A Pokkén Primer: An excellent intro to the fighting game genre

Why I like the game, and why I think more people should check it out

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When we heard that DX was finally bringing all the arcade characters to the console version, the community went wild. Decidueye looks so cool, doesn’t he?

Pokkén Tournament began life as one of the three crossover titles that Nintendo had promised would be coming to its Wii U console as part of the company’s plans to bring third-party developers on board with their new hardware. (The other two games were Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE and Hyrule Warriors.) Pokkén was managed and developed by Katsuhiro Harada, the director for other Bandai Namco 3D fighting game projects such as Tekken and Soulcalibur. While Tekken was a direct inspiration for the title, the game wound up being more like a hybrid between that and traditional 2D fighters.

Pokkén first launched in Japanese arcades as Pokkén Fighters in July of 2015, with limited Dave & Busters locations in the US also getting Pokkén cabinets. The Wii U version of the game launched internationally in March of the following year. When the Nintendo Switch made its debut, the final version of the game, Pokkén Tournament DX, launched for it in September 2017. DX not only added all of the changes from the arcade version that the Wii U release was missing, but even introduced new characters and balances from launch until the end of the DLC season.

I mainly played the Wii U version casually but didn’t really compete. When friends from out of state invited me to the Anaheim Pokémon World Championships in 2017, I figured I could tag along and enter the Pokkén Last Chance Qualifiers. I didn’t do well at all, but I was impressed by the level of gameplay at the event, and more importantly, I got a hands-on with the updated Switch version. I instantly got revved up and hyped to play the new version when I tried Scizor and realized how cool he was, hovering around the screen and throwing swords at my opponents. After DX launched, I began playing the game more fervently and learning about it by using other players’ resources and grinding online. By the time I started competing routinely in July of 2018, I was making upsets against long-time players in my region! This sudden growth in my gameplay culminated in my first ever Top 8 placing in a fighting game, scoring 7th in the Pokkén bracket at Switchfest 2019.

I promise this will be the last time I link to my results from an old tournament, but I have good reason to this time: If you aren’t following Burnside on Twitter, you’re missing out on prime Pokkén content.

Why did I stick so closely to Pokkén? What’s so good about it that made me practice it more than my ‘main game,’ Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, for nearly three years? Pokkén is designed from the ground up to be an incredibly fun and rewarding fighting game that teaches players the ins and outs of different metagame concepts that could perhaps be harder to grasp in other titles. Every time I played, I learned something different and felt the value in expanding my knowledge base, whether I won or I lost. I also felt like I could express myself exactly how I wanted to with my character, forging a playstyle that was viable enough to stand up to players I had long thought were above my skill level. While other fighting games do this too- I feel the same type of reward for integrating a new part of the system into my gameplan in Guilty Gear- Pokkén is one of the only titles I’ve played where this growth mindset is encouraged by the game’s engine.

Pokkén achieves this satisfaction in its learning feedback via its two core mechanics, Phase Shifting and the Attack Triangle. The genius in these core mechanics are that they set Pokkén apart from other fighting games and keep the game unique, while also teaching the player about metagame information that is actually fairly commonplace in other titles. By rewarding the player for successfully navigating these mechanics, the game bolsters their base fighting game knowledge and provides them with resources that are transferable to multiple situations, even those found in other fighting games.

The first of Pokkén’s core mechanics is probably the one that is most obvious to outsiders. The main gameplay is split into two Phases- the more traditional 2D combat in Duel Phase, and the less orthodox 3D combat in Field Phase. Matches begin in Field Phase, and when one player “wins” the Phase (with a big enough hit, or a successful normal grab,) the gameplay shifts to Duel Phase. In Duel Phase, your moveset becomes a bit more robust and combo-oriented than the poking-zoning gameplay in Field Phase, although zoning and setplay characters still have access to long-range tools. After one player “wins” Duel Phase (by landing a 21-hit combo, several big hits, or a successful normal grab,) the gameplay shifts once again back to Field Phase.

The Chandelure matchup is difficult, especially online, so I use it as an example of hard-fought Field Phase neutral game.

(More technically-minded Pokkén players than me will probably point out here that I neglected to mention the real cause for Phase Shifts: a hidden counter for ‘Phase Shift Points’ that each player earns, which will trigger a Shift once the counter hits 12. Well, don’t worry, ‘cuz I just mentioned it! But the newer players don’t need to worry about that yet. Hell, I’m a top player and I don’t count Phase Shift Points at all! Talk about heart-over-mind… But I do know that Phase Shift Points reset after a Shift or a successful Burst.)

The other core mechanic in Pokkén, the Attack Triangle, merges ideas from the mainstream RPGs like type-effectivity and critical hits with fighting game concepts. The Attack Triangle is generally simple: normal attacks beat grabs, grabs beat ‘blue armored’ counter attacks and blocks, and counter attacks beat normals. While this is often widely derided as being ‘rock-paper-scissors’ gameplay, the reality is that this concept already exists in other fighting games. Armored moves generally go right through normals, normals can often grab crush, and grabs not only beat slow, hard-hitting moves, but are your only recourse against an opponent holding block. What Pokkén does differently is explicitly incentivizing learning this RPS and getting it correct, by bestowing critical hits. On top of that, the game also encourages you to learn how to circumvent its RPS system, and there are numerous ways to do so: moves with ‘red armor’ and counter-piercing properties, command grabs that may have armor or intangibility, counter attacks that can hit from out of a grab range, and guard crushes.

Using your options correctly means you’ll win Attack Triangle exchanges more frequently, which will almost always lead into big damage opportunities.

These two core mechanics teach players who are new to fighting games how to navigate difficult metagame concepts and recognize certain unique situations that they may not have understood before. Once these players recognize those situations, they can then capitalize on them more effectively, and their knowledge base will grow and become deeper. Phase Shifting teaches players about the concepts of the neutral, footsies, turns, advantage and disadvantage, and how to play okizeme- and it does all of this while also being a generally effective infinite prevention tool. Field Phase is almost entirely compromised of playing footsies- looking for a poke or working your way in through fireballs and such. After a successful Phase Shift, the offensive player earns Burst meter, recovers a bit of their dark health, and earns the positional advantage, which allows them to begin their setplay or gather resources in the time that their opponent is knocked down. In a similar way, scoring critical hits grants bonus damage, extra meter, and additional hitstun, which lets the offensive player seek combo opportunities they couldn’t have gotten before. Circumventing the Attack Triangle also grants similar system bonuses and teaches the disadvantaged player which of their opponent’s options they need to be respecting. The Attack Triangle mechanic rewards the player for recognizing which options are safe, what’s punishable and what’s not, and for utilizing these options effectively.

Beyond the engine mechanics, the game also has a very robust and well-developed training mode. The tutorial itself teaches advanced metagame concepts such as turns, frame advantage, and setplay. It even walks the player through difficult techniques like the Counter Attack Dash Cancel which are necessary for higher-level play. The training room is also infinitely more useful than vanilla versions of Smash- which is to say that it has options in it that are commonplace in other titles, like first-active-frame viewer and dummy record options. The dummy record feature in particular is what helped me improve so quickly- I was able to practice specific matchups and situations that I would normally need another dedicated player to help me with. Singleplayer modes in fighting games that help the player improve are often taken for granted, especially since lots of popular titles still lack proper tutorial modes. Pokkén simply having an in-depth tutorial does it a lot of favors in the current generation of fighters.

It’s much harder to practice stuff like this in Smash than it is in Pokkén, which is only a comparison I make because the two games share a console and publisher.

In an era of fighters where “simplification” is almost seen as a death rattle, Pokkén demonstrates that a game can indeed be simple and easy to get into while also having tons to explore, without sacrificing the depth of the metagame that the genre is known for. The core Phase Shift and Attack Triangle mechanics teach players through system bonuses how to navigate the basic metagame to their advantage. Things like Burst mode roll several different items from other games (installs, super moves, and combo-escape burst options) into one single option, making them easy to understand. With a well-balanced roster of 23 playable characters and 36 assists, players can express themselves in a variety of ways through the cast while keeping their matchup knowledge more manageable than a title with 60 or 80 characters.

I’ve talked before about how fighting games are not harder than other competitive titles, but I do also maintain that they are still difficult. Playing Pokkén gave me a knowledge base that transferred very easily to other titles, making that difficulty much more approachable. I got better at my okizeme and setplay options in other titles; I began to understand how other games approached their combo systems, and I was also able to improve my execution; the training modes taught me how to make the most out of my lab time. I’ve mentioned this already, but one of the reasons I’m most excited for Guilty Gear Strive is because I saw how the wallbreaks in that game work and thought to myself, “This is just like Phase Shifting!” And at the end of the day, the thing that made me stick to Pokkén for so long was because it was just so much fun to play. I truly felt like my playstyle with Scizor was the finest expression of myself in a fighting game up to that point, and I enjoyed having conversations with other players via that expression.

If this article got you interested in Pokkén and you want to learn more, I plan on (eventually) creating more content centered around the game once I’m able. In the meantime, there’s excellent YouTube tutorial content made by top NorCal player Bad Intent, and the Pokkén Discord and PokkénArena forums are huge repositories of information with bustling communities behind them. (At the time of writing, the forums are changing domain, so be patient!) There’s also podcasts and other video series (some defunct, but still useful) such as Ferrum Heights and 21 Hits that can also be found on YouTube. The game is currently a major event in the Pokémon World Championships circuits- I’ll even provide a link to a set that I consider to be one of the most hype matches in fighting game history. Go ahead and give it a shot! Nia and the rest of us are all waiting for you to take your first step into the Ferrum region.

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That is, assuming you don’t mute her right away like most players do… (I let her speak!)

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Nathan “Lite the Iron Man” Dhami can be found on Twitter (@LiteTheIronMan,) on Twitch (twitch.tv/litetheironman,) and at your local.

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