It's a dream that plays like a dream.
This morning, at the 2015 Pokémon World Championships, some of us may have expected Pokémon Z or a new Pokémon form, but it’s hard to say there was much disappointment in the air at the convention center after the reveal of Pokkén Tournament on Wii U, coming next Spring. And thankfully, to those of us attending the festivities, the Japanese arcade game got its first playable appearance in North America. After playing with nearly every available character and getting a good chunk of time to acclimate myself to the controls, I can say this: Pokkén Tournament is so freaking cool.
If there was any lack of ambiguity in the trailers, Pokkén is a 3D fighter. It doesn't include full-on 3D movement, as the GamePad we played with featured a D-Pad as prime means to control (giving movement a Super Mario 3D World-like grid feeling), but the game takes place in a circular 3D arena and features 3D combat that shifts to 2D combat as fighters get closer to each other. I would liken it to a slightly more 3D Tekken. Other than the D-Pad, the arcade controller featured four face buttons (ABXY Nintendo style) and L/R buttons.
The A button controls the special moves (A forward, backward, and neutral featured unique attacks), B controls jump, and X and Y feature physical attacks and some lighter attacks that aren’t exactly specials (these attacks also vary in conjunction with the various directions). It’s hard to call the X and Y attacks specials or a simple light/heavy split, because Blaziken could use them for a projectile fire attack while other characters use them for physical moves. These buttons are also your main means of executing combos.
As for the shoulders, pressing L triggers your assist character, who are other Pokémon like Emolga, Lapras, and Frogadier, and they act as traditional assist characters, popping in for a second, doing a quick attack, and jumping back out (their use also appeared to be limited, though I’m not sure what regulates it). Snivy’s assist was a small leaf tornado, while Lapras appeared to use a strong Surf move. Pressing R, meanwhile, activates the block move.
If I had to describe Pokkén in a word, it would be “accessible.” The moves, even specials, are so simple and easy to pull off, it’s reminiscent of Smash Bros. I’m awful at most fighting games, yet after two matches, I had a mostly-clear understanding and competence in how to play. Though this may make the game come across as more casual to some, the trade-off, making each match feel like a realistic Pokémon match, is well worth it.
What I mean by that is, every Pokémon feels faithful to its very core. Every special move in the game is based on a real move from the core series, and every Pokémon physically feels like it’s using that move. Machamp has the weight and play of a four-armed macho man, and landing a Cross Chop or Seismic Toss (in which you spin your foe and straight up throw them) just feels right – though the extremely effective sound and visual design (every connecting move sounds like you’re really cracking the enemy with it), though that could be a result of the machine’s loud sound system. When playing as Machamp, throwing guys around and punching them right in the face, I couldn’t help but smile. They totally nailed what it means to play as Machamp in a fighting game.
Likewise, if you asked me how each character feels, I would say, “it feels like that Pokémon.” Charizard feels like Charizard would, lumbering around with its powerful yet slow body. Blaziken feels like Blaziken, quickly speeding around and cutting fools down with its crazy fire kicks and punches. Gardevoir feels more gentle and light, Suicune feels like a legendary beast (attacking primarily with its head and body, barring projectiles like Aurora Beam), Pikachu is fast but relatively easy to throw, and Gengar is a cocky shadow monster that uses the power of darkness. If you have a favorite Pokémon represented in this game, it seems like, from what I’ve played (I haven’t used Weavile or Lucario), the team that made this did them great justice.
Mega Evolutions are represented in the game via Burst Attacks. Upon filling up a Burst meter (filled by attacking, and not by blocking), you can press both L and R to activate a temporary, significantly more powerful form. Charizard becomes Mega Charizard X and Gengar becomes Mega Gengar, but creatures like Suicune and Pikachu, who don’t have Mega forms (yet?) get an aura radiating off of their body and the same boost. Certain attacks in Burst form (which are enhanced versions of standard attacks, at least from what I’ve seen) can take upwards of 30% of your opponent’s life bar (and that’s a conservative estimate on my part), so it’s important to guard and back off when your opponent has it. When you have it though, it feels great, and activating it at the same time as your opponent makes it feel like you’re Goku and Vegeta going into Super Saiyan to fight each other. When I did it one round, I couldn’t help but say, “oh, it’s on!”
And visually, the game does what many Nintendo games did this gen. Like Pikmin 3 and 3D World before it, Pokkén has that soft realism that is both cartoony and super high fidelity at the same time. The stages, while not exactly based on recognizable places in the Pokémon universe, look like places that would exist in that setting. One of the stages I experienced was a stadium, while another was a meadow-like town with little buildings and a child biking in the background. Stylistically, they nail it.
There aren’t a ton of characters yet, and the only content I saw were versus matches, so I’m very curious to see how much content the final Wii U retail release will have when it comes out Spring 2016 worldwide. From what I’ve played, I can say this: Pokkén Tournament is fun, Pokkén Tournament is easy to play, and Pokémon fans will soon be playing the fighting game they want, and the fighting game they deserve.