Games like Skylanders and Disney Infinity are awesome for one reason: the toys. The immediate interplay between these little figures that have radio chips in them and the base, overly expensive and bulky, but creating a feeling of absolute magic when you add or remove a figure and see the instant effect it has on gameplay. It’s cheap, simple electronics, but man, what a cool thing, and as soon as we learned of the success of Skylanders, we all started making our lists of games that we’d love someone to make that takes advantage of our favorite properties in similar ways.
Perhaps it’s an understatement to say that Pokemon was the most obvious of choices. These creatures are beloved. Their designs and properties are well known. The gameplay is already laid out. And, most importantly, there are 649 of them (as of now) and, for 17 years, we’ve been inundated with the order “Gotta catch ‘em all!” and the anime’s extensive discussion of them being your friends to keep with you forever.
A decent Pokemon game powered by NFC collectible figures basically sounds like a way to make sure no other company exists, since everyone will have spent their money on that product. After all, even people who don’t play Pokemon have a favorite. And if they can sell it to you in addition to a game that already costs money? If they can further catch them all to a real life event, build your closeness with these creatures by making them physical things to buy and keep? Well, that’s just simple business sense.
Pokemon Rumble U is not the game that I would have chosen to do that with. The story, in which Pokemon toys come to life and are attempting to find their way back to the store so people can buy them, is simple, and sets up equally simple gameplay. Doing away with the smart and well-honed turn based strategy of the main series, Rumble U gives you battle arenas in which you make the toys fight, Dynasty Warriors style, racking up extensive combos and using one or two attacks to defeat everything in your sight.
As you play through levels, you have the ability to befriend the Pokemon you battle along the way (side note: the ‘befriend screen’ music is such excellent drum and bass that, as your Pokemon dance to it, it may be one of my favorite bits in the game), and apparently all 649 are in there, but it takes a lot of replaying the levels to get them all. And since every level is basically the same, even when you aren’t replaying them, it still feels like you are!
To give a bit more spice to the game, the developers did include an objective system, giving you a reason to replay those levels. They’re little challenges like “use a super effective move!” or “use Pokemon with a power level of less than X in this stage!” Doing so unlocks more and more powerful Pokemon, which is pretty important because your Pokemon don’t level. You basically just keep replacing them, and eventually your character select screen is a ridiculous field of Pokemon, stretching so far back that those in the last row are entirely indiscernible, little more than a couple of pixels on the screen. Having trouble? Go back and find yourself a new Pokemon that’s got the power you’re looking for!
Unless you’re willing to shell out some of that money, that is.
While some of the other games I’ve mentioned aren’t even playable unless you go to a store and buy figures and sets, Rumble U goes the other way and can be beaten entirely without going to a store. The game is download only. The figures are optional. But they’re certainly much more powerful than the regular Pokemon you collect.
It’s because these are the only ones that can level. You can change out their attacks! Their abilities! You can change their power rating and take them with you anywhere in the game, even to the end! Furthermore, any progress you make is saved onto the Pokemon figure and can be taken to a friend’s house and played with, allowing your characters to be easily transferred just by taking it with you!
That is, if only there was a reason you’d want to. The game can be played by up to four players, but it’s not interesting enough to make that worthwhile. There’s very little to it. You go into an arena. You hit a lot. A boss arrives. Beat it and continue along your merry way. Would the presence of more people make it more interesting? Probably not. And with exceptions of a mission where I had to (optionally) defend a fort, the AI was fine enough, and it’s not like the game’s difficult enough (outside a couple of notable exceptions) to make that extra help matter.
Plus, the NFC stuff is pretty weird. The bases Skylanders and Disney Infinity come packaged with are great because they sit there and anyone can go over and easily change them, but this game only uses the NFC capabilities of the GamePad. Basically, that person is the arbiter of experience, then, and they have to swap in every time and every level because the game doesn’t always remember what it was you just scanned in last time. It’s a constant swapping in and tapping that doesn’t make the game move super smoothly, and since you have to back to the main menu to even upgrade those ones, it’s a slow and rather janky way of doing things.
At the same time, I do applaud Nintendo for not being as exploitative in these things as some of the other games have been. Sure, there are a good number of figures, and there are shiny variants, but the whole thing of making them optional is great. It’s like they realized that kids will beg their parents for something like this and made it something more optional. And that’s fine! I bought two figures, got my favorite of the ones that were offered (Bulbasaur) and then I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not wanting to buy another.
What I am missing, though, is a game that’s more exciting. Because while Rumble U is certainly fine in quick bursts through to the end, there’s nothing about it that makes you want to return when you’re done. What’s the point of collecting them all when they’re all so ridiculously replaceable and there’s no Pokedex to give you interesting tidbits about them. The randomness to the collection also saps a lot from it- where random battles in the regular games give you a hard time to find the exact Pokemon you’re looking for, there’s strategy to catching them. Unfortunately, there isn’t as much strategy to be found here.
It’s a Pokemon game that’s gotten rid of what makes Pokemon games great. And while that can totally work (Pokemon Trozei, Pokemon Puzzle League, Pokemon Snap) it doesn’t work if what you replace it with is a dumbed-down, strategy-free battle system that doesn’t give you much to work with beyond tapping a button until everything is dead. There’s no exploration, strategy beyond “be a better type”, or reasons to keep catching Pokemon beyond raw strength. While it’s alright in quick bursts, it gets tiring very quickly, and it won’t be too long before you find yourself wanting to go back to main series games and play something more fulfilling.