Pokémon turned 20 last month. Kids who traded their Geodudes and Magikarps on the playground when the games first came out are well past the legal drinking age here in the U.S. and more than a few of them can still recite the entire Pokérap from the first cartoon. They grew up with the series, building up their experience with every new generation of critters. But Pokémon also keeps bringing in newer, younger fans with every release, so much so that Nintendo even issued a 3-D-less variant of the 3DS just in time for the youngest of potential trainers to play the most recent games without violating the 3-D technology’s age warnings.
It can be hard to appeal to both of those demographics, the dyed-in-the-wool hardcore trainers and the fresh-faced newcomers. In trying to rethink the Pokémon experience for a new style of play, Nintendo handed over the reins to Bandai Namco’s Tekken team, and what they came up with is so much more than just a fighting game with Pokémon in it. Pokkén Tournament follows in the same tradition as other recent fighters—Street Fighter V, Mortal Kombat X, and Super Smash Bros. 4—in striving to keep things satisfying for bloodthirsty veterans and accessible for those just looking to have a little fun. And it succeeds. Pokkén is primed and ready for fierce play, but it does a great deal to favor the inexperienced competitors in Pokémon’s audience and keep them from getting scared off.
A key component of the game’s friendliness comes from your trainer’s support squad. You’ve got a partner cheering you on at all times, granting bonuses between rounds based on your performance. At the start of a battle, she’ll chime in with something akin to “Let’s have a good, clean match!” or “Remember, you’re here to have fun!” These platitudes seem inconsequential, but they’re a gentle reminder that this is not a game of life and death, that Pokémon battles have always been a light-hearted scrimmage of good sportsmanship. Trainers will sometimes congratulate you at the end of a fight, remarking at how well you and your Pokémon work together.
That welcoming attitude carries over to the game’s controls, where it supports nearly every controller available for the Wii U. Each of the playable Pokémon have dozens of unique moves with their own strategies, but they all generally involve simple combinations of two—or in rare instances, three—buttons. There are no quarter-circle stick maneuvers or double-tap-and-flick specifics; virtually every combination of buttons produces some spectacular blast of fire, lightning, or claws. This means newcomers won’t have to spend hours memorizing their special techniques and countering your opponent isn’t a Herculean feat of focus and determination. This is a game that wants its players to dive in head-first and just have fun with it.
Pokkén’s unique approach to combat might be the one big hurdle for inexperienced players. Battles swap between two points of view: an “arena phase” where combatants are free to run around the battlefield as a full 360-degree space, and a “duel phase” that’s more akin to the restricted movement of a traditional 2-D fighgeting game like Street Fighter. In the more open “arena” style, players can line up their attacks and attempt to corner their opponent into a trap. The “duel phase” limits your mobility but provides the opportunity to press your attack and deal major damage. Land a strong enough hit in either view and the combat switches back to the other, meaning players need to constantly be on their toes and ready to adapt to the situation.
If this seems like a lot of information to weigh down new players, it is. Pokkén’s tutorial is long, dry, and not particularly concerned with the player’s comfort or confidence. Stepping into a battle, though, it all becomes clear in a matter of moments. Shifting back and forth from the wider space of 3-D combat into the tighter confines of monster-on-monster fisticuffs feels fluid, like a ballet with more explosions. The dynamic camera sweeps in, out, and around the fighters, creating a palpable sense of space and making these intimate battles all the more spectacular.
And spectacle seems to be what Pokkén strives for. It’s a gorgeous game, from the mussy fur on Lucario’s collar to the way Braixen pats her cheeks to make sure she looks good before battle, these Pokémon feel more tangible and personable than ever before. Every hit is accompanied by some splash or flourish to emphasize the impact with an added degree hyperrealism. Health and power gauges are neatly tucked into the screen like the chyrons on an ESPN broadcast, allowing the fighters to feel less like game avatars and more like legitimate athletes. Coupled with the flashy stat cards at the start of each match and the brief camera pans to appreciate the scenery of each arena, watching Pokkén feels more like watching sports than some actual sports broadcasts.
In the same way baseball and wrestling would follow Saturday morning cartoons 10 or 20 years ago, Pokkén Tournament follows the Pokémon series with a welcoming bastion of miraculous athleticism. Those who came on board for cartoon action can stick around without fear of alienation, and those looking for a knock-down drag-out fight can get one without adulteration. Where Pokkén stands apart from its contemporaries, though, is what it takes away from Little League and the end of Rocky movies: the part where winners and losers step back onto the field, shakes hands, and say “good game.”
Developer: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platform: Wii U
Rating: E 10+