Pocket Rumble on Switch is a Brilliant Bitesize Fighting Game

By Rich Stanton on at

One day your life will change. I don't know in what ways – career, kids, self-discovery – but it will. And after that day you will sometimes look at the fighting games you used to love and think, 'man, if only I had the time. I could teach those scrubs on SRK a thing or two.'

But you no longer have the time. Street Fighter IV hit during the right era for me, and I spent many hours memorising my precious Chun Li combos and Abel reaction times. When Super Street Fighter IV came along, myself and a chum dedicated several months to training ourselves up with Guy and others. Fast-forward a few more entries, bring on Street Fighter V, and... I love it. Amazing game. I don't really have the time to practice at it though, so I don't play much.

And that's only the series that I really like. The fighting game scene can be bewildering in its complexity, with games not only having their own rosters and rulesets but also completely different styles of play. I'm not criticising fighting games for their depth, which after all is what defines them, but almost none manage to combine this with accessibility. One of the rare exceptions would be Street Fighter II, which is loved so widely not because of whatever greatness lies beneath, but because of the countless millions of jump-kick-then-sweep matches there have been between friends.

Pocket Rumble's diminutive name is perfect for this game's concept, which is an accessible fighter with a small-but-varied roster, and the precision to make fights genuinely worthwhile. It's been available on Steam for a while in early access, but is now out on Switch for the pocket-sized price of £6.99, and is a 2D fighter where everything is controlled by directional inputs and a mere two attack buttons. Pressing down diagonally on either side and one of the buttons produces a special move, there's a super metre building up, and characters have little kinks tied to a double button press. Essentially Pocket Rumble squeezes an extensive moveset onto two buttons and simple directional inputs. Hadoken? Sho can Ken, it's a breeze.

Does this make it a spammer's paradise? Quite the opposite, as Pocket Rumble's move timings and buffering see any button-masher more or less at the mercy of a calmer player — even when you've got someone in the corner, battering away with unfocused attacks just means an easy escape. And the fact you can pull off all the moves so easily means the ingenious aesthetic and character design can shine.

The pixel art style fits the name, but what makes it fit the game are the loopy realisations of each characters' unique abilities. There's an overall style here tying everything together, but each fighter is highly individualised by their own effects and attacks. It's almost instantly obvious what to 'do' with each of them. Ghost girl June has Dhalsim-like spikes that shoot out a great distance. She can send her head floating across the arena, teleport away, and in addition has some brutal 'get back' drills and snappy jaws. Straight away you intuit that this character wants to be at a nice distance, and poke everyone else to death. If they get up-close you slam down the hardware or just warp out.

I'm not going to run down every character, but their movesets and little twists are all as well thought-out as this. Samurai dude Hector has an amazing katana, but every special move with it sucks his own life as well as the opponent, which can be regained by 'draining' the blade between flurries. So you dash about with precise strikes and, in a moment of calm, hit the buttons: an amazing rhythm that no other character has (and one that can go badly wrong). Headphone-loving beefcake Quinn bounces around like Vega, swiping away with his claws, before transforming into an actual huge werewolf and tearing up the screen under your control. Government narc Parker plays a defensive game with triggerable and pushable energy balls alongside a clutch parry and escape roll. Keiko has a demonic cat that transforms into horrifying maw-based forms for each special and which, in a last-ditch effort to win the round, she can make explode.

Obviously the developers of Pocket Rumble did not invent all of these special moves, and yes there are big similarities in playstyle between a character like Tenchi and the 'shoto' characters from Street Fighter. What the developers do deserve credit for, however, is the judicious choice of what to take from this enormous genre. Keeping that roster so focused with eight characters might lead to a few meatheads grumbling about value, but what it means for the player is eight great characters that feel they have multiple levels to them.

It means that Pocket Rumble gets to the good stuff faster than any other fighting game I've ever known. What you're striving for in a fighting game, or what I always enjoyed most in my SFIV days anyway, is to reach the point where mind games come in. When you're facing an equally matched opponent, you've had a few rounds and know what each other can do, and everything about the match starts to get more interesting. You throw out unusual moves, maybe keep one especially good combo in the locker so they won't expect it later. You start doing little extra moves to build meter. Maybe a taunt or two, in good spirit, after a particularly tasty exchange.

Pocket Rumble hits this point remarkably fast, I'd almost say after an hour of play. I'm not saying it's equivalent to hitting that point in Street Fighter IV, because by design this is aiming for something more diminutive. But it gets you to that point of knowing every character's capabilities and being able to do the moves incredibly quickly. This game has no flab. It offers a couple of singleplayer modes, local versus play, training and a lessons mode, then ranked online play (or unranked against a friend). What else do you need?

There is so much to praise about Pocket Rumble, but getting the scale of it all just right is what makes this sing. After learning a few moves in the (snappy and well-executed) lessons mode I went online and played for about two hours solid. The greatest pleasure came when, after a close match, myself and the opponent would rematch over and over, switching characters every couple of game. There was one player I must have spent a half hour with, and by the time one of us left we'd gone through dozens of surprising match-ups. It felt like a pure distillation of everything great about online fighting games, with none of the crud.

Here are just a few of the great design elements in Pocket Rumble that I haven't got around to. You can switch characters instantly between every round, should you so wish, and yes in online mode too. Health bars are 12 bits of health, and each hit removes one, so damage done in any exchange is easy to grok. Enormous care has been taken over the win animations, which are both brilliant and freaky, and every character's nameplate is also animated in an elaborate individual style on the select screen. Double KOs lead to a round replay (rather than both players getting one point, which can win the match overall for one of them). When it comes down to the final round in a tied match, the stage darkens and the music shifts gears. If you want to get a bit deeper, the training mode lets you check out the hitboxes and track your inputs.

All that said, I doubt you'll be seeing Pocket Rumble at EVO anytime soon. The goal here was to make something quite different, a small and self-contained fighting game that distils some of the best aspects of the genre, but abandons completely the sprawling form its modern greats take. If you want the Street Fighter experience, then go play Street Fighter. If you just want a little hit of that fighting feeling, a pure shot of everything great about the genre, then Pocket Rumble is small, perfectly formed and, yes, a knockout.