Hoopa

Hoopa.

And now we get to the weird stuff.  The last two Pokémon in generation VI – Hoopa and Volcanion – have never been officially revealed by Nintendo or Game Freak, and their existence has been kept a closely-guarded secret.  Obviously, we’ve all known about both of them for months.  There’s simply no way Game Freak can compete with the collective time, energy and resources of all the computer-literate Pokémon fans on the planet, so Hoopa and Volcanion’s names, Pokédex data, powers and sprites, along with the dialogue of the characters involved with their events, were all quite promptly extracted from the games and made public on the internet, just as happened for Genesect, Meloetta and Keldeo before them, and Darkrai, Shaymin and Arceus before that.  I’m coming to seriously wonder why they even bother to keep up the charade anymore; they must know that they can’t keep these things secret.  Then again, I suppose if the publicity blitz surrounding each big reveal helps them drum up customers for the inevitable movies, I’m not going to deny them their little bit of theatre.  Anyway, let’s get on with our penultimate sixth-generation Pokémon, whose secrets are much better kept than Game Freak’s – the mischievous psychic spirit Hoopa.

Most of what we know about Hoopa comes from a dialogue with a backpacker in the library of the Parfum Palace, which will apparently be activated if you speak to him while she is in your active party.  A vaguely humanoid Pokémon with two large bull-like horns and a wispy lower body, Hoopa appears to get her name from the three golden rings – hoops, if you will – that she wears, one on each of her horns, and one about her waist.  These things have the power to distort space and create wormholes that Hoopa can use to move objects (and people!) from place to place.  Hoopa herself can also travel through the rings, and uses them to make surprise attacks against her opponents from all directions with her signature Hyperspace Hole technique.  The rings can even distort their own sizes, allowing Hoopa to fit larger things through them… supposedly, up to and including entire islands when she achieves her “full power” (more on that later).  Hoopa is a mischievous Pokémon, and primarily uses her space-warping abilities to screw with people – she likes to steal things and send them to distant places.  She supposedly has a lair in the middle of a desert somewhere, filled with all the gold and other precious treasures she’s stolen from powerful rulers and aristocrats over the years.  No-one has ever been able to find this place, possibly because it’s not really a place at all, according to conventional human understanding.  If Hoopa’s power lets her warp space – not merely teleport as other Psychic Pokémon do but actually alter the physical distance between two points – perhaps Hoopa’s oasis and treasure pile have never been found because she has hidden them, folded them into a sort of pocket of space that doesn’t obey normal geography and can’t be seen or accessed from the outside.  I have no idea whether this is really within her power or not, but it seems like a logical extension of the way her wormhole abilities are said to work, and it certainly fits with her crafty, mischievous personality to have a clever way of concealing all her loot.

To illustrate the way Hoopa tends to work, a story is told about an unnamed organisation that tried to “manipulate Hoopa’s power for their own benefit.”  Who these people are is left vague, though I think it’s probably reasonable to infer that their group’s name began with the word “Team.”  Moreover, I’m inclined to suspect that their motives were less than noble – Hoopa uses her powers to steal, and it seems likely that anyone attempting to “manipulate” her had motives equally nefarious or more so (rather than, say, seeking to reverse-engineer Hoopa’s space-warping abilities into new forms of travel or storage).  Unfortunately for them, Hoopa apparently had no need of a plucky young Pokémon trainer to join forces with her at the eleventh hour and defeat the bad guys against all odds.  The moment she got wind of what our mystery antagonists were up to, their money and equipment started to disappear mysteriously.  Eventually, confused and frightened by these events, they boarded themselves up in their headquarters to wait it out… only to find, when they emerged, that the entire building had been moved to the middle of a huge desert!  The fact that Hoopa chose to put them in the desert is interesting, since her own lair is supposed to be in a desert.  Could it be the same place?  If so, was this not merely an act of self-defence but also Hoopa’s greatest heist ever – not just to steal from a group of thieves but to steal the thieves themselves?  Regardless of Hoopa’s exact motivation, it seems to be implied in the story that her enemies did manage to make it out of the desert and return home, where their group disbanded and was never heard from again.

 Eh... maybe not...

While I’m not really fond of trying to pick out specific mythical inspirations for legendary Pokémon, since I believe that they more often aim to channel general archetypes than individual characters from specific mythologies, I would not be the first person to have seen shades of Arabian djinn (singular djinni, whence the English ‘genie’) in Hoopa.  The wispy lower body and gold jewellery fit reasonably well with depictions of djinn, particularly modern imaginings, and the horns wouldn’t be terribly out of place either.  Certainly Hoopa’s penchant for theft and mischief accords well with djinn, who are sometimes equated with demons, although there is no shortage of supernatural creatures from mythologies around the world who enjoy playing tricks on humans.  Also, for me at least, the tales of her hoard of loot hidden in the middle of the desert are reminiscent of nothing so much as the story of Ali Baba and the treasure-stuffed cave of the Forty Thieves, from the Thousand and One Nights, the standard ‘big book of Arabian mythology.’  I think there’s enough in there to suggest that the designers may have had one eye on that part of the world, at least when putting together Hoopa’s appearance.  Data extracted from the recently-released demo of Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby indicates that Hoopa will have some manner of powered-up form as well, a frighteningly powerful Psychic/Dark attacker, and in terms of her physical appearance, the change is quite dramatic – Hoopa is surrounded by six disembodied arms, each apparently reaching out of a hyperspace ring, and another ring sits in her belly, opening into a void.  The six arms make this Hoopa more evocative of a Hindu deity – but then again, since she retains her horns and wicked talons, and gains an arrowhead tail, contributing overall to something of a ‘demonic’ appearance, perhaps it would be more appropriate to look to the Hindu gods’ perennial rivals, the demon asuras.  This form is presumably the “full power” described by the backpacker studying Hoopa who features in her event.  It seems like it’s probably not a mega evolution, because it has slightly different level-up moves to Hoopa’s regular form, including a new signature move called Hyperspace Fury, which seems to be similar to Hoopa’s existing Hyperspace Hole technique but is a Dark-type attack rather than a Psychic-type one and is significantly more powerful.  I don’t think there’s actually anything in the game mechanics that makes it impossible for a Mega Pokémon to have a different level-up set – just much more annoying, in all likelihood.  This form also gets a slightly smaller stat bonus than other Mega Pokémon do (although, so does Mega Alakazam – probably as a result of Alakazam’s normal form also getting a slight increase to special defence over his generation V stats).  What exactly is involved in attaining this ‘full power,’ assuming it’s not mega evolution, is currently unknown, as is the case for Zygarde.

The best-quality image anyone seems to have so far of the in-game model for Hoopa's alternate form.

Any conversation on the subject of using Hoopa is of course entirely theoretical at this stage, since Game Freak hasn’t yet admitted that she exists and we have no idea how that alternate form works.  However, we can certainly pick out several points from what we already know.  Ghost/Psychic, first of all, is something of an unfortunate type combination to be stuck with in the world of X and Y.  Ghost and Dark attacks are both far more popular now than in the past, in the wake of the elimination of Steel’s resistances to them, and Hoopa’s unique type combination saddles her with double-weaknesses to both.  Poor speed and defence – even by non-legendary standards – also make her a sitting duck for attacks like Pursuit, and her high attack stat isn’t much use to her, as her physical movepool is nearly nonexistent.  It’s not all bad, though – Hoopa enjoys fantastic special attack and special defence scores, and has a decent array of special attacks to choose from, including Shadow Ball, Psychic, Psyshock, Thunderbolt, Charge Beam, Energy Ball and Focus Blast, as well as the aforementioned signature move, Hyperspace Hole, which is weaker than Psychic but never misses, and ignores Protect and Detect.  Calm Mind is in her movepool, but seems inadvisable on Pokémon with poor physical defence and no efficient means of healing.  She gets Trick Room, but unfortunately isn’t that slow and can’t make the most effective use of it.  Overall, she seems to be a little on the weak side for a legendary Pokémon, partly because of an unhelpful stat distribution that emphasises a skill (attack) that she can’t really use very well anyway.  The alternate form only continues that trend, with most of her bonus points from the transformation going into attack, to further improve all those devastating physical attacks she has like Phantom Force, Return, Brick Break and… uh… Thief, and stuff.  The change to Psychic/Dark is, on the whole, probably a positive – losing Ghost-type immunities is painful, but they probably wouldn’t have been worth the hassle of those Ghost and Dark weaknesses anyway.  It also adds Dark Pulse to her movepool, although to be honest you’re probably just going to be using Hyperspace Fury for her Dark attack anyway; as far as I can tell the only other new thing in there of any consequence is Knock Off, which… well, it’s a physical attack, and Hoopa’s physical attack stat is going through the roof no matter what you do, so hey, may as well roll with it.  She’s certainly not going to be bad, though – I mean, her special attack goes up as well, and at that point she’ll be tied for sixth-highest in the game, behind Mega Mewtwo Y, Attack-form Deoxys, Mega Rayquaza, Primal Kyogre, and Mega Alakazam, so… yeah.  She’s gonna be nuking stuff.

Hoopa’s no mysterious primal guardian or embodiment of an eternal force – she’s legendary because she built herself a legend, a legend of increasingly daring and ridiculous thefts that spans entire centuries and has never been pinned down to fact or fiction, and that legend isn’t over yet.  For once, I’m actually kind of intrigued to see what will happen when Hoopa inevitably stars in one of those godawful movies.  Will she be a hero, or a villain?  It’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.

Inkay and Malamar

Inkay.
Inkay.

One of my companions for much of my X playthrough, Malamar is one of the more eccentric Pokémon out there.  Inkay has one of the weirdest evolution methods yet – reach at least level 30 while holding the 3DS upside down (heaven knows what that means from an in-universe perspective – possibly that Inkay’s evolution is, appropriately enough, completely unpredictable).  Add to that several unusual and subversive skills, a unique type combination, and a personality midway between Niccolò Machiavelli and Oscar the Grouch, and this Pokémon is anything but typical.  Let’s take a look.

Continue reading “Inkay and Malamar”

Fennekin, Braixen and Delphox

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

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

 Braixen.

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

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

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

 Delphox.

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

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

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

Espurr and Meowstic

Coming to you from Los Angeles Airport as I wait for my connecting flight to Auckland!  Isn’t that exciting?  Well, no, not really, but this is my life apparently.  Anyway.

Espurr.  Bow before the perfection of Sugimori, etc etc.We’ve just had a dog, so now let’s have some cats.  We’ve had loads of cats before, but these ones at least have the decency to be weird, alien cats with mysterious powers.  I’m torn between wondering why we needed more cats after Persian, Delcatty, Purugly and Liepard, and being relieved that Espurr and Meowstic are not just the pampered pets with few notable powers that we’ve come to expect from cat Pokémon in the past.  These cats certainly have a few tricks up their sleeves… or rather, their ears (as we’ll see)… so let’s take a look and figure out what makes them worth our time.

Espurr and Meowstic are known as the ‘Restraint Pokémon’ and the ‘Constraint Pokémon.’  They possess absolutely devastating psychic powers, possibly the greatest of any non-legendary Psychic Pokémon described to date (though it’s hard to tell because any sort of quantification of psychic power is hard to come by in Pokémon) – the Pokédex credits Meowstic with the ability to disintegrate a heavy-duty truck with the sheer force of their telekinetic blasts.  Unfortunately, their control over these powers is somewhat lacking.  I’m not exactly certain how serious this lack of control is, but I think the implication is that actually unbinding that degree of power would mean subjecting everything in a 90-metre radius to the full force of their psionic wrath – this, in many cases, would probably be a bad idea.  The idea of someone’s ‘true power’ being too wild and dangerous to use except in the most dire of circumstances is a fairly well-explored one in fiction about super-powered characters, particularly psychic ones because mental abilities are often associated with discipline and force of will; I think even Pokémon has had one or two designs before that draw on the theme, like Golurk, whose overwhelming power is kept in check by the seal on his chest.  The weird thing about the way Espurr and Meowstic handle that trope is exactly how they keep their powers under control: they emit psychic energy from a pair of eyeball-patterned organs inside their ears, so they can apparently hold it in quite simply by folding up their ears to cover these glands.  So apparently these are the kind of psychic powers that can be blocked by flimsy layers of fur and cartilege.  Well, it makes sense that containment would involve something fairly straightforward – otherwise these Pokémon would surely have levelled Kalos long ago – but it does make the whole thing seem a little bit silly.  On the other hand, Espurr’s art and in-game model do a good job of conveying the idea that she’s basically a walking bomb – her posture is stiff, her eyes wide and staring, as if constantly under stress and potentially about to explode (this also gives her a very different aesthetic feel to previous cat Pokémon).  Meowstic appear, appropriately enough, to have grown a bit more comfortable with the whole thing; their movements remain understated and controlled, though, and they keep their ears firmly folded over, just in case.  Training these Pokémon, unusually, is an exercise in getting them to unleash power they already have – very carefully.

 The cunning male Meowstic.

Aside from the radical and dangerous psychic abilities, Meowstic’s other big thing is somewhat more obvious: pronounced sexual dimorphism.  The females are white with blue trim and yellow eyes, the males blue with white trim and blue-green eyes.  They also adopt very different battle roles – their stats are the same, but they learn very different sets of moves as they level; the males favour support techniques, while the females learn powerful special attacks.  This seems to subvert the kinds of roles traditionally assigned to male/female counterpart characters in video games – when there is an explicit contrast, female characters will regularly have support powers and often healing abilities, while male characters tend to be the heavy damage dealers (the age-old domestic woman/warrior man trope).  Nidoqueen, for instance, has a very similar selection of moves to Nidoking but is encouraged by her more defensive stat bias to favour their support options like Stealth Rock rather than going total-aggression like Nidoking tends to.  I’m not sure what to say about Meowstic’s inversion of the typical arrangement other than that it seems to be there, but it’s nice to see and makes a pleasant contrast to many other male/female Pokémon pairs (Pyroar, for instance, who sticks to the stereotypes despite the fact that the real behaviour of lions gives her a very good reason not too…).  Actually, the fact that Meowstic have a support archetype option at all is pretty odd considering the kind of things we’re told about them and the nature of their powers – maybe the thing to take from this is that the males are better at letting out very small, restricted doses of energy, while the females are capable of going to higher levels of intensity without losing control?

It’s unfortunate that Meowstic’s stats don’t quite reflect what we’re told about their tremendous capacity for destruction – one is rather led to expect phenomenal special attacking power, with relatively poor speed to represent the need for constant restraint.  In fact, although Meowstic are very fast, their special attack leaves quite a lot to be desired, which I suppose is a testament to the level of control these Pokémon can maintain over their powers… a little too much, if anything.  Either that, or reports of their might are greatly exaggerated (which, coming from the Pokédex, would admittedly not be a huge shock).  An excellent special movepool – Psychic or Psyshock, Thunderbolt, Energy Ball, Dark Pulse, Shadow Ball – means that Meowstic can at least bolster an uninspiring special attack score with strong type coverage.  There’s also Calm Mind and Charge Beam to think about, if you want to take a more direct route to powering up; the female also gets Stored Power, which gets stronger with every stat boost the user accrues and can outdamage Psychic after two Calm Minds.  Meowstic probably doesn’t have the defences to play that sort of game, especially without healing, but Stored Power is an unusual enough move to be worth looking into on anything that gets it.  Me First (again, only for the female) is also interesting but tricky to use; it anticipates an incoming attack with more power, but fails if the user is slower than the target, and also relies on being able to guess what kind of attacks are coming at you.  Really, Meowstic’s stat spread seems to belong more to some manner of supporter than a true focused attacker; passable but unremarkable in all areas except speed (and physical attack – don’t even go there), and with a respectable support movepool, this sounds awfully like a utility Pokémon – and, of course, Meowstic can do either, depending on gender.

 The destructive female Meowstic.

The difficulty with Meowstic’s bifurcated movepool is that a lot of the best moves, particularly from the female’s list, are actually available to both of them anyway through a variety of TMs.  What it all boils down to in terms of actually useful moves, as far as I can see, is that female Meowstic get Signal Beam, Me First and Stored Power while male ones get Mean Look and Misty Terrain (indeed, male Meowstic are at this point the only non-Fairy-type Pokémon to have access to this technique, for what it’s worth).  The real distinction between males and females is their hidden abilities, which reinforce the battle roles outlined for them by their level-up moves.  The female’s Competitive ability is a special attacker equivalent to Defiant, giving her a major special attack bonus whenever one of her stats is lowered by an opponent – kind of tricky to use, considering that lowering the enemy’s stats is not a particularly common tactic, but there are enough Pokémon with Intimidate running around that it’s worth a try, and Meowstic might actually do some serious damage if she could grab a Competitive boost.  Infiltrator, one of the regular abilities available to both genders (which allows attacks to bypass Reflect, Light Screen and Substitutes), might end up being just as useful for an offensive Meowstic.  The male’s ability, though, is far shinier (although in flavour terms it’s very difficult to see how it fits the ‘restrained’ Meowstic): the ever-delightful Prankster, which grants speed priority to all support moves.  Being able to go first with his most important techniques means that a male Meowstic doesn’t need to focus so much on his speed and can afford to train his defences more instead, and even common moves like Reflect, Light Screen, Thunder Wave and especially Substitute have a lot to gain from an automatic first strike.  The male also has access to a couple of unusual support moves the female lacks; the most notable ones are Mean Look, which could potentially make an interesting addition to a Calm Mind set if you manage to trap something with lacklustre special attacking capabilities, and Misty Terrain, the new Fairy-type field move (Meowstic is in fact the only non-Fairy-type Pokémon who can use this move so far).  Misty Terrain blocks all major status ailments for Pokémon on the ground, and also dampens the effects of Dragon attacks – handy if for some reason you can’t have an actual Fairy or Steel Pokémon around.

More of a distinction between what these two Pokémon can do would be nice – the separate level-up movepools aren’t much good if most of the moves they contain are either not actually exclusive or kind of silly (Imprison and Miracle Eye, anyone?).  I would have liked to see some more unusual stuff showing up, for both of them, like Gravity, Power Split and Healing Wish for the male, or Zap Cannon, Moonblast and Aura Sphere for the female.  It’s also a shame the female’s hidden ability doesn’t really match up to the male’s Prankster, which is one of the best abilities in the game – I might have gone with something like Technician and stuffed her level-up movepool with really weird special attacks like Hidden Power and Silver Wind.  The concept is pretty neat, though, if a little underdeveloped, and the gender differences add some spice; it certainly puts Delcatty to shame.  Meowstic are the kind of Pokémon that live and die on their movepools, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens to them once we have some sixth-generation move tutors running around…

Espeon

Official artwork of Espeon, by Ken Sugimori; do unto Nintendo as you would have Nintendo do unto you, etc.In Red and Blue, Eevee was unique, the only Pokémon in the game with a branching evolution.  The introduction of some of Gold and Silver’s new Pokémon, like Slowking, changed that – several others could now evolve in multiple different ways.  Tyrogue even had a three-way split, into Hitmonchan, Hitmonlee and Hitmontop.  Clearly this would not do, so Gold and Silver also added two more members to Eevee’s family; if she couldn’t be the only Pokémon with multiple evolutions, she could still have more than anyone else.  Thus we have Espeon and Umbreon, the evolutions connected with the day and the night – and for today, it falls to us to look at Espeon.

Much as Vaporeon, Jolteon and Flareon each play to a different set of aesthetic preferences, Espeon tries for another still different look; with her aloof, alien countenance, forked tail and intense, flashing eyes, Espeon’s air is one of mysterious, otherworldly power – appropriately enough for a Psychic-type.  Espeon is unusual for a Psychic Pokémon in that her most famous ability doesn’t actually result from psychic power at all; she can predict the immediate future with an uncanny degree of accuracy – everything from weather patterns to an opponent’s movements – but does it by reading subtle changes in air currents with her fine, sensitive hairs.  I almost suspect this is meant to make us ask whether all psychic power in the Pokémon universe actually has a more mundane explanation… but, then, we’re also told explicitly that Espeon does use “psycho-power” and she has the standard set of telekinetic and telepathic abilities available to all Psychic-types, so maybe I’m giving Game Freak too much credit here.  Like many Psychic Pokémon, Espeon is particularly associated with loyalty towards and protection of worthy trainers, which makes sense given the way she evolves.  Oddly, she’s also connected with the sun and daylight – oddly, because she has few powers related to it.  I imagine this was intended to set her up as an opposite to Umbreon, who is strongly linked with the moon and the night, and I suppose Psychic is the closest thing Pokémon has to a ‘light’ or ‘holy’ type, but I can’t help but think that this could have been done better if Espeon had been created later in the series’ life.  She does have Morning Sun as a signature move, and she can learn Sunny Day (along with just about every Pokémon in the game except for Water-types) but doesn’t get much benefit from it; surely it would make sense for her to learn Solarbeam, at least?  I don’t know; if I were designing Espeon today I would probably do her totally differently to emphasise the solar aspect, but I guess given the tools that were available in Gold and Silver (no abilities, fewer weather-related effects) what we have is fine.

 Espeon leaping into action, by Mewkitty (http://mewkitty.deviantart.com/).

 Gold and Silver are the games that introduced the idea that Eevee’s branching evolution is a result of adaptation to multiple different environments, so it’s odd that the two evolutions introduced in that very generation, Espeon and Umbreon, are the hardest to connect with any particular ecosystem.  A possible clue, though, is the stimulus that triggers Espeon’s evolution – close friendship with a trainer – and the suggestion from Ruby and Sapphire that “this Pokémon developed its precognitive powers to protect its trainer from harm.”  I suspect that Espeon arose fairly recently (in terms of evolutionary biology), after humans and Pokémon first began working together, and represents the result of a strain of Eevee who became adapted to domestication, the eventual descendents of the first groups of Jolteon and Flareon who took human partners.  She has telepathic abilities to allow her to sense the orders of her human trainers, and can predict the future to intercept attacks before they happen.  Furthermore, unlike the raw elemental forces wielded by Flareon, Vaporeon and Jolteon, Espeon’s telekinetic attacks are very unlikely to cause ‘friendly fire’ problems; she’s not going to hurt anything she doesn’t fully intend to hurt, making it safer to use her strongest powers around groups of people.  Furthermore, I’d suggest that Espeon isn’t a hunter – early domesticated Pokémon, one assumes, would have been involved with hunting like the first domesticated dogs, but a more predatory type like Jolteon seems better suited to that.  I think Espeon may be a Pokémon dedicated to the defence of the settled communities that developed later in humanity’s history, which makes some thematic sense given the connection between Psychic-types and more ‘evolved’ or ‘civilised’ states of mind.  The other forms are older, and joined with humanity out of convenience; Espeon actually developed with us, changing as we did.Espeon stretching out at sunset, by Kellykatz (http://kellykatz.deviantart.com/ or http://kellykatz.tumblr.com/).

When you want to fight with Espeon, many of the same issues arise as we encountered with Vaporeon, Jolteon and Flareon.  Espeon has extremely good special attack and speed, which ideally make her a sweeper of some kind, but her special movepool is less than stellar – in Gold and Silver, it was pretty much Psychic, Bite, and Zap Cannon.  Her signature move, Morning Sun, provides her with healing, but frankly Espeon is much too frail to be worrying about that.  I guess Charm might help her survive a hit or two.  Like her brothers and sisters, she can learn Baton Pass as an Eevee, but Gold and Silver didn’t really give her anything to do with it.  Ruby and Sapphire changed that.  Espeon only gained three things of value in Ruby and Sapphire: Reflect, Light Screen, and Calm Mind.  Reflect and Light Screen are great, but nothing to make a fuss about – Calm Mind, which increases both special attack and special defence, is what gives Espeon her niche.  Very few Pokémon could learn both Calm Mind and Baton Pass, and Espeon was (indeed, still is) the best of them; her own ability as a special attacker remained limited, but helping others to set up was another story.  Diamond and Pearl didn’t much change what Espeon was good at – like many Pokémon, she gained a lot of new attacks, notably Shadow Ball, Grass Knot and, in Platinum, Signal Beam, but, while useful, these new moves aren’t powerful enough to dramatically change her game.  Meanwhile, the conversion of Pursuit, along with every other existing Dark-type move, into a physical attack spelled disaster for many Psychic Pokémon whose defensive skills were far weaker on the physical side, including Espeon.  For a while there, things looked grim… until Black and White gave Espeon one last trick, the best of all.

 An Espeon wandering by a river at dawn, by Diaris (http://diaris.deviantart.com/).

The thing about Espeon’s ability, Synchronise, is that while it’s nice to have, it doesn’t really have great strategic implications.  If Espeon is poisoned, burned or paralysed by another Pokémon that is vulnerable to the same condition, she causes her attacker to suffer from the same effect.  This is a useful defence against a specific kind of attack, but it doesn’t help Espeon much; she’s still poisoned, paralysed or burned as well.  Her Dream World ability is something else.  Espeon’s Dream World ability is Magic Bounce, a truly absurd power shared only by Xatu, which effectively gives her a permanent Magic Coat – all incoming status moves (basically anything that harms a Pokémon without actually damaging it, from String Shot and Worry Seed to Stealth Rock and Dark Void) are reflected back upon their user.  This makes Espeon an utter nightmare for support Pokémon, since she can potentially ruin them just by switching in if you time it right; some moves, like Hypnosis, will potentially take a Pokémon out of the game if you reflect them back.  The fact that Magic Bounce also renders Espeon herself immune to all these techniques is nothing to sniff at either.  The other thing worth noting is that Espeon also gets a couple of new Psychic attacks for variety – Psyshock is a special attack that does physical damage, allowing Espeon and other Psychic Pokémon to break powerful special walls (i.e. Blissey), while Stored Power, an attack that does more damage for every buff affecting Espeon, synergises well with her normal role of Calm Mind passing.  Espeon doesn’t really ‘do’ sweeping – her stats look right for it, but her real talents lie elsewhere.  As support Pokémon go, she’s pretty top-notch; kept away from high-powered physical attackers and partnered with your own special sweepers who need a bit more oomph, Espeon is sure to reward you.

As I believe I’ve mentioned, Espeon is actually my favourite Eevee form.  This isn’t because of any particular excellence of design, though; it’s just personal preference.  I feel Espeon is, all around, reasonably well done, and Game Freak have actually built on her skillset over time to make up for her initial weaknesses – admittedly, this is probably by sheer coincidence, but don’t look a gift horse in the mouth (well… unless a Greek warlord is giving it to you).  Aside from the recent addition of that absurd Magic Bounce ability (which probably makes her the most powerful member of the family), there’s nothing about Espeon to get really excited over, either mechanically or thematically, but there’s nothing especially wrong with her either, and she has a solid, legitimate place of her own amongst Eevee’s varied evolutions.

The Top Ten Worst Pokémon Ever #1: Unown

…surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  I think a lot of people dismiss the Unown so completely as to forget that they even exist, which stands as a testament to what awful Pokémon they are.  I’m going to reverse my usual order of dealing with things and talk about their gross incompetence first, then move on to my distaste for their flavour and design, because, believe it or not, it’s the latter that I really take issue with.

I already spent a paragraph of my entry on Sigilyph last year discussing my opinion of the Unown; in short, that creating them is not a reasonable or even a sane response to any concept brief that does not include the phrase “absolutely no practical use or value.”  No harm in going over it again, though.  Unown is almost certainly the worst adult Pokémon in the entire game.  Luvdisc arguably comes close, but that’s about it.  Even most unevolved Pokémon are probably better choices than Unown.  The reason for this isn’t Unown’s stats, which are dreadful, or his element, which is unfavourable, or his ability, which is actually useful and the only reason even to consider using him (he can Levitate and is therefore immune to Ground attacks).  It’s his movepool – or, more accurately, the fact that he doesn’t have one.  Unown can learn exactly one attack: Hidden Power, a move which is available to so many Pokémon that it’s quicker to list the ones who can’t learn it (Caterpie, Metapod, Weedle, Kakuna, Wurmple, Silcoon, Cascoon, Kricketot, Burmy, Combee, Magikarp, Ditto, Wynaut, Wobuffet, Beldum and Tynamo – and it’s worth noting that all the Pokémon on that list, save Ditto and Wobuffet, are juveniles).  Hidden Power’s strength and element vary between individual Pokémon, but even the best Hidden Powers aren’t very strong; normally it’s used by Pokémon with poor movepools who desperately need an attack of a specific type.  So, basically, Unown gets a single lacklustre special attack, which can be of any type.  If you can be bothered hatching dozens of the things until you get one with the right Hidden Power, you even get to choose which type that is!  You’ll do the most neutral damage with Psychic, since Unown is a Psychic-type, but you’re more likely to get super-effective hits with a type like Ice, Fighting, or- wait; why am I even talking about this?  If you’re even contemplating using Unown then you’re probably going to lose anyway, because just mentioning that you might pick him in preference to one of your other Pokémon will annihilate your whole squad’s self-esteem so completely that they might never speak to you again, and if they do it will be to tell you that they’ve all decided to go into rehab for alcohol abuse.
The Unown spelling out a message, by Gold Eyed Castform (http://goldeyedcastform.deviantart.com/)

That’s why the world at large hates the Unown.  Now it’s time to talk about why I personally hate them.  If you’ve read a lot of this blog, you might have gathered that I am an utterly shameless fanboy of anything connected to the history of the Pokémon world – Pokémon like Claydol and Sigilyph, locations like the Ekruteak towers, characters who study history like Cynthia, Lenora and Morty, you name it.  The Unown are part of that history; there are twenty-six different forms of Unown whose bodies bear a striking resemblance to the twenty-six letters of the modern Latin alphabet (plus the “!” and “?” forms introduced by Fire Red and Leaf Green), the implication being that they provided the inspiration for the first alphabetic scripts.  You can still see Unown-derived inscriptions in places like Johto’s Ruins of Alph.  In the anime (most notably the third movie, Spell of the Unown), the Unown are depicted as enigmatic and powerful extradimensional beings capable of altering reality.  Their motives are absolutely inscrutable.  Although they live in their own unobservable dimension they are very protective of certain ruins and artefacts.  They seem to have a tendency to abduct people who try to study them, but also use their incredible powers to fulfil a young girl’s every desire in the movie.  They’re among the most alien creatures in the entire Pokémon world, as well as intimately connected with one of the most important developments in human history (the origin of writing).  In the games… well, in the games, they’re just twenty-eight Pokémon for you to capture: an extraordinarily tedious and ultimately pointless side-quest.  You only need one to finish the Pokédex, and the rewards for catching the other twenty-seven have always been remarkably underwhelming; Diamond and Pearl, for instance, give you alphabet stickers to put on your Pokéballs.  In Heart Gold and Soul Silver, which are admittedly much better, the scientists studying the ruins eventually figure out more about them and uncover the meaning of some of the (annoyingly cryptic) inscriptions once you capture all the Unown: you learn that the people of the ruins had a special relationship with the Unown, and the Pokémon statues in the area were built to honour them, but the human inhabitants eventually abandoned the site because they realised that the growth of their community was hurting the naturally reclusive Unown.  This is interesting stuff, but we still don’t actually learn anything about the Unown themselves, or why they were so important to the people of the Ruins of Alph in the first place, or how they came to be connected with writing, or what the nature of their supposed power is.  These Pokémon are completely irrelevant to battles, which are the games’ primary focus, so I expect rather a lot of them in terms of lore and plot relevance, which they don’t really deliver.

I’m not even going to try to turn Unown into a usable Pokémon, like I’ve been doing with everyone else on my Top Ten list.  I have literally nothing to work with; they can’t do anything and there’s nothing to indicate what they should be able to do.  Besides, their flavour text indicates pretty clearly that a single Unown is all but powerless; the mysterious reality-warping powers we see in other media are a result of the interaction between two or more Unown.  In a game where the standard format is one-on-one combat, there’s little room for Pokémon who are only effective in swarms.  Instead I want to share my thoughts on how to integrate the Unown into the rest of the game in a way that doesn’t feel tacked-on and irritating.
The illustration of the DARK Unown card, by Hideaki Hakozaki, from the Undaunted expansion of the TCG.

A single Unown is nothing.  Two or more Unown together have power.  This seems like it must be a reference to letters, which are meaningless on their own, forming words.  But why would an ancient civilisation make that comparison and base its alphabet on the shapes of the Unown?  To answer this question, I’m going to draw on an idea from the Pokémon trading card game and what it seems to imply about how their abilities work.  I don’t actually play the trading card game, but I bought a few booster packs while I was in Italy because they came in these awesome collectible tins with pictures of Reshiram and Zekrom on the front, so now I have a few dozen Italian Pokémon cards, and one of these is an Unown card.  It features four Unown spelling out the word DARK and has the following ability: una sola volta durante il tuo turno, quando metti Unown nella tua Panchina, puoi cercare nel tuo mazzo una carta Energia Oscuritá, mostrarla al tuo avversario e aggiungerla alle carte che hai in mano.  Poi rimischia le carte del tuo mazzo.  For those of you who can’t read Italian or don’t know how the card game works, the point is that a group of Unown can come together to spell a word and create a supernatural effect in line with that word.  I gather that other cards featuring Unown work according to a similar premise, with a whole range of words and corresponding effects.  What this seems to imply is that the Unown are broadly analogous to the idea of a “language of the universe” that you get in a lot of high fantasy (implying in turn, oddly enough, that the universe speaks a slightly old-fashioned dialect of English, but the Unown require a fair bit of suspension of disbelief from a linguistic perspective anyway).  The words they form quite literally tell the story of the world, and they can rewrite that story by forming new words… if there are enough of them to create the sentences.  What does this have to do with the ancient alphabet?  Simple.  A lot of the oldest scripts in the world are pictographic – that is, a symbol represents a word or concept rather than a sound, and the symbol for, say, a goat is probably developed from a picture of a goat.  For a culture with a pictographic script who encountered the Unown and observed their powers, it wouldn’t be a huge leap to start representing darkness with the sequence DARK, and gradually, word by word, they get used to representing their entire language in the form of sequences of Unown.

As I mentioned, it’s not easy to make use of Unown’s ability to alter reality in a fight since the vast majority of Pokémon battles are one-on-on-one, and most of the rest are two-on-two, leaving room for only a handful of pronouns and prepositions.  But what could the Unown do for you outside of combat?  Here’s my suggestion.  In ruins where Unown are present, researchers sometimes find small blank tablets.  The Unown you capture can be coaxed onto these tablets in groups of three to five, spelling out short words.  The number of words you can spell is limited by the number of different Unown letters available to you, with more letters appearing over the course of the game (possibly when you solve puzzles, as in Gold and Silver).  Arranging the Unown into certain words, which can be determined by clues around the ruins, can cause them to unleash their powers in a predictable fashion to create various utility effects when a tablet is activated.  You can’t use your Unown in battle while they’re on tablets, but hey, they’re Unown – why would you want to? – and they don’t take up space in your party.  What I’m driving at here, obviously, is replacing HM techniques like Cut and Surf with the actual words CUT and SWIM (for example), since HMs are a huge pain in the neck and the bane of every trainer’s existence, but I can think of other possibilities too, like a CHASE or TRAP tablet that prevents wild Pokémon from running away, or a FIND tablet that reveals the locations of hidden items.  The number of effects you can create is limited by the number and size of tablets you can find (longer words produce more powerful effects, but larger tablets are rarer).  Villains attempting to learn how to use the Unown themselves might provide an opportunity for a nice side plot (or even part of the main storyline).

So, there we have it: that’s the top ten worst Pokémon ever and what I would do with each of them to make them less… worst.

“But wait!” I hear you cry, “What happened to Farfetch’d?”

Don’t worry.  He’s next.