Pokkén Tournament’s Burst Mode, Exhaust Frames, and design philosophy

By on April 8, 2017 at 1:00 pm
pokken burst

Note: This article uses numpad notation for moves!

It’s easy to walk away from playing Pokkén Tournament with the sense that this game was designed to bring new players into the fighting game genre. Pokkén distances itself from typical fighting game conventions at almost every turn; the lack of a mid/low block mixup, single button specials, the shifting Phase perspectives, and the color-coded attack triangle are all examples of this. Pokkén Tournament does a good job of streamlining the fighting game experience for new players, while still being grounded enough for any FGC-head to march in with strong fundamentals and run the shop.

Burst Mode, on the surface, seems like an extension of this accessibility philosophy. Pokkén’s equivalent of a super meter grants you temporary access to both a high-powered super attack (which, for almost every character, is safe on block, if not having frame advantage!), and a passive defensive buff that allows you to further pressure the opponent. The mode can really be looked at as an activation super–like Yun’s Genei Jin, or Juri’s Feng Shui Engine, in the Street Fighter series–that grants a high-powered state to the whole cast.

But while it’s easy to write it off as a candy-coated Genei Jin, Burst Mode does a lot of complex things for the game’s system mechanics. All at once it gives:

  • A panic button. When activated, Burst Mode sends out a damageless, invincible hitbox on frame 1, protecting the user. In a game lacking invincibility moves, this is basically the FADC Dragon Punch of Pokkén.
  • A reset tool for juggles. If the invisible hitbox hits, it resets phase shift points in Duel Phase.
  • A pressure tool. Burst Mode grants armor versus light attacks, unless the opponent is also in Burst Mode, or is using Eevee.
  • Health Regeneration. Exactly what it says on the tin.
  • Comeback opportunity. Burst Mode heals recoverable health and gives temporary, one-time access to that character’s super. For some characters, it even changes their move-list considerably.

And just condensing Burst Mode down to the above four points is a gross simplification of the mental push/pull that Burst Mode causes in a match. Much of this complexity comes from attributes the game itself never touches on. A game which focuses on accessibility shockingly never tells you about phase points, Burst Mode‘s invisible hitbox, or the strange state Burst Mode ends in, dubbed Exhaust Frames by the Pokkén Community.

Exhaust Frames Change Everything – But Only If You Know How To Use Them

Imagine, if you will, a version of Street Fighter V that punishes you for not KOing your opponent with V-Trigger. In this theoretical game, if your V-Trigger runs out, your character freezes in place, unable to jump or attack. It seems like your only option, for just a split second, is to guard. Meaning, in this fake-SFV land, free command grabs for the opponent. That’s, in a nutshell, Exhaust Frames. And for several months, it messed up a ~lot~ of players who were trying to remain active while their Burst Mode was ending.

Well, turns out, that wasn’t what Exhaust Frames really were. Like any good hypothesis, further study changed what we knew about the science.

Exhaust Frames have been misunderstood for a large part of Pokkén’s Tournament life, and the actual data on it still seems to be poorly documented and shared. The truth is, this same state where you can only guard, can also be altered by the player going through the exhaust. If you hold a direction without pressing any buttons, you gain a ton of invincibility. Take this example:

  1. Mega Blaziken’s Burst Mode is about to end. He jumps, the Burst Mode meter depletes, but since you don’t go into Exhaust Frames until you touch the ground, he remains in Burst Mode and does j.X.
  2. His opponent blocks at around chest level, then mashes 5Y.
  3. Mega Blaziken touches the ground and holds any direction, pressing no buttons (including guard). He turns back into normal Blaziken.

With the above situation, the entire cast’s 5Y (except the unusually slow Chandelure’s i21 5Y) passes through Blaziken during the white exhaust flash, even if you hold towards the opponent. Given that Charizard’s jab starts up at a slow 17 frames and even he misses, this quirky state allows players that are knocked down as their burst ends to get yet another get-out-of-jail card. In short, you cannot perform meaty attacks on a Burst Mode’s exhaust wakeup. The mental game is no longer “do they think I will do mixup option A or B?” but rather “will they use exhaust invincibility, or do they not know about it?”

Does Invincibility on Exhaust Frames Make Sense In Pokkén?

Exhaust Frames can be counter-played, of course. If your opponent uses them, you can just delay your mixup. Use cancels to bait it out, then run a grab/attack mixup. The question I am posing isn’t “Can this be beaten?” but rather, “Does this mechanic make Pokkén Tournament a better game?”

If these invincibility frames are by design–which certainly seems to be the case, given their continued existence in the latest arcade patch–then one wonders why there is no mention of them anywhere in the game’s many tutorials or hints. One also has to wonder how a game design team that worked so hard to make an accessible mass-market fighter showed no such inclination on one of the game’s most important systems.

There is an industry term for software bloat–“Feature creep“–that almost perfectly describes what ended up happening with Burst Mode. To Pokkén’s credit, it’s a well-made, fascinating, adventurous fighter that has mostly stayed true to its design philosophy. And it is that strong, unique vision that makes me wonder what the future really holds for Burst Mode. A theoretical Pokkén Tournament sequel will likely want to reach out to a wider audience, but could you imagine trying to explain Exhaust Frames to someone outside of the FGC? If that game ever comes, I imagine Exhaust Frames will be reworked from the ground up. Even if, in a way, the invincibility frames ended up being better than the original understanding of the mechanic: getting grabbed for free.

The player in me is fine with Exhaust Frames only because the average player doesn’t know about it, and I find that exploitable. But the critical part of me doesn’t see how this does anything but make it a worse game. Either Exhaust Frames should be axed all together and replaced with a seamless transition, or reworked into a intuitive mechanic that makes sense for Namco’s design philosophy.

Until the day a sequel or major revision to the mechanic comes, though, don’t forget to hold a direction when your meter is out.

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.