Based on the description — Pokémon meets Tekken — I was skeptical of my ability to get much out of the Pokkén Tournament arcade machine. While I am a tried and true Pokémon diehard, technically-minded fighting games like the Tekken series are generally outside of my wheelhouse. That's not to say I don't enjoy them; I am a huge fan of stringing combos from mindless button mashing. But I'm not good at them, and I tend to hit a wall in one-on-one fighters early on.
What I found when I played the game earlier this week at the Times Square location of Dave & Buster's, which is exclusively testing the game through the end of the month, is that Pokkén Tournament is immediately accessible. More than that, it offers ease of use through the friendly Pokémon veneer for a combination of unabashedly fun, familiar gameplay.
Dave & Buster's is surprisingly dark for a place dedicated to children's entertainment and bright, flashy arcade games. The two Pokkén cabinets, which are dimmed and white, save for a tasteful red stripe along the side to suggest the classic Pokeball design, are further obscured by their cramped placement on the floor and huge signs, provided by Bandai Namco, bearing instructions on how to play the game.
The presence of this signage is to help players navigate the menus and directions, as Pokkén Tournament still hasn't been localized. I spoke to Kevin Bachus, the chain's senior vice president of entertainment and games strategy, about how this Japanese-only arcade game made it to the States and into the Times Square location exclusively.
"When I imagine [Pokemon], I'm not thinking of cards or anything. I'm imagining these characters actually fighting."
Bachus attributed it to his own sheer fandom. "I had a chance to play it [at Jaepo, a large Japanese arcade game trade show] and I loved it," he said. This event took place this February, ahead of its July 2015 launch in Japanese arcades. "At the time, [Namco and the Pokémon Company] didn't have any plans to localize it into English or bring it to the U.S., and I thought that was a mistake and told them that."
I reached out to Namco and the Pokémon Company, neither of whom responded to a request for comment. Regardless, it seems to be Bachus' insistence and initiative that resulted in the developers agreeing to a test in Dave & Buster's largest location, which was chosen due to what he considers a "larger, more diverse audience who are more receptive to a game not yet in English."
When I visited, there was none of this audience to be found. That's because it was before the store had actually opened, which was a surreal experience in itself: The usually busy arcade felt at once intimidatingly intimate in the early morning silence. Yet the kids who eventually did show up — and who categorically refused to play with me — largely blew past the signage entirely to jump straight into the game.
Pokkén Tournament's machines sit side-by-side and are attractive in their simplicity. Atop the large monitors are giant, commanding portraits of two of the game's most notable entrants. On the left machine was Lucario in an action pose; the right-hand side, the one I was drawn to immediately, bore an intimidating Pikachu.
Another fan-teasing touch is the presence of a Pokéball-colored stool in front of the machine. It was on top of the white and red chair that I remained for nearly two hours as I played through, and eventually gained real facility with, the fighting game.
The story of Pokkén Tournament is ostensibly this: You are a young Pokémon trainer (male, and without character selection options; fortunately, your protagonist has almost zero presence) battling your way through the rounds of a Pokémon fighting tournament. Of course, this is perhaps too generous a description. Any plotline has zero bearing on the events of Pokkén Tournament, which is really just a vehicle for you to pick and choose from a slew of your favorite monsters and have them beat up on each other.
Despite the Tekken presence via developer Bandai Namco and its portmanteau of a title, Pokkén Tournament's closest analogue might be the Nintendo powerhouse franchise Super Smash Bros. This is good news for someone more familiar with Nintendo's take on the fighting genre, which is just as much a party game as it is a complicated, skill-requiring brawler.
The Smash comparison comes across in a number of ways, the most obvious being the configuration of the moveset. The Pokkén machine — which is still completely wrapped in Japanese, although Namco provided helpful translations of the basic character and gameplay details, posted above the monitor — utilizes a unique controller with a button layout familiar to Nintendo gamers. Pushing the directional pad in concert with the A button activates different and unique moves, similar to Smash Attacks or Specials in Smash Bros.
Actually controlling your Pokémon around every inch of the ring is a real boon for enjoying the game.
Each of the 9 characters in the roster — which is limited in size though not scope, thanks to the breadth of types available — has a set of four moves, just as it would in the mainline Pokémon titles. Fans will quickly notice that these attacks are directly inspired by those featured in games like Pokémon Red, Silver and other favorites; Pikachu's neutral special is Thunderbolt, while Charizard's is Flamethrower.
With only 9 Pokémon available, however, it means that each one boasts a distinct moveset. This doesn't mean that each character has completely unique special moves available, however: Both Charizard and Machamp can perform Seismic Toss. But each of these monsters execute the attack in ways that are specific to them, meaning that each Pokémon feels and plays differently. While Charizard's Seismic Toss sends its opponent skyward and then straight down to the ground, Machamp's version of the move spins its fellow Pokémon around and across the arena. These differences are both cosmetic and demonstrate the difference in range for each character's attacks.
Most exciting are the synergy burst attacks, which are special moves tied to a gauge which, once filled, activate for an extra burst of strength. For the Pokémon that are able to — and that's most of the roster — this comes from a Mega Evolution. For others, like Pikachu and Suicune, a Synergy Burst grants the character a speed boost. Once you're in this mode, you can unleash your special attack which comes with its own distinct, attractive animation and, if executed correctly, lands a ton of hits against your opponent.
It's exciting to see these moves rendered in 3D, and playing directly as the Pokémon themselves lends the attacks a sense of tactility that the main franchise lacks. The satisfaction that comes from successfully pulling off a move and landing a string of combos is something Pokkén doles out in spades.
While winning a tough Pokémon battle in the handheld games is certainly an achievement in its own right, and those battles are far more complex than the ones in Pokkén, something feels really, really good about actually taking control of the deployment of moves as opposed to just sending out turn-based orders.
Being able to maneuver around the circular battle arena helps, as well, even as these locations are not especially unique or distinctive. Still, unlike the limited, biplanar action of the handheld entries, or even the three-dimensional spaces afforded by the battle mode of the Nintendo 64 Pokémon Stadium titles, actually controlling your Pokémon around every inch of the ring is a real boon for enjoying the game.
Pokkén features another major difference from the flagship series: The Pokémon fighters are categorized as different types, although these are not analogous to the familiar Electric, Fire, Water, etc. from the main Pokémon franchise. Pokkén's three categories are Standard, Power, and Technique, with the roster divided amongst these. Pikachu and Lucario are Standard-based characters, while the psychic-type Gardevoir and Gengar are Technique-centric.
The inclusion of the more defensive Technique characters adds an interesting layer to a game that could have easily skewed toward a cast of Fighting-types and more offensive players. Gardevoir and Gengar are less immediately rewarding than, say, Machamp, but they offer a sense of depth to a game that could quickly become shallow. I was more inclined to return to Gardevoir as my fighter of choice over a Power-type in an effort to master its more range-focused set of moves.
The problem of depth will be Pokkén's biggest hurdle in attracting a dedicated overseas audience. The character selection feels limited, even as every Pokémon is fun to play as. Newer character additions are incoming, like a Luchador-themed version of Pikachu.
Blaziken is another of the recently introduced characters, and the test build I played included it in the roster. Blaziken is easily the most overpowered member of the roster, with great speed and power alike, which is great if you are fighting as it and less so if you're up against it. Blaziken doesn't help to tip the balance of the roster, which already does lean toward the Power-types, despite the strong Psychics.
One way that Bandai Namco tries to make up for this, though, is through customization in the form of Support Pokémon. During each match, which features a maximum of three rounds for typical "best two of three" gameplay, you must choose between one of two Support Pokémon from a set picked out during character selection.
These Supports, which include characters from across generations like Fennekin, Eevee, and Snivy, offer help in terms of extra attack, defense, or "enhance" powers. After the gauge fills up over the course of the battle, you can deploy your support to perform its special ability, quickly giving your Pokémon a break and dealing extra damage to your opponent. These sets are pre-configured, which can be frustrating if you want to pick and choose more freely between support types based on your main fighter's own category or personal preference.
Learning when to best utilize them is key, as the gauge is depleted after a single use and must be built up again during the round. The game also discourages you from spamming the same support over and over by leaving the gauge exhausted after the end of a match.
These offer a little something in the way of diversity, but ultimately don't contribute too much. Instead, the biggest and most interesting gameplay mechanic is the concept of Field and Dual Phases. Initially, in Field Phase, the camera focuses on your fighter from behind at a high and wide angle. This view is reminiscent of the classic Pokémon style of play. After successfully landing a grab or throw, however, the Dual Phase is triggered that draws the camera in and narrows the battlefield to more closely resemble Tekken's plane.
Certain moves can only be activated following a Phase change, so it's important to try to initiate them as quickly and as often as possible. Additionally, Dual Phase introduces a new attack triangle, in which certain attacks trump others: normal attacks best grabs, grabs beat blocks, and blocks cancel out normal moves. Although this triangle has nothing on EV training in terms of complexity, mastering Dual Phase is perhaps where the game has the most to offer competitive players.
"We have something like 30 million people visit every year," he said, "but they come relatively infrequently on average, only a few times a year." This differs from Japan, where "you'll find it's a much smaller audience for arcade games compared to the U.S., but they're very passionate about those games and go very frequently." The majority of these games offer not only more sophisticated gameplay to entice and reward the repeat player, but also the social aspect of Banapassport and other add-ons.
Despite the more muted interest from American audiences in this sort of service, the chain purposefully placed two machines next to each other to allow for in-store multiplayer, and the networking is in place that would allow for the game's inherent, but not necessary, repeat player-favoring functionality.
Bachus himself is a fan and expects to promote the Banapassport if and when the game officially debuts at the chain. "Anytime I see an opportunity to start to move in that direction [of network functionality], I am very encouraging of it," he told me.
Ultimately, however, the game prides itself on being friendly to fans of Pokémon and traditional arcade fighting games alike. The strongest Pokémon-esque quality comes from the characters themselves, as the stages available are not based on any that exist in the franchise canon, although you can spot additional monsters in the background of them. But the Pokémon, which are impressively rendered thanks to the game's excellent high-definition graphics, were always the true heart of the series.
Bachus mirrored this sentiment when I spoke to him about how the game ended up in the hands of the arcade venue for its stateside debut. "I sort of look at it as the way I sort of imagine Pokémon in my mind when I'm playing" the main games," he said. "When I imagine [them], I'm not thinking of cards or anything. I'm imagining these characters actually fighting."
The Pokémon were always the true heart of the series.
Pokkén Tournament's time at the Times Square Dave & Buster's is limited, but there's also the option for it to return. "Part of the reason for the [in-store] test is Namco and the Pokémon Company trying to decide if they want to bring [the arcade game] over at all," Bachus said. "I'm very hopeful that we'll end up seeing it in all of our locations."
If the companies do decide to make the game available to American arcades, Dave & Buster's will schedule it for a spring 2016 rollout. For now, however, New Yorkers can try the game for themselves at the chain's largest location. The rest of the country will have to keep its fingers crossed, or wait for the Wii U version of the game, which will likely hew close to the arcade edition. No release date has been announced for that one yet beyond a general 2016 window.