaur’s.  Turtwig, Grotle and Torterra are based on the old mythological motif of the ‘world turtle,’ who appears in several places around the world, but most famously in Hindu legend as one of the avatars of Vishnu, his shell serving as a pivot when the gods and demons together churn the ocean of milk using an upturned mountain to produce the water of life (it… was just that kind of Friday night, okay?).  The world turtle motif is directly referenced in the Pokémon world’s corresponding ancient myth that an enormous Torterra lived deep beneath the earth.  The design includes elements of every part of the natural world – earth, water, plants and animals.  Turtwig originally hosts a tiny sapling on his head, which grows into twin rows of bushes on Grotle’s shell of compacted soil, and finally into a huge tree on Torterra’s immense carapace, accompanied by great spikes of moss-covered stone.  Grotle often carry smaller Pokémon around on their backs over long distances, and Torterra becomes so large, and his foliage so luscious, that entire communities of Pokémon can be found on a wild Torterra’s back, creating a pocket ecosystem in which some Pokémon spend their whole lives.  Turtwig, Grotle and Torterra also have some minor powers related to water, completing their miniature world.  All Grass Pokémon, logically, are very reliant on water, but the designers seem to have wanted to drive it home with these three; they always live by lakes and rivers, drinking causes their shells to harden and grow strong, they have the special ability to sense sources of pure water, which they use to lead other Pokémon there, and wild Grotle are said to protect hidden springs.  These Pokémon aren’t just parts of ecosystems, they are ecosystems.  I love this design.  It’s detailed and fascinating, drawing on a well-known mythological motif combined with symbolically significant traits and powers to give Turtwig, Grotle and Torterra an interesting place in the world of Pokémon.  I don’t think it would be at all bold to say that Torterra is one of the best-designed Grass Pokémon in the entire history of the game.  My one minor gripe here is the scale; as Pokémon go, Torterra is pretty massive, more than two meters high and about five meters long, but I can’t help but feel that he (and perhaps Grotle as well) should be even bigger, to realistically fit their portrayal as supporters of whole communities.  At some point, though, it would become ridiculous to talk about using these things in a battle in a stadium.  Besides, we never see wild Torterra in the game; all of them are given out as starter Turtwig or hatched from eggs – who knows how old they get in the wild, or whether they ever stop growing?

The fact that they remind me of dinosaurs has nothing to do with why I like them.  Honest.

 Grotle.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

Turtwig is the only Grass-type starter who gains a second type upon evolving, becoming Grass/Ground, appropriately enough, upon reaching his final form (Bulbasaur is Grass/Poison to begin with, and the others stay pure-Grass all the way through).  This is interesting because it’s part of the way Game Freak decided to play with the traditional Grass/Fire/Water paradigm in Diamond and Pearl.  Normally, Grass drains Water, Fire burns Grass, and Water douses Fire, and this is the way Turtwig, Chimchar and Piplup work as well, but when they reach their adult forms, they mix up the usual strengths and weaknesses a little bit.  Torterra is a Ground-type, so even though he’s still vulnerable to Fire attacks, he can smack Infernape with a pretty nasty Earthquake.  Empoleon is a Steel-type, so he is no longer particularly weak against Grass attacks, but he’s almost as frightened of Earthquake as Infernape is.  On the flip side, Torterra’s second element makes him even more vulnerable to Empoleon’s Ice Beam than most Grass-types, and strips him of his resistance to Water attacks.  Finally, Empoleon can still hammer Infernape with Water attacks, but also has to be wary of Infernape’s Close Combat, since Steel Pokémon don’t like Fighting attacks one bit.  Essentially, the game starts with a traditional Grass-beats-Water-beats-Fire-beats-Grass setup, but by the end of the game all three have some pretty devastating guns to level against each other.  I suspect that quite a lot of thought went into this; it’s an interesting change to the usual dynamic and part of what I like about the fourth-generation starters.  It’s sort of a shame Black and White didn’t continue this – Emboar can smack Samurott around with Grass Knot or Wild Charge, if you have the appropriate TMs, and Samurott can give Serperior a Megahorn to the face, but they seem to have forgotten to give Serperior anything to hurt Emboar (as usual, Grass-types Don’t Get Nice Things).  Oh well…

 Torterra.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

The mechanics changes of Diamond and Pearl opened up the possibility of physical Grass attacks, so why not kick things off with a Grass-type physical tank?  Only two previous Grass Pokémon had ever shown a significant bias towards physical attacks over special attacks – Parasect and Breloom, whom, let’s face it, we use for Spore, not for their attacks (Breloom less and less as the generations passed, but Spore is still his biggest advantage) – so Torterra blazed new ground… and boy, did he blaze it.  Torterra is the slowest of all the starters, but possibly the toughest, and also one of the most powerful.  Curse is an obvious choice to emphasise those qualities since Torterra isn’t going to outrun anything that cares anyway, but if you want something a little less predictable you can try Rock Polish, to bring Torterra’s speed up to something resembling respectability, or even Swords Dance if you’re reckless enough.  Torterra’s primary attack, of course, is Earthquake; sadly, Grass attacks don’t combine particularly well with Ground attacks, since they share all of Ground’s offensive weaknesses.  If you do want one, you have two options; Wood Hammer is stronger than Seed Bomb, but Seed Bomb doesn’t cause recoil damage.  Rock attacks, on the other hand, do mesh very well with Earthquake, so Stone Edge is a good place to go.  Torterra’s other main offensive options are Crunch and Superpower; Superpower is much more useful for actually killing stuff, but the penalty it inflicts to the user’s physical attack and defence is particularly undesirable for a slow, bulky Pokémon like Torterra.  Leech Seed gets you a trickle of healing, though Torterra, with his large HP total and relative inability to stay in control of a Leech Seed/Substitute scenario, is not really an ideal candidate for using it; Synthesis is weather-dependent but probably your best option.  There are also a few support moves to mix things up if you feel so inclined; Reflect and Light Screen for team defence, the ever-present Stealth Rock is available from a TM on Diamond and Pearl if you don’t have a team member who can use it yet, Roar is always welcome on a slow, tough Pokémon for messing with your opponent’s strategies, and for a particularly defensive Torterra you might use Stockpile, a hereditary move from Carnivine or Victreebel, which boosts both defence and special defence together (it has other effects, but they are irrelevant and distracting).

It’s not all good news, of course.  Grass/Ground is a fairly poor defensive typing, with two resistances and an immunity to four weaknesses – including a crippling double-weakness to Ice.  Torterra is very easily dealt with using a good solid Ice Beam, and he’s too slow to do much about it.  He also has difficulty handling other Grass-types, who are largely unperturbed by most of his offensive powers.  In short, although he’s a perfectly respectable Pokémon, he has some crucial flaws, and is much less versatile than a Pokémon like Venusaur, which makes him a lot easier to stop.  However, if you play him to his strengths, Torterra can flatten some powerful enemies, and with some of the coolest flavour I’ve ever seen in Pokémon, he’s easily one of my favourite starters.

Treecko, Grovyle and Sceptile

Treecko.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori; beauty is in the eye of Nintendo.Sometimes it’s good to have trends within a Pokémon type.  They add a sense of identity, a feeling that these Pokémon are defined by more than just an arbitrarily assigned set of elemental powers.  Of course, half of the joy in having trends and stereotypes is in finding fun ways to break them, and so it is that the third Grass-type starter was something quite unusual indeed; a highly mobile, aggressive Grass Pokémon.  Treecko, Grovyle and Sceptile belong to the inherently badass jungle fighter archetype, which is appealing because Grass Pokémon don’t normally go for ‘badass’ – their power is typically of a very understated sort.  Ruby and Sapphire were the beginning of a shift towards more diversity in that respect, introducing Grass-types like Shiftry, Cacturne, Breloom… and these guys.  They’re geckos, of course, and as geckos their padded feet can grip onto just about any surface; they can climb walls and walk on ceilings, no problem, which means they can come at you from any direction they damn well please.  They’re also difficult to spot in their natural habitat, so they can come at you from any direction they damn well please without you knowing about it.  Unlike geckos, they’re also ridiculously agile; so they can come at you from any direction they damn well please without you knowing about it and then be back in the canopy again before you even know what you’re fighting.  The sharp-edged leaves that sprout from Grovyle’s wrists are the icing on the cake.  You can’t beat these Pokémon in the jungle, short of burning the jungle down (the major tragic weakness of the jungle fighter archetype, as revealed time and again throughout history).  In short, they’re very unusual among Grass-types for exploiting speed as their greatest asset; the only older Pokémon with comparable speed was Jumpluff, who’s a supporter through and through.  Accordingly, while Venusaur and Meganium channelled ‘wise forest sage’ and ‘gentle natural healer’ in their designs, Treecko, Grovyle and Sceptile take on far more militant roles as the guardians of the forest.  Treecko is said to nest deep in the heart of old forests and protect them from intruders, while Sceptile uses his powers to grow and nurture trees.  These are good things to know; ultimately, “this Pokémon is fast and good at stabbing things” is something we should be able to figure out from the way Sceptile handles in a fight, so telling us about their role in a forest ecosystem is far more valuable to developing a complete and detailed picture of what they’re really like.

 Grovyle.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

I wouldn’t call these Pokémon perfectly designed.  In particular, I’ve never been totally happy with the progression from Grovyle to Sceptile.  I remember thinking, when I first played Sapphire, that Grovyle might evolve into a Flying-type; it seemed like it would be the logical extension of the progression from Treecko, and part of me still thinks so (and he wouldn’t be the only Hoenn starter without a dual-type).  Maybe it’s just me, but although Sceptile is clearly stronger physically, I have trouble accepting that he’s as quick and accurate as Grovyle.  That enormous leafy tail seems it would just get in the way leaping from branch to branch.  Moreover, it gives the wrong impression of how Sceptile stands and moves; a tail like that is surely a counterweight for standing upright on the ground, not a high priority for a creature who spends most of his time in the canopy, relying as much on his hands for support as on his feet.  You could link this with Sceptile’s emerging role as a caretaker of the plants more than a combative defender, as symbolised by the seed pods growing on his back, but he’s still supposed to be a lightning-quick fighter mainly reliant on agility.  I think Grovyle’s art is a better expression of the concept than Sceptile’s, which is an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise pleasing and unconventional design.  From an artistic perspective, Sceptile definitely could have used a bit more emphasis on speed, and less on strength.  He’s still as composed, confident and dangerous as Treecko and Grovyle, but perhaps not as practical, or as directly intimidating.

 Sceptile.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

Sceptile is the second-fastest Grass Pokémon in the game, after the legendary Shaymin in Sky form.  He also has one of the higher special attack stats among Grass-types.  Everything comes at a price, though, and Sceptile is just about the most fragile of all the starter Pokémon.  Sceptile’s major selling point in Ruby and Sapphire, when he was first released, was his signature move, Leaf Blade, which at the time was just about the best Grass attack in the game (it wasn’t even particularly good; it’s just that the other Grass attacks weren’t much competition).  Still, it cemented Sceptile’s position as one of the better Grass-type attackers, with Crunch, Dragon Claw and (on Emerald) Thunderpunch for backup.  Clearly Game Freak had learned from their mistake with Feraligatr, since they made Sceptile best at using special attacks when his flavour suggests he should be a physical attacker – Leaf Blade, weirdly, was a special attack at the time (like all Grass attacks), and the most important thing was making him good at using his own signature move.  Of course, what happened next was that Diamond and Pearl started classifying attacks individually instead of by type and suddenly all of Sceptile’s best moves were physical attacks.  You just can’t win with these people.  Diamond and Pearl did also give him Dragon Pulse and Focus Blast (something many Grass-types would kill for – a powerful, if unreliable, way of dealing with Steel-types), as well as, finally, better Grass attacks, like Grass Knot, Energy Ball and Leaf Storm, and that’s pretty much where Sceptile is today; he doesn’t have enough attacks to score many super-effective hits, but between Dragon Pulse and Focus Blast he can manage neutral damage against most anything, and those Leaf Storms hurt.  Sceptile does get Swords Dance, too, so you can make a physical attacker of him, between his decent attack stat, his excellent speed, and his wider physical movepool (which has always included Earthquake, and gained X-Scissor and Rock Slide in Diamond and Pearl and Acrobatics in Black and White).  Leaf Blade got a damage buff too in Diamond and Pearl, probably to compensate Sceptile for switching it to physical.

 Grovyle being awesome, by AbusoRugia (http://abusorugia.deviantart.com/), whose fanart is extensive and beautiful.

Of course, just because you can use Sceptile as an attacker doesn’t mean you have to.  Sceptile lacks the huge support movepool of a typical Grass-type, but he does get Leech Seed, which means the old standby of Leech Seed/Substitute is open to him.  The way this works is that you slap a Leech Seed on something with a lot of hit points and sacrifice your health to create Substitutes that block attacks while the seed keeps you healthy and steadily weakens your opponent, leading to slow and painful death.  This is tricky to pull off, but – somewhat counterintuitively – speed actually helps much more than toughness, because being able to move before your opponent is crucial to staying in control of the situation if something unexpected happens, so Sceptile is extremely good at it (not as good as Whimsicott, thanks to her lovely ability, but still good).  Pretty sure the only other thing left to talk about it abilities… Sceptile is one of the few starters who’s probably better off with the generic starter ability, Overgrow, than with his Dream World ability, Unburden.  Unburden gives Sceptile a free speed boost when he loses or consumes an item he’s holding and, well, honestly speed is the least of Sceptile’s worries.  I’m sure you can turn Unburden to your advantage with a bit of thought because in general it’s quite a useful ability in combination with berries and the like, but most of the time you’ll likely be better off with Overgrow; the devastating power of Sceptile’s Leaf Storm is possibly his biggest selling point, so anything that can potentially add to that is probably a good idea.

I can’t help but feel that what should have happened with Sceptile is for Game Freak to swap around his attack and special attack stats with the advent of Diamond and Pearl.  Tinkering with a Pokémon’s stats like that is admittedly very unorthodox; apart from the splitting of special into special attack and special defence in Gold and Silver, Game Freak have never done anything even remotely similar.  Still, the reason for Sceptile’s current stat distribution is Leaf Blade’s former status as a special attack – surely it makes sense that when practically his entire offensive movepool, including his signature move, flipped to physical, he should have flipped with it?  Personally I place a great deal of value on Pokémon being good at the things that they’re good at.  Still, Sceptile’s a solid Pokémon, and even if I think Treecko and Grovyle did a much better job of conveying the point of the design, Sceptile’s regal bearing makes him a decent “lord of the forest.”

Chikorita, Bayleef and Meganium

Chikorita.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori; blood for Nintendo; skulls for their skull throne!Yay; more Grass-types!  Like Bulbasaur, Chikorita was part of my childhood (less so, since I started to splash out a little on Silver and actually picked one of the other two starters from time to time) so, of course, I love her to bits.  However, I must be strong.  I have to talk about what these Pokémon mean for me personally, but I’ll do my best to discuss them objectively too…

Here’s something you might not know about me: I was a dinosaur kid.  Now, I don’t mean that like how all boys go through the dinosaur phase and learn to rattle off the names of the dozen or so coolest ones that were in Jurassic Park and play with models.  I mean some of my first words were dinosaur names, I had the evolutionary lineage of the whole damn Order Archosauria memorised by the time I was ten, I used to get really ticked off with people who called Pteranodon a ‘flying dinosaur,’ I was genuinely remorseful that humanity only existed because dinosaurs had gone extinct, while all the other kids were playing with T-Rex and Triceratops I was into the really hipster dinosaurs like Scutellosaurus and Homalocephale, and I’m even worse now because I’ve studied Latin and Greek and know what all the names actually mean.  Chikorita, Bayleef and Meganium were basically my ideal partners, because as well as being Grass-types they were also clearly based on sauropods (‘lizard-feet,’ from the Greek σαυρος, lizard, and πους/ποδ-, foot – booyeah!).  Their plant characteristics are a little light, but add to their existing cuteness, and I like the way the buds of Chikorita’s ‘necklace’ grow larger and then burst into bloom, much like the pattern we saw with Bulbasaur’s bulb – it’s odd, though, that the leaf on her head grows when she evolves into Bayleef but then disappears entirely when she finishes up as Meganium, replaced by those weird antennae.  I mean, I guess they’re supposed to resemble the stamen and anther of a flower, which does fit, but attached to an animal they have a strange insectoid feel; still, they’re a small enough detail that they don’t mess with the design, and Meganium’s head would look too plain without them, so I’m okay with it (would’ve preferred something more obviously herbaceous, that’s all).  Anyway; Chikorita’s thing is scent.  Her leaves and buds release a sweet, relaxing aroma with mild soporific properties; breathing in Chikorita’s scent makes people and Pokémon calmer and friendlier, though not enough to have any effect in battle (bizarrely, until Diamond and Pearl Chikorita couldn’t even learn Sweet Scent).  Meganium’s flower has a similar effect, while Bayleef’s spicy aroma does just the opposite, stimulating and energising Pokémon to get them in the mood for fighting.  That reversal is strange, but I suppose you could handwave it as, like, Bayleef’s rebellious teenager phase or something; I don’t know.  Meganium’s other power is her restorative breath, which can miraculously bring dead plants back to life – again, not something tremendously useful in a fight, but awesome nonetheless, bringing out the same ‘forest guardian’ aspect as Venusaur has.  Like the sauropods they’re based on, Chikorita and her evolutions are very gentle creatures; they don’t like to fight and so have powers related to peace and healing.  It’s straightforward, and it makes sense.  This isn’t a design that makes me want to jump up and down singing about how clever it is, and it makes no particularly brilliant conceptual leaps.  Actually, I think Tropius, from Ruby and Sapphire, is a more interesting take on the same idea.  Nonetheless, for what she is, Chikorita is far from a failed design; she’s cute, she has well-defined character traits, and Meganium’s healing powers make her an ideal Grass Pokémon leader.

 Bayleef.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

Meganium’s stat spread is almost exactly the same as Venusaur’s, but with two of the scores switched around – as you might expect, her special attacks are much weaker than his, in exchange for greater physical defence.  She’s pretty tough, though her attacks lack pepper (they’re not unusable, though – I mean, people stick physical attacks on Venusaur, and his stat is the same as hers).  As a defensive Pokémon, Meganium is attractive because of her support moves: she has Reflect, Safeguard and Light Screen to protect your team, Synthesis for recovery, good old Leech Seed if you want to be a pain, and Aromatherapy to cure your own side’s status problems.  Basically, we’re looking at a traditional Grass-type support Pokémon, with a particularly pronounced defensive bias – as of Gold and Silver, the only fully-evolved Grass Pokémon with a primary attack stat lower than Meganium’s was Jumpluff.  Meganium’s main problem isn’t her offensive capabilities, though – like I said, her attacks aren’t unusable by any means.  Her problem is that she’s, well, a dinosaur, in more ways than one.  Meganium has hardly changed at all over the years since she was created.  Picking up Counter as a hereditary move (via Breloom) in Ruby and Sapphire gave her a nice surprise to spring on powerful physical attackers, especially since there aren’t many who can one-shot her, Aromatherapy is nice, as mentioned, and Black and White’s addition of Dragon Tail gives her a new potential role shuffling opponents in and out of play, but that’s pretty much it.  Grass-types in general have benefited from the eventual creation of Grass attacks that, y’know, don’t suck, like Energy Ball and Leaf Storm, but offense has never been Meganium’s thing anyway.  Picking up a physical Grass-type move, Seed Bomb, in Platinum was cool, I guess, since Meganium’s only other Swords Dance material was (and remains) Earthquake and Body Slam.  Her (as-yet unavailable) Dream World ability, Leaf Guard, protects Meganium from status ailments while Sunny Day is in effect, which… is ‘nice’ but, because of Aromatherapy, Meganium doesn’t really give a fig about status effects anyway.  For the most part, Meganium handles exactly the same way as she did when she was introduced, while everyone else has been learning awesome new tricks around her, and since Meganium wasn’t exactly a top-shelf Pokémon when she was introduced anyway, that’s kind of a problem.

 Aquabat (http://aquabat9.deviantart.com/) shows Meganium catching some rays.

Objectively, I have to admit Meganium’s got her problems.  I’ve always had a vague notion that Gold and Silver had the least interesting starters, overall, and Meganium has to take some of the blame for that; other than being a dinosaur (which, let us not forget, is awesome) she just has a bunch of plant-themed traits and abilities that really aren’t all that unique or clever.  To be fair to her, no other Grass-type has the same degree of focus on the healing properties of plants; she does represent an important archetype and it’s another of the reasons I love her, but even that feels a little tacked on.  She’s not particularly strong, either; as a starter she’s automatically decent because of her good stats, but she lacks offensive presence, and that’s not just a question of her actual attack and special attack stats because they aren’t that bad.  Her problem is more that she doesn’t learn many moves with which to threaten her enemies; she has few direct attack options, and equally few indirect options.  With no Stun Spore or Sleep Powder, or for that matter anything bar Toxic (which everyone gets) and Leech Seed (which is annoying but difficult to use effectively, especially for slower Pokémon), there’s just not a whole lot she can do to threaten anything.  Part of the problem is that there are relatively few attacks that it’s ‘okay,’ thematically speaking, to give to Grass Pokémon, and “just give them all Sleep Powder and Stun Spore” isn’t really a solution (you could probably get away with giving Meganium, say, Calm Mind and Dragon Pulse though…).

 Meganium.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

Y’know what, though?  I still love Meganium, and that’s not likely to change.  In a sense, the kind of comments I make on Pokémon are ultimately futile, because however rational and objective I try to be, and however I argue my points, there’s always going to be someone who loves the Pokémon I judge poorly – and the proof is that, today, that someone is me!  That’s why – in my opinion – it’s probably best to view what I do as more an exercise in prioritising.  There’s nothing wrong with making new Pokémon.  I could probably find positive things to say for just about everyone in the whole damn Pokédex (with… certain noteworthy exceptions); I just question whether forging ahead with 100+ new Pokémon in every generation is really the best use of the developers’ limited time and money when there’s actually a whole lot more that could be done with the Pokémon that exist already.  Very few of these designs are legitimately bad; it’s all a question of how much time and effort goes into developing them.

Eheh… had a bit of an introspective moment there.  What can I say?  Talking about Grass-types just makes me mushy, I guess.

Bulbasaur, Ivysaur and Venusaur

Oh, Bulbasaur; I know you aren’t as popular as Squirtle or Charmander, but my heart will always belong to you…

 Bulbasaur.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori; we are all part of the Great Circle of Nintendo.

Today is basically going to be one huge nostalgia trip for me, since we’ll be looking at my first Pokémon ever: Bulbasaur, the first-generation Grass-type starter Pokémon.  It’s hard for me to express how much I loved this little guy; I honestly don’t think I ever chose a different starter on any of my myriad playthroughs of Blue version as a kid (I branched out a little on Leaf Green, but Bulbasaur remained my favourite).  It’s probably fair to say I’m slightly biased, but I will do the best I can to back myself up with sensible argument.  Here’s why I think Bulbasaur is awesome.

 

What made Bulbasaur stand out amongst the Grass Pokémon of Red and Blue was his heavy emphasis on the idea of symbiosis.  Most of the first-generation Grass-types (in fact, most Grass-types full stop) are plants – Oddish, Bellsprout, Tangela and Exeggcute may move, talk and fight, but they’re very clearly plants with a couple of animal traits rather than the other way around.  The subsequent Grass-type starters, and a few other weirdoes like Leafeon, all reject the trend and are animals with a couple of plant traits.  Bulbasaur is unique in being neither; his appearance gives the impression of two distinct but joined organisms, one animal and one plant, and this is explicitly what he is, with a seed “planted on its back at birth.”  Even today, there’s only one other Pokémon that balances its plant and animal aspects in the same way, and it’s actually one that’s been around from the beginning.  It’s Paras.  Truthfully, though, Paras and Parasect with their story of parasitism are even stranger.  They may be terrible Pokémon but they have one of the most fascinating designs of the entire first generation; they’re not the point of this entry, though.  The point is, although Bulbasaur is the first Grass Pokémon many trainers will ever meet, he’s not at all archetypal; in fact he’s the best example of an idea that the subsequent Grass starters never quite caught onto.  In Bulbasaur’s Mysterious Garden, Brock describes Bulbasaur, Ivysaur and Venusaur as a symbol of nature’s interconnectedness and the fundamental dependence plants and animals have on each other.  He’s perhaps poeticising a bit excessively, but I actually quite like this way of looking at them; if you wanted to come up with such a symbol, you could do much worse than Bulbasaur.  It might have been nice if the later starters had explored symbiosis in different ways to create contrasts with Bulbasaur – Torterra, actually, does this quite well – but he’s still fun on his own.  As compared to the other starters of his own set, Bulbasaur is a little odd.  Squirtle and Charmander follow broadly similar progressions from cute through tough to full-on badass; Blastoise with his heavy cannons and Charizard with his, y’know, being a freakin’ dragon.  Bulbasaur is different.  I think he is meant to be cute (well, I think he’s cute) but clearly not so overtly as Charmander or Squirtle; he almost seems to aim for the ‘tough’ aesthetic from the beginning (the fact that he’s the only quadruped in the group is probably a factor since it adds to his physical stability) and then just builds on it as he grows through Ivysaur to Venusaur.  ‘Badass’ is a hard adjective to define, but I don’t think it describes Venusaur, or at least not as well as it describes Blastoise and Charizard.  Instead Venusaur projects a sense of age, experience and self-control – this is a Pokémon that can fight, but chooses not to.  Venusaur is not for everyone, but for me it was his differences that made him my favourite.

 Ivysaur.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

I’m sentimental, of course, but there are plenty of reasons to like Bulbasaur’s line other than their design characteristics.  Venusaur is a starter Pokémon, and as such high stats are his birthright – solid all around, with a bias towards his special stats.  Back in the olden days, Venusaur was the fastest Grass Pokémon in the game, which made him a good choice for using Grass’s two big trump cards: Sleep Powder and Leech Seed.  He was also one of only two fully evolved Grass Pokémon (the other being Victreebel) with Razor Leaf, easily the best Grass-type attack at the time because of Red and Blue’s idiosyncratic critical hit mechanics and the absence of any way to speed up a Solarbeam.  On the ‘con’ side, Venusaur was a Poison-type Pokémon in a world ruled by Psychic-types, an uncomfortable place to be, and Poison had no powerful attacks in Red and Blue.  Over the years, Venusaur developed into a versatile tank who can focus on physical or special, offense or defence.  With the advent of Sunny Day, Razor Leaf was replaced by Solarbeam as the Grass type’s strongest offensive option, then Solarbeam eventually by Giga Drain and Seed Bomb, but Leech Seed and Sleep Powder remained potent weapons in Venusaur’s arsenal.  He gained the ability to rebalance himself towards slow, bulky physical offense with Curse in Gold and Silver; with the addition of Earthquake to his movepool in Ruby and Sapphire, he can act as a competent physical tank.  Power Whip and Leaf Storm present devastating options for Grass-type damage.  As a Grass-type, Venusaur is also one of the few Pokémon who actually appreciates having Poison as a secondary offensive element in the form of Sludge Bomb, since it can swiftly deal with other Grass Pokémon, who are immune to Leech Seed and resistant to Earthquake.  Finally, Synthesis lets Venusaur heal – it may be unreliable, dependent as it is on fine weather, but it backs up his reasonable defensive stats nicely.

 Venusaur.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

Black and White brought Venusaur two major gifts, the first of which is Growth.  Growth has been a part of Venusaur’s movepool from the beginning, but its usefulness decayed after the special stat was split into special attack and special defence in Gold and Silver, since it then increased only special attack, not both.  Black and White have given Growth – and with it, many Grass Pokémon – a new lease on life; it now increases both physical and special attack, giving Venusaur more diverse options for putting together an offensive moveset.  Even better, Growth’s effect is now doubled in bright sunlight, allowing Venusaur to slot quite neatly into almost any sun team as a dangerous bulky sweeper.  The other great blessing Venusaur received was his Dream World ability, Chlorophyll.  When Ruby and Sapphire introduced abilities Venusaur, like all the other starters, received an ability that boosts the damage of his elemental attacks when his health is low (for the Grass-types, this ability is called Overgrow).  While this is nice to have, it’s difficult to plan to make use of it.  Chlorophyll, on the other hand, an ability available to many Grass Pokémon which doubles their speed in bright sunlight, compliments the newly-improved Growth perfectly to make the Grass-types that possess both extremely dangerous.  Several other Grass Pokémon have this combination, but few of them can compete with Venusaur. Victreebel is stronger, but he’s also much frailer and doesn’t learn Earthquake, which limits the usefulness of his excellent physical attack score.  Tangrowth is so slow that he still risks being outrun even with the Chlorophyll boost, and his special defence is shockingly bad (though it’s worth noting that Tangrowth can sit and get pummelled by physical attacks all day without blinking).  Shiftry is fast and has a nice movepool, whether you want to go physical, special, or both, but curls up and dies after even the weakest attacks.  This is not to say that all three don’t have advantages of their own, of course, but Venusaur is definitely up there with the strongest solar Pokémon.  Getting your hands on a Dream World Bulbasaur may not necessarily be easy, but they are out there, so see if you can find something valuable to trade for one.

As my very first Pokémon, Bulbasaur has inevitably become something of a gold standard for me.  A simple but well-executed design with pleasing symbolic connotations, coupled with measures of power and versatility that, for most of his history anyway (the additions from Black and White change this somewhat), have proven generous without creating an unachievable benchmark for the poor rank-and-file Pokémon.  Even today, even if I must admit to having soft spots for many of them, given the choice of any of the fifteen starter Pokémon of the past and present, I would find it very difficult not to stop looking at #001.

The Top Ten Worst Pokémon Ever, #8: Sunflora

I’ve searched long and hard to bring you the worst Grass Pokémon of all time, and I reckon I’ve found it.  Yes, I sincerely think that even Maractus is… um, that is to say… on balance, I really think that Maractus…
 
…look, I don’t want to say it.  I can’t actually go on the record as saying that Maractus might be… y’know… better than something.  I just couldn’t take it.  Haven’t I been through enough?
 
Okay, today’s Pokémon is Sunflora, who really is the worst Grass Pokémon ever, with the most boring design and arguably with the weakest powers as well.  Sunflora, the sunflower Pokémon, was released way back in Gold and Silver and is the evolved form of Sunkern, a tiny seed Pokémon whose unfortunate claim to fame is that she has the worst stats of any Pokémon in the entire game (yes, worse than Magikarp and Caterpie).  Sunkern is… bizarre.  The reason this entry is titled “Sunflora” and not “Sunkern and Sunflora” is that I honestly think Sunkern is an absolutely fascinating Pokémon.  Like Metapod, Sunkern spends her entire life preparing for evolution.  She eats nothing, rarely moves, drinks only morning dew, and can defend herself only by vigorously shaking her leaves in the general direction of her attackers.  She also, and I quote, “suddenly falls out of the sky in the morning.”  This… is probably the weirdest non sequitur the Pokédex has ever spat at me, which is saying something, and it keeps doing it; variations of the same line reoccur in game after game, like it’s the most important aspect of the design, but there’s never been any explanation of where they fall from or how they get there.  For all I know, Sunkern inflate themselves with helium while they sleep and gently drift into the sky each night before expelling the gas with a massive belch in the morning and plummeting back to earth.  That’s why I find myself unable to dislike Sunkern; I can’t muster any emotion towards her at all other than abject bewilderment.  Sunflora, on the other hand, I am capable of disliking with immense vigour.  The entire point of Sunflora’s design was that she gains nutrition and energy from sunlight and is extremely active during the day, but becomes inactive after sunset.  The first problem is that this is a baseline characteristic of all Grass Pokémon.  They’re plants, they all draw energy from the sun; even Gloom and Vileplume, who are based on one of the few plants in the world that doesn’t photosynthesise, learn Solarbeam and were eventually given the Chlorophyll ability in Ruby and Sapphire.  The second and much thornier problem (if I may be excused the pun) is that Sunflora wasn’t even the only Grass Pokémon introduced in Gold and Silver who was associated particularly closely with the sun.  The other was Bellossom, whose ritualistic dances to summon the sun are a far more interesting way of emphasising the solar connection than Sunflora’s frightfully generic characteristics.  There’s nothing to justify Sunflora’s existence.  I mean it.  I’ve checked.

That, then, is why I think Sunflora deserves everything she suffers; now to look at what exactly constitutes that suffering.  Sunflora is, in many ways, the epitome of “Grass-types don’t get nice things.”  Like many Grass Pokémon, she enjoys an excellent special attack stat.  Sadly, that’s all she has to offer; she’s delicate and one of the slowest Pokémon in the game, so many opponents can simply outrun her and stomp her into the dirt.  Sunflora’s passive abilities are the key to her survival; Chlorophyll doubles her speed in bright sunlight, while Solar Power boosts her special attack in bright sunlight by burning up a bit of her health each turn.  Clearly, as her design would lead us to expect, Sunflora needs Sunny Day to operate effectively (she can either set it up herself or have another Pokémon that’s actually competent do it for her).  Solar Power is great for offense and will allow Sunflora to rip through her enemies like tissue paper with Solarbeam or Leaf Storm, but it exacerbates her frailty and, unlike Chlorophyll, doesn’t address her biggest problem – her lack of speed.  Chlorophyll, on the other hand, doesn’t give Sunflora the power she needs to muscle through strong opponents before they murder her; moreover, Sunflora is so slow to begin with that many Pokémon still outrun her at twice her normal speed, and a lot of them can one-shot her without difficulty.  As a Grass-type, Sunflora’s offensive movepool is very limited outside of Grass attacks; the only bright spot is Earth Power, which allows her to take revenge upon Fire- and Poison-types, but you have to jump through hoops to get it; she learns it from a move tutor on Heart Gold and Soul Silver.  Sunkern from the Dream World may have Earth Power, but they’ll also have Sunflora’s Dream World ability, Early Bird (and if you thought Sunflora was useless when she had to choose between Chlorophyll and Solar Power, wait until you see what she’s like with neither).  Even with Earth Power, her only option against most Bug- and Flying-types is Sludge Bomb (heaven help her if she comes up against a Crobat or something).  She has some of the support moves you’d expect from a Grass-type, but she’s too slow and too fragile for them to save her; even Leech Seed, Ingrain and sun-boosted Synthesis can’t help her if she’s going to drop after one hit anyway, and many physical attacks will drop her.  Light Screen keeps her safe from special attacks, at least, if she can get it up fast enough (which she can’t).

Not quite what I had in mind, but you get the general idea.  This Grass/Fire evolution of Sunflora is the work of Ryknow, whose Pokémon fanart can be found at http://www.smogon.com/forums/showthread.php?t=64295

Sunflora practically embodies everything that has ever gone wrong with the Grass type… and now, heaven help me, I have to try to fix her.  The major difficulty is that I don’t think I’m allowed to evolve Sunflora.  Sunkern evolves through use of a Sun Stone, and long-established convention dictates that once a Pokémon uses an evolutionary stone, it’s the end of the line – so we have to change something else.  Chlorophyll and Solar Power are already really good abilities.  That’s not to say we can’t write a better one, but it would have to be pretty obscene; it might be fun to try a kind of über-Chlorophyll that grants priority (like Quick Attack) to all attacks of the user’s own type.  What I want to do is retcon her into a Grass/Fire dual-type (giving her very strong coverage to use with the ability I’m suddenly going to call Solar Vigour) and liberally splash her artwork with reds, oranges and some flame imagery.  According to this version of Sunflora, Sunkern are born when the rays of the morning sun strike seeds blowing on the wind, which is why they mysteriously drop out of the sky every morning.  They carry a glowing spark of sunfire inside their bodies, but because of their weakness it quickly goes out and they have to store and conserve their energy to reignite it when they evolve into Sunflora.  Sunflora collect and amplify solar energy to fuel their fire, but they cannot store that energy, so they become dormant at night to keep their fire from burning out.  During the day, their flowers shine like tiny suns and encourage other plants to grow rapidly.  Sunflora have to live near water, because their ability to amplify sunlight sometimes causes soil to become parched in summer (one of the few salient points of Sunflora’s original ‘dex entries is that she needs a lot of water to be healthy – which, again, is fairly standard for a plant, but I’m going to run with it).  Unfortunately for me, I don’t think it’s technically ‘allowed’ to retcon a Pokémon’s type (it happened with Magneton in Gold and Silver, but only because the Steel type didn’t exist before then), which means that I can only have my Fire-typed Sunflora either by breaking the evolution rule or by retconning the way Sunkern evolves, which is likewise unprecedented (Feebas gained a new path to evolution in Black and White, the Prism Scale, but technically the old way still works too – it’s just that the mechanic supporting it has dropped into obscurity).  I think my rewrite is still better than what Sunflora’s got at the moment even without Grass/Fire typing, and would just about fit if she gained Weather Ball or Heat Wave, either of which would dramatically improve her coverage. I’m also tempted to give her Agility, since Sunflora is characterised by frenetic activity during the daylight hours and honestly shouldn’t be slower than a tortoise in a sack race; provided she had someone else to set up Sunny Day for her, Agility might make Sunflora fast enough for Solar Power to be a realistic option.
 
Honestly, I think we’ve been written into a corner with Sunflora.  Except for giving her Weather Ball and Agility, which I don’t think would be enough on their own (they’ll help, but Sunflora needs something that will fundamentally change her fighting style), every suggestion I can think of is forbidden by an unwritten law of Pokémon design.  I advocate writing down these laws, and then burning them because they are dumb.  For now, though, I have to move on to my next unmitigated disaster…