This month marks the 20th anniversary of Pokémon, a massive multimedia franchise that started life as a couple of Game Boy games and has grown to encompass many more games across multiple game-playing devices, several cartoon series and films, card games, and countless toys, collectibles, and T-shirts. At its core, Pokémon is about cute little monsters with inexplicably cool powers that humans collect and train for the express purpose of having them beat the snot out of each other. It’s like cockfighting, but adorable.
With licensing revenue estimated at about $2 billion as of May 2015, it could be argued that the Pokémon name is worth more than Donald Trump’s, whose eponymous conglomerate couldn’t crack the top 100 in the License! Global (a real publication) list of the top 150 global licensors. (The Pokémon Company ranked 34th.)
This month also marks the 22nd and roughly one quarter anniversary of Tekken, a fighting game franchise in which a martial arts tournament serves as a backdrop for a saga about cyborgs, masked wrestlers, and the demonic possession of the leader of an international business conglomerate. (Hey look, another Trump joke.) While not as auspicious a milestone, it is nonetheless an important year for Tekken, because it is the year that it gets smashed together with Pokémon to create Pokken Tournament, a game that, like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, hopes that you will find it delicious even though it has no business being in your mouth.
Pokken Tournament mixes the cute cuddly bits of Pokémon and the mean punching and kicking heart of Tekken to form a weird Franken-game where you play as one of 16 Pokémon and press buttons really quickly in order jump/punch/kick/zap another Pokémon until they pass out.
This is kind of a big deal, because most Pokémon games traditionally don’t let you directly control your Pokémon when they fight. Rather, you issue commands—kind of like you would to your dog, except most dogs don’t know how to flambé other dogs. Pokken Tournament’s approach seems like a lot more fun.
In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that—outside of the Super Smash Bros. games, in which a few Pokémon appear—no one has made an actual fighting game based on Pokémon before now. It seems obvious, until you consider that even though fighting is pretty much what Pokémon do, it’s never really been what Pokémon games are about. They’re about collection, exploration, and growth: You find cool new Pokémon, watch them grow and change into even cooler Pokémon, and take them on the road to see how they fare against Pokémon raised by in-game opponents and other flesh-and-blood people alike.
They’re also about all of these things at a very simple level—sure, there are stats you could learn and optimize like a small ball-obsessive baseball manager, but they’re often tucked away where they wouldn’t bother anyone who wasn’t concerned with this stuff. “Gotta catch ‘em all” was the controlling idea behind Pokémon’s initial success (and the refrain of the PokéRap), and it’s still a big part of what makes the games irresistible. That, and giving your Pokémon rude names like Thunderfuck, or Stewart.
Fighting games have managed to enjoy similar success as a genre because of the utterly simple, easily understood rules for playing them—one person controls a character on one side of the screen, opposite a character controlled by someone else on the other side of the screen, and then they press buttons to punch and kick and fireball the other character until one of them falls over or has their spine ripped out through their nostrils. Depending on who you’re playing against, you can win a fighting game just by hitting buttons really fast without thinking about it at all. A well-designed fighting game will make you look and feel really cool despite the fact that you are playing with all the finesse of a toddler, and will populate itself with a cast of colorful characters that look and feel distinct enough that it really doesn’t matter if that approach remains unchanged.
Of course, they are also complex and well-balanced enough that should you care to learn, there are layers of deep strategy and checks and balances in place to ensure that a given title can support highly-regulated tournament play, and also hopefully discourage you from going for the same cheap ankle sweep after maybe the thirty-seventh time.
Pokken Tournament appears to be both tremendously successful and also a little bit overeager in its goal of nailing the important parts of both Pokémon and fighting games. It is stupid fun to play—I grinned like an idiot at a recent preview event in New York playing as Pikachu Libre, a luchador-masked version of Pokémon’s most famous electric mouse, and really couldn’t help but laugh along with another journalist as these ridiculously cute creatures pummeled each other with the power of friendship and lasers.
There are also a lot of bells and whistles—perhaps too many at first. Fighting flows freely between a “Field Phase” (where you can run around the arena, flinging fireballs and taking other assorted potshots) and “Duel Phase” (which is like a more traditional fighting game, where you have to buckle down and get serious about beating your opponent up). Learning the intricacies of both phases takes a bit of work, and it can be a bit distracting when the game calls out every “Phase Shift” (which can happen at any given moment in a match). But even though these seams are visible, they do mostly stay out of your way.
Also present in Pokken Tournament are lots of numbers—more than most fighting games, though a bit fewer than most Pokémon games. You get cash that you can use to dress up and style the trainer that represents you in-game, the Pokémon you choose to fight with get progressively better stats the more you use them, and there are rankings and ladders that make up the framework of the game’s tournament structure. It’s a lot of noise, but it’s remarkable how clearly the signal still comes through—it’s always just easy enough to get to the next match, which is what matters most.
One of my favorite things about Pokémon isn’t actually any of the games or cartoons themselves, but the world that they imply: a world full of miraculous, superpowered pets that can be taught martial arts and happily take part in legally sanctioned pit fights. It’s weird as shit, but it’s the sort of weird that only gets more and more ridiculously fun the closer you examine it.
Pokken Tournament’s raison d’etre is to get you closer to Pokémon by having you actually play as these magic karate pets, and revel in the absurdity while it grins at you, like a Maltese that is one hundred percent aware of how cute you think it is.
I’d hate it if it wasn’t right.
Joshua Rivera is a freelance writer based in New York. You can find more of his work on GQ.com and Vulture, and he tweets too much @jmrivera02.
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