Bakugan was a franchise that kind of passed me by as a kid. By the time it first launched, in 2007, I’d hit that awkward age where liking plastic toys was exceptionally uncool, and admitting to doing so was social suicide. But I have no doubt that if I’d been just a few years younger I’d have fallen for it completely, combining, as it does, the wonderful plasticky, tactile joy of the toys I did grow up with, like Beyblades and Transformers, with Pokémon-esque fighting monsters, and a card game that would have tickled the same part of my brain that Yu-Gi-Oh! did. There was even an official anime series to remind you how cool everything was meant to look when you’re playing with small bits of plastic tat, and, of course, there was a good selection of tie-in video games of varying quality—something no mid-naughties fad would be without.
After some time away, Bakugan is back in a big way, with new toys, a new anime, and a brand new video game, coming exclusively to the Switch—Bakugan: Champions of Vestroia. Chances are, if you like Bakugan, you’re probably already sold on a new game in the series, but what about those of us who aren’t as invested? This new game is being made by WayForward, after all, a developer with a penchant for putting out tie-in games that are small in scope but high in quality. What should you expect from Bakugan: Champions of Vestroia?
There are quite a few directions that WayForward could have taken with the new game, but the developer settled on a classic JRPG structure, and it appears to be well suited. In fact, at a glance you might be forgiven for mistaking Champions of Vestroia with one of the recent Pokémon titles, with its bright art style, modern setting, and frequent fights between the titular elemental monsters.
It’s these Bakugan battles where you’ll find the main crux of the gameplay, as you take a team of three kaiju-sized monsters into an arena to do battle with your foe’s opposing creatures. Each Bakugan can be one of five elemental factions—Pyrus, Aquos, Haos, Ventus and Darkus—and you can choose which elemental type to set for your Bakugan before every battle, in order to change how they act. Each elemental faction is strong against two others and weak against one, creating an elemental rock-paper-scissors system that will feel very familiar. Each monster can then be equipped with four abilities of the same faction type. These Baku-abilities can be earned in battles, given as quest rewards, or found hidden throughout the world.
A lot of the game will feel familiar to anyone who has spent much time with the Pokémon games, and it’s difficult to shake the feeling that a lot of inspiration has been pulled from Gamefreak’s RPGs—not that this is a bad thing by any stretch. You start off as a kid in a small town getting your very first Bakugan, an alien creature that spends most of its time the size and shape of a small marble, before growing into a hulking behemoth for battles. Before long, you'll be entering into official tournaments and climbing through the ranks as a professional Bakugan Brawler. Your friendly marble-monsters will earn experience in battle, eventually evolving into stronger forms, which can then be taken into online battles against other Bakugan teams.
It’s a winning formula, promising enough accessibility and ease to get younger players involved, while still offering enough depth and competition to ensure that seasoned gamers have something to sink their teeth into. The game offers up plenty of its own ideas as well, of course, with real-time battles that see you controlling your itty-bitty human Brawler rather than the Bakugan themselves. While two building-sized brutes duke it out in centre stage, you’ll be running around the edge of the area as your Brawler, hoovering up alien energy to feed to your Bakugan before your opponent can. All the while, you’ll be directing your Bakugan to launch attacks, cast debuffs, or simply switch to another member of your party to gain a tactical advantage.
Outside of battles, there is a lighthearted story to run through, set in a separate, parallel city to the one in the anime, allowing the writers free rein with new characters, while WayForward has worked on creating a selection of interesting side-quests and interactions for when you want to wander off the beaten path.
From the small amount I’ve seen of Bakugan: Champions of Vestroia, it’s difficult to tell where exactly this will sit in the hierarchy of licensed video games, but the game’s JRPG structure, real-time battles, and giant monster fights appear to have a lot of potential to create a fun and rewarding experience. More than that, though, the plasticky creature designs and over-the-top battles transport me back to being ten, sitting far too close to the telly, watching a terrible anime that is clearly only meant to sell toys, and loving every minute of it. Bukugan: Champions of Vestroia makes me nostalgic for a toy I never owned, and if you have the same rose-tinted fondness for naff plastic from the naughties that I do, this will certainly be a game to keep an eye on.
Bakugan: Champions of Vestroia is out on November 3, on the Nintendo Switch.