Trainer’s School: Lesson One- Pokkén 101

Getting ready to take on the Ferrum League

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This is part one of a series of written guides on Pokkén Tournament Deluxe for Nintendo Switch. I’ve always loved this game and I’ve wanted to give back to the community and generate more interest in it. I’ll be creating more guides like this in the future and I hope this gets new players invested in the fighting game that taught me about fighting games. If you would like to try out Pokkén Tournament Deluxe, and learn more information about the game, be sure to check out the community Discord!

I’ve already written articles about Pokkén in the past. I used the game as one of the examples in my article on learning fighting games piece-by-piece, breaking down all the information that a player would need to ingest and utilize during gameplay via parallel processing. I’ve also written a primer that explains why I believe the game is a valuable experience for newbie players who are unfamiliar with the genre. However, these beginner pieces may have had a lot of fighting game terminology or jargon that said newbies are unfamiliar with. “What even is neutral, and why is Pokkén so good at breaking it down?” Trainer’s School is a new series that I’m writing to help people get started with Pokkén that makes these concepts easier to understand. We’re going to start by learning how to play Pokkén from the bottom up, and then we’ll piece together all of these concepts so that you can learn as you go.

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My buttons are worse for wear after playing the game constantly for three years.

Most people who may have heard about Pokkén don’t know that the title has actually gone through three major version updates. It began in Japanese arcades as Pokkén Fighters, before receiving the Wii U home console release that most people are familiar with. It was finally ported to the Switch as Pokkén Tournament DX in November 2017. The game is traditionally played on a HORI Pokkén Pad. It’s a very comfortable and affordable gamepad that was designed to emulate how the game is played in arcades. It mostly follows the standard Nintendo button layout, minus analog sticks, and moves the ZL/ZR trigger buttons to the face of the controller. A few players still use fightsticks to play Pokkén, but the HORI controller is the tournament standard, especially if you plan on competing at official TPCI circuit events. At only $20, a durable controller that works on every console and PC is a pretty good value over most fightsticks.

The current version of the game (Switch 1.3.3) features 23 playable Pokémon, 18 sets of support Pokémon (for a total of 36 supports) and six Cheer skills.

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  • The playable Pokémon are divided into four ‘types:’ Standard, Speed, Power, and Technical. These types are only somewhat accurate, in the sense that a Standard character like Blaziken can also be very fast, and a Speed character like Sceptile is very technically demanding. Generally, though, the outline is accurate: Standard characters are very simple to get the hang of, Power and Speed characters excel in their respective categories of strength and finesse, and Technical characters have outside-the-box approaches to gameplay.
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  • Support Pokémon can be summoned once or twice per round once the Support Gauge is filled. Different Supports fill on a different timer- either 10, 20, or 30 seconds- but characters like Braixen can also charge their Support Gauges. Supports are generally classified in three types: Attack, Enhance (buff,) or Disrupt (debuff.) There’s a lot of overlap, though- some Disrupt supports use attacks to debuff the opponent for instance.
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  • Cheers are buffs that the game announcer, Nia, awards you between rounds. Each one will boost your Synergy or Support Gauges depending on whether you won or lost the last round.

As I’ve written about previously, gameplay starts in Field Phase, with 3D combat not too dissimilar from arena fighters like Tekken and licensed anime titles like the Naruto games. When certain criteria are met, a Phase Shift occurs and the gameplay switches to Duel Phase, featuring the familiar 2D combat of games like Street Fighter. A standard game consists of 80-second rounds, played best two-of-three. You win a round by depleting your opponent’s HP, or by having more HP than your opponent at round end.

The gameplay makes use of six buttons and the D-pad, and the functions of some of the buttons changes depending on the Phase you’re in. While this may sound like an ‘instruction manual’-esque segment, I want to make it clear that your moveset and commands in each Phase can be different depending on your character.

  • In Field Phase, the D-Pad lets you navigate in all eight directions. Double-tapping in any direction will let you dash in that direction. The Y button is for light attacks and projectiles, and the X button is for a powerful Homing Attack that will lock you into tracking your opponent down once pressed and held. The A button lets you use Poké Moves (what would be special or heavy attacks in other games.) The R button allows you to block, and the L button allows you to call your Support when the meter is full. Finally, you can jump with the B button.
  • In Duel Phase, the properties of some of these buttons and moves change. You can only move left or right in Duel Phase, but holding up or down will let you enter High or Low Stance. Low Stance is usually a simple crouch, but High Stance may have additional properties depending on the character. Scizor, for instance, has red armor when entering High Stance. Y and X become light and heavy attacks, and mashing the respective button will allow you to execute an auto combo called a Poké Combo. Everything else remains the same.
Here, the Sceptile CPU earns a Phase Shift into Duel Phase with a successful Homing Attack, but I anti-air him with EX Sky Uppercut and we Shift back to Field Phase.

Field Phase generally consists of you trying to hit your opponent with your projectiles before closing in to strike, while also weaving around your opponent’s own projectiles. This part of gameplay is less about doing flashy techniques and dealing big damage (although some zoners like Darkrai and Gardevoir can achieve this) and is instead more focused on simply closing the gap between you and your opponent. In fighting game terms, this is where neutral or footsies is being played. You’re simply poking at your opponent until you finally land a hard hit and succeed in earning a Phase Shift.

Duel Phase is more aggressive and combo-oriented than Field Phase- this is where close range combatants like Blaziken and Machamp tend to thrive. Here, your focus is on doing a lot of damage to your opponent before earning another Phase Shift. While this isn’t a combo tutorial, it should be said that more complex combos are usually done by linking light attacks (the Y button) into heavy attacks (the X button) before finishing with a powerful Poké Move.

When your Synergy Gauge is full, you can press L and R at the same time to go into Burst. Burst is both a (lowercase B) burst option and an install, which means it can get your opponent to back off of you in a pinch while also granting you enormous buffs. Different characters get different things from Burst mode, but generally they will Mega Evolve if they are canonically able, and they will get improved move properties and damage. Mega Lucario, for instance, can airdash by jumping and pressing R, while Mega Gengar almost becomes a completely different character entirely. (Don’t worry if you’re playing a character who can’t actually Mega Evolve- they’ll still get enhancements during Burst Mode.) Being in Burst also grants you light armor, which means that you will shrug off all light attacks (but still take damage.) However, moves enhanced by an attack buff or Burst mode will beat Burst armor, and defense debuffs will also negate the effect. Pressing L and R again while still in Burst will let you use your Burst Attack, a super move that can only be used once per Burst. Burst moves also change properties depending on the character- for instance, Mega Gengar and Burst Mode Empoleon’s super move is a command grab.

Sceptile uses Burst Mode here to prevent me from escaping pressure with my Counter Attack. Notice also that his normal grab changes completely as Mega Sceptile.

That essentially wraps up the general breakdown of the flow of gameplay in Pokkén, without going too in depth with the Attack Triangle and Phase Shifts. Beyond the basics of getting your feet planted on the ground and understanding what you see on the screen, I have a few words of advice that mainly pertain to the flow of information right before the start of the round:

1. Tiers aren’t especially delineated in this game. While I would argue that Blastoise, Empoleon, and Croagunk are among the worst characters in the game, all 23 characters are viable and powerful even at the topmost levels of play. If Pokkén is your first fighting game, I would recommend starting off with Lucario or Pikachu- Lucario is this game’s jack-of-all-trades Ryu-like, and Pikachu takes after the Mishima family from Tekken. Gengar is the only character I would shy a completely new Pokkén player away from, as his combo routes and general gameplan require high amounts of optimization in order to understand.

2. Support sets are something that you will have to get the hang of on your own via experimentation and comfort. You can never go wrong with a simple set like Frogadier/Eevee or Jirachi/Whimsicott, but perhaps your character may have a unique combo with Cubone/Diglett or Rotom/Togekiss. The only set that’s probably not worth picking at all is Magneton/Quagsire, as both of those Pokémon have their tools filled better and more effectively by other Supports.

3. Cheers are another thing that you may have to experiment with at first, but different Cheers benefit different Pokémon and playstyles. Standard and Special are generally all-around very useful, but Synergy and Pressure can help a lot if you’re playing a character like Gengar or Mewtwo who struggles with meter gain. Whimsical is a very risky Cheer to take, but many players often find value in picking it and being rewarded with huge meter gains by RNG.

That’s it for Lesson One! Pokkén may be simple at first glance, but as anybody familiar with the game and the genre can attest, there’s a lot of depth and complexity to be found beneath the surface. Lesson Two will explore more of that depth- we’ll go into more detail about the core mechanics of the game, Phase Shifts and the Attack Triangle. What precisely causes a Phase Shift, and what happens when the transition occurs? What moves beat what in the Attack Triangle, and are there ways to circumvent it? Find out all of this and more on the next installment of Trainer’s School!

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