Pokémon just turned 20 years old this month, but Nintendo still can't shake the belief that the "Pocket" part of "Pocket Monsters" means the beloved core adventures can only be released on handheld systems. That's a shame.
As a result, instead of taking advantage of advanced console hardware to deliver a heartier and more vibrant role-playing quest, we get the spinoffs, side games, and other curiosities. Sometimes that works out well (see: Pokémon Snap and Pokémon Puzzle League), and other times it feels like a wasted opportunity (see: Hey You, Pikachu and the PokePark games).
Pokkén Tournament is a particularly odd new twist in the series' history: a proper one-on-one fighting game developed by the Tekken team at Bandai Namco. Tekken's best years are behind it, and Pokémon's own console history can be rocky, but this is the rare mash-up that's worth playing for more than just the novelty.
True, Pokémon have battled it out for two decades now, but it's usually done with menu selections. Pokkén Tournament breaks that trend by putting you in direct command of familiar monsters like Pikachu, Machamp, Charizard, and more.
Given who made the game, it shouldn't be surprising that a couple monsters seem like Tekken character amalgamations in disguise; Blaziken in particular comes off like a mix of Hwoarang and Jin Kazama, with his rapid and powerful kicks. But mostly, the fighters feel very distinctive, not only from one another but from the typical human combatants you find in most genre entries. Tekken has some rather atypical characters itself, but even that series doesn't have a floating chandelier monster (Chandalure).
Pokkén Tournament deserves props for the diversity of its cast, but not so much the size: despite the series boasting more than 700 creatures at this point, the game includes just 14 core fighters, along with a couple of unlockable Mewtwo versions. And two of the starting cast are Pikachu, thanks to standard and scrappy Pikachu Libre wrestler variations.
At least the support characters, which can be summoned into battle for a quick assist, add another 30 to the overall tally. But still, it's a paltry sum compared to the overall count, and something of a missed opportunity. Presumably, add-on DLC will bring in more options... at a price, surely.
Just a phase
I half-expected Pokkén Tournament to just paste Pokémon into the Tekken framework, but it really does feel like its own fighting experience. That's due in large part to the two different phases of battle, which alternate based on the flow of combat. In the Field Phase, you're given 3D movement in the stage, offering the opportunity to attack from afar, try to get behind an opponent, or pick up items.
But once a few hits land, the game shifts into Duel Phase, which delivers a more traditional 2D face-bashing experience. Pokkén Tournament includes counters, throws, and other strategic moves that can help tip the balance of a battle, but by and large it feels like an offensive-minded fighter. In my experience, the more aggressive pummeler tends to prevail most of the time.
While it can feel button-mashy and probably won't give Street Fighter V a run for its money with technical players, Pokkén Tournament is refreshingly fun. It's chaotic and flashy, with the big Synergy Burst moves delivering epic beatdowns, and the varying phases and nicely differentiated fighters help keep things lively.
Pick your battles
Like nearly every fighting game in existence, Pokkén Tournament is at its best in multiplayer – although here, the online play is a bit more appealing than the local showdowns.
The online action is speedy and responsive, and best of all, each player has his or her own TV screen to work with. Because of the shifting camera angles of the multiple phases, local play requires one player to use the GamePad screen while the other has the TV. That's a better alternative than splitting the TV screen would be, but not quite as exciting as having both fighters sharing the same large display.
On the solo front, Pokkén offers a campaign mode to conquer, helping you unlock Pokémon support sets and avatar customization pieces, but it's a dry affair. You'll take down heaps and heaps of mostly middling A.I. fighters en route to conquering four increasingly lengthy tournaments, with the occasional beatdown from Shadow Mewtwo tossed in to muddle your confidence.
It's adequate, but a richer storyline or more significant unlocks (like lots of new fighters) would have given the mode a lot more appeal. Still, it's pretty necessary to chip away at so you can improve your Pokémon's skills and access more complementary support monsters.
Pokkén Tournament verdict
Pokkén Tournament can't singlehandedly ease the sting of still not having a proper Pokémon adventure on the Wii U, but it doesn't feel like a consolation prize: this is a fun and uniquely composed fighter that totally works, despite how silly a Pokémon-meets-Tekken hybrid might seem on the surface.
While I would have liked a larger roster and a livelier single-player mode, the online action is a blast and the local multiplayer is almost as strong – and let's face it, there's very little fighting competition on Wii U aside from Super Smash Bros. Pokkén Tournament succeeds as both an entertaining Pokémon experience and also a nice twist for fans of traditional fighters.