Time for Alola starter number 3: the Water-types, Poplio, Brionne and Primarina. I have something of a history of being distressingly lukewarm on Water-type starters, whom I’ve often put in the “fine” basket with little further comment, and for a while it looked like Poplio was going to go the same way, if not worse. I know I’m not the only one who was less than enthusiastic about Alola’s Water-type starter initially. After all, we’re onto our fourth pinniped Pokémon now (that’s seal, sea lion and walrus Pokémon, for the uncultured masses), they’re all Water-types, and this is even the second starter among them. But even Poplio has design elements that show a different direction to Dewgong, Walrein and Samurott, which only continue to diverge through evolution, and this has turned out to be one of those Pokémon that feels weird to me at first, but makes more sense the longer I keep looking at it. Continue reading “Poplio, Brionne and Primarina”
You’ve been asked about the Pokémon that you think should be retyped. What about Pokémon that should be re….Abilitied? (???) Gens VI and especially VII have been switching up a lot of old Pokémon’s Abilities, so this seems a more feasible change to happen rather than retyping, no? So, with our hopes up, which Pokémon would YOU like to have one (or both) of their Abilities changed, and to what?
Well, honestly the possibility that leaps most immediately to mind for me is the one that’s probably least likely to happen – namely, giving all the starter Pokémon different abilities. I understand as a design choice why we have Overgrow, Blaze and Torrent, because they’re abilities that, as a new player, you don’t have to think about very hard, if at all. But gods they’re boring. In the same vein, a lot of legendary Pokémon, particularly from the earlier generations, just have Pressure as a kind of default ability, which is actually really weird because, despite being an okay fit thematically, Pressure is a super-niche ability to actually use; most Pokémon don’t get very much out of having it.
Who are your favourite starters of each type of each evolutionary stage? Like, who’s your favourite Grass unevolved starter? Who’s your favourite Fire middle stage starter? Who’s your favourite Water fully evolved starter? Etc.
Hmm… let’s see…
Grass: Bulbasaur; Grovyle; Torterra
Fire: Charmander; Braixen; Infernape
Water: Froakie; Wartortle; Empoleon
The fourth generation’s fully evolved forms have been my favourites since they were released; the younger forms of the first generation starters will always have a special place in my heart though.
very important question: if you had to fistfight one of the middle stages of any of the starter pokemon, which one do you think you could beat and why?
Well, out of the ones that have fists, I would probably pick Braixen ‘cause no way does she have the upper body strength to throw a decent punch.
My unfathomable whims have decreed that it’s time to wrap up the Kalos starters. The third and last is the Kalosian Water-type starter Pokémon, Froakie, a little blue frog with a good head for deception and evasion. His second form, Frogadier, also happens to have one of the most fun English names to say of the entire sixth generation, energetically tripping off the tongue in the same way as Octillery or Galvantula. As for the fully adult ninja frog… well, at some point, quite early on, I realised that the pink scarf thing around Greninja’s neck is probably his long froggy tongue, and ever since then I’ve been so weirded out by it that I can never quite accept him without doing a nervous double take. I’m now forced, whenever I see him, to contemplate the mental image of my own tongue stretched out to twenty times its normal length and wrapped a couple of times around my neck. I can see what it adds to the design; ninja are regularly portrayed with masks or headbands that leave strips of cloth fluttering free, and the tongue allows Greninja to mimic that appearance, while also providing a visually striking colour contrast between its bright pink and the deep blue of his body. Hell, if my tongue went that well with my outfit, maybe I would wear it as a scarf. Anyway. Past Water starters have generally been bulky Pokémon with a ‘tough guy’ aesthetic, so Froakie’s very different take on the type is a welcome bit of diversity, and also establishes him as a very different Pokémon from either Chespin or Fennekin. Let’s take a closer look.
These Pokémon are ninja frogs. Frogs and ninja are connected in a variety of modern fiction, apparently because of one very famous ninja hero from Japanese folktale, Jiraiya, who was the subject of a classic Japanese novel of the 19th century (which, as is the way of such things, was only loosely based on a wide variety of different version of older tales). Jiraiya seems to have had a thing for frogs and toads; he supposedly had the power to transform into a toad, and is often depicted riding a giant magical toad whom he saved from a marauding serpent. Snakes as villains seem to be a unifying thread of the Jiraiya tradition. In fact, one sequence in the 19th century novel even describes a rock-paper-scissors relationship – almost exactly like the one that exists between trios of starter Pokémon – between Jiraiya’s frog powers, the snake powers of the story’s villain Orochimaru (which are apparently strong against frog and toad magic), and the slug and snail powers of Jiraiya’s love interest Tsunate (which can overcome snake magic, for reasons which I imagine made perfect sense at the time). Or something. Look, I haven’t actually read it; I just looked for summaries on the internet. What do you people want from me? The fact that Froakie, Greninja and Frogadier seem to be referencing Jiraiya makes me wonder whether there’s any significance to the presence, in the previous starter trio, of a snake Pokémon whose powers can defeat theirs – Serperior. Obviously Serperior wasn’t designed with such a relationship in mind, but maybe Greninja’s creators got a kick out of it – and if they did, they would probably also have noted that there are slug and snail Pokémon in the game as well, and that these Pokémon, although not actually starters, are Fire-types. Although it’s rather a stretch to think that they planned it this way, Greninja, as well as being a starter, actually completes a weird little cross-generational trio of his own.
Anyway, that’s why ninja frogs are a thing.
A Water-type ninja as one of the sixth generation starters is also an interesting choice following the Water-type samurai we got in Unova, Samurott, given that samurai and ninja tend to be set up as opposites in popular culture – samurai are seen as large, powerful warriors, devoted to honour and often more than a little flamboyant, while ninja are depicted as stealthy, agile, deliberately understated, and perhaps more unscrupulous. Water seems like it should be a natural element for that kind of Pokémon; it’s changeable, being the only substance in nature that exists on Earth as a solid, a liquid, and a gas, it flows around obstacles as easily as smashing through them (as Misty explains at length to a rival Fire trainer in the anime episode Some Like it Hot), and it is regularly associated with subtlety and deception. The mutable nature of water is particularly evident in Greninja’s signature move, Water Shuriken, which magically compresses water into sharp-edged discs that slice through his enemies’ flesh with pinpoint accuracy. Bulky, powerful Water Pokémon that draw on the unparalleled fury of a stormy sea are common, but ones focussing on the constantly shifting, intangible nature of water are few and far between; the only ones I can think of are Golduck, Vaporeon and possibly Starmie and Jellicent. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but I find it surprising that Water Pokémon like Greninja aren’t more common, and the contrast between Greninja and Samurott almost seems to draw attention to it.
Chesnaught and Delphox are both perfectly competent, as starters normally are, but Greninja has hit the jackpot. He seems made to be a mixed attacker, employing both physical and special attacks to confound heavy wall Pokémon who focus on only one side of their defences, although his movepool pushes him much more towards a special focus. His special attack is great, his attack isn’t far behind, and he’s so fast that he can probably afford not to invest the greatest possible effort in speed, leaving more to divide between his attack stats if you want to pick up one or two of his physical moves. His need for heavy speed training is further diminished by Water Shuriken, which gives him access to a fairly strong physical priority attack. Because Water Shuriken is a multi-hit attack, its power fluctuates a great deal; it will sometimes be weaker than Aqua Jet, though not by much, and it will usually be stronger, sometimes by quite a lot. The truly lovely thing about Greninja isn’t his stats, though; it’s his hidden ability. Chesnaught and Delphox have pretty neat hidden abilities, but Greninja’s blows both out of the water. It’s called Protean, an English adjective derived from the name of shapeshifting Greek ocean god Proteus, and it automatically changes his type to match that of any move he’s about to use. Effectively, Greninja gets STAB (Same-Type Attack Bonus, +50% damage) on everything and, thanks to his excellent speed, can sometimes shift his type to gain resistance or immunity to incoming attacks, hopefully keeping his lacklustre defences from having their full impact – but bear in mind that he’ll always have his native Water/Dark typing when he switches in; Pokémon with actual resistances or immunities are safer. Basically, it’s like Kecleon’s Colour Change, only it’s actually useful (and, indeed, Kecleon now shares Protean as his Dream World ability and gets to suck a little bit less). Of course, life’s a bit grim if you want to use the Froakie you got from Professor Sycamore, whose ability will be Torrent, but hey, no-one ever said Pokémon was fair.
Protean Greninja can use both physical and special attacks of any type with roughly equal competence, though his physical movepool leaves much to be desired (maybe future games will change that). Surf, Hydro Pump, Dark Pulse, Ice Beam and Extrasensory form the core of his offensive capability. Grass Knot punishes other Water types, provided they belong to high weight classes, although be careful they don’t return fire with Ice Beam after you become a Grass-type. Hidden Power deserves special mention on Greninja because of the way it can be used to exploit Protean; if you want Greninja to be able to shift his type to resist, say, Dragon attacks, which would otherwise be impossible since he doesn’t learn any Fairy or Steel attacks, you can try to trade or breed for a Greninja with Hidden Power: Fairy and net him a quasi-immunity [EDIT: I HAVE MISLED YOU; Hidden Power cannot take a Fairy type, probably because that would have meant reassigning all the other types to different personality values and therefore screwing up Pokémon with Hidden Power transferred from older games]. Water Shuriken and Power-Up Punch are the high points of his physical movepool – trying to use a pure physical Greninja is a bad idea since his physical moves just aren’t very powerful, but Power-Up Punch will spell doom for any Blissey who thinks she can take you, and again, Water Shuriken is on average pretty powerful for a priority attack. U-Turn is worth it whether you’re training his attack stat or not, because free switches are always welcome. Acrobatics is difficult to use at the moment because Flying Gems don’t exist on X and Y and it’s depressingly weak if you can’t reliably use up Greninja’s item, but when Game Freak gets around to introducing gems in the sixth generation, it could be interesting. Rock Slide and Night Slash are there, but just not powerful enough to be worth it.
Support duty almost seems like a waste of Greninja’s amazing offensive potential, but he has a couple of very helpful support moves – most importantly, Spikes and Toxic Spikes; one or both could find its way onto a moveset to amplify his own and other Pokémon’s offensive potential. He also gets Taunt and has the speed to use it effectively, anticipating and cancelling support moves coming from defensive Pokémon. There’s a second signature move that deserves a mention, if only to explain why it shouldn’t be used – Mat Block, which references the ninja technique of blocking a thrown weapon by flipping up one of the woven straw mats used as flooring in traditional Japanese houses. Mat Block is only useful in double or triple battles, where it acts as a sort of mass Protect attack, guarding all of your active Pokémon from damage… with three important flaws: 1) it doesn’t have priority, so anything that outruns Greninja can bypass it, 2) it doesn’t block status moves, so stuff like Thunder Wave and Will’o’Wisp can bypass it, and most importantly 3) like Fake Out, it can only be used on the first turn after Greninja enters play, something the move’s description conveniently neglects to mention and leaves players to discover for themselves. Don’t worry, Chesnaught and Delphox – Greninja may have two signature moves to your one, but the second is nothing to be jealous of.
Before we wrap up today, I promised I’d talk at some point about the starters as a group, and in particular about the warrior/spellcaster/rogue interpretation that has become so popular: the idea that Chesnaught, Delphox and Greninja are based on a trio of common roles or classes from role-playing games. Chesnaught is the warrior, fighter, knight or whatever; Delphox is the wizard, sorcerer, or black mage, and Greninja is the thief, rogue or assassin. Strength, magic, and skill, the classic three fantasy RPG archetypes. You can divide some other starter trios along similar lines – Venusaur, Charizard and Blastoise, for example, could be parsed as spellcaster, rogue/scout/fast warrior (remembering that Charizard originally had only average special attack in Red and Blue) and knight/paladin/bulky warrior; Meganium, Typhlosion and Feraligatr work as white mage, black mage and warrior. For that reason, and also because the Pokémon community is often overeager to construct patterns out of things (says the guy who writes character studies and lengthy speculative discussions of this stuff), I was a little sceptical of the idea at first, though in the end the set of human-influenced designs – knight, witch and ninja – make this way of looking at things particularly appropriate to the sixth generation, and it’s entirely plausible that RPG classes were, if not the creators’ starting point, at least an influence. To me, all of this is just one example of a general principle of designing starter trios: the starter Pokémon occupies a place of special importance as your partner and as the first point of contact most players have with the game, so it’s vital that everyone (or at least as many people as possible) be able to find one that appeals to them. To that end, it’s sensible to have starter trios with strongly contrasting aesthetics, fighting styles and personalities. Sceptile, Infernape and Greninja, for example, would make a poor starter trio because they’re all different takes on the same idea – a fast, active warrior-type. They continue to be nicely designed Pokémon in themselves, and nothing can diminish their individual appeal, but they don’t provide the same breadth of choice. Some people would love all three, others wouldn’t like any of them. A trio of Torterra, Emboar and Swampert would be similarly ill-conceived. The existence of fighter/magic-user/rogue as a recognisable trope has its roots in the same basic concept; RPG players want to be able to play a hero whose powers have particular appeal to them. People like choice; it’s really pretty simple. They also like not to be penalised for their choices, which is where the notion of game balance comes into it, but that’s another topic entirely.
I quite like this Pokémon, in spite of his alarming combined approach to fashion and oral hygiene. Frogadier makes the cute-to-badass transition remarkably smoothly in comparison to what most starters manage, and the ninja frog thing is a bit weird if you’re not in on the joke, as it were, but was very interesting to learn about. As for his battle capabilities… well, Protean is a game-changer, there’s no other way to describe it. Expect Greninja to make a serious impact on any battle he sticks his aqueous ninja stars into.
Probably one of the most popular commonplaces of fan-made Pokémon design for years and years has been the Pokémon with pyrokinetic abilities – the use of psychic power to manipulate heat and fire – and it looks like we’ve finally got one. I’ll be honest, though: when I first saw Fennekin I was not optimistic. A fiery fox Pokémon with a mystical streak? That… sounds awfully familiar. When all’s said and done, Vulpix and Ninetales are a lot more straightforward as far as their physical design goes; aside from the split tail thing they are basically foxes, and what’s interesting about them is mostly in their mystical powers and their obsession with vengeance. Fennekin develops into something a bit more complicated with more of a mixture of influences going on, eventually ending up looking more like Lucario or Zoroark than anything else (Japanese sure do like their magic foxes). That’s something we should probably talk about first, actually; let’s talk about the anthro-fox thing.
I know there are people who don’t like Lucario or Zoroark, or presumably Delphox either, because the anthropomorphism offends their sensibilities on some level, which is something I don’t quite ‘get,’ personally (now, whether we really need quite so many fox-like Pokémon is another matter entirely, but I spend enough time bitching about that kind of thing already). The concept of anthropomorphic animals is literally as old as civilisation, even if depicting them physically as human/animal hybrids isn’t quite so universal, and I think everyone recognises the apparent callbacks from Lucario to Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god of burial and funerary rites. It’s not just some weird fetish thing of the last couple of decades, it’s actually kind of a millennia-old universal mythic archetype that resonates with people of radically different cultural backgrounds all over the planet. Just to prove my point, I would like to note that, in fact, if you Google the phrase “anthropomorphic fox,” the first result is the Wikipedia page for a mediaeval French trickster-hero named Raynard or Renart (so an anthropomorphic fox actually makes a great deal of sense in a region based on France), whose principal rival is an anthropomorphic wolf named Isengrim. It’s really quite amazing how much I learn from writing this bull$#!t. The trope also makes a lot of sense in the context of some of Pokémon’s core themes, like the desire for balance between civilisation and nature – anthropomorphic animals straddle the line and can symbolically act as intermediaries or go-betweens in much the same way as Pokémon trainers can from the other direction. Foxes in Japanese folklore are regularly depicted as shapeshifters as well, and are often quite fond of assuming human form for a variety of whimsical purposes, so it makes a great deal of sense that we should see fox-like Pokémon in particular filling this role (even if, again, I might wish for more variety in that respect, as elsewhere…). Basically what I’m saying is that any complaint that anthropomorphic foxes are just inherently a dumb idea will be met with several heavy and fast-moving books. Moving on.
My favourite thing about Delphox is probably her name, which evokes ancient Delphi in Greece, a place closely associated with oracular foresight – and, lo and behold, Delphox can see the future by staring into the flames at the tip of her wand, and also learns Future Sight (though of course among Psychic Pokémon this is far from an unusual attack; it’s much more interesting with respect to flavour when it appears on a Pokémon of a different element). Maybe it’s just me, but I also can’t help but see one of the ancient Greek words for fire, phlox, in there. In contrast to Ninetales, who is a very faithful rendition of, essentially, a purely Japanese kitsune spirit, Fennekin and her evolutions seem very keen to bring western ideas into the design – which, again, makes sense both in the context of Kalos as a French-inspired region and of Pokémon’s growing interest in portraying itself as an international entity. Braixen in particular, and Delphox as well to an extent, have a very strong east-meets-west thing going, combining the mystic foxes of Japanese folklore with the witches of European fairytale, whose signature broomstick is clearly visible in the shape of Braixen’s tail. Delphox, likewise, directs her fire powers through a wand which also acts as a focus for her psychic abilities. It’s a shame Braixen can’t use her ‘broomstick’ to fly, but then again, neither making her a Flying-type nor sticking Levitate on her would have been all that practical. Potion-making abilities or herbal lore might have been nice too, but similarly difficult to reconcile with the Fire/Psychic typing, requiring a mixture of Grass- and Poison-type powers.
I cannot get over this line’s majestic ear hair. I didn’t notice it at first because it just looks like they have big red ears at a glance, but when you actually look at them, it’s clear that those are huge bushy tufts of hair or fur sprouting from inside their ears, apparently meant to mimic the appearance of bursts of flame. It confuses me so much because, although a fennec fox’s large heat-dissipating ears are one of its most noticeable traits and are referenced in the fact that Fennekin emits blasts of heat from her ears to frighten attackers, their ear hair, while admittedly impressive if you look at it with that in mind, is not really anything special. In humans ear hair denotes age, so I guess you could say that it’s meant to be a sign of wisdom, but it’s usually in men that we think about prominent ear hair, and Delphox seems to very aiming at a feminine design. Also, ear hair tends to be grouped with the less desirable traits of old age, like senility. Maybe in Japan impressive ear hair is considered a good thing…? Where does one go on the internet for information about the symbolic associations of ear hair in different cultures, anyway? How has my life even gotten to the point where this is a question I am legitimately interested in knowing the answer to?
…yeah, I’m just going to talk about Delphox’s battle capabilities now.
Delphox has an unusual type combination, shared only by Victini and Zen Darmanitan (who, of course, doesn’t count): Fire/Psychic, which comes with quite a lot of resistances but also some very nasty weaknesses, particularly Rock, Ground and Dark. Offensively it’s a viable combination but not a brilliant one; Fire and Psychic share no weaknesses, but don’t cover each other’s weaknesses particularly well either. Overall, it’s sort of a mixed bag as far as type combinations go, and the rest of Delphox’s traits follow suit. The odd thing about this Pokémon is that her stats suggest a special sweeper – very good speed and special defence with excellent special attack, and poor physical stats – while her movepool and hidden ability are very much those of a supporter. Aside from her core attacks – Flamethrower or Fire Blast, Psyshock or Psychic – Delphox really only has Grass Knot and Shadow Ball for coverage. Grass attacks go great with Fire, but Grass Knot’s dependence on the target’s weight makes it a bit of a tricky move (the types that are weak against Grass – Ground, Rock and Water – do tend to have disproportionately heavy Pokémon, though, so it can work pretty well as a secondary attack). Ghost attacks are also moving up in the world now that Steel-types no longer resist them, leaving excellent neutral coverage, but that’s not really a huge priority for Delphox, who already has a pretty solid offensive type behind her. Calm Mind is difficult for a Pokémon whose physical defences are as weak as Delphox’s, although she’s pretty frightening with a special attack boost behind her. Her support movepool has some great stuff: Light Screen, Will’o’Wisp, Switcheroo, Hypnosis, hell, if you’re good at reading your opponents she can even muck around with Magic Coat (although, if you really want to reflect status effects back at their users, just using a Pokémon with the Magic Bounce ability is a lot easier, albeit predictable). Switcheroo could make for a neat Choice Specs set. It’s worked for other Pokémon in the past and Delphox certainly has the stats for it; act as a traditional special attacker with a nasty Choice Specs power boost until you see a support-oriented Pokémon who won’t deal well with being locked into a single attack, then swap items with Switcheroo and hopefully cripple them. The other moves are just universally useful, although it’s not exactly easy to see why you’d pick a relatively frail Pokémon like Delphox to use them.
Like Chesnaught and Greninja, Delphox enjoys access to a signature move, Mystical Fire. This attack looks decidedly underwhelming at first glance since it’s simply much less powerful than the traditional ‘gold standard’ moves like Thunderbolt and Earthquake. What’s interesting about it, though, is that on top of its damage Mystical Fire also reduces its target’s special attack, which is a surprisingly rare effect; only a handful of moves can do that, and many of them will not do so consistently (Moonblast only does so 20% of the time, Captivate only works on Pokémon of the opposite gender, and so on). Considering that Delphox can also partially neutralise most physical attackers with Will’o’Wisp, the ability to reliably dampen special attackers as well is pretty cool. In a similar vein, her hidden ability, Magician, is almost unique, shared only by the mischievous Klefki (who really has better things to do, since his other ability is Prankster, the greatest blessing any support Pokémon has ever received). Magician basically adds the effect of Thief to all of Delphox’s direct attacks for free – if she’s not already holding an item, she’ll steal whatever her target is holding. A lot of Pokémon rely quite heavily on their items, and being able to nab these reliably without taking up a moveslot is pretty cool, especially if you happen to gank something Delphox can actually use herself. Combine this with a consumable item like an Air Balloon or a Fire Gem (once Fire Gems actually exist in X and Y) and you could seriously mess with even Pokémon who don’t think Delphox can harm them. All in all, it’s probably best to think of Delphox as a special attacker whose greatest strength is actually not her special attacks, but her capacity to screw with people. Make sure to pack at least one nasty little spell, and spring it when your opponent is least expecting it.
Delphox might actually be my favourite Fire starter so far – and only partially because we have finally broken the curse of Fire/Fighting. She balances power and cunning in a way that’s quite rare in a Fire-type, and just being able to shrug off her attacks doesn’t necessarily mean she can’t leave your head spinning. Like mythological foxes the world over, she’s clever and possesses mystical insight into the world of spirits and magic, embracing the magical quality of fire like few of her predecessors ever have. You know, I think I’m good with that.
All right; let’s get this catastrophic $#!t-show on the road. Grass-type starter time!
Since I have shown no signs at all of becoming even slightly less infatuated with the Grass type in the three years since I started this blog, selecting Chespin as my starter was something of a foregone conclusion. The little tyke eventually found himself overshadowed in my affections by the return of my one true love, Bulbasaur, but he nonetheless remained a faithful companion throughout my playthrough of X version and has always been ready to pull his weight. Where else to begin but with my first Kalosian Pokémon?
I begin with the Kalos Pokédex’s inaugural silly quote. “Such a thick shell of wood covers [Chespin’s] head and back,” it faithfully explains, “that even a direct hit from a truck wouldn’t faze it.” It is unlikely anyone will ever attempt to test this claim, Chespin being as adorable as he is, so we shall probably have to take the Pokédex’s word for it, but his sturdy spiked ‘helmet’ should at least afford solid protection from threats his own size. I am a little readier to believe it of the human-sized Chesnaught, his final evolutionary stage – a bulky creature of uncertain mammalian extraction with a spiked tortoiseshell-like structure (presumably wood again) covering his back and shoulders, and spiny ‘gauntlets’ protecting the outsides of his forearms. This guy’s shoulder-barges would surely be lethal. So, Chespin nails ‘cute’ and Chesnaught nails ‘tough’ (particularly with the ‘come at me’ pose he adopts in both the official art and his battle stance), but as is often the case with Pokémon who have to make this transition, Quilladin is caught in a strange middle ground between the two; he seems to go for a little of both, mixed with a side of ‘impish.’ His long, pointed nose, the tuft of hair on his forehead, and his round sparkling eyes, together with his nigh-spherical body shape, all give me the disconcerting impression that Crash Bandicoot has seriously let himself go, and is disguising himself as a cactus to hide his shame and start building a new identity. In some ways he doesn’t seem to fit smoothly as an intermediate between Chespin and Chesnaught; he’s more rotund than either of them, with short, stocky arms and legs, and the transition from Chespin’s helmet to Quilladin’s all-over body armour seems to go backwards again with Chesnaught, who seems to be more reliant on his tortoiseshell plate and armoured forearms. None of that messes with the things I really like about these designs, though.
The inspiration for these designs is the spiny outer shell of the chestnut. Nuts, berries and fruit have been underexploited by Grass Pokémon designs in the past, and chestnuts are distinctive and appropriate for a physical tank Pokémon. There may even be a cultural allusion in play, to the horse chestnuts or ‘conkers’ beloved of British schoolchildren in the 19th and early 20th centuries – in traditional schoolyard games, the hard nuts are hung from strings and smashed together until the weaker one cracks and must be discarded, with veteran conkers that survive multiple such battles being especially prized (Roald Dahl gives a characteristically whimsical account of the game and its strategies in the book My Year). Only the nuts themselves are used in the game, without the tougher but softer skins, but the nature of the game is so appropriate to Chespin’s physical bruiser battling style, as well as the habit Quilladin have of tackling each other in order to build their strength, that I can’t help but suspect a reference. Chespin’s ‘helmet’ also resembles the tough, warty outer skin of the horse chestnut more closely than that of a true chestnut, with its dense thicket of bristly, almost needle-like spines. What I particularly like about the way Chespin and his evolutions use chestnuts is that it ties together the Grass and Fighting elements. They aren’t ‘chestnut Pokémon’ although that could very easily have been a workable starting point, since there are basically two ways to do a Grass Pokémon: ‘plant creature’ and ‘animal with plant characteristics,’ all Grass starters being the latter. The Grass-type aspect of the design comes through in Chespin’s ‘helmet,’ Quilladin’s ‘armour,’ Chesnaught’s tortoiseshell plate, and their thorn shield signature move, which are also the things that convey their similarity to a human warrior or knight – in other words, the things that make them Grass-types are also the things that make Chesnaught a Fighting-type. The combination of the two elements isn’t superficial; they work together. It’s not always easy to make that happen, but I’m always fond of Pokémon who manage to pull it off.
Chesnaught handles in a similar manner to Torterra in battle, being a slow physical tank. Probably his biggest problem is that he has rather a lot of weaknesses for a slow, defensive Pokémon, including a dangerous double-weakness to Flying attacks, but he does resist the powerful and popular Earthquake/Stone Edge combination, so it’s not all bad. His biggest strength is the high power of his staple attacks, combined with a small but useful support movepool to keep opponents guessing. His strongest Grass attack is Wood Hammer, which retains its 120 power rating in a generation where many of the strongest attacks in the game are being toned down; the recoil hurts, though, and doesn’t mesh well with the standard Grass-type ability Overgrow (because once you’re injured enough for the Grass-type damage boost to kick in, one or two more Wood Hammers have a good chance of dropping you), so Seed Bomb is also an option depending on what exactly you want to do with him. Most Fighting-types have a wide selection of Fighting-type moves, but Chesnaught really only has two worth speaking of: Hammer Arm, which sacrifices speed for power (not that Chesnaught cares much about speed anyway) and Power-Up Punch, one of X and Y’s new moves, which boosts attack with every use (potentially a worthwhile choice for a more defensive Chesnaught who can afford to hang around for a couple of turns). Grass with Fighting is not a particularly strong combination offensively – well, okay, let’s be fair, Grass with just about anything is not a particularly strong combination offensively, but Grass with Rock is one of the less bad ones, and Chesnaught can do that too, with Stone Edge. Stone Edge is also important to make it a little bit harder for Flying Pokémon to walk all over him. On the support side, there are basically two moves you can build sets around: Leech Seed, the eternal Grass-type favourite which also works well with Chesnaught’s signature move, discussed below, and Spikes, which is just universally useful. Bulk Up and Swords Dance are both viable ways of increasing Chesnaught’s offensive presence, since he’s tough enough to take a neutral attack while setting up and scary enough to force some Pokémon to retreat. Don’t count on a sweep, though; Chesnaught is just too slow.
All three Kalos starters have been blessed with a signature move to emphasise what is unique in their styles of fighting, and Chesnaught’s is Spiky Shield. In mechanical terms, this thing is pretty neat. It’s strictly an improvement over Protect, the standard option available to most Pokémon for blocking an incoming attack to stall for time; the advantage to Spiky Shield is that it additionally deals a small amount of damage if it blocks a ‘contact’ attack. It’s a shame Spiky Shield damage can’t be stacked with the similar effect of a Rocky Helmet, because that would make Chesnaught a seriously daunting proposition for most physical attackers – perhaps not to the same extent as Ferrothorn, who can stack Rocky Helmet with his Iron Barbs ability, but then again, Ferrothorn actually has to take damage to cause recoil while Chesnaught doesn’t, so maybe that would have been too much ‘something for nothing.’ Besides, Protect is hardly a bad technique, particularly for Grass Pokémon who can use it to stall for damage and healing with Leech Seed, or in double battles where a Pokémon can potentially take two attacks in one turn, and Spiky Shield is, again, unambiguously better than Protect.
Finally, you have two options for healing, besides Leech Seed. Synthesis is the one you should use if you’re serious, because the sixth generation’s nerfing of Drizzle, Sand Stream and Snow Warning makes it much more likely you’ll be able to use the technique unobstructed. I want to talk about Pain Split, though, because Pain Split is interesting from a flavour perspective. Most of the Pokémon who learn Pain Split are Ghost- or Psychic-types, and of those who aren’t, most are in the Amorphous egg group and lack clearly defined anatomy, like Weezing and Swalot (even when it was available more widely, via move tutor, it was most prevalent among Pokémon with overtly magical powers or indistinct anatomy). It seems to be implied that the attack normally functions on the literal sharing of pain with the opponent, usually through supernatural means, which makes it odd that Chesnaught can learn it at all, let alone as a level-up move. Probably the intention here is to stress the retributive nature of Chesnaught’s defences, in line with Spiky Shield; the Pokédex is adamant that these Pokémon don’t start fights, but are happy to finish them. This could possibly be pushed even further by suggesting that, since Pain Split is regularly associated with Pokémon who have mental powers, Chesnaught’s ability to use it stems from a deeply and firmly held belief in ‘eye-for-an-eye’-style justice.
Chesnaught also has an odd signature ability, Bulletproof, the in-game manifestation of his supposed ability to withstand bomb blasts, which grants total immunity to a select list of ball-, bomb- and bullet-themed attacks. The most important of these are probably Shadow Ball, Sludge Bomb (which is super-effective against Chesnaught and more popular now that Poison attacks are strong against Fairy-types), Focus Blast and Aura Sphere, and to a lesser extent Seed Bomb, Energy Ball and Electro Ball (which Chesnaught resists anyway) and Gyro Ball (which does more damage to faster Pokémon, something Chesnaught is most definitely not). Most of the others are either too weak or too rare to be major sources of concern. Probably the main draw of this ability is that it makes him an unorthodox and somewhat risky but very interesting answer to Gengar, who relies heavily on Sludge Bomb, Shadow Ball and Focus Blast. Aura Sphere immunity also makes him a good possible response to Clawitzer and Mega Blastoise – just watch out for Ice Beam – as well as special Lucario (though Lucario is more commonly a physical attacker).
In summary, then, Chespin and his evolutions have a pleasing design that take inspiration from an unusual place, and their most unique powers support that design well and create consistent characterisation. They also combine Grass/Fighting more fluidly than the other representatives of that pair, Breloom and Virizion (though Breloom, it should be noted, is a kick-boxing dinosaur). If I have complaints, they are mainly with Quilladin’s odd aesthetics – he could stand to be slimmed down, with more emphasis on his spines and perhaps more elaborate ‘armour’ to anticipate Chesnaught’s grand tortoiseshell plate – and with the more general problem that Grass is just a bad type and probably always will be. That’s a complaint for another day, though…
WARNING: This entry is clearly too long and I have no idea why I wrote it.
Let’s talk about starter Pokémon.
Your starter Pokémon is your partner, a bird of your feather, a pea in your pod, the cheese to your macaroni. It is like a huge feathery pea covered in melted parmesan.
…yeah, that metaphor got away from me a little.
My point is, this is supposed to be the Pokémon that defines your experience of Pokémon training, what Pokémon mean to you personally, and your own style as a trainer… so it had better be good. These are the most important designs in the game to get right, barring maybe plot-relevant legendary Pokémon, and there’s even more to get right than when you’re just working on any old filler Pokémon. For one thing, you have to be sure – at least, as far as humanly possible – that there will be at least one starter Pokémon in each trio that appeals to everyone. Obviously that battle’s over before it even starts because there are always going to be a few people who think that all three are terrible, but there are a couple of ways to minimise that, and Game Freak do seem to try their best. Of course, many of us will just accept the Grass/Fire/Water paradigm and take what we’re given from our favourite elements, but for a lot of people, including a lot of new players, other factors are going to be important. It’s good to give a choice of personality types and aesthetic styles – often these are divided along elemental stereotypes, so we generally get an aggressive Fire-type, a stoic Water-type and a laid-back Grass-type. This isn’t always the case, though; Black and White, for instance, have a stoic Grass-type, a laid-back Fire-type and an aggressive Water-type (forgetting for the moment that Oshawott’s art and sprites are terrible and should never have seen the light of day). I think you can argue that it’s probably better, in general, for starter Pokémon to be exemplars of their elements’ defining traits, rather than exceptions, because many people are going to choose starters according to element and won’t necessarily want Pokémon that are radically different from the norm. Obviously, that’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but this is probably not the place to get experimental and create a Grass Pokémon with the power to drain and kill plants or something weird like that. Anyway… the other important thing is that these Pokémon have to be strong, or at least decent (bearing in mind, of course, that the things that make a Pokémon good for high-powered competitive play are often quite different to the things that make a Pokémon good for in-game storyline play). If your starter Pokémon is weak, you’re either going to ditch the thing as soon as possible or keep it around as a sort of mascot while vaguely resenting it the whole time. You can find accounts of exactly this kind of thing happening in Yellow Version – although later games have made an effort to help him out, an unevolved Pikachu is, let’s be fair here, a pretty terrible Pokémon. A lot of people just stuff him in the PC and never look back (and, heck, why not? Yellow gives you all three of the original starters anyway); others accept that he’s terrible and use him anyway because why else would you play Yellow Version, damnit, and a few people just never notice that he’s terrible because they’re also using Raticate and Butterfree.
Yellow Version gives you no choice in your starter Pokémon, so if you don’t like Pikachu, you’re out of luck, and it sticks you with a starter Pokémon who is demonstrably weaker than almost any other Pokémon you could possibly pick. For these reasons, it is an example of a really terrible way of handing out starter Pokémon. It works anyway because 1) Pikachu can get away with anything, 2) we all wanted to re-enact Ash’s journey, 3) if you didn’t like Pikachu you wouldn’t have bought Yellow anyway, and 4) let’s face it, the real reason we were playing Yellow was because we wanted Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle. All that said, Yellow is the only game so far that actually makes an effort to treat your starter Pokémon as special and emphasise your relationship with that Pokémon by introducing, just for Pikachu, the forerunner of the happiness mechanic that has been part of the game since Gold and Silver, as well as having Pikachu follow you around in the overworld. He may be just a mascot, but a fair bit of effort went into making him the best mascot possible, and as a result the game works. Well, it does if you like Pikachu. If not then you dump him in the PC and forget about him; he’ll hate you when you take him out, but it’s not like you were planning on doing that anyway. None of the other main series games has ever done anything like what Yellow did, probably because no other Pokémon can really compare to Pikachu for widespread popular appeal. The original Pokémon Ranger, like Yellow, gave you no choice of partner, sticking you with Plusle (if you’re a girl) or Minun (if you’re a boy), which is a little painful if you despise Plusle and Minun as much as I do, but aside from having powers that no other Pokémon in the game possesses, your partner actually plays an active role in the storyline, which seems only appropriate. According to Bulbapedia, Guardian Signs gives you a Pichu with a ukulele, however I am convinced that this is some sort of misinformation because not even Nintendo is that ridiculous. I think Gale of Darkness starts you off with an Eevee, who is sort of the ideal choice for a single starter because her split evolution ensures that most anyone will be able to evolve her into something that appeals (how many Yellow version players wish that your douchebag rival hadn’t swiped the Eevee that Professor Oak meant for you?). However, I digress.
One of the uncomfortable little problems with the Pokémon games that we don’t like to talk about is the severe disconnect between the series’ persistent and often heavy-handed theme of partnership and the way the games actually play. This has come up in my reviews of the anime a couple of times: we’re clearly meant to want to imitate Ash, who has only a handful of Pokémon and loves them like his family, but in practice I (and, I’ll bet, most other players) are more like Gary – if I take a quick look through my PC on Black Version, for instance, I find a couple of dozen Pokémon I use for battles, perhaps another dozen I use for various utility purposes like swimming and flight, and literally hundreds that I never use at all; they just sit there gathering dust because, having earned their Pokédex entries, I no longer have any particular need of them. I keep them around because I might someday need them to produce children for serious training. Does that seem right to you? A game that placed a great deal of importance on players’ relationships with every individual Pokémon would, of course, be vastly impractical if it were based on anything like the game’s current structure, with its monolithic Pokédex quest and the notable disadvantages associated with continuing to use your in-game team after completing the storyline. Just one Pokémon, though, for whom the player is assumed to care particularly deeply, as with Pikachu in Yellow… that, I feel, would make gameplay and message hang together a touch less haphazardly.
There’s a few ways this could be done. Having the starter follow you around, as Pikachu in Yellow, is an obvious starting point; having it react to events in the storyline, as Plusle and Minun do in Ranger, is a logical continuation. Something that has tempted me for a long time is the idea of evolution triggered by plot events (with some alternative method available post-Elite Four so you can evolve other starter Pokémon you obtain later); possibly even a single starter Pokémon with a split evolution determined by the way the player tends to react to in-game events, or the way the player treats the starter – which isn’t necessarily a strict contrast between ‘well’ and ‘badly,’ but more a contrast between different but valid and potentially overlapping types of relationship, like ‘intellectual,’ ‘emotional,’ ‘competitive,’ ‘protective’ and so on. To keep this working without hiccups, it might be wise to include an option for the starter to stay with the player at all times, even when there are six other Pokémon in the party, but become ‘inactive’ and unusable until a space opens up – some people just don’t like using their starters, while others may want to branch out after several playthroughs. Perhaps the starter’s presence even grants some kind of bonus to the rest of the party. I could go on. All of this, of course, ups the ante on creating starters that no one will strongly object to (or picking some from the ranks of existing Pokémon – Eevee seems to be universally adored) or offering a wider variety of starters (BLASPHEMY!) to ensure that there’s something for everyone. Personally, if I were aiming for this kind of effect, I would probably base the design around something associated with partnership in the real world somehow, like a dog or horse, just to hammer in the point. Assuming new Pokémon were being created, I would imagine rejecting dozens of designs (perhaps reworking some into regular Pokémon) before deciding on the final set; after all, this is not something to be done by halves.
The other main topic I want to address today is the Grass-Fire-Water paradigm. A lot of people want a change; I remember there was a great deal of excited speculation prior to the release of Diamond and Pearl that Game Freak were going to try experimenting with a Dark-Fighting-Psychic trio instead. This trio doesn’t have quite the same relationships between the types as Grass, Water and Fire, because Dark-types are strictly immune to Psychic attacks rather than simply resistant. In fact, it’s very difficult to construct a trio that works in just the same way as Grass-Fire-Water without using at least one of those three types, since so many elemental relationships aren’t reciprocal (for instance, Ice attacks are strong against Ground-types, but Ice-types don’t resist Ground attacks). The only one I can think of is Fighting-Flying-Rock, which is somewhat problematic because of Game Freak’s apparent distaste for pure Flying-types. It’s not immediately obvious why this should be a point against a change, but the big advantage of Grass-Fire-Water is its potential for easing new players into the system; the way the three types interact is quite simple compared to other possible trios, and the reasons for those interactions are also fairly intuitive (Grass-drains-Water is a little out there, but Fire-burns-Grass and Water-douses-Fire are much easier to understand than, say, Dark-mindfucks-Psychic or however that one is supposed to work). However, Game Freak have shown by way of the Striaton Gym and its triplet Gym Leaders that they are open to more sophisticated ways of indoctrinating new players into Pokémon’s vast and convoluted game of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock, so it’s possible to imagine a game where the starters are no longer the primary vehicle for introducing the mechanic. Arguably, it would actually help to have a starter trio with more complicated relationships, since new players are going to have to deal with stuff like immunities, mutual resistances, and the Dragon- and Ghost-types’ strengths against themselves sooner or later, and at present the games make no real effort to introduce any of that; they just encourage a vague (incorrect) belief that all elemental advantages are reciprocal. I spent much of my childhood assuming that Steel attacks must be strong against Dark-types, Ghost-types, and goodness knows what else because Steel Pokémon were resistant to those attack types. Again, I could bring up my favourite game mechanic of the day, the split evolution; in this case, the potential advantage is in allowing new players to delay their choice of element until after they understand the ramifications of that choice. Two other ideas I’ve toyed with are having a set of starters that all become Dragon-types upon reaching their final evolutions, so that all three are strong against each other, or having a set of starters who shift into each other’s elements (so the Grass-type becomes Grass/Water, the Water-type becomes Water/Fire, and the Fire-type becomes Fire/Grass)… not because these would necessarily be good ideas, you understand, but because they would be different and strange and would probably force the designers to come up with some really weird, quirky stuff.
We’ve seen an impressive variety of starter Pokémon over the years; tough, proud, gentle, courageous, reclusive, wise… for the most part, these are – as they very well should be – quite good designs. Like so much else in Pokémon, however, this is one place where I wish that, once in a while, Game Freak would dare to be different. Give them another year or two, and they’ll be announcing the approach of generation six… and goodness knows, none of us want another Fire/Fighting-type…
I love penguins. So clumsy on land, so graceful the moment they hit the water, and adorable to boot… Who doesn’t think Piplup is cute? Seriously, who doesn’t? I certainly do, although I have the same sort of problem with him and his evolved form, Prinplup, as I did with Totodile, Croconaw and Feraligatr; namely that they’re just penguins. Those capelike flaps they have down their backs are a nice touch, beginning the line’s background nobility-and-royalty aesthetic by making them look like little princes or dukes without seeming too out-of-place. That’s hardly at the centre of the design, though, and overall they’re a little bit unremarkable. Luckily, unlike with poor Totodile, Game Freak actually seem to have put some thought into this Pokémon’s personality. Cute though they may be, Piplup are also filled with stubborn pride; they ignore orders, quickly brush off any failures, and seem to find charity and kindness offensive, caring only to prove that they don’t need any help to survive. Prinplup, likewise, have an incredibly strong arrogant streak. In a major departure from the way real penguins behave, Prinplup are incapable of living together in colonies because, like monarchs, they cannot stand to look upon others as equals (or, heaven forbid, superiors). As Empoleon, the ‘Emperor Pokémon,’ they remain extremely proud and lash out at anyone or anything offensive, however they do seem to gain a measure of self-control; they’re said to avoid squabbles if they can, and it’s implied that they can live in groups, led by the Empoleon with the biggest horns (presumably Piplup live in colonies led by Empoleon, leave when they evolve into Prinplup, and return only once they have evolved again and learned to keep their pride under control). Now, those horns… The designers really do seem to have made an effort to make sure that Empoleon isn’t ‘just a big penguin,’ with the clawed hands on the insides of his bladed flippers, and his sharp-edged dorsal and ventral fins, but the big, obvious thing is that set of three horns. Empoleon’s horns spring from the upper surface of his beak and form a kind of visor over his face, in the shape of a trident. It looks a bit strange, and probably implies that his beak works more like a mammalian jaw than most birds’ do (since the upper part would be more or less fixed in place and wouldn’t be able to flex upwards) but that’s not inherently a problem. It protects his face, and the trident is a good strong symbol of power and the ocean (in fact, now that I come to think of it, it forms a nice symbolic connection between his two elements, Water and Steel). I can’t help but think that Piplup and Prinplup are missing something in their art to give them uniqueness and focus, some extra detail or adornment; Empoleon does have that, though, and the heavy emphasis placed on their character traits is quite refreshing.
So, what do you do with Empoleon? Well… he’s a pretty weird Pokémon. He’s the only Water/Steel dual-type in the game, which is a big plus; his unique set of weaknesses and resistances leaves him with unfortunate vulnerabilities to three of the stronger offensive types, Fighting, Ground and Electric, but eleven resistances and a Poison immunity is nothing to sniff at (Steel-types have all the luck…). In spite of all the talk in his Pokédex entries about being able to cleave apart icebergs with his bladed wings, Empoleon is actually a special attacker – one of the most powerful Water-type special attackers in the game, in fact, behind Omastar, Gorebyss and a couple of legendary Pokémon. Unless you teach him Agility, he’s far too slow to be a sweeper, but with solid defences and all those resistances, he might do okay as a sort of tanky thing. I know that what people used to like doing with Empoleon was this one absurdly specific moveset that only he could do properly, which involves using Substitute to slowly drop Empoleon’s HP until he’ll eat a Petaya Berry to boost his special attack, then using Agility and going nuts. Thanks to Empoleon’s Torrent ability, his low health causes his Water attacks to enjoy a further damage bonus, so very little can stand up against his Surf at that point, and Ice Beam cleans up most everything else. Petaya Berries aren’t available on Black and White yet, though, and the synergy between the berry and Torrent is kind of the lynchpin of the whole tactic. That’s not to say you can’t still use Empoleon as a sweeper, of course. He doesn’t have a whole lot of special attacks outside the Water-type standbys of Surf and Ice Beam, but with Grass Knot to handle other Water-types, that doesn’t leave all that many blind spots (refrain from using Flash Cannon unless you really hate Ice Pokémon; Steel attacks are silly). If you can be bothered importing an Empoleon from Platinum and desperately need help with Dark- and Psychic-types, Signal Beam is an option, but you’re probably better off with Grass Knot. If you really want to confuse people, you could slap Swords Dance on your Empoleon, since his physical attack stat isn’t terrible and his physical movepool is decent (you’ve got Waterfall, Earthquake, Rock Slide, Drill Peck, and Brick Break) and he does have Aqua Jet to compensate for his appalling speed. Like I said, though… only if you really want to confuse people.
Personally I think I’d go with the tank-style Empoleon; he has to rely on Rest or Aqua Ring for healing, which is a pain, but then again, eleven resistances… as with most bulky Water Pokémon, you’ll want to go with Black and White’s great gift to Water, Scald, over Surf – it’s less powerful, but burns will make life hell for opposing physical attackers (and, what do you know, physical is Empoleon’s weaker defensive side). I’m pretty sure Empoleon’s only real ‘support’ moves are Stealth Rock and Roar (and Stealth Rock requires importing him from a fourth-generation game), but being able to lay the rocks down for yourself and then send Pokémon running into them with Roar isn’t too shabby. And yeah, I guess technically Empoleon does have a Dream World ability – Defiant, which responds to any reduction in Empoleon’s stats by doubling his attack score – but unless you’re going with the confusing Swords Dance Empoleon route, this is just plain useless, so if you haven’t got a Dream World Empoleon, don’t worry; you’re not missing much.
The more I think about it, the weirder it seems that Empoleon isn’t a physical attacker; he certainly looks imposing enough, it fits his flavour, his physical movepool is, to be honest, probably better than his special movepool, and he gets Swords Dance and Defiant (in fact, Swords Dance is technically on his level-up list, so he doesn’t even need a TM). I mean, it’s not like it’s central to the design, but “wings that can cleave through an ice floe” sort of suggests physical attacks are his primary fighting style, and also that he would, y’know, learn Steel Wing (okay, he can, but only by using an obsolete TM). Some days though, I just don’t care, because Empoleon is still a pretty badass Pokémon – come on, an imperial armoured war-penguin? Why the hell not? Some of the artists seem to have a slight tendency to abuse him in the sprites and the anime, he gets very fat in some portrayals and it just doesn’t look right; penguins are meant to be sleek, and even if this is a bulky armoured penguin he still needs to swim. Prinplup annoys me a little because he’s given up Piplup’s cuteness but hasn’t yet picked up the details that make Empoleon more than just a penguin; honestly, if he weren’t a starter Pokémon, I would be totally happy just to ditch Piplup and Prinplup and keep Empoleon as a stand-alone. Again, though, I’m pleased that Game Freak have given these Pokémon psychological traits (because that’s the sort of thing we don’t learn about just by using them), and I like that those traits seem to develop as they evolve… even though it’s anyone’s guess whether that’s by coincidence or design. On the whole, Mudkip, Marshtomp and Swampert are probably better designed, but as we know by now, I have an irrational dislike for Swampert, so Empoleon is probably my favourite Water-type starter Pokémon.
And that’s a wrap! Twelve starter Pokémon, and all their evolved forms, done and dusted. I want to do a sort of wrap-up for my next entry, talk about trends and ideas that have been thrown up by these entries, and maybe talk about my take on what’s important for a starter Pokémon. After that, well, I’m sorry to say that real life has been catching up with me to some extent, so I’m going to take a break for, say, two weeks to work on my dissertation on archaeometry and the Greco-Roman pottery trade; then it’s right back to another thirty-odd episodes of the anime. Should be fun!
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.