When Pokemon Stadium first arrived in 2000, my catch ’em all-addled brain couldn’t barely contain itself. Finally, the time had come when I could fight with my hard-earned critters in glorious 3D, running and dashing about in massive arena battles the Game Boy games could only dream of. I would show the world that I was indeed the very best, like no one ever was, and I simply couldn’t wait to re-enact those heated League matches that I’d watched so obsessively on TV in the Pokemon anime.
As it turned out, Pokemon Stadium wasn’t anything like that at all, and the sting of disappointment when I realised that my brand-new N64 game was just as rigid and rooted as my turn-based Game Boy cartridges still lingers to this very day. I still had a great time with Stadium, but part of me has always hankered for a proper, 360-degree Pokemon game where you can really, truly fight your opponent in heated one-to-one battles without having to politely sit and take a slap in the face while you wait your turn to attack.
Thankfully, that day has finally arrived. Enter Pokken Tournament, the Pokemon fighting game I’ve been dreaming about for the last sixteen years. Developed by Bandai Namco of Tekken fame, Pokken Tournament is everything Pokemon Stadium and its plethora of successors should have been and more, as it not only features intense, 2D and 3D battling, but it does so with a crowd-pleasing set of controls that almost anyone can get to grips with.
Instead of getting bogged down in intricate button combinations that are best suited to an arcade stick, Pokken Tournament’s console-orientated controls borrow the same kind of simplicity you’ll find in Nintendo’s other famous brawler, Super Smash Bros. While its initial roster of just 14 monsters might seem a little stingy when the total number of Pokemon now stretches to an eye-watering 718, every character shares the same basic attack patterns. These are all based around a directional input on the d-pad or analogue stick and either the A, B, X or Y button, which is brilliant news for anyone who aren’t very good at fighting games, as it means you don’t have to spend hours pouring over strings of complicated button presses just to make a decent fist of any given fight.
It’s very approachable and easy to pick up, but there’s still some nuance to be found for slightly more advanced players. For instance, while the vast majority of Pokemon fall under the ‘Standard’ bracket, others like Gengar and Gardevoir and are classed as ‘Technical’ choices, which put a greater emphasis on ranged attacks. Then there are the Speedsters like Sceptile, Weavile and Pikachu Libre, who make up for raw power with their increased agility, and last but not least you have the ‘Power’ players like Machamp, Charizard, Chandelure and Garchomp, who are slow and weighty but deal devastating hits when they get up close.
As a result, there’s plenty of choice to suit to your particular play style, and Bandai Namco’s sheer attention to detail will have Pokemon fans grinning from ear to ear as they watch them execute one classic attack after another. They all look and feel fantastic to play, and their detailed animations put the Wii’s Pokemon Battle Revolution efforts to shame. They all use their own proper Pokemon sounds and calls, too, rather than the electronic monstrosities assigned to them in the handheld games.
Pokken Tournament’s affinity with Smash Bros doesn’t stop there either, as you can also level up and customise your squad as you play. Just like in Nintendo’s handheld Pokemon games, winning battles earns your chosen ‘mon valuable experience points, which can then be spent on skill points to increase their attack or defence stats when they level up. This means that when you take your Pokemon into online battles, you’re not simply fighting a generic, carbon copy of any given character. Instead, you’re fighting someone’s hard-won, personal creation, which might be even more powerful than usual, or have super strong defences.
This is vital when you consider Pokken Tournament’s rather unique set of battlefields, as each match sees you constantly shifting between a 3D Field Phase mode and a 2D Duel Phase mode. In Field mode, you have complete freedom to move around in 360 degrees, while Duel mode is more reminiscent of a traditional 2D fighting game. You can switch between them at any time by landing certain, powerful attacks, and you’ll need to do this often if you want to build up your Synergy Gauge.
Once this gauge is full, your Pokemon can transform into their respective Mega Evolution, providing a temporary boost in both attack, defence and speed before unleashing a fan-pleasing special attack when you tap L and R together. During the early stages, this can often be a slightly cheeky shortcut to a quick victory (provided you don’t miss or have the attack blocked by your opponent), but foes quickly ramp up in difficulty as you battle your way through the game’s successive league ranks, so you’ll need to time your Synergy Bursts carefully to make the maximum amount of impact.
This constant shift in perspective might sound needlessly fussy for such an open and approachable game, but in practice it’s a brilliant touch that adds some much needed depth to each individual fight. It not only keeps engagement levels high throughout, but it also forces you to adapt and switch up your strategy more frequently than other fighting games that either take place solely in 3D arenas or play out in plain, old 2D.
You can also use skill points to lengthen the amount of time you spend in Synergy Burst mode, or shorten the charge time on your Support Gauge. The latter gauge lets you call upon other Pokemon in your hour of need, which can either deliver an additional attack, enhance your stats, or dole out a disruptive status effect on your opponent. You can only have one pair of support Pokemon in play at any one time, though, which adds yet another layer of strategy to each individual fight.
It all makes for a very enjoyable fighting game, but Pokken Tournament could do more to be a better Pokemon title. For instance, there are plenty of Pokemon which should have elemental advantages over other playable characters, such as the fire-based Blaziken and grass-led Sceptile, and the electrified Pikachu and water legendary Suicune, but the series’ extensive typing system doesn’t come into play whatsoever. It’s understandable that Bandai Namco want to keep characters balanced so one isn’t insanely stronger than another, but when the sheer range of Pokemon types is arguably what underpins the entire series, it’s a shame it doesn’t play a bigger role. It doesn’t even affect which Support Pokemon you decide to take out with you either, which seems like a wasted opportunity when it often makes you settle on one pair’s combined effects over another’s.
Still, when you take typing out of the equation, it does end up putting a much greater emphasis on your own individual skill level, encouraging players to engage with the game’s mechanics rather than solely trying to play the system with elemental advantages. As a result, each match starts with a completely level playing field, regardless of whether you choose to pursue to offline Ferrum League matches or battle against other players locally or online.
In the online mode, friendly matches let you set your own match preferences, but true Pokemon masters should make their way to the ranked battles, as these pit you against other players from around the world in a bid to rise to the top of Pokken Tournament’s leaderboards. During review, online matches were flawless. Not only was a I paired up with another player within seconds, but battles were also entirely lag-free. There’s a penalty for quitting mid-match, too, making sure that poor losers get the comeuppance they deserve when it comes to their overall player rank.
It’s not completely perfect, but altogether Pokken Tournament is the perfect antidote to today’s modern fighting games. Unlike the nigh-on impenetrable Street Fighter V, Pokken Tournament can be picked up and played by almost anyone, making it a greatfit for the family-friendly Wii U, and its superb take on Pokemon battling will no doubt please fans of all ages. It’s a shame it lacks the series’ trademark elemental mechanics, but for those who have been longing for a true Pokemon brawler ever since the days of Pokemon Stadium, Pokken Tournament is the knock-out punch you’ve been waiting for.