Moves, Movepools and Flavour

Pokémon are, almost by definition, creatures with incredible abilities, often ones which exceed the boundaries of what we believe to be possible.  Normally I like to make a fuss of the aspects of the Pokémon world that have nothing to do with the powers, like history and ethics and society and culture and all the rest, but let’s face it, I’m at least partly in it for the thrill of having a flying murder-dragon with four different kinds of exploding death lasers.  What you can do and what you can’t is fundamentally a part of who you are, and what Pokémon can and can’t do is expressed in the games through their stats, their abilities, and in perhaps the greatest variety through their moves.  I like to say that Pokémon “should be good at the things they’re good at” – that is, they should possess the skills we would expect them to, based on their designs, and those skills should in turn contribute to the way we see them and use them.  Mechanics and flavour should work together – well, at least that’s what I think.  Let’s talk about how that works (or fails to).

As of the release of X and Y, there are 609 moves in the Pokémon games: 609 effects which are available in various combinations to different species.  Some are basic, and others are complicated.  Some are effective in a wide variety of situations, others require a great deal of forethought to be useful at all (with varying degrees of payoff).  Some are powerful, others are weak.  Some are available to many Pokémon, or to almost all of them, others to only one or two.  All of them say something about the Pokémon capable of using them – and that includes the ones that would never see any use competitively, or even in a normal playthrough!  Let’s take as our first example the unanimously agreed worst move of all: Splash, which has no effect whatsoever, and is useful only in the most contrived of situations (say, if your opponent is trying to stall you down to Struggle, and Splash’s 40 PP allow you to sit on your butt for longer without running out of moves, or something).  For all that, only a handful of Pokémon are actually able to learn this non-technique; indeed in Red and Blue it was unique to Magikarp, hailed in-universe as the weakest Pokémon of all – the only one so pathetic it had a move that allowed it to flop around doing absolutely nothing.  Since then the move has been bestowed (either as a level-up move or a hereditary one) upon Poliwag, Horsea, Hoppip, Cleffa, Delibird, Azurill, Wailmer, Spoink, Feebas, Wynaut, Luvdisc, Buneary, Finneon, Mantyke and Clauncher.  What is the common thread with these Pokémon?  Like Magikarp, some of them are portrayed as being particularly helpless, like Poliwag, who can barely walk on land, Hoppip, at the mercy of the breeze, Wynaut, whose evolved form is unable to take spontaneous action, or Spoink, whose heart actually stops if he doesn’t continually keep bouncing around uselessly.  Most of them are on the cute end of the spectrum as well, adding to the impression of vulnerability.  The enduring message is that these are Pokémon who require particular nurturing and attention in order to grow and succeed (although they won’t necessarily be helpless forever – Gyarados certainly proves that, as does Kingdra).  One of these things is not like the others, though – what’s Clauncher doing on this list?  To me, the fact that Clauncher starts with Splash conveys a certain weakness that would not otherwise be immediately apparent from his design – and it’s not entirely inappropriate, since he isn’t exactly a physically imposing Pokémon.  I would also suggest a link with the fact that Clauncher is incapable of learning many of Clawitzer’s most powerful attacks, like Dark Pulse and Aura Sphere; more than most Pokémon, he has a lot of growing to do, and is especially vulnerable in his infancy.

X and Y added a lot of moves with very specific uses; in particular, there are a number of support moves which seem like they would only be useful in a triple battle, and only then with a fair amount of planning.  Take Rototiller, for instance, which raises the attack and special attack of all Grass Pokémon in battle.  To begin with, only two Grass Pokémon – Paras and Cacnea – are capable of learning this move (and even them by chain-breeding via Buneary), so for most Pokémon it can only be useful in a double battle.  Even then, a Rototiller boost is functionally equivalent to the boost provided by Growth… which, y’know, most Grass Pokémon can learn… so really in order to get the proper bang for your buck you want to set things up in a triple battle so that two Grass Pokémon at once are getting the bonus.  As contrived a situation as it takes to make Rototiller useful (and believe me, as a card-carrying Grass Pokémon Master, my next project is to contrive the heck out of it for a Battle Maison triples team), as a move that expands what we know about the Pokémon who learn it, it’s solid gold, because it conveys the ecological function that the Pokémon who possess it – Sandshrew, Dugtrio, Onix, Rhyhorn, Linoone, Bibarel, Lopunny, Watchog, Excadrill, Dwebble and Diggersby – have in aerating soil and helping plants grow.  In the case of Dugtrio and Excadrill, we knew that already, but for the others it’s neat new information (although one does wonder how important a desert Pokémon like Sandshrew would be in that capacity).  For a Pokémon like Rhyhorn, who doesn’t really dig tunnels habitually, it even prompts me to imagine early human farmers hitching up their first rudimentary ploughs to domesticated Rhyhorn.  Another bizarre little trick is Vivillon’s signature move, Powder, a priority attack that causes a Pokémon to explode and take damage if it tries to use a Fire attack during that turn.  There are numerous disadvantages here – 1) you have to predict an incoming Fire attack, 2) it’s unlikely to work more than once in a battle, especially given that Vivillon’s defences are so bad it doesn’t really take a super-effective attack to bring her down, and 3) it requires you to actually use Vivillon in the first place.  On the other hand, I feel like all that is totally worth it to see an attack backfire in such a spectacular fashion, and it does establish Vivillon as a clever, tricky Pokémon who will take no $#!t from anyone.  Probably my single favourite ‘WTF’ attack in X and Y is Ion Deluge, another priority technique which turns all Normal attacks used that turn into Electric attacks.  Again, it seems like this could only be useful in double or triple battles, because although most of the Pokémon that learn it do have some kind of ability that lets them absorb Electric attacks, you still have to predict an incoming Normal attack, and even then the benefit you get is not huge.  Even in doubles or triples, I have difficulty imagining a situation (let alone thinking of a reliable way to set one up) where it would not be equally useful just to… y’know… use an Electric attack, something all Pokémon with Ion Deluge can do.  I’m not sure what kind of ‘characterisation’ Ion Deluge is supposed to create either, which is a shame.

Other times, we get Pokémon whose techniques conspicuously fail to express what they’re supposedly all about.  My favourite example is probably Gigalith, whose ‘thing’ is his ability to store, magnify and direct solar energy using the crystals on his body, creating devastating blast attacks that can destroy mountains.  Great, except that Gigalith needs a TM to learn Solar Beam, and has a very discouraging special attack stat to back it up.  Drowzee and Hypno, famously, still require human intervention to learn Dream Eater after all these years, despite the fact that eating dreams is literally how they survive.  In Red and Blue this almost made sense because the Dream Eater TM could only be used by Hypno, Gengar and Mew anyway, so it was sort of an unlockable signature move like Softboiled (which no Pokémon learned on its own, but could be taught to Chansey with TM 41).  Now, though, there are literally hundreds of Pokémon, including some who can’t even induce sleep like Ambipom, Lickilicky and Aurorus, who are just as good at eating dreams as the dream-eater Pokémon themselves.  Just as strange is Sceptile, introduced in the last generation before moves started to be assigned “physical” or “special” individually rather than by type.  By now, Game Freak had gotten the hang of the way their own system worked.  Sceptile seems like a physical Pokémon but, like poor Feraligatr, all his best flavour-appropriate attacks – Leaf Blade, Dragon Claw and Crunch – were special, so they made Sceptile a special attacker.  Things became very weird when Diamond and Pearl rolled around, though; all Sceptile’s favourite moves were suddenly keyed to the wrong stat.  As a result, he now favours Dragon Pulse, Focus Blast and Leaf Storm, and is actually quite bad at using his own signature move.  Would it not have made more sense if, when Sceptile’s entire movepool flipped from special to physical, he had flipped with it?  A happier example is Lickitung, whose key characteristic is his enormous tongue.  The obvious problem with Lickitung, in the mad old days of Red and Blue, was that he couldn’t actually learn Lick.  The interesting problem was that although he got Lick in Gold and Silver, it was much longer before he gained effective attacks that could be visualised as using his tongue.  Slam was his mainstay from the beginning, but Slam is terrible.  Wrap, which he got in Gold and Silver, is scarcely worth mentioning.  Knock Off in Ruby and Sapphire was an improvement, but it was really Diamond and Pearl that gave Lickitung and Lickilicky properly useful attacks that fit the way we’re supposed to imagine them fighting: Power Whip and Wring Out, which relatively few other Pokémon learn.  They’re not the best attacks around, but both can argue for a place on a serious moveset, and they provide a good example of updating an old Pokémon in an appropriate and interesting way.

Then there are attacks that everything learns, or almost everything, at any rate: Hyper Beam, the ultimate expression of a fully-evolved Pokémon’s might, Protect, the standard “no” technique, and Hidden Power, whose universal availability hints at a kind of soul energy that can be drawn upon by all living things.  There are also things which are… harder to explain or justify.  All Pokémon can learn Toxic.  What?  I’ve actually been asked to explain this before, and settled on the idea that since Toxic is supposed to be a ninja technique – that is, a human technique – it probably uses principles that are accessible to humans, and to all Pokémon.  Pokémon who’ve been taught Toxic can recognise, collect, store, and use poisonous substances that they might not actually be able to secrete on their own.  A bit unfortunate, perhaps, for the poor Poison-types, who have to live down the fact that their most powerful ability is available to nearly every Pokémon in existence, but at least X and Y threw them a bone by giving Toxic perfect accuracy when used by a Poison Pokémon.  It gets worse, though; most Pokémon can create illusionary duplicates of themselves, with varying degrees of substance – almost all can learn Double Team and Substitute.  Weather manipulation, too, is shockingly common; Sunny Day and Rain Dance are normally denied only to Pokémon who would specifically be disadvantaged by them in some way.  I have to imagine that, in all but a few cases, these techniques are more like prayers (to Groudon or Kyogre?) than actual exercises of a Pokémon’s own powers – think of the connotations that the phrase “rain dance” has in English, and the fact that Rain Dance’s Japanese name, Amagoi, refers to a prayer for rain – while the rarer and seemingly effortless Drought and Drizzle abilities imply a real connection with the weather on some level.

Other moves available by TM are not quite so universal, but in general they are still far more often seen than most Pokémon techniques.  Many of these are go-to attacks for competitive movesets – staples like Thunderbolt, Ice Beam, and Surf.  Being so widely available means that these moves don’t tell us all that much about the specific Pokémon who learn them, but their prominence in strategy means that they contribute something to how the types themselves are portrayed.  When we think of the Ground type, for instance, we don’t just think of Ground-type Pokémon – we think of the ubiquitous Earthquake, one of the best physical attacks in the game.  When we think of Fire, we think of Flamethrower, but also of Fire Blast, which, being more accurate than Thunder or Blizzard and often a better choice than Flamethrower, is much more likely to come to mind than its Ice or Electric equivalents, so that Fire becomes a type associated with overwhelming power (Overheat only adds to the effect – Grass has an equivalent attack, Leaf Storm, but very few Pokémon can learn it, while Overheat is widely available).  The closest thing Psychic has to a go-to physical attack isn’t a physical attack at all, but a special attack which hits the target’s physical defence, Psyshock, thus reinforcing the typical view that Psychic types do not rely on their bodily strength.  Conversely, Rock has no common special attack at all.  The popularity of U-Turn and Volt Switch, accessible to many Pokémon through TMs, links Bug and Electric with speed, cleverness and changeability.  Sometimes I am concerned that the steady proliferation of techniques with every generation will eventually erode the differences between the types completely; we’re moving steadily closer to a situation where every type has both a physical and a special attack with a power rating of 80-90 and 100% accuracy, which would rather be throwing the baby out with the bathwater as far as establishing balance.  On the other hand, if only a few Pokémon get to flout the stereotypes of their elements – like Lucario and Beartic do, like Gigalith could have – then what we’re really getting is opportunities for specific Pokémon to be awesome in specific ways, which is the primary virtue that should be kept in mind here.

Finally, since we’re talking about TMs, we inevitably come to my pet hate, a move that not everything can learn, by any stretch of the imagination, but available to a truly bizarre selection of Pokémon who seem as though they should have no business learning it: Aerial Ace.  I offer first the usual disclaimer: I know Aerial Ace in Japanese is called “Turning Swallow Cut” and is named after an old katana technique.  Fine.  I have no problem with this move being available to Pokémon who can’t fly.  However.  The move’s description implies that it involves great speed and agility, which is why it never misses.  Also, it’s a Flying-type move and the Pokémon who learn it on their own are mostly birds, continuing that theme (the exceptions being Heracross, who can fly, Honedge, who is a living sword, and Gogoat, who… um… yeah, I got nothing).  And indeed, many of the Pokémon who learn it out of TM 40, as well as favouring cutting or slashing attacks, possess either great speed or flight… but then there’s Slaking.  Bouffalant.  Tyranitar.  Shelgon.  Ferrothorn.  Mr. Mime.  Crustle.  Aggron.  Regigigas, of all things.

And, of course, my favourite: Slowbro, but not Slowking.

Mechanically, very little separates Slowbro and Slowking.  Slowking’s special defence is higher, and he can learn Nasty Plot, Swagger, Power Gem, Quash, and Dragon Tail.  Slowbro’s defence is higher, and he can learn (in addition to a few moves that Slowking could get as a Slowpoke by delaying his evolution) Aerial Ace.  That’s the one move Slowbro has that Slowking can’t mimic.  Think about this in the context of everything else I’ve talked about in this over-long entry, and it all adds up to one thing.

Someone over there has a very strange sense of humour.

Anime Time: Episodes 49 and 52

So Near, Yet So Farfetch’d – Princess vs. Princess

Ash’s location: Oregon.

Misty and her Psyduck have something of a love-hate relationship, thanks to Psyduck’s total dearth of useful skills, constant debilitating headaches, and inexplicable habit of bursting from his Pokéball at the worst moments imaginable.  On the other hand, he does occasionally get to be awesome, thanks to his latent psychic powers, which is generally enough to mollify Misty for about five minutes and convince her not to pitch him off a cliff.  Today’s two episodes are among Psyduck’s rare but glorious good days.  Let’s take a look.

 This Farfetch'd appears in one episode, and manages to accomplish more than Team Rocket normally does in twenty.  Maybe *he* should be the villain.  Screenshots from filb.de/anime.

So Near, Yet So Farfetch’d sees Ash, Misty and Brock travelling through a forest where a rare and extremely delicious bird Pokémon called Farfetch’d can be found.  When Ash and Brock leave Misty alone for a moment, she sees one twirling its leek like a baton.  Intrigued, she follows the Farfetch’d, but loses it when she collides with a young boy in the woods (his name is never actually mentioned, but Bulbapedia calls him Keith) and drops her bag.  Misty returns, downcast, to Ash and Brock, only to find that Keith has switched bags with her: he has her Pokéballs, while she has only rocks packed in newspaper.  Meanwhile, Team Rocket stumble into Farfetch’d and Keith, who leads them to his rowboat tied up on a riverbank.  Claiming to have left something in his tent, he runs off, leaving his bag with Jessie, James and Meowth, who promptly steal it, the boat, and Farfetch’d.  Their gloating soon turns to anger when they realise that Keith’s bag is full of rocks and his boat is full of holes.  As their own Pokéballs float away, Farfetch’d scoops them up and flies off.  By this point, Misty and the others have learned from Officer Jenny #354 that Farfetch’d and Keith are notorious thieves…

“We’ve been together for a long time, Farfetch’d,” Keith tells his Pokémon, in case he has forgotten, “right after I found you injured on the road and nursed you back to health and started stealing.  I wish there was some… other way for us to get by, but… how else will we survive?  You’re just too weak to battle.”  Oh, cry me a river of clumsy exposition…  Anyhow.  Team Rocket find them and demand compensation.  Keith returns their Pokémon, along with a whole bag of Pokéballs.  Psyduck finally tracks down Farfetch’d, and Ash challenges him despite Keith’s objections.  To everyone’s surprise, Farfetch’d turns out to be more than Bulbasaur can handle, with his brilliant Agility technique.  Farfetch’d then pummels Psyduck for a while, until Psyduck flips out and mind-crushes him.  At that very moment Team Rocket, who are floating overhead, realise that all Keith’s Pokéballs contain explosive Voltorb, and frantically start pitching them out of the balloon… right onto his head.  Keith surrenders and agrees to return all the Pokémon he stole to their trainers.  Everyone, including Jenny, instantly forgives him, because he’s really sorry, and he promises to go off and live the life of an honest trainer with Farfetch’d.

I like to think he murmured the word “suckers” under his breath as he walked away.

 Lickitung in heaven, by the ever-brilliant Endless Whispers (http://endless-whispers.deviantart.com/).

In Princess vs. Princess, the day of the annual Princess Festival rolls around: a celebration of rampant commercialism, where women buy clothes, accessories and delicacies by the tonne at rock-bottom prices.  Misty and Jessie both eagerly join the shopping spree.  Jessie’s doesn’t end so well – she takes the opportunity to buy expensive gifts for Giovanni, to help the trio ooze their way back into his good graces, but runs into a wild Lickitung who slurps up the lot.  Jessie, furious, hurls a Pokéball and captures the Lickitung, whom she threatens to deal with later.  When she returns to the shopping malls, she and Misty get into a fight over a blue dress, and agree to settle the matter in the Queen of the Princess Festival Contest.  Both of them are independently desperate to win the contest because of the prize: a one-of-a-kind set of extremely valuable Pokémon Princess Dolls.  For Jessie, dolls like these are a symbol of everything she could never have during her childhood of poverty; for Misty, of everything she always got as a ragged hand-me-down from her three older sisters.  The contest appears at first to be a beauty pageant, which Misty and Jessie enter in their finest clothes, however it turns out that there is a second component: a Pokémon tournament!  How exactly the two halves of the contest fit together is never explained; and the winner of the tournament is the one who takes home the prize, so… maybe the pageant is just a qualifying round?  Anyway, Misty co-opts Pikachu, Bulbasaur and Vulpix to create a balanced team of four with her Staryu, while Jessie seizes Weezing from James and literally throws Meowth into the ring.  Predictably, Misty and Jessie squash all comers and make their way up to the finals, where Pikachu unceremoniously fries Arbok, Weezing and Meowth in quick succession.  Jessie despairs, but Meowth reminds her that she has one more Pokémon: Lickitung, whose stupefying Lick attack puts a quick end to Pikachu, Bulbasaur and Vulpix.  Misty calls on her final Pokémon, Staryu… but instead, out pops Psyduck.  Psyduck proves to be unaffected by Lickitung’s numbing slurps, which leads to a stalemate since neither Pokémon possesses any other useful attacks… until Psyduck’s powers kick in and Lickitung is walloped.  Misty wins the contest and the dolls, and promptly ships them back to Cerulean City, for the express purpose of making her sisters mad with jealousy.

…gods, she’s weird.

 Psyduck hits Farfetch'd with his Limit Break.

In both of these episodes, Psyduck gets the opportunity to prove his worth: he’s probably Misty’s strongest Pokémon once he gets going.  He’s not the only one, though: Farfetch’d and Lickitung both dramatically exceed the expectations of their respective trainers when they enter the ring.  Farfetch’d has been with his trainer for some time, but despite their experiences together, Keith remains convinced that Farfetch’d is too weak to battle.  Sound familiar?  Like Keith, Misty seems to feel responsible for her dead weight Pokémon; even though she clearly doesn’t want Psyduck, she never appears to think that releasing him is a viable solution, and in spite of her constant biting sarcasm towards him she seems no less protective of Psyduck than she is of her other Pokémon when he’s in trouble.  Unlike Keith, she has yet to find some way for Psyduck to be useful in non-combat situations, which probably isn’t helping their relationship.  Both Farfetch’d and Psyduck reveal their true strength only when things get desperate, which is when they prove to be ridiculously powerful.  Farfetch’d, who has presumably never been trained for battle and probably hasn’t fought in a long time, wipes the floor with a well-trained, experienced and extremely disciplined Bulbasaur.  I mean, yes, Flying beats Grass, and yes, the tone of Keith’s expositional onslaught implies that he’s been massively underestimating Farfetch’d for a long time, but that can’t change the fact that Farfetch’d has very little battle experience and, in all probability, doesn’t really know what he’s doing.  We’ve all heard the stories about mothers temporarily gaining super-strength when their children are in danger; I think this may actually be something similar.  Farfetch’d has realised that Keith is cornered and has nothing to fall back on, so he pulls out all the stops, physiologically and psychologically, to keep his partner safe – and, until Psyduck takes the field, it works.  Psyduck, of course, is quite different in that he isn’t really conscious enough of what’s going on around him to be particularly set off by a threat to Misty, though the connection between his psychic abilities and his headaches does imply that they’re a mechanism for dealing with very stressful situations.  In either case, the enduring message is that Pokémon, like people, are capable of being however strong they need to be.

 "Right.  Okay; that's it.  This was *not* in my contract.  Ash, if you ever make me fight one of these things, I swear I will murder you."

Lickitung is something quite different.  When Jessie uses Lickitung, he’s clearly something of a Hail Mary play on her part.  I don’t think she really expects to win by that point, but is hoping at least to go out with some dignity.  Lickitung, however, astonishes everyone by defeating not only Pikachu but Bulbasaur and Vulpix as well.  Despite Lickitung’s apparent power, Arbok remains Jessie’s main Pokémon in subsequent episodes, and his addition to the team doesn’t result in a marked change of Team Rocket’s fortunes; they stay useless and Lickitung is never so effective again as he is in Princess vs. Princess.  Why?  All things considered, I think it has to come down to the element of surprise.  None of Misty’s Pokémon knew what they were getting into with Lickitung.  His unconventional fighting style is a challenge to deal with, since they don’t know its weaknesses or limitations, and this is compounded by the way it works – delivering a slobbery Lick that leaves an opponent helpless from the sheer grossness of it, which is undoubtedly much worse as a surprise (if you know what’s coming, it probably doesn’t seem so bad).  Psyduck, in turn, overcomes Lickitung because he is remarkably weird as well, and simply doesn’t care about being licked.  Deprived of his one big trick, Lickitung has no other viable tactics in his arsenal.

 Misty's Psyduck, inexplicably, cannot swim.  Luckily, Musical Combusken (http://musicalcombusken.deviantart.com/) has kindly given him a life preserver.

“Are you going somewhere with this?” you may well ask.  The thing about the anime is that it often gives weak or highly unusual Pokémon – and their unique powers – a moment in the sun.  As far as the games go, Farfetch’d has never been worth using except in masochistic self-imposed challenges, and probably never will be, but here we see that he is actually very intelligent and therefore a useful partner in Keith’s cons (amusingly, the inspiration for his design – the Japanese expression kamo negi, literally “a duck with a leek,” figuratively “a person naïvely walking into danger or a con” – refers in this episode not to Farfetch’d but to Misty, which is a rather nice twist).  Lickitung fares much better in the games, but still isn’t exactly ‘good;” moreover his mighty tongue, which was supposed to be the point of the design, never really came through in the way he fights until the comparatively recent additions of Wring Out and Power Whip to his movepool, since Wrap, Slam and Lick are, let’s be fair, terrible attacks (for heaven’s sake, in Red and Blue he didn’t even get Lick).  Arguably, for a long time Lickitung never got to be Lickitung in the games.  That brings me to Psyduck, because for Psyduck the relationship between the games and the anime is actually a very interesting one.  This is the original Pokédex entry on Psyduck from Red and Blue: “while lulling its enemies with its vacant look, this wily Pokémon will use psychokinetic powers.”  That’s… an extremely different portrayal from the Psyduck we know and ‘love,’ suggesting that his dim-witted appearance is just a facade.  It’s only in Yellow version, which is based on the anime, that we first get “always tormented by headaches. It uses psychic powers, but it is not known if it intends to do so,” which has dominated since.  Furthermore, when Misty originally met Psyduck in Hypno’s Nap Time, Nurse Joy #558 introduced him as one of the Pokémon adversely affected by Hypno’s psychic waves, who for some reason never fully recovered.  I don’t think Misty’s Psyduck was ever supposed to be typical of his species; rather, the whole species was subtly rethought with the release of Yellow version to bring them in line with his individual characterisation, and this shift has persisted to this day.

So, I totally intended for this entry to be about Misty’s relationship with Psyduck, but then it was about the games’ relationship with the anime instead.  That’s okay, though, because it’s one of the topics I really want people to think about when reading my Anime Time entries.  Occasionally the anime just plain defies reason, but a lot of the time the nature of the medium gives the writers more freedom to portray the Pokémon the way they’re supposed to be, and in at least one case, they apparently did a good enough job of it that the games actually followed suit.

Food for thought.