I’ve been playing Pokken Tournament since its arcade testing days. From the very first time I played it, I knew that the game was unique, holding both features that make it familiar as an arcade fighting game, while introducing new ideas that simplify traditional mechanics in order to invite non-arcade players. While I’ve noticed that even a small skill gap between players in Pokken often leads to brutally one-sided fights, my PC gamer girlfriend recently mentioned that she felt Pokken was more accessible than Smash Bros. While everyone’s mileage may vary, this comment made me realize that there’s a lot that Pokken does to invite not only those outside of the arcade scene, but those outside the fighting game genre as well.
The Importance of Jumping
Let’s start with the Smash Bros comparison. I’ve always felt that Smash Bros was the perfect fighting game to introduce players to: it has very simple combos, a broad and generally familiar cast of character, multiple play modes, and a more flexible mechanic for determining when a player loses– the ring out.
However, the ring out mechanic isn’t always quite forgiving as I think it is. As I’ve been introducing students to games in an after school activity, I’ve noticed that their jumping skills are often quite poor. Matches that take place in Smash arenas without pits or that aren’t on a small floating platform seem more fun for them. If the platform isn’t very large, many of them simply panic and forget to jump to return to the platform. That makes some matches last only a few seconds in a stock battle, with players even sometimes accidentally knocking themselves out by running off the edge of the screen.
This isn’t new though! I recall some other friends having this issue in the past, including gamers and fighting game fans. It wasn’t until Pokken that I noticed how important basic jumping skills are in order for someone to enjoy Smash. If you come from a genre that doesn’t jump a lot, like most mobile titles kids play these days, first person shooters, or role-playing games, you need this skill before you can start accessing the fighting game aspect of Smash.
Perhaps this makes it easier for Pokemon fans to get into Pokken. Very few games in the series require you to jump. They’re more about strategy, even when they have action elements. Although you still need to master jumping in order to avoid projectiles (which, in the current meta-game, is a simple way to tell who is a veteran and who isn’t), there are other techniques you can use to get around this. While the arcade games may be losing ground, a recent merchandise push in Japan makes me feel that Pokken must be doing well enough.
The Online Arcade Game
I’ve covered online games and e-sports in Japan vs. the west in the past, but suffice to say, there are cultural differences, the least of which being that the arcade is still quite alive out here. However, one thing I didn’t discuss much is the role of online arcade games. There is an image of modern Japanese (especially males) becoming shut ins, or Hikikomori. Shyness or lack of drive in “herbivore men” may keep them away from pursuing romantic outings with women, and the current economy has made freeters and NEETs more relevant, as job opportunities and general social changes seem to challenge some peoples’ self confidence.
While arcades are alive in Japan, they’re not in a healthy state right now, with Kotaku mentioning the simple truth that arcades often act as a preview for games that eventually head to consoles. Pokken is no different. Arcades have been including online tools since the addition of Konami’s e-Amusement system in 2002, allowing for high scores to be uploaded to the internet and unlockable data to transfer from machine to machine. 2004’s Virtual Striker 4 made some use of online play, but I know that competitive player vs. player online support was around in 2008 with the Lord of Vermilion online card game series visitors to Japan’s arcades may often see.
As others have noted, there are a healthy amount of online games in the arcade environment. This is important because, as more and more people choose to game at home on a console or smart phone, arcades become more and more empty. Having online connections in arcades helps to ensure that players can find opponents, but it has another function in my personal experience.
I’ve had a lot of experience with co-op local player thanks to the Monster Hunter series, and some friendly fighting game experience thanks to Smash Bros. While people were quite inviting in the Monster Hunter circles, Smash Bros players felt more guarded and closed off. The social politeness I experienced among MH hunters gave way to silence in Smash Bros.
I noticed a similar reaction during local player tests for Pokken and a few local matches I played in the arcades. Even when defeated, those who beat me rarely offered any words, or sometimes even a polite bow. I never witnessed this between Japanese players either, even at an event. This feels odd since, even in MMOs, I’ve noticed the use of a traditional phrase, “Otsukaresama (deshita),” which means something like “Thanks for putting in a good effort.” This is used at the end of work, club activities, volunteer work, even just group cleaning. In my fighting game experience though, people simply played the game and moved on.
Overall, Pokken arcade players always seemed to prefer online play. My personal theory is that it allows for personal victories or losses without having to face your opponent or express social niceties that may be challenging some gamers these days. Being able to comfortably enjoy the game in a public area or the privacy of one’s home while competing against others allows one to relax without worrying about challenging anyone’s sense of confidence. This makes the game accessible to those who, once again, may not normally frequent an arcade but were interested in the game at launch, which seems relevant with growing anti-social behaviors.
I mentioned strategy before because, although fighter games have strategy built inside them, it’s inherently different from other genres, and often quite complex. For example, one starter guide for Street Fighter V talks about V-Skill, V-Reversals, and V-Triggers, but that’s just the start. Another guide, on the same game, includes more technical terms, like chip damage, footsies, safe vs unsafe moves, and more. Neither of them mention cancels though, which is a way of stopping animation to link moves together more smoothly or break away from a potential counter attack, a key concept in many fighting games’ competitive scenes.
Even Pokken has this, but before that, Pokken has another system that can act as a life-saver for new players: the Attack Triangle. Attacks lose to Counters, Counters (and blocking) lose to Grabs, and Grabs lose to Attacks. While there are some exceptions, mastering this system acts as a kind of gateway strategy for considering one’s approach not only to Pokken competitive play, but to the fighting game genre. For example, if you realize that your opponent will block as soon as they stand up, you can open with a grab. Strategy players are already accustomed to trying to think a few moves ahead, but this system puts the idea of learning to out think your opponent front and center.
Pokemon players generally only need to consider four moves that the enemy trainer’s active Pokemon might have, plus switch options based on type match ups, so it’s not like they lack opponent reading techniques. However, by starting out with a simple rock-paper-scissors element, new players begin with a simple frame of reference before having to expand that knowledge to understand when the Attack Triangle doesn’t work (such as accounting for piercing attacks that break through counters). It gives the game both accessibility and room for depth that’s inviting to players who might not have had to worry about light vs heavy attacks or canceling in their genre of choice.
Combo and Control Complexity
I’ve seen one person describe Pokken as “baby’s first Street Fighter,” and in some ways, that’s an accurate description of the game, and not just because you have Nia coaching you. Unlike Smash Bros, Pokken upholds the tradition of arcade games having suggested combos with multi-directional/button input. There’s a reason the game’s tutorial covers combos! However, while the combos are certainly more difficult than Smash’s, they don’t get nearly as complex as traditional arcade games. Much like simplifying strategy, the simple “down and weak attack” method gives birth to combos that involve clawing, something most strategy game players don’t have to deal with, but people used to a controller are.
That’s important because, unlike most arcade games, Pokken has had a controller as its input device from the start. I personally have a wrist issue that prevents me from enjoying most traditional arcade games. I’ve wanted to enjoy arcade fighters since I was a kid, but the first time my mother allowed me to run wild in a non-family entertainment center arcade, I’ve found that arcade fighters meant crippling wrist pain. For some friends, they’ve simple acknowledged a preference for controllers, as they’ve grown up with those as their input method for most gaming. Having a controller for Pokken’s arcade made it more accessible to those of us who don’t regularly play arcade games, and made it easier for the game to port over to the Wii U console.
Even if you don’t pick up the Hori Pokken Pro Pad, the simplicity of the control’s layout makes any muscle-control skills transfer easily to the Wii U Game Pad, Pro Controller, or Classic Controller (Pro). For western players who may have not played the arcade version of the game, that’s not important, but for those living in Japan, it worked as a good reason to hit the arcade version and keep going back, even after we knew the game would reach consoles.
Enter the Pokken Tournament
Pokken is a surprisingly welcoming game, especially for an arcade fighter title. While it’s certainly more of a fighting game than Smash Bros, it’s online emphasis (in and outside of the arcade), simple starting strategy, and accessible controls throughout its development all combine well with the relative flexibility of the Pokemon franchise. Fans already have seen their favorite Pokemon in RPGs, puzzle games, trading card games, and various strategy games. Combining the lovable creatures with just about any genre seems to be an easy way to make money, but the way in which Pokken was executed shows both faithfulness to the world of Pokemon and its fans.