OH DEAR GODS IT’S INFERNAPE RUN YOU FOOLS
These are Pokémon to inspire terror. You wouldn’t know it to look at them, but trust me, they are. Not because of sheer power – Charizard, Typhlosion and Blaziken are more powerful than Infernape – but because of two things that, in Pokémon, are often far more important: speed and versatility. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Ladies and gentlemen: Chimchar, Monferno and Infernape.
The first thing you notice about these Pokémon is that they don’t really have a lot of heft to them. Charmander, Cyndaquil and even Torchic are more solidly built than Chimchar, and that doesn’t change as they evolve. This is because Chimchar marks a (small) divergence, at last, from the fire-as-destroyer archetype and focuses on a closely related quality of fire – its speed. Like Rapidash and Arcanine, Chimchar, Monferno and Infernape are Fire Pokémon whose element manifests not as huge destructive power but as phenomenal agility. They are among the few Fire-types who are not described as fighting primarily with their fire; one assumes that they do, and they do learn attacks like Ember and Fire Spin, but they seem to prefer using fire to intimidate enemies rather than to incinerate them directly (Monferno and Infernape’s bright facial markings, blue and red respectively, likewise seem meant for intimidation, as in mandrills and similar species). There’s actually something of a disconnect here, in that Infernape is really just as good at special attacks as at physical attacks, but this bothers me far less than all the Pokémon who aren’t good at the things they are supposed to be, so I’ll leave it. Rather than using fire, Chimchar and his evolutions use flurries of lightning-quick blows from all of their limbs simultaneously and from every possible direction to batter foes into submission – as might well be expected from anthropomorphic monkeys with prehensile limbs and tails (or a practitioner of ‘monkey’ style kung fu). This kind of acrobatic, literally off-the-wall combat style, familiar to us all from martial arts films, has few other exponents in the world of Pokémon; before Infernape, I can think of maybe Hitmontop, and after him, Mienshao. Is it especially clever creating a monkey Pokémon based on monkey kung fu? Perhaps not, but it makes sense, and it’s pretty damn kickass. Aesthetically speaking… aesthetically Chimchar bugs me; his proportions seem off, his head too big for his scrawny body and limbs – it’s a common feature of most primates, I think, that infants have disproportionately large heads, but you can go too far (the effect is reduced in the in-game sprites, but it’s still there). I suspect they may have made him too human; his hands, eyes and hair remind me, disconcertingly, of a human baby, but then he has no nose… if you’re familiar with the ‘uncanny valley’ effect, this is what Chimchar makes me feel. Monferno and Infernape lose that, though, so I suppose I’m okay with it. It’s also a little strange that Infernape loses his flaming tail and gains a crown of flames instead, but I can’t deny it does look cool, as does the spiral motif that develops out of the swirls visible on Chimchar and Monferno’s chests, adding to the overall impression of fluidity.
As we learned in Blaziken’s entry, however, Infernape has committed a fairly serious sin: he pretty much stole her schtick, in the process becoming the nexus of just about the biggest balance clusterfuck this franchise has ever seen (or would have seen, if game balance had ever been a thing in Pokémon anyway). Blaziken, when she was introduced, was the only Fire/Fighting type, and a powerful and terrifying mixed attacker with a wide range of dangerous attacks. Come Diamond and Pearl, she was still a powerful and terrifying mixed attacker with a wide range of dangerous attacks… but Infernape had all that, and blinding speed to back it up. Most offensive Pokémon are best used by focussing solely on either physical or special attacks; likewise, you’ll get the most mileage out of many defensive Pokémon by focussing solely on one type of defence. You can use Infernape and Blaziken this way, and they will perform wonderfully. However, they also perform wonderfully as mixed attackers, called ‘wallbreakers’ for their ability to consistently pick on the weaker defensive sides of powerful defensive Pokémon like Weezing and Snorlax. Now, yes, Blaziken’s attack and special attack stats are higher than Infernape’s. However, we’re talking here about two Pokémon whose job is to use some of the most powerful attacks in the game (Fire Blast, Flare Blitz, Earthquake, Close Combat, Focus Blast, Hi Jump Kick) to hammer Pokémon who are specialised in the wrong kind of defence. At this point, extra power isn’t all that big a deal. Speed, on the other hand, is the only all-or-nothing stat in Pokémon – you’re either faster than your opponent or you aren’t – and as such, a few points of speed can be disproportionately useful or useless depending on exactly how fast you are. In this case, extra speed means outrunning some of the most powerful Pokémon in the game and potentially landing a fatal hit where you might otherwise wind up sprawled on the ground. With access to both Swords Dance and Nasty Plot, Infernape can buff either of his offensive stats to ridiculous levels anyway, should you so desire. To add insult to injury, Infernape gets U-Turn, which Blaziken lacks, the so-called ‘best move in the game,’ for its ability to switch a Pokémon out after seeing whether your opponent will do the same, and if so, what’s being switched in (the fact that it does damage as well is the icing on the cake). It’s hard to think of a reason to use Blaziken over Infernape… or at least, it was in Diamond and Pearl, before part two of that balance clusterfuck happened and Blaziken got Speed Boost, and you can read all about that in her entry.
So, assuming no Speed Boost for Blaziken (and Dream World abilities for starter Pokémon aren’t exactly easy to get; all of the released Dream World starters are male, which makes breeding them impossible) Infernape is, essentially, ‘Blaziken, only better.’ Swampert had a similar thing going on with Feraligatr, but Feraligatr later staked out his own territory, and the fact that Blaziken and Infernape share the same specific type combination, Fire/Fighting, accentuates our natural impulse to compare the two. If Infernape existed in a vacuum, so to speak, I would regard this as a job well done. He’s one of those Pokémon that can swing matches very quickly, but he’s also quite delicate and has a couple of nasty common weaknesses, so I don’t think I’d say he’s too strong, taken in isolation. Infernape doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though. I don’t think the designers necessarily realised that Infernape is better (or, more adequately, has more potential) than Blaziken, since it’s pretty clear they don’t think about individual Pokémon in the same way or under the same conditions as studied competitive players, but it must surely have occurred to them that the two Pokémon have very similar sets of powers, and that their position as successive Fire starters would encourage comparison. My default stance is that it’s bad form to design one Pokémon that usurps another, whether successfully or not, and while Infernape and Blaziken definitely have very distinct flavour they have the same type combination, the same strong points, and similar tactics. If this were my last year’s Unova Pokédex series, when I was dealing with a whole new generation, I would either shout incoherently for a while and slam a big heavy “I hereby deny this Pokémon’s right to exist” on Infernape’s head, or sheepishly admit that the second attempt really was better and maybe recommend some additions to the older Pokémon. The trouble is Game Freak already did try improving Blaziken, bless their little hearts, and totally failed to comprehend the enormity of what they were giving her, so now I have no idea where to go with this; I have a fairly solid doctrine in place for complaining about new mistakes, but I’m still not totally sorted on how to handle old ones.
Infernape is an awesome Pokémon; I love his aesthetic qualities, his concept, while not as clever as Torterra’s, is still at the very least amusing, and he’s one of the best non-legendary Pokémon in the game. And… frankly, Game Freak shouldn’t have made him. I guess I’m feeling paradoxical today. I think that, for Blaziken’s sake, this design should have been worked into something quite different. For a primate design, I would be very tempted to work with fire as a symbol of creativity and inspiration, particularly focussing on Infernape’s crown of fire, and make him a Fire/Psychic-type, focusing on special attacks, although that doesn’t work with the whole ‘monkey kung fu’ thing, and would imply a total art redesign, so a more practical suggestion would be to go with the old monkey-as-trickster archetype and turn Infernape into something more like what Mienshao later became – a hard-hitting Pokémon whose greatest strength isn’t actually hitting hard, but spreading disruption and chaos. Basically, since the flavour side of things is where Infernape really is quite different from Blaziken, I’d want to work with that to create mechanical distinctions as well. In the end the resulting Pokémon probably wouldn’t be as powerful… whether that’s a bad thing or not, I leave up to you.