Nintendo has never been afraid to spin one of its biggest money makers, Pokémon, off into various weird and wonderful directions in between the mainline RPGs that are the franchise's bread and Butterfree. There have been puzzle games, the delightful safari of Pokémon Snap and, perhaps strangest of all, a crossover with Nobunaga's Ambition in Pokémon Conquest.
One of the more prevalent offshoots in recent years, however, is the Pokémon Rumble sub-series. Developed by Ambrella, the Rumble games are based around toy Pokémon, wind up miniatures that have no less desire for battle despite their minuscule stature. They're far more straightforward, arcade-like titles than the core Pokémon games, focusing on frantic real-time battles against dozens of foes simultaneously.
Pokémon Rumble U trades in the more expansive adventure setup found in 3DS's Pokémon Rumble Blast for a series of battle arenas laced with challenges. There's no more traipsing through forests – the action remains on one screen, in one area. It feels like a slight step back in some ways, but it's clear that the approach has been to create a co-operative party game rather than a single player journey.
As in previous Rumble titles, each Pokémon has just one or two moves to its name, each ranked with a number of stars to show off its power. Every Pokémon also has its own numerical power rating; in the early stages you meet characters in the lower hundreds, but very quickly friends and foes alike are soaring way up through the triple digits. Remember, though, that these Pokémon are toys – they cannot evolve, cannot level up, learn moves or abilities or improve in any way. Therefore, the only way to advance is to keep collecting more and more powerful figurines as you go.
The aim of each stage, for the most part, is simple: beat up all enemies. Dumped into an arena, you fight and dodge around dozens of opponents until an almighty boss sweeps in. It's a simple set up: generally you hit A a lot – and B if you've got a second move – and run about trying to find the best vantage points to avoid being swarmed. There are some stages that offer different objectives, however, such as tower defence-like missions. Smash up an enemy toy and there's a chance that a capsule will drop onto the floor; snatching these up unlocks better, stronger figures to thrust forth into your next encounter. All 649 monsters from the first five generations are there to be found.
You can essentially get through by button mashing, provided you don't try to take on too many foes at once, though there is depth to be exploited. Traditional Pokémon type advantages and disadvantages come into play, so if you plan well and take a Fire type up against a force that's predominantly Grass, you'll dominate. Certain moves can also boost your skills, such as Speed, temporarily; characters can be paralysed or become confused, which reverses their controls. Collecting yellow crystals builds up a touch meter, letting you unleash smart bomb-like attacks via the Wii U GamePad touch screen – just tap where you want the strike and watch the fireworks.
Every level also has its own set of optional challenges: beat it with toys of a certain level, for instance, or use a Super Effective move of a specific type. Towards the beginning these are easy, but they should offer some replay value for those who wants to complete 'em all. Touches like this pull Pokémon Rumble U out of overly simplistic territory; it is very easy to play and more suited to younger players, but there are at least some little hooks that might interest non-children.
Our main criticism of the gameplay is how chaotic it gets – it's definitely a certain level of fun, but it's quite common for twenty enemies to get thrown into the arena, followed by another twenty, which leads to a big free-for-all in which it can be tough to keep track of your character. The simple combat, alongside the touch bomb, generally lets you fight your way out and re-establish yourself in short order, but on occasion it can be frustrating to fall in battle because you've been overwhelmed to the point of not seeing yourself.
Rumble U clearly revels in this mania, though – why else would it be a four-player co-operative game? A quad of Pokémaniacs can snatch up Wii Remotes or the Wii U GamePad and work together against the hordes of toy soldiers. It's more fun with multiple players, though if that's not possible you can just as easily play it solo with some added CPU assistants. The end of each level is certainly improved by playing with others, though: once all baddies are beaten and returned to the toy box in disgrace, coins shower down on the field and players race to grab them up. At this point you can turn on each other, attacking to steal coins, and afterwards players are ranked according to how well they did in combat and how much money they snaffled.
Off-TV Play is included, and it feels great to have a bash without the need for the television – it's the kind of simple game that you can get away with playing while doing something else. The quality of the image is a little fuzzier than we'd have hoped on the GamePad, though, but this probably isn't helped by the fact that it isn't the most attractive toy on the shelf even on TV. There are lots of jaggies, but in the heat of battle it makes little difference. You can post from Miiverse in-game too — hitting L and R at the same time captures a screenshot at any time and automatically prompts you to post it on the social network.
The real key Wii U feature of Pokémon Rumble U is the use of Near Field Communication (NFC). This wireless technology is built into every Wii U GamePad and allows you to bring real life objects into the game, Skylanders-style. Rumble U is the first Wii U game to take advantage of this function, and you can now buy tiny, plastic origami-like Pokémon toys that can be scanned into the game. They come in blind bags, though, so you'll have to be lucky to get all of the little cretins.
Simply hold one of the special toys over the GamePad and, as if by wizard magic, the Pokémon pops up on screen faster than you can say Alakazam. NFC characters have significant advantages over the standard in-game monsters in that they can be upgraded with the coins you collect. You can boost their power levels and change their moves and abilities to make them into formidable allies. Cleverly, each toy stores its own statistics and can be used in any copy of Pokémon Rumble U, so it's possible to upgrade a character and then take the toy to a friend's house with all stats intact. Cool as this is, though, fear not – you don't have to buy any of these at all if you don't want, as the game is completely playable without them.
Pokémon Rumble U is straightforward fun that's a far cry away from the main Pokémon titles, but it does pair some key strategic elements of the series with the button bashing – though there are definitely moments where there's too much going on to keep real track of, which does lead to more reliance on the latter than the former. Despite its short length, there's lots to go back to when you consider the hundreds of Pokémon to collect and challenges to beat. It's not an essential Pokémon game by any means, but it's a fairly decent multiplayer game – and if you really want to mess about with Wii U's NFC technology, it's the only option out there right now.