With the eagerly anticipated Pokémon X and Pokémon Y rapidly approaching, it's worth remembering that while the main games may be the ones that steal the limelight, there have been a number of Poké-spinoffs over the years, each exploring a slightly different game style while retaining the core 'capture, train and battle' motif of the legendary series. Pokémon Rumble U on the Wii U is the latest in the Rumble sub-series that started on the Wii and moved to the 3DS with Super Pokémon Rumble in 2011 - and while you'll be playing as Pikachu and pals, there's a world of difference between this and the traditional Pokémon games.
While planning and turn based battles are the modus operandi of the main series, all out action is the name of the game here, as you assemble a team of four wind-up toy Pokémon and take them into battle against wave after wave of enemies while unleashing their signature attacks. You see, following an 'accident' at the local toy shop, a handful of toy Pokémon have found themselves far from home - and with the ability to think for themselves in a slightly Toy Story-esque way, it's up to the gang to find their way back to the shop. That's pretty much it as far as the story goes, although as you've likely already guessed, this isn't a game you'll play for a deep and involving storyline, as it's very much a pick-up-and-play arcade game designed for frantic local multiplayer.
Playing alone or with a group of friends, it's up to you to pick your Pokemon and battle across a series of different areas as you make your way back to the toy shop, with each area being split into a handful of levels. In a bit of a change for the series, there's no adventure component here, as rather than an actual level to walk through the stages are now all self-contained arenas, which see you facing off against wave after wave of Pokemon in the narrow confines of a giant Pokemon fighting ring. After mashing the buttons to defeating the enemy Pokémon who drop, you'll end up in a face off with a super-sized boss Pokémon, before moving on to the next level. In all honesty, this is a bit of a disappointment, especially for fans of the previous games who will no doubt be expecting more of the same in HD, but it does mean the game's a lot more streamlined.
In theory, there's still a bit of strategy required here, as certain Pokémon types (grass, electric, rock etc.) are weak and strong against others, just as in the main Pokémon titles. Send in fire-based critters against an arena full of grass types, for example, and your attacks will be 'super effective', dealing maximum damage. There are a host of pickups to keep an eye out for too, from health-restoring sweets, Pokéballs containing rare Pokémon to add to your ranks (all 649 are discoverable), and lots of shiny, shiny coins. In practice however, the game is often little more than a mad scramble to whack anything and everything in your path while hoovering up as many items as you can. It's all a bit chaotic, especially at first, and it can initially be quite tricky to keep track of your own character amid the primary coloured madness on screen, before it becomes second nature. This is partly thanks to the super simple controls. If you're using the Wii remote (held sideways) you'll manoeuvre your little Poké-pal around with the +Control Pad, and unleash attacks with a quick stab of 1 or 2 depending on which attack you want to dish out. GamePad users have the added option using the analogue stick for smoother movement and a touch screen based area attack - just tap where you want to inflict maximum damage, and you'll send a massive shock wave through anyone nearby - but this needs to be activated by collecting enough yellow diamonds in each area.
Despite being fun to play, Pokémon Rumble U is a little light on content, even at its download price of £13.49 (a boxed, disc based version is available with two figures for £19.99 - but more on that later). Battles last only a few minutes, and if you happen to have high-powered Pokémon in your squad (which Nintendo have kindly been giving out through redeemable codes) they'll probably take down enemies before you can blink. There is some welcome replay value however, as each stage has its own set of Pokémon to collect (when you defeat a Pokémon, they'll occasionally turn into a Pokeball which you can pick up), and there are a number of extra goals to achieve in each mission too, like completing a stage with specific Pokémon types, or performing certain moves in battle. Fun as this may be, it's likely only the true Poké-fanatics that will stick with the game long enough to see all these completed. It's in the multiplayer, though, where the game really shines, and although some of the problems we had with the game are made worse (it's even harder to keep track of your Pokémon for example), it's not enough to put a damper on the fun. Teaming up with friends or family to blast through a few levels is fantastic, with the simple controls, low entry requirements (all you need is a Wii Remote per player) and self-contained areas meaning even young children can play on a fairly even footing with older players, which is a huge plus in our book.
In fact, the biggest gripe we have with Rumble U is its repetitive gameplay. Each level plays out in exactly the same way: choose your character, bash your way through waves of enemy Pokémon, beat the boss and move on. Admittedly, the game's always been this way, but the previous games at least had levels for you to walk through - now you're just bashing other Pokemon around in an environment that only slightly changes from level to level. While there are a few variations on the theme thrown in, with some levels tasking you with defending a base, while other stages are shrouded in fog making it even harder than usual to follow the action, everything feels a lot more repetitive than you'd hope, and at least in single player, it does start to drag.
Pokémon Rumble U's presentation is perfectly in keeping with the game's fast paced nature. Bright and breezy HD graphics make the toy Pokémon and the environments look suitably vibrant and plastic-y, and while this isn't a graphical powerhouse the visuals don't disappoint. Music is often lost amid the noise of battle,but the tunes fit the game nicely, except perhaps for some out of place sounding drum and bass, and you'll likely end up humming along before too long. Miiverse integration is included, and with a quick tap of the L and R buttons you can grab a snap of the on-screen action and post it to Rumble U's own community. Off TV play is supported too, which means you can continue the action on the GamePad when the TV is needed for other things.
Of course the GamePad has one other trick up its sleeve for Pokémon Rumble U; its NFC (Near Field Communication) chip. Much like the Skylanders series or the recently released Disney Infinity, you can supplement your gameplay with physical toys. The figures themselves (which are not poseable and fixed to a base) are tiny but nicely made and continue the angular look of the toy Pokémon in the game. However, although they're not required to play, the characters are sold 'blind' in shops, so be prepared for some disappointment as you open your fourth Croagunk in a row. While the figures are nice enough on their own, it's when you pop them on the GamePad's NFC sensor they come to life, as the Pokémon will instantly appear in the game, ready to join your team and battle. So far so gimmicky, but there is a slight advantage to scanning in the figures. While normal characters in the game can't 'level up' or learn new moves, characters imported from the figures can power up and learn new attacks if you're willing to spend the coins you've earned in-game. These upgrades are saved to the figure itself, so it's easy to take your souped-up figures with you and play on a friend's system. If you plan on collecting all the available figures though it could well turn into a costly venture as - at £3.99 a pop and with no way of knowing which you're getting, they're a pricey and largely unnecessary extra, as you can have the full game experience without them. We suspect that this may count for little though, especially in households with children, as the series' 'Gotta Catch 'em All' appeal shows no signs of abating. eBay here we come...
The enjoyment you'll get out of Pokémon Rumble U depends mainly on who's going to be playing, and what your expectations are. While there's arguably not a lot here in terms of a single player game, if you treat Pokémon Rumble U as a multiplayer knockabout party game, it certainly ticks all the right boxes. The added bonus of being able to collect all 649 Pokémon is a great incentive for existing Poké-maniacs, and we think the game in general is a great introduction to the series for newcomers, especially those who like the TV series but have yet to upgrade to the main games due to the amount of reading. It's probably no surprise that this has been released only a couple of months ahead of the next 'real' Pokémon instalments, as our Poké-mania is now running well and truly wild in anticipation for the more in-depth 3DS titles. As it stands, Pokémon Rumble U is an enjoyable addition to the Wii U's library, but sadly let down by limited gameplay and a shallow single player experience.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U