“Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot had forgotten about catching insects. So had I. When I was making games, something clicked and I decided to make a game with that concept. Everything I did as a kid is kind of rolled into one—that’s what Pokémon is. Playing video games, watching TV, Ultraman with his capsule monsters—they all became ingredients for the game.” – Satoshi Tajiri in an interview with TIME Magazine, 1999
It’s a fun bit of trivia now, but Pokémon originally grew out of its creator’s simple, childlike sense of awe toward the bugs in his backyard. At its core, the series is still driven by that curious desire to observe, to collect, and even to befriend the fauna that surround us. But on its 20th anniversary, the franchise has ballooned into something with a farther reach and a much more convoluted message than it ever had in its early period. Pokémon is no longer a holy trinity of videogames, card games, and an anime—it’s a detective film, an augmented reality simulation, a series of roguelike dungeon crawlers, a film franchise, an entire marketing universe unto itself, and now, an arcade-style brawling game.
On its surface, Bandai Namco’s Pokkén Tournament seems like the type of game that fits perfectly into Pokémon’s ever-expanding tableau of genre experiments. The game is plainly—and unapologetically—a 3D fighter in which you make cherished Pocket Monsters beat each other senseless for hours at a time, and at first blush this doesn’t actually seem too far out of place in the Pokémon universe. But while there’s nothing inherently wrong with a little of the old cartoon violence, Pokkén Tournament stretches the fiction to an excruciating degree in an attempt to obscure Pokémon’s dirtiest secret: that we’ve actually been making these poor little guys beat each other senseless for more than two decades now, and never really stopped to ask why.
For their part, the folks over at Bandai Namco have done quite a bit of work to try and reduce the conceptual disconnect to background noise in Pokkén Tournament by molding the Tekken template into something more palatable for children and long-time fans of the series. Pokkén’s story arc, if you want to call it that, is loosely held together by a fiction that, unless I’m misremembering the series I watched back in grade school, bears some important distinctions from the Pokémon universe that’s already been established. First and foremost, the Pocket Monsters of Pokkén Tournament take commands from their trainers via a magic crystal-powered telekinetic headset called a “Battle AR,” which is worlds different from the verbal commands that trainers used to give back in the day. It’s a subtle difference, but there’s an implication that the “synergy stones” of Pokkén Tournament’s Ferrum region revoke the free will of the Pokémon under their influence. The game’s main villain isn’t a costumed bandit, but a powerful Pokémon who has fallen victim to a massive, corrupted synergy stone. Unlike the commands in previous games, which Pokémon could disobey if they lacked respect for their trainer, these synergy stone-empowered orders never miss their mark. Already, it’s easy to sense a line being drawn between Pokémon-as-wild animal and Pokémon-as-cartoonish videogame combatant, and it’s a line that Bandai Namco constantly aims to reinforce with nearly every facet of the game’s execution.
We’ve already seen quite a bit of Pokémon-as-nature in the franchise media that’s already been released. The Pokémon anime in particular has always been fond of depicting these creatures in their natural habitats as a direct analog to the grandeur of mother nature. In this universe, the untamed, peaceful grace of the monsters is set in direct contrast with the motives of Team Rocket or, more recently, Team Magma and Team Aqua, who exploit Pokémon in the pursuit of furthering their own agendas. In the anime, as well as in the Game Freak-helmed RPG series, combat is portrayed as a kind of pugnacious but ultimately safe form of sparring, with injured Pokémon disappearing away into innocuous two-toned spheres and abstracted 2D tackle animations depicting what can only be described as a colorful turn-based wiggling contest.
There was always a cluster of messy subtext here, and no real resolution for questions like: why are we capturing helpless animals in little balls? Why, if Pokémon are non-aggressive, are we making them fight each other? Why is the Pokémon universe framed as a disbelief-suspending cartoon, only to be shrink-wrapped in disingenuous and hamfisted “let’s respect the planet” sermonizing? Godzilla may have been shrouded in paranoia and symbolism concerning the consequences of pollution and nuclear energy, but at least he had the agency to fight Mothra when he damn well pleased, and not on the whims of some random teenager with a bright blue flannel shirt and a wispy hairdo.
For most of its history, Pokémon has rested comfortably in a kind of critical stasis. Half-baked Satanist associations and animal rights concerns notwithstanding, the series’ modest origins in schoolyard bug-catching and its cutesy, cartoonish nature meant that it was practically beyond reproach. But the series’ growing scope has resulted in more than a massive product line: as the Pokémon franchise continues to inflate, so does its message. And with new entries coming into the universe on an almost yearly basis, the Pokémon fiction has been forced to adjust its thematic throughlines in order to make room for new creative ventures.
One of the clearest examples of this thematic alteration has been the gradual self-aggrandizement of the series’ lore. Where the first Pokémon games introduced a mythical trio of birds as powerful, elementally-imbued wild animals, legendary Pokémon eventually grew to represent entire concepts—to the point where the series even began to carve out its own internal theology. This reached a fever pitch in 2006’s Pokémon Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum, which introduced a “Creation Trio” of Pokémon who represented time, space, and antimatter. It was also around this time when the series introduced Arceus, the creator of the Pokémon universe. It’s hard to say for certain that this fictional overreach was a product of creative hubris, but it’s a pretty drastic conceptual ramp-up that can get us from backyard bug fighting to the Book of Genesis in a matter of a few years.
As the series’ themes continued to gather mass, so did the prickly implications of its premise. In recent years, players have begun to question Pokémon’s central themes, with the internet concocting new ways of playing the game that pose questions like: how much different would the series be if we looked at our relationship with Pokémon in the same light as a relationship between master and slave?
The growing wedge between message and content, it seems, is the main reason why Pokkén Tournament tries so hard to alter the classic Pokémon recipe without perverting it. If Pokkén Tournament had depicted Pokémon as wild creatures, it would look pretty disturbing for us to sit back and watch them annihilate one another. And so these creatures have been made to look very different from the beasts we might have found in the anime. Instead, the combatants of Pokkén Tournament have been ever-so-slightly humanized to look like Tekken characters, rendered with a child-friendly Nintendo slant. Braixen, the fire-type biped who I actually chose as my main sidekick back in Pokémon X (2013), is no longer a fox standing on its hind legs, but a magical diva with a battering stick and a bit of an attitude. Pikachu, the series’ beloved mascot, comes off as an aggressive little prick with anger management problems. Machamp is no longer a goofy anthropomorphic reptile, but a greased-up, roided-out freak who seems entirely out of place among creatures with more obvious real-world analogs: even the chandelier Pokémon looks like something. All of this characterization helps ensure us that we’re not partaking in animal cruelty, but a more noble, more consent-driven competitive venture. The more human these creatures look—and the more influence that humans have over them in this fictional universe—the better this illusion holds up.
When the Pokémon finally get to fighting each other, the combat feels like it’s been clipped in an effort to stop players from asking too many questions. The pastel colors and smoothed-out graphical style cast a smooth sheen over Pokémon skin and fur as the creatures tangle up in battle. Every single landed strike, while tight and heavy to the button press, has a slightly detached sense of impact, as if your character is wailing on a sack of grain with bubble wrap strapped to its fist.
One of Pokkén Tournament’s biggest talking points is that it’s an accessible fighting game for more casual players, and for the most part this is true. The game rests somewhere on the difficulty curve between Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. in that it requires very little technical execution, but demands in-depth knowledge of the game’s complex “battle phases” and character traits to fully master. In other words, while the moves aren’t that hard to pick up, the systems themselves can get pretty convoluted.
The game shifts constantly between an over-the-shoulder perspective and a more traditional 2D fighting game format, with each Pokémon’s moveset shifting depending on the perspective. There are support Pokémon that can be summoned during the match (Marvel vs. Capcom, anyone?), and they must be carefully selected before the match for maximum utility. “I just go with my gut,” says the in game tutorial “advisor.” No big deal. But then there’s also the powered-up “Mega” state, where your Pokémon transforms into a more badass version of itself and can unleash a powerful burst attack on the opposition.
Despite the sheer volume of stuff at play here, the game’s tutorial voice constantly has to remind you that “you’re in this to have fun.” She’s not wrong, but then again, if any of this felt too high-impact or too competitive, it would fall out of alignment with the central Pokémon themes of self-improvement, human/beast companionship, and unfaltering sportsmanlike conduct in the face of truly sketchy practices in Pokémon husbandry and competition.
Still, Pokkén Tournament glosses over a few of the gritty problem areas that remind us of the series’ more unsavory plot points. As you play through the game’s central storyline, you’re presented with an endless string of matches against AI opponents, all laid out in an ultra-grindy tournament format. Each match rewards you with achievements, new character titles, gear for decking out your avatar, and in-game currency that can be used to buy even more customizations and meaningless kitsch. It’s all one big carrot on a stick, and it makes the space between matches echo with the boring emptiness of its incentive systems.
No longer is Satoshi Tajiri’s original vision of insect-like creatures the orientation point for Pokémon fiction; instead, we’ve got Pokkén Tournament’s crew of bloodthirsty pit fighters who connect to their humans via mind synergy. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the central conceit of Pokémon weren’t so troublesome in certain scenarios, and that’s why Pokkén Tournament is such a strange little game. Although its brawls are tense and exciting, there’s no getting around the fact that we’re not just watching beetles wrestle with one another; we’re watching something that looks awkwardly similar to a dogfight. The game tries its best to cover this up, but in the process, gives us a peek through the cracks at Pokémon’s pure, delicate foundation.
This is why Pokkén Tournament seems to open up the questions burning at the heart of the Pokémon series. It suggests that battling Pokémon is done primarily for fun, but the half-hearted delivery of that idea makes it feel fake, hollow, like a high school coach who recites mantras like “it’s only football” but really wants that extra trophy on his shelf. Structurally, the game’s hunger for your time and mechanical skill send a much different message: that self-serving competitive mastery—and not a carefully forged co-existence with nature—is the greatest accomplishment that humankind can aspire to. From this perspective, the Pokémon isn’t a creature of its own agency, but a mere extension of its trainer’s body and mind; a tool in a rat race, forever wrestling in the futile pursuit of human ambition. And when you look at it that way, all the thematic waffling starts to make a whole lot of sense.