Today’s review begins with everybody’s favourite: A shameless self-insert story. When I was a kid, I made a bet with the other school Pokémon nut. The best was that we would see a traditional fighting game set in the Pokémon universe and that it’d be like one of only two fighting games I’m decent at, Tekken. That one bootleg flash game doesn’t count, either. I was mocked at the time for such a “shit” idea, but that motherfucker owes me a million dollars now. As soon as that guy pays up, I’m buying a yacht and calling it the SS Anne. Pokkén Tournament is here, the game we’ve all secretly wished for! But it comes at a turbulent time for the genre, as it moves further into franchise hegemony. Is it a mold breaker, or will it sink like my hopes of ever being a sea captain? Seriously, it’s been like ten years…pay up mang. I wanna be a pirate.
Pokkén Tournament is the latest title from Tekken developer Namcai Bando, and the fourth Fighting game for the Wii U system. No, seriously. The game was formally announced in the later days of 2014, and the Arcade port arrived the next year. It’s not likely to be coming to the west in this purist arcade form, however, which is a shame considering that the first thing you’re bound to notice is just how unwieldy the Wii U gamepad is for this kind of game. Trying to pull off satisfying combos with the gamepad is pretty difficult when you compare it to more traditional styles of controller. That’s not to say that it’s unplayable, far from it, but using the Pro Controller (if you have it) is a much more preferable option. Hell, you can even use the Wii Remote and Nunchuk to play if you want to look like you’ve never played a fighting game in your life or that you think Brawl is the best Smash Bros. game.
So, you’ve got your pro controller or you’re happy with the gamepad. What can you expect from the actual game? The answer may shock you: A solid fighting game that blends the complexities of combo-based combat with the simplicity of a rock-paper-scissors mentality, along with a couple of new tricks. These make for a good time, and a game that’s well worth the cash if you have the system already. But alas, I must repeat myself in every Wii U review: It’s not worth buying the console for. I really want to be able to say otherwise more than once, but the world is cruel and painful. Pokkén‘s gameplay arises from its two main mechanics: Battle phases and its attack trumping system. The game features a system, titled Phases, that determine what style of gameplay you’ll be using at that point in time. Field Phase has your Pokémon circling each other in the style of the Budokai series, and Duel Phase throws you into a Street Fighter-like 2D plane where the real action begins. Landing certain attacks will change the Phase, and each one will determine which attacks are available. Blocking attacks is available in both Phases, but hold it down for too long and your shield will be broken a-la Smash Bros. faster than you can say “char-man-dah”. Grabs, as can be expected, also counter a shield.
Pokkén’s near-genius simplicity continues with its rock-crushes-scissors-but-paper-covers-rock-and-scissors-cuts-paper mechanic of certain attacks countering others. Grab attacks counter special attacks, special attacks counter regular attacks and regular attacks break grabs. Try saying that three times fast. This may seem simple on paper, but it becomes a league of its own in practice. It’s easy to understand, yes, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t provide you with a high skill ceiling. Landing these attacks will fill your Synergy Bar, building toward a chance to mega evolve your Pokémon (or, at least, make it more stronk) for a short period of time to deal some serious damage with your enhanced attacks…or lay the smackdown featuring some sweet-looking and creative Ultimate moves complete with some creative and awesome-looking animations.
The teens call it “ghost punching”, and it’s not what you think.
Continuing the theme of simplicity and the related play of a child, Pokkén uses only the three face buttons on the Wii U controller for regular attacks, and combos available are somewhat limited compared to other games in the genre. I hate to sound like a broken record (no I don’t), but this personally enhanced my enjoyment of the game as it eliminated the high barrier for entry that comes with most Fighting games. The matchmaking, too, was relatively balanced and didn’t make me feel like a complete scrub. Pokkén‘s single-player offerings did go overboard in terms of easing players into the game, though; I found the early stages of its single-player modes far too easy, which did little to prepare me for the actual human beings in its multiplayer. Thankfully, lag played a small part in me stinking to high heaven. It may be more noticable for those on a less good connection than mine, as Nintendo still hasn’t quite caught on that Asia’s a big damn place and insists on including the entire eastern seaboard of Asia as one region in matchmaking, but those on other continents shouldn’t have as much trouble. Player customisation is a strong point for the online play as well, with many radical options for your trainer’s appearance and catchphrase. Luckily, “I risk it all on a good explosion.” is both badass and innuendo-laced.
The fighter selection is a Pokémon fan’s wet dream. Mewtwo, Charizard, Lucario, Blaziken, Gengar, and Machamp are the more obvious choices for a game like this but Bandai Namco haven’t simply picked the popular ones and called it a day. Suicine, Gardevoir, Chandelure, Garchomp, Weavile, two kinds of Pikachu, Sceptile, and even Braxien make it into the roster. Amongst these main fighters are an even wider selection of Support Pokemon, who provide effects and attacks that either enhance your own abilities or hinder your opponent’s. These pocket monsters all come with a wide variety of attacks, so each match is visually exciting and adds to the game’s charm in an awesome way. The aesthetic is exactly what it needed to be, a semi-realistic style combined with the absurdist pleasures of the Pokémon world. Pokkén‘s sound design, on the other hand, could have used a little more tweaking. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but some attacks and effects lack a real punch and tend to break the look and feel of a good battle. The music, however, is fantastic light doof-doof that’s on its way to becoming cult car stereo material.
Pokkén Tournament is a risky venture for Nintendo’s family-friendly image, but it’s one that’s paid off tremendously well. Tournaments are springing up everywhere, fighting communities are embracing the game, and the online play should only get better with time. Is it a system seller? Probably not. Is it worth a purchase if your Wii U is gathering dust? You bet your sweet arse it is. Even if you’re new to Fighting games or just suck at them harder than a new vacuum cleaner, Pokkén is a game that’s going to be Super Effective against your time.