The unholy lovechild of Tekken and Pokémon, Pokkén Tournament caused quite a stir when it was first announced, yet Bandai Namco's one-on-one fighter exceeded expectations when it eventually arrived on the Wii U last year following a successful run in arcades. Given that almost all Pokémon games focus on monster-on-monster combat it's surprising that it has taken this long for a game of this type to appear, but the wait was more than worth it. However, Pokkén Tournament DX has a somewhat harder task ahead of it; launching on the Switch just over a year after the game graced the Wii U, it's another double-dip by Nintendo which follows in the footsteps of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. That re-release found favour on the best-selling hybrid system, but can this unique fighter pull off the same trick?
Let's assume for a moment you didn't play the original Pokkén Tournament on Wii U, and approach this enhanced title with a fresh pair of eyes. As you might imagine, it's very much the same deal as the original; you select a Pokémon and take to an enclosed arena with the express purpose of reducing the life bar of your rival to zero using a combination of attacks, grabs, counters and specials – known as "Synergy" moves in the game's parlance. Unlike Street Fighter or King of Fighters, moves in Pokkén aren't triggered by complex button-and-stick inputs, but by simpler commands, such as a particular button and a direction – this is from the team behind Tekken, after all. This means that even a relative novice is capable of diving right in and pulling off some pretty impressive combos with very little experience, which is a big bonus when it comes to accessibility.
That's not to say that Pokkén is overly simplistic or lacking in depth; in fact, in some ways it has more layers to uncover than your typical one-on-one fighter. The most interesting element of the game is the ability to toggle between two distinct combat phases – known as "Field" and "Duel". The former allows you to move in full 3D – not entirely unlike Power Stone or ARMS – and unleash ranged and homing attacks on your opponent, as well as dash and dodge in various directions in the hope of outflanking them. Getting in close and landing some heavy blows causes the phase to shift to Duel, which is more akin to your traditional 2D scrapper; you are fixed to a single plane of movement and your ranged and homing attacks become weak and strong attacks respectively, while your third attack option remains a signature "Pokémon" move. During both phases it's possible to jump using the B button, and you can guard by holding down the R trigger.
Also like Tekken, Pokkén features a two-button grab command. Press X and Y together and your character will attempt to grapple with their rival, and – if successful – perform a devastating throw. However, your opponent can smash through your grab attempt with a normal attack, so this tactic should be used wisely; if your foe is guarding excessively then getting in close for a grab is a solid option. The other two-button command involves counter attacks, which are accessed by pressing A and B simultaneously. This places your Pokémon in a brief state of resistance to normal attacks, and should your enemy try to land one during this period, it will trigger a powerful counter hit in response. This system creates a "rock, paper, scissors" arrangement where normal blows beat grabs, grabs beat counters and counters beat normal attacks. Mastering this arrangement encourages measured and methodical play, which lends the game further depth. Sure, you may win a few rounds by hammering the buttons at random, but a truly skilled player will know how to counter your onslaught by selecting the correct reply and watching your movements for openings.
But wait! That's not all. To spice things up even more we have Synergy Burst, which can be activated when your Synergy Gauge (topped by normal attacks) reaches maximum by pressing the L and R buttons together. During Synergy Burst your attack and defense are enhanced, while your life gauge regenerates a little – but it's the impressive Burst attack which really changes things up. This can be triggered once per Synergy Burst cycle – again, by pressing L and R – and unleashes a visually stunning special move that inflicts significant damage on your hapless foe, assuming they aren't successful in avoiding or blocking it. The fact that your Burst move doesn't require a complex set of input commands means that there's no barrier for newcomers, but the old-school fighting fans out there may feel that such incredible power should, by rights, be locked behind some kind of finger-popping button sequence. We sit somewhere in the middle; while it's sometimes annoying that your rival can fight their way out of a corner simply by pressing L and R twice, it forces you to raise your game in other respects, such as improving your timing, watching for moves based on animation sequences and generally controlling the arena to ensure you keep your opponent near the walls, which you can smash them against for increased damage.
If you assumed that was it, you were wrong. The final piece of the Pokkén puzzle is Support Pokémon, which are assigned in pairs and can be selected before you start a match. Support Pokémon can be called upon once your Support Guage is full, and come with a wide range of benefits. Some jump into the arena briefly to hit your rival with a ranged or melee attack, while others restore some of your life, increase your speed or even inflict a negative status effect on your opponent. You can only pick one Support Pokémon out of each pair per round, although you do get the option to alternate between them in-between rounds.
As you'd expect from a game of this type, much of Pokkén Tournament is spent locked in combat. A single battle mode allows you to fight against the CPU, while a practice option is ideal for getting a feel of the controls and mastering your combos. However, if you're playing solo then you'll want to focus on the Ferrum League campaign, which sees you working your way up the ranks and taking down progressively more skillful opponents while learning more about the malevolent presence of a super-powerful rogue Mewtwo. Online and local wireless play is also included, allowing you to take down human opponents using your own Switch console.
However, what's really special about the Switch version of Pokkén is the fact that it's perfectly possible to host a two-player contest on single system; the streamlined controls match the Joy-Con's button arrangement perfectly, ensuring that nothing is lost in the transition. You can choose to fight split-screen (which drops the framerate to 30fps) or opt for the same viewpoint for both players, and of course it's possible to use this mode in docked and handheld modes. Speaking of which, there's little in the way of performance differences between the two states; the resolution is limited to 720p in both docked and handheld modes, and offers an improvement over the Wii U original by delivering 1280x720 resolution, rather than 960x720. Sure, the visuals could be sharper all round – a complaint we also levelled at the Wii U version – but before we get too picky it should be noted that we're playing what was a home console game 12 months ago on a totally portable system without any loss of visual splendour. It seems churlishly to moan.
Local multiplayer on a mobile system isn't the only selling point that this new version of Pokkén can muster; it also comes with some new features which make it the superior option over the existing Wii U edition. Firstly, there are now five more Pokémon to fight with: Croagunk, Empoleon, Darkrai, Scizor and Decidueye, the latter being totally exclusive to the Switch version, while the other four have previously appeared in the arcade edition. As we noted in our review of the Wii U version, it's remarkable how differently each combatant plays – even the two variants of series icon Pikachu are noticeably unique – and it goes without saying that the new additions to the roster bring with them fresh tactics and strategies to master. It's also worth noting that instead of locking away certain Pokémon from the start – as was the case on Wii U – the entire line-up is available for selection from the moment you boot up on Switch. In some ways this is actually a disappointment as we found that the allure of gaining access to a new fighter vastly increased the longevity of Pokkén on Wii U, but if you're coming to the game as a veteran, it certainly makes things easier. As before, success in battle earns you coins – which can be used to customize your avatar – and skill points which level-up your Pokémon. Every time your 'mon passes a skill level you can assign points to four key areas, increasing their attack, defence, synergy and support talents.
Elsewhere, Pokkén on Switch offers other enhancements. There's a new three-on-three battle mode which calls to mind SNK's classic King of Fighters series, with the ultimate victor being the one who can fell all of their opponent's monsters first. Litten and Poppilo join the cast of Support Pokémon, and you now have more control over who you face online with special Group Matches. There are also Daily Challenges to keep you coming back to the game repeatedly; these task you with achieving a particular goal with a certain character, which – at the very least – encourages you to experiment with the cast. Finally, you can watch replays of past battles to spot weaknesses in your strategy or learn from more skilled players.
Whether or not all of these new elements add up to a convincing reason for you to double-dip if you've already played the Wii U version to destruction is a question that's perhaps best left to the individual player, but we imagine there will be plenty of Switch owners who never experienced the game when it originally launched last year, making this "definitive" package particularly attractive. We expect seasoned fans of the game will buy it regardless, if only to face off against a new legion of online opponents and get to grips with five new playable characters.
Nintendo is understandably keen to bulk out the Switch's year-one library of titles, so it's hardly surprising that we're getting re-releases like Pokkén Tournament DX – especially when you consider that the Wii U version didn't get the additional fighters that were introduced in the arcade. Pokkén is also a solid choice for Switch because it perfectly suits the console's local multiplayer ethos; the game's control scheme fits perfectly on a single Joy-Con, which means you can take the fight with you anywhere you wish. Whether or not the five additional Battle Pokémon and the light dusting of additional modes and features will be enough to convince existing Pokkén fans to upgrade so soon after the Wii U version remains to be seen, but taken on its own merits this is comfortably one of the the best fighting games on the Switch right now, and offers surprising depth, stunning presentation, brilliant offline and online multiplayer modes and bags of replayability.