Release Date: March 18, 2016Platform: Wii UDeveloper: Bandai NamcoPublisher: NintendoGenre: Fighting
If there is one thing that you can always rely on in the wild world of gaming, it’s that Nintendo will take one of their most established franchises and transfer it to a genre that initially seems bizarre. It’s one of the company’s lovable, quirky design philosophies that has given us some true classics over the years, such as Mario Kart, Super Mario RPG, and even Pokémon Snap.
Their latest attempt at this Frankensteinian game design is Pokken Tournament. This time, Nintendo has taken the Pokemon franchise into the 3D fighter realm, but rather than handle development duties, the Big N has turned the keys over to the Tekken team at Bandai Namco.
Between that and the game’s somewhat dubious hybrid name, the easy assumption to make is that Pokken Tournament is a Tekken game with Pokemon characters thrown in. So is that really the case? The answer to that is a definitive: “Yes…kind of…but also not really.”
To be sure, this game has taken a few cues from the Tekken series and other 3D fighters of that nature. It has all of the classic genre samplings, such as a single player tournament mode, multiplayer (online and local), and various training options that allow you to freely practice or take a guided tour through character combos.
The basic structure of the game as well as certain layout and menu choices most certainly harken back to Tekken directly, but the same cannot really be said of the fighting itself. While you may recognize a couple of moves and combos from that series appear here and there, this is not really a Tekken game.
A typical match works like this: you pick a Pokemon of various attribute types as well as a companion to aid them in battle. When the match starts, it does so as a 3D fighter viewed from an askew overhead perspective. There, you’ll have access to the usual array of punches, kicks, throws, and projectiles to attack your opponent with. Certain maneuvers can change the game’s perspective into a more traditional 2D mode where damage dealt from attacks is much greater.
However you do your damage, doing enough of it will fill your synergy burst gauge, which will allow you to complete a super move on your opponent. All the while, you’ll have to consider the paper, rock, scissors system that dictates what type of attacks counter what. Generally speaking, the system is a little more loose and quick than Tekken and actually bears more of a resemblance to the Naruto fighting games during the 3D section. From the 2D perspective, the action does resemble the more hard-hitting style of Tekken a bit more.
The good news here is that there is real depth to be found within the mechanics, if you want to look for it. If you’re looking to treat Pokken Tournament as a casual fighting game, then you’ll find that it doesn’t entertain quite as much as a button masher. If, however, you are looking for something a little more complex, then Pokken Tournament does provide you with a fairly deep selection of combos and counters. I do wish that each fighter’s super attack wasn’t so simple to pull off – you push the shoulder buttons once to enter super mode and again to attempt your super attack – but aside from that, this is a fairly solid 3D fighting game on a system not known for having many of them.
Surprisingly, it is actually the game’s incorporation of the Pokemon universe that stands as its biggest shortcoming.
From a pure presentation perspective, Pokken Tournament does a fairly admirable job of resembling any other Pokemon game. Down to the anime style cutaway story segments and your Pokemon trainer avatar, Pokken Tournament is draped with all the visuals and charms you would expect from a Pokemon game. It’s obvious that the development team has a love and respect for the franchise, and their enthusiasm easily becomes contagious if you share a similar love for that universe. The one exception to the otherwise excellent presentation are the game’s stages, which are far too generic and static. There was a real missed opportunity here for some more creative backgrounds showcasing the diverse environments of the Pokemon universe.
So far as the gameplay is concerned, though, the attempts to incorporate Pokemon elements are much more underwhelming. This is especially true of the roster, which is quite simply inadequate. While there is no way that every single Pokemon could be represented here, the selection we got doesn’t feel like it takes advantage of the sheer diversity of the Pokemon universe. Too many fighters feel far too similar to each other, and why a precious roster spot had to go to a luchador-themed version of Pikachu when Pikachu is already in the game is beyond me.
Pokken Tournament’s use of support characters in combat attempts to expand the number of Pokemon in the arena, but the system itself often feels unnecessary. Basically, you just pick a support Pokemon before the match that can either provide buffs or an extra attack when you call it into battle. You’ll rarely rely on this technique to win and it’s not diverse enough to be entertaining in its own right. Similarly, the ability to level up your Pokemon fighter with experience acquired from your victories doesn’t really seem to alter your Pokemon’s skills in a significant way.
The biggest missed opportunity in this game, though, is the lack of a team-based fighting system. The Pokemon franchise has always been based around building a team, and not having the ability to create teams of fighters in the style of Tekken Tag feels like a missed opportunity to expand the gameplay.
This raises the question of who Pokken Tournament is intended for. I believe that the least receptive market to the game will be Pokemon fans who don’t consider themselves to be fighting game fans, as this is a 3D fighter first and foremost. At the same time, hardcore 3D fighting fans with little interest in the Pokemon franchise will find this is a deeper game than they may expect, but not deep enough to stand toe to toe with the best.
As such, Pokken Tournament is for people who are somewhere in the middle. It’s disappointing that the gameplay wasn’t altered more to make the fighting feel like an expanded take on native Pokemon combat, but this is a solid 3D fighting game that at least clearly has a passion for its source material.
Matthew Byrd is a freelance contributor.