Evo 2017 Player’s Choice: The Argument for Pokkén Tournament

By on January 30, 2017 at 12:00 pm
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When Mr. Wizard was going through the list of games for the 9th slot, there was a (likely meme-fueled) chant for ARMS so prominent in the Twitch chat, that I just assumed that it would be the main competitor to either Killer Instinct or Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 to take the slot. I like Pokkén Tournament, but I’m also a realist: it’s a newer fighting game IP with a very experimental engine, competing against 20+ year old established FGC favorites. Honestly, I didn’t think Pokkén had a chance.

Instead, this is what I woke up to on the first morning of donations.

pokken what the hell

No rest for the wicked, I guess! Let’s talk about how we got here, and why–if it does succeed–Pokkén would deserve a spot in the Evolution lineup.

Pokkén Was Really Successful at Evolution 2016

Finals Game Entrants Pot Size
Sunday Street Fighter V 5,107 $101,070
Saturday Super Smash Bros. for Wii U 2,662 $26,620
Sunday Super Smash Bros. Melee 2,372 $23,720
Saturday Pokkén Tournament 1,180 $21,800
Sunday Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator 910 $19,100
Sunday Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 782 $7,820
Sunday Mortal Kombat XL 713 $57,130
Saturday Tekken 7: Fated Retribution 549 $5,490
Saturday Killer Instinct 546 $55,460

In its first (and only) year in Evo, Pokkén Tournament was the most entered non-Street Fighter and non-Smash game. It did better than Guilty Gear which–this year–doesn’t have to compete for the 9th slot. Though, to be fair to GG, it has a new version coming out soon! If The Pokémon Company ever decided to release Empoleon and friends in an update, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation about whether Pokkén should be the 9th game or not.

Still, there were a lot of reasons why Pokkén did well last time. New game smell? Sure. Pot bonus? Of course. Pikachu on the cover? You betcha. Those are also all reasons that would justify its success in the donation drive: people do love the game, for one reason or another, and continue to support it.

I also have to think that the lack of 3D games at Evo will, to a certain extent, inevitably drive up numbers for Pokkén. Tekken 7 was the only game on the list at the time that really appealed to that crowd, and Pokkén has a lot more Namco logic in its frame data than anything else players could have entered outside of Tekken. Frankly, the same is true in 2017, too. It stands apart from the crowd by simply doing things its own way.

I’d also like to take this time to say that all of the above numbers for every game are amazing, and something to be proud of. Evo’s numbers have inflated in ways I honestly never thought I’d live to see.

Pokkén’s Design Is Innovative 

…sometimes to great success, sometimes to a fault.

Frankly, there is no other game that plays quite like Pokkén. The phase shifting mechanic, Pokkén’s defining gimmick, really does work. The 3D field phase goes a long way in determining positioning, meter and flow of the match, whereas a lot of the raw damage occurs in the 2D Duel Phase. The push and pull of different characters trying to maintain their preferred phase has become one of the most interesting and fascinating parts of tournament Pokkén.

It’s a new take on the wake-up game that–nearly a year later–remains intense and exciting. Characters strong in duel phase have to count their phase shift points during their combos so that they don’t accidentally shift. Some characters have great 50/50s every time they shift with certain options. (For example: Blaziken’s Blaze Kick/Throw Loop rush down!) Some zoners will want to remain in field phase forever by strategically poking with light, fast projectiles for as long as possible. What ultimately happens with these shifts often comes down to player innovation and play style.

That Pokkén’s design is so inherently against-the-grain of what is commonly done in fighting games is in large part what has helped it carve out its own community. It keeps players playing despite having very little in common with other games. I think this is because…

The Basics of Pokkén Are Really Simple

…but there’s complex depth in its details.

You, reading this right now. If you are semi-competent at fighting games and wanted to get into the meta of Pokkén right now, you could do it. Easily. Execution is not holding you back. Knowledge and creativity is.

Everyone knows about the rock-paper-scissors system of Pokkén, where Attack beats Throw beats Counter beats Attack. But there’s a bigger part of the system that makes this game beginner-friendly: Pokkén’s combo system, which relies on juggles, links and assists, is fairly open. It’s a great blank canvas for players willing to experiment, and there’s a lot of crazy stuff that has been found for every character. The damage is high enough that new players doing less-then-optimal combos are still going to be enough of a threat for you to take the neutral seriously.

There is high level tech, and a lot of it, but nothing that can’t be overcome with a little thought. My favorite example? The widely used Homing Cancel Option Select in Pokkén. There’s a common field phase mixup where, if your first homing attack is blocked, you either attempt to finish your string or go for a throw. This mixup loses to Homing Cancel, as the defender will both break the throw and block the string. But! Homing Cancel loses to something very simple: a delayed grab, or the built-in string charge mixup. Machamp and Gengar players can even beat this by accident by doing their command grabs instead of their normal grabs in this mixup.

Additionally, the frame data is… interesting. There’s, arguably, only 3 types of numbers you need to know. Fast (9 frames) Average (13 frames) and Slow (17+ frames.) There’s only two punishable numbers that really truly matter: -12 (moves that are this on block are punished by the fast category) and -16 (punished by the average category). Anything that is worse then that is usually hilariously unsafe, we’re talking in the -30 and up numbers. What does all this means? It means that while frame data is important, there isn’t a heavy burden on number memorization. To put emphasis on that, the screen flashes yellow every single time there’s heavy frame advantage (for example, Lucario’s charged Force Palm), which is a simple and clever detail I wish more fighting games would pick up.

All of this is to say is that the time to get into the meat of high-level Pokkén is very short, with even modest effort. And once you’re in, it’s really just player versus player more than anything else. It makes it a great game to secondary, which is likely why so many people signed up for it in 2016. This simplicity also makes it a very easy game to get into as a spectator. I’m sure eyeballs will watch just because there’s a Pokémon on the screen, but the gameplay for Pokkén has proven to be enough to keep the community active.

Pokkén Is Really, Really Balanced

Machamp is low tier, and Gardevoir is a bad match up for him, in that classic zoner vs. grappler sense. Here’s a video of Azazel, one of the best players in the world, dominating with his Machamp in this very matchup fairly deep into Canada Cup.

Tier lists in general for this game, with the exception of when the game first released, have been very condensed. Even for the most recent arcade version, Evo champ Tono-sama’s early impressions are very optimistic.

There’s not much more to say. Every character in this game has had great success in tournament play thus far, and character selection is not an excuse for anyone.

The Fact Pokkén Is on This List at All Is Kind of Amazing 

Back when I attended Dreamhack Austin in May 2016, I wrote extensively about the hardware challenges the game’s LAN mode presented. In the back of my mind then, though, was a more negative thought: These are the worst arbitrary hardware decisions I have seen in a fighting game. This should kill this game’s future.

Well, they didn’t kill it. Here we are almost a year later, having this conversation again. There was no magic fix for the controller lock out in LAN mode, and LAN mode still is the only proper way to play this game. If I wanted to argue against Pokkén, I could go even more in depth on things that are objectively wrong–Practice Mode is awful. Exhaust Frames are a terrible both in concept and execution. Grey Frames, as well.

Take all of the above and consider: People are still playing this game passionately. All these nails in Pokkén’s coffin have been turned into shining examples of this community’s commitment. LAN Mode is their CRT, If I can make an analogy from the Melee crowd. Coincidentally, Evo will already be equipped with the Wii Us and LAN Adapters necessary to smoothly run Pokkén. There is likely no better venue then Evo to actually run Pokkén. Were Pokkén to make it, there’s no doubt in my mind that Nintendo would find a way to put their support behind it, too.

Even if Pokkén doesn’t win this (at the time of this writing, Marvel has predictably taken a fairly large lead), the Pokkén community has challenged the FGC in a really powerful and impressive way. They love their game because it is, uniquely, theirs. It’s not just a simple offshoot of Pokémon, or Smash, or the FGC. Though I believe players may have been drawn from each of these scenes, Pokkén has truly become their own crowd. That this 9th vote slot is a race at all is indication of that.

They were always an underdog in this race, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing them down at all.

Vote for Pokkén Tournament on generosity.com here. Voting closes at 12:00 PM PST on February 8, 2017.

evo 2017 vote

Sources: Mr. WizardEvo 2016 brackets

Hey, I'm just a 3D-head in a 2D-world. I like pretty much all FGC stuff, and I really like hearing about the way people think about games.