Once upon a time in Junior High, a fat little kid with oversized glasses dreamed of a fighting game based on the Pokémon franchise. With the mechanics and art-style of a Capcom fighter, he imagined characters such as Scyther and Hitmonlee trading blows with each other in the colorful flourishes of Marvel vs. Capcom 2.
It didn’t take long for this dream to subside. Not only was the game’s style wrong for Pokémon, it was a completely wrong game design for Nintendo. Super Smash Bros. would be the only fighting game to feature a single Pokémon, and unlikely to feature his favorites.
Almost two decades later the news breaks that Nintendo is teaming up with Bandai Namco to create such a game. While not precisely his vision, there would be a dedicated fighting game themed around the Pokémon universe. It was almost a dream come true!
Too bad it was being made by the Tekken team.
Or was it? While he was never much a fan of the Tekken series of fighting games, Pokken Tournament was not a reskin of the influential franchise with Pokémon characters. Despite the titular portmanteau, the game actually threw in plenty of ideas to make the it accessible in traditional Nintendo fashion, yet offer a variety of strategic concepts and complexity that more dedicated players would enjoy.
Like in Smash Bros., moves and attacks are all contextual. Rather than memorizing a list of specific button combinations and sequences, the player simply needs to know what attacks are executed in which situations. The separate attack buttons are largely categorized, with one button being used for ranged attacks while another is used for swift melee strikes. This allows less dedicated players to have a vague idea of what an attack will do, allowing them to mash buttons with a clear intention.
The real complexity comes in manipulating the battlefield to one’s advantage. Each battle will frequently shift between two separate phases, beginning with the more open Field Phase. This phase has a more overhead or isometric camera angle, allowing players freedom of movement. Some characters work much better in this phase than others. Larger, slower characters will want to quickly strike their opponent with a combo to shift right over to the Duel Phase, a more traditional side-scrolling perspective locking players to the X and Y axes.
Not all fields are created equal. Some are larger than others, and some are more narrow on one axis while wider on the other. This means certain Pokémon will have advantages on some battlefields while being at a disadvantage on others. For slower, harder-hitting characters it is best to stick to smaller fields and get into Duel Phase as swiftly as possible. Once your opponent is pinned to the wall, they are capable of being struck and held there for a brief period of time. Attacks must be chosen with care, however, as once the opposing Pokémon begins to slide down the invisible wall they gain temporary invulnerability. Swift attacks are best in this situation to make the barrage last as long as possible.
Faster characters, meanwhile, will want to stick to Field Phase. There are more directions you can dodge and evade enemy attacks in Field, while also being able to collect the power-ups that scatter and charge your “Synergy Gauge”, which is essentially used to activate your character’s Mega Evolution and then ultimate attack. Choice in Support Pokémon, allies that can be summoned during battle, can also make up for your combating Pokémon’s weaknesses.
It is typically not my style to simply describe how a game plays in order to critique it. However, I feel it is necessary to get across how much Pokken Tournament focuses on how one approaches a battle rather than how good they are at counting frames or learning cancels. These elements of standard fighting games are in there, and no doubt enthusiast players will find a variety of tricks and exploits unique to the game.
What makes Pokken Tournament an excellent fighting game is that it doesn’t rely on special movesets. It still implements traditional fighting game mechanics, such as familiarity with the character’s behavior and moves as well as what abilities best counter the opponent’s strengths. However, they manage to do it by keeping the simplicity of Super Smash Bros. controls.
Pokken Tournament is more than just the Pokémon fighting game this particular fat kid has been waiting for. It’s the fighting game I’ve been waiting for. One that allows my mind to focus on actions rather than scouring my brain for special move combinations and then the finger dexterity to execute it correctly.
This is not a replacement for games like Tekken or Street Fighter, nor is it really a gateway. It’s more of a middle-ground for those of us that would like to enjoy fighting games if they weren’t so dang dedicated to the tournament crowd. It’s more traditional than Super Smash Bros. without sacrificing the accessibility of controls.
Needless to say, even if this isn’t the fighting game I envisioned in Junior High, they have certainly met – and exceeded – my expectations.