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How the minds behind Tekken and Soulcalibur transformed Pokemon into a fighting game

Masaaki Hoshino has spent years of his life focused on Soulcalibur, helping to bring to life fighters like the impossibly buff old man Heihachi and alien-like ninja Yoshimitsu, who wields a sword that looks like a lightsaber. But if you ask him his favorite video game character, his response is a bit surprising: the adorable fox-like pokemon Absol. In fact, Hoshino is such a big fan of Nintendo’s monster-battling series that he started a club within Soulcalibur developer Bandai Namco, where employees could get together to play Pokemon in their free time.

So when the company announced that it was working on a Pokemon-themed fighting game, he naturally jumped at the opportunity. "We were looking at who at Bandai Namco could lead this," he says, "and because of my history with Pokemon it fell on me. It was a great honor."

Pokken Tournament

Pokken Tournament, as the game is now known, is a 3D fighting game where pokemon battle each other one-on-one. But it almost wasn’t a fighting game at all. When representatives from Bandai Namco met with Tsunekazu Ishihara, CEO of The Pokemon Company, the idea was to do a Pokemon-themed version of the rhythm series Taiko Master. But the CEO had other plans. "Mr. Ishihara actually said, ‘If we’re going to work with Bandai Namco, I want to do a collaboration with Tekken,’" explains Katsuhiro Harada, long-time producer of the Tekken fighting game series, who is working alongside Hoshino on Pokken Tournament. The game was first announced as an exclusive for Japanese arcades, but now Nintendo is now bringing it to the rest of the world with a version for the Wii U on March 18th.

"We wanted to make sure it was a lot more approachable."

Despite the pedigree of its creators, the goal of Pokken Tournament’s development wasn’t to create another hardcore fighting game. Instead, they sought to appeal to fans of the series new to the fighting genre. "When we first announced [Pokken], a lot of people had the impression that it’s Tekken gameplay but with Pokemon characters, but that’s not what we wanted to do," explains Hoshino. "We wanted to make sure it was a lot more approachable, something that’s really easy to understand and pick up and play for pretty much anyone."

Pokken drastically simplifies the traditional fighting game control scheme. The genre is notorious for forcing players to memorize long and complex button sequences in order to pull off moves, but Pokken Tournament isn’t like that. Instead, you can perform every move in the game either by pressing a single button, or combining a button press with a directional input. Other aspects of the game have been streamlined as well. In Tekken, when you block an incoming blow you need to worry about whether it’s a high, mid, or low attack; Pokken Tournament features a single block that works for all attacks.

Pokken Tournament

According to Harada, this level of complexity can turn players off of the genre. "One of the elements that [fighting games] all share is that, before you can even get to the back-and-forth, the really interesting gameplay that’s so core to fighting games, you need to be able to execute a lot of really tricky commands," he says. The changes in Pokken Tournament mean that "you can get to that strategy stage much quicker."

That said, the producers still believe that once you get past the simple beginning, there’s a lot of depth to the game. "When you get to the higher levels of gameplay, I feel that Pokken Tournament and the other fighting games have a similar level of skill that’s required," says Harada. As testament to that, the game will be featured at the Evo fighting game championship this July.

"I wanted to make sure that there were all sorts of pokemon represented."

Outside of making the game more approachable, the biggest challenge the developers had was deciding which pokemon should make it in the game. With more than 700 different monsters to choose from, it wasn’t easy. In the early stages of development, Pokemon CEO Ishihara wanted the game to focus on fighting-type pokemon — the humanoid creatures featured in the games and shows — but Hoshino pushed against that idea.

"Being a huge fan, I wanted to make sure that there were all sorts of pokemon represented in the game," he says. "Typically in a fighting game, everyone has two arms and two legs, but we didn’t want to limit it to just that." The final cast of characters includes fighting pokemon like Lucario, but also fan-favorites like Charizard and Pikachu. The strangest addition is probably Chandelure, a limbless pokemon that looks a lot like a chandelier.

With the March release date fast approaching, the game is mostly complete. That means that you likely won’t see any new characters aside from what’s already been announced, though that list does include one notable absence: Absol. "I want to leave the possibility that it’ll eventually show up," Hoshino says, "but it’s still not in the game."