Whatever happened to Pokkén?

September 19, 2016 by Alex Tisdale

Although it was popular at Evo, Pokken hasn't gotten very much new content-- even though the arcade version has.

Fans have a lot of dream projects they want from developers. Sometimes they demand small changes to current games, like the backlash that Bioware got over Mass Effect 3’s ending, while other times they beg for a giant remaster like the Final Fantasy 7 remake. And many of those dream projects are far from simple to create. The FF7 remake, for example, requires developers to literally build a whole new gaming experience from the ground up. But that doesn’t stop fans from wanting and begging for it.

This is the kind of idealistic demand that characterized fans’ 18 year quest for a Pokémon fighting game.

Just one year after Pokémon’s release in 1998, Super Smash Bros. for the N64 was the first to showcase Pokémon in a fighting game setting. Pikachu and Jigglypuff were main contenders and fought in fully rendered 3D graphics with equally exciting assist Pokémon popping out of Pokéballs to destroy their enemies. It was a blazing, fast-paced duel where you didn’t just give commands to your Pokémon passively; you could BE your Pokémon! This made fans hungry for a high quality fighting game for just Pokémon that could rival other fighters, and this year, after lots of ups and downs, they finally got it. 

Sort of.

Last summer, Japan was gifted the first ever, fully 3D, official Pokémon fighting game, Pokkén Tournament for Wii U. Unfortunately, it was far from a smooth release. The first announcements in 2014 were at a Famitsu event where they stated the game was going to be a Japanese arcade only release. The western internet was absolutely furious. Sites like IGN’s comment section flooded with cynicism and disbelief, and other outlets like Gamerant focused on how Wii U owners and Pokémon fans would be shocked that Nintendo was ignoring them. Luckily, they managed to eventually get a console version, but fans remained sensitive to the perceived favoritism for the arcade version.

Pokkén Tournament, when players got it on Wii U, boasted a total of 16 characters with 15 sets of 2 assist Pokémon pairings. It uses top-of-the-line HD quality graphics and tries to live up to the name, “Pokkén Tournamen”t, by supporting online play with an emphasis on casual and professional competition. It even came with a Pro Controller designed specifically for Pokkén  alone. Sounds perfect, right? The dream of a Pokémon fighting game finally arrived! However, it’s what happened, well, didn’t happen, after the release that’s the trouble.

Just 5 months after the American release and a full year after the Japanese one Pokkén Tournament already feels like a stale and forgotten game. Pokémon is currently dominating the news with the new Pokémon Sun and Moon games and the mobile release of Pokémon Go, and Pokkén should still be in the spotlight too, but it’s not. The biggest reason for this is that Nintendo hasn’t given the console owners any reason to play it again after their initial run-throughs.

Though Pokkén has a sizeable single player mode, there isn’t enough variety to keep the matches fresh, and there isn’t much to do afterwards with such a small roster of characters. Since its launch, there have been no updates that feature additional content, no downloadable characters or stages, and no announcements for future additions to the game at all. In fact, just before the North American launch, Nintendo stated they had no plans for downloadable content after its release and no future plans for the series at all! And so far, this has held true, but trouble is brewing with fans on the net once again.

Despite Nintendo’s statement on additional content, they have since released announcements stating that 3 new characters will be available for the Japanese arcade only version—NOT the Wii U version. This news has left fans of the series and owners of the console game rightfully upset yet again. The arcade version is being supported with new and fresh content, while the Wii U is being left in the dust. It would be easy to point to low Wii U sales as the reason for a lack of content, but sales data showed that Pokkén sold very well and also increased Wii U console sales. So what could it be? Maybe there’s a completely different plan for Pokkén on the consoles. 

According to the Wii U version’s patch notes, the only updates have been extensive tightening and balancing of the gameplay mechanics, which suggests that their focus has been on competitive tournament play all along. When Pokkén launched, it was no secret that Nintendo had hoped it would get another spot in professional gaming tournaments after their newfound success with Super Smash Bros. in the competitive scene

This year at Evo 2016, the largest and most popular fighting game tournament in the U.S., they accomplished just that. Pokkén Tournament exceeded over 1000 entrants. On top of that, the official site’s newsfeed has even more tournaments scheduled already. It’s impressive that the game has achieved this much in esports after only being out for a year, but that doesn’t quite excuse the lack of content for the casual gamers at home. 

For gamers outside Japan, the home console version was hardly enough to keep them invested for more than a few months. In a franchise that boasts almost 1000 different Pokémon, most found that only 16 characters to choose from made for a stifling experience, especially with Pikachu being in there twice. And it isn’t hard to understand that the more characters there are, the longer you’ll play, because it increases the variety of possible experiences. Other fighting games, like Street Fighter, have increased their longevity by including larger rosters and downloadable characters further down the line of the game’s lifespan, but Pokkén seems to have no such plans.

It’s hard to understand this decision, particularly since Pokémon as a brand is about collecting and training hundreds of different monsters. Variety is literally its core, and the franchise has survived and evolved on that idea alone. It’s also been around long enough to have learned from the successful fighting games that came before it. The game isn’t entirely without hope, though.

Despite all the setbacks, there’s still time for Pokkén to pull its players back in. Perhaps Nintendo will add new content further along the way or simply release a sequel with even more Pokémon to play with. If the latter, hopefully fans of the series won’t feel so snubbed by the lack of support for the current Pokkén Tournament that they won’t give its inevitable follow up a chance.

Right now, however, Pokkén Tournament feels like only a part of the dream realized. Technically, they did it. They gave fans a fighting game that has a few Pokémon in it, but Nintendo still has to keep the game alive with proper support. Otherwise, the game that they made fans wait years to get will be abandoned and forgotten on a dusty game shelf like it was never even here at all.

Alex Tisdale is a writer and illustrator who runs on coffee and pop culture. You can find him covered in ink and rambling on his website or on Twitter.