Having a shitty day at work today and I'm spending my lunch break venting about a 'mon I loathe, because I have my priorities figured out. Don't mind me!
Cinderace is such an odd little guy to look at, because to me it feels like it was clearly intended to be the next Charizard or Greninja and they failed spectacularly. Well, let me back up a bit - I think all of the starters since Gen 6 have tried to fill the same mold that Greninja (and, to a lesser extent, Delphox and Chesnaught) did, chasing its success and not finding much success in the process. They generally tend to be assigned some sort of human profession - and in Cinderace's case, it's a soccer player. So if all the starters replicate this generalized design philosophy, why do I take such issue with Cinderace in particular instead of, say, Incineroar?
On a gameplay function, they also wanted it to be a bigger and badder Greninja, too. Not only does it outright take Greninja's (and Kecleon's, lest we forget the poor guy) ability and renames it to suit itself, it has not one, but two signature moves - Pyro Ball as an absurdly powerful and abusable stab move, compared to the middling Snipe Shot and Drum Beating that its counterparts get, and Court Change, a new way to play around entry hazards. They also got rid of what little kept Protean Greninja in check - it has a notably higher Attack stat in exchange for just 3 points of Speed, and has a much wider range of coverage to work with, too. Compare this to the other starters, which generally tend to have much more distinct gameplay functions, even if they're weaker at it. Incineroar is definitely VGC's heel, but I truly can't think of a better way to go about that than being the most annoying pivot ever. Cinderace just hits you really hard and really fast, and I don't think it tells me anything meaningful about its personality or its 'profession' as a soccer player. Even if the focus on these professions seems to be an unpopular choice in the fandom, at least these 'mons generally tend to have gameplay that gives them a distinct flavor to reinforce those design choices. Cinderace is so dull that I'm feeling a little sleepy talking about it, so let's move on.
So that's the gameplay facet, the conclusion of which is subjective, but I think it's hard to deny that it bears a lot of similarities to a crème de la crème 'mon in the past, enough to get it banished to Ubers. But design is a much more subjective thing to discuss, even if the general fandom consensus (from what I've observed!) is that the gen 8 starters, Cinderace included, are kind of lame. Frankly I'm also not nearly articulate to point to specifics other than "I do not like this thing!" so I'll just post the creature.
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The character arc it goes through with its evolutions is obvious - it starts as having high energy and potential in equal measure as a Scorbunny, undergoes its Rocky-esque training arc, hoodie and all, as a Raboot, and finally goes pro as a Cinderace. It's such an obvious character arc, in fact, that I think it strips the 'mon of personality entirely - it gives every member of the species the same journey, the same emotional growth, and turns it less into a member of a species and more of a character, for lack of better phrasing. There's always been humanoid and human-like Pokemon, and while I don't inherently
object to them on principle (I like Mr. Mime but loathe Jynx, for example), I think they become intrusive at a point, and Cinderace crosses that threshold by leaps and bounds. To specifically point to design aspects that make me feel this way... I think the shorts and fur jersey (???) go a little past being cute touches and more, uh, indistinguishable from a fursuit.
I've been making a fair few Greninja comparisons, but where do I see the similarities to Charizard? Well, I don't - and that's the problem. Which might sound stupid, but bear with me - Charizard's popularity is, for the most part, organic
. It's always been front-and-center in marketing, sure, and starters always have and always will receive special focus, but people naturally gravitated to Charizard for its cool design, your growth as a trainer alongside it, and for its prominence in the anime as Ash's ever-unreliable partner. Greninja got a huge boost from Smash, of course, but I'm also inclined to believe that its popularity is organic up until the point where someone drew Ash-Greninja and didn't immediately burn it. Cinderace wants
to follow in this legacy - it wants the merch, the adoration of fans across the globe, the Smash invite - and in doing so doesn't do anything truly unique. It mimics what came before and puts its own little twist on it - the 'job', the Protean, the gameplay viability - but utterly fails to crave out its own identity. It will forever be in the shadow of other, more successful starters, because it never dared to do anything truly unique. I suppose that, in that sense, it's quite accurate to your average pro athlete!
Obviously I'm extremely biased, but I cannot think of another Pokemon that feels quite as cynical
that Cinderace does, in every aspect of its design. I think it embodies the absolute worst of modern Pokemon design on pretty much every level, and I'm truly glad that it failed.