As the Pokémon franchise has grown over the last twenty years it has featured its fair share of spin-offs and reimaginings. Most of these titles were focused on more casual gameplay such as taking pictures, solving puzzles and playing pinball. Pokkén Tournament is a step in a completely new (and badass) direction.

Originally conceived as a Japan exclusive arcade title, Pokkén Tournament is a fighting title unlike anything fans have ever seen from the beloved series. A roster of sixteen Pokémon duke it out in an arena brawl that’s more akin to Tekken than Pokémon’s traditional turn-based battles. It’s a game that many, myself included, have been waiting on for years.

A Hardcore Take on Pokémon Battle

As I mentioned in an article for Kotaku back in September, Pokkén Tournament is the Pokémon game I always wanted as a child. I never dreamed of being a trainer in charge of Pokémon. I wanted to be a Pokémon, darn it! Series like Smash Bros, featuring various Pokémon characters, only fueled the thought that I had been right all along. Controlling electrically charged mice and giant fire lizards is where it’s at. Forget Ash. Forget Gary. If I get the choice I’m always going to be Charizard.

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Pikachu Libre goes for the classic Stone Cold Stunner.

Unlike the classic Pokémon fighting formula, the battles in Pokkén, known as Ferrum Battles, are quick. They look good, they feel fluid, and the showy combos involved often give players a sense of mind blowing accomplishment. You can tell a lot of work has gone into creating movesets and combos that fans of both Pokémon and traditional fighting titles will thoroughly enjoy.

In a nutshell it’s everything Pokémon battling should be. There’s just something overly satisfying about pile driving a ghost or flame kicking a four armed wrestler into the stratosphere. The fact that the monsters involved in these bizarre throwdowns are also characters fans know and love is just a bonus.

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Roster Diversity

Though Pokkén is sorely lacking in the way of total overall fighters to choose from (more on that later) the Pokémon they have picked for the roster are a nice mix. You’ve got your water, fire, grass, ghost, electric, fighting, ground, psychic, dark, ice and more covered with the sparse roster of 16. Though it should be noted that normal elemental strengths and weaknesses don’t apply in the Pokkén ring. With the exception of Mewtwo and Shadow Mewtwo, who are unsurprisingly similar, each Pokémon has their own unique flare, moves and attack patterns. Even Pikachu and Pikachu Libre come in swinging with different approaches to combat.

Pretty Pretty Pokémon

Now watch me flex.

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Nintendo knows how to get the most out of the Wii U hardware. Games like Mario Kart 8 and Pikmin 3 have proven that stunning visuals are certainly achievable, even on the Wii U’s dramatically less powerful processing powers. Pokkén is no different. Players can see the the individual hairs stand on end as Pikachu attacks in the opening cutscene and become a bit uncomfortable about how slimy Mewtwo looks when he first appears.

There has never been a Pokémon game that looked this good. Even Nintendo titles like Smash Bros, which feature Pokémon, do not sport the same level of attention to detail that Pokkén provides. It’s truly awe-inspiring, especially to long time fans who have only seen their favorite monsters in traditional animation or jaggy 3DS form.

Synergy Burst Attacks

The more damage a player’s Pokémon hands out or receives the faster their synergy gauge fills. Once the gauge is full players can simply tap L and R (or in my case L2 and R2 after re-configuring the controls) to push their Pokémon into their synergy burst mode. Pokémon become faster, stronger and they can take a hit while their synergy meter slowly drains back to zero. During this time players can also attempt to land one Synergy Boost Attack, a final move that does multiple hits and ridiculous damage. Each Pokémon has their own and they look amazing.

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Support Pokémon

Diglett goes hard on Shadow Mewtwo.

During each match players must pick a team of two Support Pokémon to assist them in battle. Support Pokémon can attack opponents, help momentarily boost stats, or even take a hit for you. Each Pokémon has its own unique attack or effect, as well as a differing cool down. Like most other aspects of fighting titles, timing is everything when it comes to unleashing the power of your support Pokémon. My go-to helper during my time with Pokkén was Diglett, who (as you can see) performs some kind of reverse whack-a-mole attack against unsuspecting opponents. More support Pokémon are unlocked after each Ferrum League win, so there’s always new combinations of helpers to try out as players progress.

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Trainer Customization

Having only played the title a handful of times in Japan last summer (and not being able to read Japanese myself), trainer customization wasn’t something I was anticipating when I first booted up Pokkén. There are hundreds of ways to customize your trainer. HUNDREDS. From their hair, to their clothes, to their background - there is plenty make your avatar look like a legit PokéMaster. Or some white trash ninja DJ, which is how I would describe my trainer’s personal style.

Looking fresh to death.

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Aside from looks, players can also pick a title and a comment for their trainer to display before matches. All opponents, online or otherwise, will get a chance to see how you both dress and present your trainer. Most of the titles and comments are very tame and generic. You know like, “I’m gonna win!” That sort of dreck. Others... are terribly hilarious. Here are a few of my favorites.

“They call me Bulldozer.”

“Muscles are made of Machamp, not the other way around!”

“Pull in all the Magikarp!”

“I love me some fancy play!”

If that doesn’t leave your opponents shaking in their boots I don’t know what will.

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Battle Stages

Players may not have much time to look around the various stages of Pokkén, but when they get the chance (try training mode) they’ll find plenty of details to smile about. Pokémon who didn’t make it into the game as main fighters or even support Pokémon can be seen interacting with each other and trainers in various ways.

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As Patricia over at Kotaku mentioned, the Magikarp stage is one of the best. It features a horde of fishermen catching and tossing Magikarp across the playing field as players duke it out. Other standouts include a haunted house full of ghost Pokémon and appropriately decorated pumpkins, as well as a training gym where Pokémon can be seen getting their swell on. Electrode is even there rolling... on... a treadmill. Maybe it’s better if I don’t ask any questions.

Multiplayer

In its original arcade setup Pokkén puts each player at their own cabinet. This is imperative because unlike many fighting games, Pokkén has two different battle phases (more on that under “Traditional Fighting Elements). One of them, called field phases, lets players run around with in the ring with the camera behind the Pokémon. Instead of splitting the main TV screen Nintendo has decided to play to the Wii U’s gimmicky strength and put one player on the Gamepad instead. This is exactly what they did with Hyrule Warriors, a game with an ungodly amount of onscreen action. It’s actually not bad! The Wii U screen may not be up to snuff when compared to your new 4K HDTV, but it does a respectable job and gives players the room to focus on their own Pokémon.

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It is notable that frame rates can drop during local multiplayer, though from what we’ve seen not during LAN connected battles. This is something that could negatively affect play for anyone who is seeking to play competitively with only one set up between opponents.

Obviously online play doesn’t have a screen issue. Players have the option of taking part in a friendly or ranked match when it comes to online play. Each searches for an opponent and pairs you up with someone of your skill level (or so you hope). If an opponent can’t be found right away the game throws you into a practice match with a CPU to wait out the time. At no point did I run into any issues while playing online, and the game even found me a match rather quickly, despite not many of the copies being out. While playing ranked battles, players can move up through the lists to become the top fighter (and the very best, like no one ever was) in their region or *gasp* the world. The online leader boards are nice and clear. Be nice if Smash Bros could have done the same...

Tutorials and Combo Training

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Pokkén, like most fighting titles, takes some getting used to. Especially if you’re someone, like myself, who is not very adept at traditional fighting series. There are loads of tutorials for players to conquer if they so wish, as well as a list of combos for each main fighter to master if they so wish. In the heat of battle it can be hard to remember the right button combinations to press, but as they say - practice makes perfect.

Traditional Fighting Elements

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It’s very apparent that Nintendo wants Pokkén to be hit in the fighting game community. The rookie title is already slated to make an appearance at two of the biggest fighting game tournaments on the globe (CEO and EVO) after only a few months in players hands. All over the world Nintendo is shoehorning the game into their yearly Pokémon Nationals, adding more players to the scene and pushing it into the limelight. But is it a game that competitive players will latch onto? I think so.

As I’ve admitted in the past, I’m not an avid fan of traditional fighting series aside from Smash Bros (and many folks will tell you even that doesn’t count). So when I assess the traditional fighting elements that make up a new game it’s doing so with a knowledge of what those games hold, but also the lack of skill to implement all that I would hope to do. Do I think people can get away with button mashing to win? Yes. But only against an untrained opponent. There is plenty of depth to Pokkén. From armor breaking to cancels to wall combos - Pokkén has a lot to work with and a lot to prefect. Button mashing won’t get you far unless you’re playing against another button masher.

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The main focus during Pokkén battles is on something called the “attack triangle”. It roughly amounts to a fancy game of rock/paper/scissors. Grabs beats counters, counters beat normal attacks and normal attack beat grabs. It’s a system based on quick thinking and being able to read your opponents next moves. It can be frustrating at times if you make the wrong call, but ultimately it teaches players to pay more attention to their opponents movements and try to predict their next attack.

The only reason Pokkén falls under “Not Bad” for this category is that while I’m impressed by its depth and presentation as a fighting title, I’m not the best overall judge of this genre. Only time will tell if it is indeed the competitive juggernaut Nintendo hopes as more players get their hands on Pokkén.

UPDATE: TAY’s resident fighting game expert Steve Bowling has added his thoughts on Pokkén’s combat.

Mechanically, Pokkén Tournament isn’t similar to anything out there. Especially when it comes to the two battle phases, which you switch back and forth between on the fly. There’s field phase, which is similar to traditional 3D fighters like Virtua Fighter and Tekken and then there’s duel phase, which limits your movement and is more focused on in-fighting.

Each match starts in field phase by default, in a way that’s somewhat reminiscent of Bandai’s Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm games. When you’re in this mode, you’ll have a button dedicated to ranged moves, homing moves and special techniques. The setup shift in duel phase, giving you light and heavy attack in place of your ranged and homing moves; special moves remain the same.

As GBD mentioned above, the core of Pokkén’s fighting engine is what they call the triangle system; it’s a fancy way of giving moves priority in a way that would make sense to newcomers. The counter moves in this system are eerily similar to Street Fighter IV’s focus attack. Holding down two buttons lets you charge your counter, during which time you’ll be impervious to a certain number of attacks. If you release it, you’ll land a critical hit on your opponent which can set you up for larger combos.

Pokkén is a very combo-heavy title, similar to Tekken or Dead or Alive in that way. Unfortunately, there’s no way to escape a combo once you’re on the wrong end of a beatdown. If you happen to be have a full synergy meter, you might be able to get a lucky activation out between hits, but even that isn’t guaranteed. It’s another way in which it seems Pokkén has trouble deciding if it’s casual or hardcore.

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Roster Size

As stated before, there are only 16 Pokémon on the Pokkén roster. That’s pretty on par with the recently launched Street Fighter V, but still pretty low considering many games like Tekken 7 had well over 25 characters to choose from at launch. There are four more spots on the character select screen open and despite Nintendo’s claim that there will likely not be any DLC, I’d bet we see a few familiar Pokémon faces pop up in the coming months. At least I hope we do. I still have a burning desire to see Snorlax enter the ring.

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Story

A compelling story isn’t exactly important in a fighting title. Hey, there’s some kind of tournament. Hey, there’s some kind of ultimate bad guy who needs to be taken down. It’s usually some forgettable tale of woe and perseverance that players skip past to get to the next round. Pokkén makes a solid effort at giving players a mysterious twist as they play through the single player Ferrum League with a very shallow story. It plays out in some interesting ways as you progress to the top of each league, but it’s a bit predictable. In fact the opening cutscene kind of spoils it. Props to Nintendo for trying to spice up the game. Maybe you could add some more story in along with a few new characters to unlock. Just a thought.

Nia

Whatever you say, Nia.

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Nia is your fully voiced personal guide to the world of Pokkén Tournament and she has a lot to say. Seriously. Like, too much. And she’ll pop up with tips for fighting or just tips in general whenever she sees fit, which is pretty much nonstop. It’s helpful at first, but grows to be a bit much over time. Luckily the game developers were smart enough to include an option to turn off her constant comments and mute her jabbering altogether.

Amiibo Functionality

From Wolf Link to Blathers, every single amiibo works with Pokkén. You can scan in five a day and each will unlock a special status or item for your trainer. Nothing special, but a nice little gift. But what of the Pokémon amiibo? They do nothing different, sadly. Seems like a big missed opportunity, as three of the five Pokémiibos are actual main fighters in the game. Oh well.

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Pokkén Tournament is a dedicated fighting title starring Pokémon. If any part of that sounds like something you’d enjoy, as a fan of Pokémon or a fan of fighting games in general, then chances are you will. Behind the detailed models and flashy moves are the bones of well implemented battle system and the start of what will hopefully grow into a full fledged series. In the end Pokkén Tournament turned out to be exactly the game I hoped it would be — an enjoyable and fluid fighting title brimming with Pokémon charm.

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In need of a second opinion? Check out Mike Fahey’s review over on Kotaku.

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For more Pokémon goodness and gaming silliness you can follow GBD on Twitter @SuperBentendo or visit his personal site.