Rejecting the revolution

Before I get into this rant, it’s important for me – critical, even – to outline just how much I loved the Valkyria Chronicles series. I played the first three games to absolute death, and bought the thick-ass art books for all three (something I might show here on DS90 at some point). I don’t think that Sega ever managed to re-capture the magic of the original with the two PSP sequels, but they were still highly-enjoyable RPGs that must have done things right for me to invest so many hours into them.

With that background knowledge in mind, I suppose it was only natural that I didn’t want to believe the hate for Valkyria Revolution. Surely it couldn’t be that bad? Well, put it this way: there’s a reason why you can still easily pick up a brand-new, sealed copy of the (so-called) Limited Edition for less than £10.

Continue reading “Rejecting the revolution”

Well THAT was epic

If you read my recent post regarding my thoughts on Yakuza 6, you might have been under the impression that I was speaking about the game from the perspective of somebody who’d actually completed it. Well, confession time: I hadn’t. But I have now. And what an ending it was too.

But this was more than just the conclusion of yet another Yakuza game: this was the finale of Kiryu Kazuma’s story – an epic, and emotional story that spanned seven main series entries, over a decade of Yakuza/Ryu Ga Gotoku releases (the first being the PS2 original which hit Japan in 2005), and an in-game timeline that began in the late 80’s with Yakuza 0. It’s fair to say that Kiryu went through a lot during that time. He’s been embroiled in countless Yakuza conflicts and shadow games involving corrupt officials, lost countless friends and loved ones to said conflicts, and been shot, stabbed and beaten more times than I’ve had hot dinners.

The Yakuza series has always been OTT, with characters that can survive a highly unrealistic quota of explosions and bullets, but there came a point where Kiryu’s tale simply became far-fetched, so I can understand why Sega decided that it was time to retire the Dragon of Dojima. Nevertheless, I wasn’t particularly happy about said decision when Kiryu and his allies have become much-loved staples of my personal gaming landscape. So this Yakuza 6 ending NEEDED to be pretty good.

[Spoilers ahead, obviously]

Continue reading “Well THAT was epic”

Yakuza 6 is the worst in the series

Hopefully I’ve hooked you in with that clickbait-esque title BUT, before you berate me for using such shady tactics, I do actually mean what I say…sort of. Yakuza 6 IS the worst game that I have played in the main series (ignoring the Dead Souls spin-off) but it is still a Yakuza game. Branding the sixth chronological installment of Sega’s beloved franchise as the worst one is like being presented with a group of semi-naked Playboy bunnies and being asked to select your least favourite.

What I’m saying is that Yakuza 6 ranks bottom for me, but it’s still a fantastic game regardless of its issues.

Continue reading “Yakuza 6 is the worst in the series”

Walking the Streets of Rage once again…

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It’s been a while since I posted something here on Darkstalker90. There are various reasons for that but I won’t bore you with those because that’s not why you’re here, is it? You’re here for some gaming-related content so I’ve skipped over the (frankly embarassing) backlog of semi-completed drafts to talk about a game that has commanded my attention over the last week or so: the mighty Streets of Rage 4.

Go back just a few years, and SoR4 would have been just a fantasy – one of those games that cropped up on many a retro-head’s I-wish-they-would-make-this-but-they-probably-never-will list. The franchise’s future seemed to be confined to re-releases on retro Sega compilations and those iffy plug ‘n play devices. Sega themselves had tried and failed in the 90’s to develop a Streets of Rage 4, and the popularity of the side-scrolling beat ’em up had rapidly waned with the demise of arcade-style gaming.

So it was a pretty earth-shaking shock to say the least when Streets of Rage 4 was first shown in 2018. With Sega acting solely as a licensor this time, it was down to the collaboration of Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush games to do the series justice and deliver on twenty-six years of fan anticipation. No pressure, then… Continue reading “Walking the Streets of Rage once again…”

Review – Anarchy Reigns (Playstation 3)

anarchy-1Platform(s): Playstation 3 (Reviewed), Xbox 360
Year: 2013
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Third-person beat ’em up

“Platinum” and “Games” are two words that should absolutely be put together, because when you do this, you get the name of one of the most interesting and creative studios in modern gaming. It’s not the done thing to include personal bias or opinion within critical assessments but screw the rules; this reviewer is a Platinum devout and will buy any new game from the developer regardless of any pre-release impressions.

I have a great deal of faith in Platinum. After all, this is the team that brought us Bayonetta, Vanquish and Madworld – all highly entertaining, off-the-wall thrillfests. Let us not forget that before Platinum there was Clover Studio, a group responsible for God Hand, Okami and Viewtiful Joe. Combine the works of both Platinum and Clover and you get one hell of a fucking resume.

So with that gushing intro out of the way, you may expect me to proceed into a glowing review for 2013’s Anarchy Reigns.

You’d be wrong.

I really like this game but, objectively speaking, Anarchy Reigns isn’t a must-play classic.

A familiar criticism

That’s not to say that the game is bad, because it isn’t – at all. But it’s certainly a case of style-over-substance. Platinum’s calling cards of over-the-top action, non-conformist game design and liquid nitrogen-cool styling are all present in Anarchy Reigns but none of this can disguise the fact that the game feels lacking in content. Essentially, it’s a case of Platinum’s signature flair compensating for an extremely thin experience. Whether this succeeds or not is down to personal opinion. For me it does, because I adore the game’s artistic design and no-fucks-given attitude but, if you prioritise gameplay over art, then you’d be forgiven for thinking, “is this it?”

Anarchy Reigns is a third-person beat ’em up. Playing as either Madworld‘s chainsaw-armed brute, Jack Cayman, or pretty-boy Bureau of Public Safety (BPS for short) operative, Leo Victorion, the player journeys through two interwoven stories. Jack’s is the “Black Side” while Leo’s is called the “White Side”. Once both are completed, you can access the “Red Side” and Anarchy Reigns‘ true conclusion. In principle this is a nice idea because you get to experience the same story from both lead characters’ perspectives.

Each character’s side of the game consists of four chapters. Each chapter takes place in a hub world containing three side missions and three main story missions. One of Anarchy Reigns‘ main issues arises straight away here: the repetitive and rigid structure. You must achieve a set amount of points, either through completing missions or beating up the respawning hub world enemies, in order to unlock the next side/main mission(s). If you are good at the game, then you can reach each point quota instantly by completing a mission with either a gold or a platinum ranking. If you just about scrape through the missions with a poor score however, then you might have to replay side missions or just keep battling the hub world enemies to build up points.

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Things can get a bit mental, sometimes. [Image Source]
I managed to achieve the gold or platinum medals on most missions so I didn’t encounter too much of the grind but on the few occasions where I did struggle, it was certainly irritating to have to replay side missions or wander around laying waste to weak enemies until I’d collected enough points.

The hub worlds aren’t all that interesting either. On the positive side, the terrain boasts some nice elevation changes and air vents/boost ramps that send your character flying through the air to different parts of the map. Also, every so often, it will start raining and much stronger enemies will replace the standard Killseeker thugs. Random hazards will also enter the map, such as an out-of-control Mad Max-style fuel tanker, poison gas or jets that carpet bomb the region. Unfortunately, all of these chaotic elements are pretty predictable and scripted, doing nothing to disguise the emptiness of the maps. Other than fighting respawning enemies to earn points, or triggering missions, there isn’t anything to do; no collectables or secrets to look for either. They remind me of the lobbies that you get in some online games where you are free to idly mess about until enough players have joined.

I don’t want  to keep sticking the boot into Anarchy Reigns‘ hub worlds but it also doesn’t help that there are only four of them, and that you will play through them again in the same order with the second character. I can’t help but wonder if this structure is a way to artificially pad the game out because a more straight-forward sequential stage/chapter structure similar to Bayonetta – to use one of Platinum’s own games as a reference point – would have eliminated the majority of the repetition, grinding for points and over-familiarity with environments.

Violence is the solution

Fortunately, the combat goes some way to redeeming the game by being satisfying, if nothing revolutionary. It’s fairly standard third person, over-the-shoulder arena-based brawling. You have light attacks and heavy attacks to construct simple combos with, grab moves and a 360 attack that saps a small portion of health. You also have access to devastating “Killer Weapon” attacks that utilise Jack’s chainsaw or Leo’s energy blades to deal out massive damage, though the use of these attacks is reliant on a gauge that is refilled (pretty quickly) by standard fist fighting.

You can also knock enemies into the air to set them up for aerial combos or drop down from above to damage multiple enemies with a ground-shattering blow. Dropping from huge heights amplifies the latter, transforming the standard drop attack into a “meteor” blow resulting in big damage.

The final ability in your arsenal is the “Rampage” mode. Fill this gauge up by fighting, and, once activated, your character becomes invincible and their attacks much more powerful. What’s more, hitting stronger enemies or bosses initiates a cool move where your character batters the enemy with a flurry of lightspeed punches for huge damage.

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Jack’s back, now in colour!

As you’d expect from a game like this, there is also a lock-on feature and the ability to roll out of the way of incoming attacks. As far as third-person beat ’em ups go though, Anarchy Reigns doesn’t really offer anything new or different but gets away with it thanks to the meaty feel of the combat and the more than convincing impact of the pain you dish out as either Jack or Leo. Weaker enemies explode beneath your fists and the Killer Weapon attacks tear them apart. There’s plenty of excessive blood spraying around too. It’s furious, crazy and pretty satisfying. It makes you feel powerful, as all good beat ’em ups do.

You do take damage from the strong enemies and bosses fairly quickly though (if you’ve played Bayonetta then this should sound familiar) so you have to be on the ball and fight a bit more tactically rather than charging in Dynasty Warriors-style as you are able to do with the mobs of weak enemies. The majority of missions and boss battles will give you a stock of three lives, auto-reviving you on the spot to continue the fight should you fall. Obviously, however, your score and resulting medal will suffer the more you continue.

As I’ve already said, the gameplay itself does do a lot to compensate for the uninspiring game structure but it isn’t all perfect. The bosses for example can all be approached with the exact same wash/rinse/repeat method, regardless of what moves they boast or how they come at you. You hit them with a combo or two, get clear, roll out of the way of their attacks or combos, then hit them again and restart the process. Oddly enough, the large Mutant and Berserker enemies are actually more of a challenge than the game’s bosses since they are difficult to stagger and can end you in a handful of hits.

The Rampage ability is also incredibly OP against bosses. All you have to do is spend a little time wasting enemies in the hub world(s) to charge up the Rampage gauge, so that you have it ready before beginning a mission. Then, you can usually rely on depleting at least half of your opponent’s energy through a barrage of Rampage combos, even if they guard against some of your punches before you break their defence.

Collectable power-ups can also turn you into even more of a powerhouse. You can only carry two at a time but rocket launchers and rifles are notably powerful. The temporary shields and invisibility power-ups are best saved for dealing with multiple Mutants or Berserkers. There is also an item that allows you launch into Rampage mode regardless of how full your gauge is. So, if you are packing this bad boy as well as a full gauge, you can unload on a boss with two Rampages in a row and make a fight a one-sided affair.

Platinum strikes again

Now we’ve come full-circle and I can talk about the positive side of the earlier style-over-substance observation. If you want style and creativity in your videogames, then Platinum always has yo’ back, and Anarchy Reigns certainly doesn’t buck that trend. The game has a post-apocalyptic cyber-punk theme going on, with its decayed Mad Max-style world design and mechanical prosthetics galore. There’s a lot of detail in the design of the maps and the enemy models, and you can clearly tell that the artists enjoyed creating the robots and mechanical augmentations for the bloodthirsty Killseeker enemies.

The main characters are a bit stereotypical in that the men have enormous muscles (that would put Arnie to shame) and the women are all sexy with big boobs. I’ve seen some reviewers marking Anarchy Reigns down for the sexualisation of the female cast but I personally just view all of that as being part of Platinum’s design style. I’m here to be entertained after all (not to care about politics and the #metoo brigade) and Platinum are all about entertaining.

Jack Cayman is as badass as he was in Madworld – a hulking “Chaser” (bounty hunter) with no fear who just doesn’t give a shit. Several other Madworld characters are playable in the game too including the hilarious pimp-like Blacker Baron, his assistant, Mathilda, the heavy-hitting cyborg, Big Bull, and the Crimson Dragon girls – Rin Rin, Fei Rin and Ai Rin. My favourite of the new characters is the BPS agent, Sasha Ivanoff but that’s just because I’m a sucker for the Russian accent and a shiny silver, clingy bodysuit.

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I like Sasha, unsurprisingly. [Image Source]
Though you are primarily playing as either Jack or Leo, some story battles see the protagonists team-up with other characters and you can choose which character to play as. This is a pretty sweet feature as it gives you a chance to play as some of these other cool characters that you’ve previously only seen in the cut-scenes. Mechanically, they all play the same as Jack or Leo but there are variations in speed, attack power, combo strings etc. As you progress through the game, you gradually unlock the other characters to use freely when replaying completed chapters. If you purchase the game’s DLC, you can also play as Platinum’s slinky, butt-wiggling witch, Bayonetta, which is pretty fun – especially if you’ve played the Bayonetta games as her Torture techniques feature in her combos.

The game’s soundtrack – a mix of smooth, jazzy notes, energetic hip-hop and industrial tones – is a varied mix for sure but it all works. Some of the battle music will stick in your head long after the game is switched off for example.

Conclusion

It must be noted that I didn’t discuss Anarchy Reigns‘ multi-player mode in this review and that’s because I haven’t played it. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t a huge seller and by all accounts, the online side is dead now. It’s one of those instances where I regret not giving the online modes a go back when the game was new but, ironically, it was only during this second play-through in 2019 that I really came to appreciate the game. The online was meant to have been very fun, however, and it was a large focus point for the game which goes some way to explaining the puddle-deep single-player campaign that can be put to bed easily in under ten hours.

Even so, that short lifespan can’t be ignored, especially if you are considering picking Anarchy Reigns up today.

This is one of those games that you will either love or hate. The thin, repetitive gameplay, questionable single-player structure and combat that can take a while to properly “feel” might leave you cold and asking, “is this it?” but, if you value the cool factor, then there is a seriously fun beat ’em up here with some hard-hitting brawling. Additionally, if you love the Platinum ‘way’ then you will already know exactly what to expect from the crazy gameplay, wacky characters and the game’s gloriously non-PC streak that offers a middle finger to sensibilities.

My Playlist for April-May 2019

We’re only five months into 2019 but I can already say that this has been my most barren year for gaming so far. Not a great thing to publicise on a gaming blog, huh? Well, a combination of things has stunted my gaming enthusiasm:

  • Being stuck on ‘big’ games for too long
  • Less available time than before
  • A general lack of desire

With that said, I have still managed to get my game on during April and May and play a few things…

Dead or Alive 5: Last Round (PS4)

doa6-1Earlier in the year, I posted about why DOA5 was such a great fighting game in my opinion. With the arrival of DOA6, I decided to get back into its immediate predecessor again. There are a few aspects of 6 that I’m not overly happy about hence why I haven’t purchased a copy yet. That and the fact that I didn’t ever get the most out of DOA5 despite playing all of its revisions. I tend to stick with Ayane and a few other characters for the most part so there is still a lot for me to get from the game which is why I wanted to get back into playing it. I think, as a gamer, you just KNOW when you haven’t mentally finished with a game and this is certainly the case with me and Last Round.

Soulcalibur VI (PS4)

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Fighting games have always been my favourite genre but I seem to have fallen behind lately. Thankfully, the wonderful Soulcalibur VI has reignited my passion for fighting games and even though I haven’t sat down with a controller nearly as much this year, this is probably the one game that has hooked me enough to lose track of time on numerous occasions. To tell you the truth, I’m still in shock at how good this game is and how we came from the awful Soulcalibur V to this, a sequel which is right up there with SCII and SCIII for me. Every time I take a bit of a break, Namco drop some more DLC for the game that gets me all excited again and makes me feel the way I did earlier in my gaming life when I wasn’t so jaded. I love creating characters for example and Namco keeps adding new customisation parts that encourage me to make more new characters and go back to my older ones to update them. Oh and as of typing this, they just added in the OSTs from SCII and III to customise the game with! SCVI has pretty decent music in fairness but II and III were the high points for me so this was AMAZING.

Metal Slug Anthology (PSP)

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Last month I decided to charge up and use my handhelds just to look after the batteries. What I didn’t expect was to end up playing a fair bit of Metal Slug Anthology on the PSP, a game that I sold a long time ago but had had the foresight to retain on my custom firmware-enabled memory stick. Of course, you can’t just have a “quick go” on a Metal Slug game; they are addictive and it just doesn’t work that way! So I ended up playing all of the games and reviewing the compilation. What I re-learnt was that the classics don’t age and neither does Nazca’s mind-blowing art style. I adore these games and playing them granted me a strong hit of love for videogames in general.

Yakuza 5 (PS3)

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This was the “big” game that was bogging me down and had been for over a YEAR now. Yakuza is one of my most cherished videogame series’ and so it must be stressed that I wasn’t burnt out on it and I hadn’t had enough. The problem was that I had decided to go for 100% on Yakuza 5 which turned out to be a bad decision. Eventually (for my own sanity) I had to turn back and be satisfied with 95% completion. So I finally, FINALLY completed the game after 170 HOURS of playtime. Fucking hell; how did that happen? All the wandering around, fighting and trying to get the 100% I guess. This is easily the hardest game in the series to 100% in my experience and so I don’t feel too bad about abandoning my quest as much as it hurts the obsessive part of me. I don’t enjoy or understand the Japanese gambling games, the Ito fish is impossible to catch (seriously, fuck that fish – it doesn’t exist!) and the hardest level of Winter Combat is something I ran out of SOUL to continue attempting. It was a superb game though and it’s a shame that it was a digital-only release here in the West as my Yakuza shelf looks incomplete without a box showing the number ‘5’ on the spine. I have Yakuza 0, Kiwami and 6 all ready to play on the PS4 (still need to pick up Kiwami 2…) but I think I will take a bit of a break from the series to avoid burnout.

3D Streets of Rage 2 (3DS)

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As part of charging up my handhelds, I played this again on my 3DS since I have very few retail games left in my collection and have nothing new to play. This is no bad thing however as Streets of Rage 2 is one of my all-time favourite games and a masterpiece of design. These days I tend to stick with the mighty SoR Remake on PC but there’s still something nice about going ‘pure’ and playing the second game as it was intended. M2 did a sterling job with the 3DS port and all the lovely options/settings it comes with and so I always have a blast coming back to SoR2. As with Metal Slug, games like this make me feel happy without even trying. I can’t wait for SoR4

Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy (PS4)

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This has been sat on my shelf since Christmas and I’ve only just taken the wrapping off the box. I’ve played Activision’s remasters in the “wrong” order and completed the Spyro Reignited Trilogy right after receiving it (also a Christmas gift) but then I got distracted by other games and the mountain that was Yakuza 5 so Crash got neglected. Spyro was always one of my Playstation favourites though so those remasters were ALWAYS going to get played first. I finally got stuck into the N.Sane Trilogy yesterday and so far, so good. I’ve aways considered the original Crash Bandicoot to be the trickiest of the original trilogy with a more merciless level design that holds little room for error and I’m not finding it much easier this time around. That’s probably because the OG game was tight and short of dumbing down the game and level design, there wasn’t anything else that could be done. I’m glad that they didn’t meddle however because otherwise, I simply wouldn’t be interested in these remasters. It’s nice to be playing these games again in lovely PS4-o-vision but at the same time, I’m feeling a bit ‘meh’ about revisiting the original Crash Bandicoot. Don’t get me wrong, I still adore it but I feel like I’m going through the motions. It probably doesn’t help that I downloaded the first game on my PSVita not that long ago so the game is still relatively fresh in my head. Still, it’s fun enough and the 90’s PS1 fanboy in me is enjoying the nostalgia hit. I played these games when they were new back then and I can’t understand where the time went!

That brings me up-to-date with my gaming situation so far in 2019. I plan to take a break from the bigger, more time-consuming stuff for a while now so that I can focus on having a greater variety of gaming experiences rather than slogging away at the same few games for an eternity.

Consistency is Key

If there’s one thing we don’t see enough of in gaming, it’s consistency. With which franchises and developers can you safely place your hard-earned money for a day one purchase without waiting for the reviews to come in or the Youtube streamers to show you the truth of the final product? The answer is “not many” and it has always been this way. Games that hit the big time and spawn sequels will inevitably fall into one of several traps:

  • Eventually the series will go for a sequel too far and interest will drop off once consumers have finally had enough of the same formula.
  • On the flipside, a spin-off or radical revamp of a much-loved series will change too much and get universally condemned or – at best – become a “meh” title that purists shun.
  • The publisher milks a good thing and turns it into a yearly series. Originality and consistent high quality become diluted and suffer as a result.
  • A different developer/publisher takes the reigns and fails to capture the magic of the originals. See the likes of Spyro and Crash in the PS2 era for example.

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Unforgiveable glitches and performance issues aside, Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly wasn’t a terrible game…it was simply bland and lacking any of the charm of the Insomniac games.

So what is the secret formula that can produce consistency over a long period of time? I’m not sure that there is a concrete answer and there is perhaps an element of circumstance and dumb luck involved. Additionally, it’s important to remember that quality and consistency are also subject to personal taste/opinion. For example, mainstream gamers may say that the Onechanbara series is consistently a load of weird shit with terrible production values but avid fans of the series will say that as long as the games stay as they are then they are consistent in a positive way.

These things aside, I have decided on three ingredients of videogame development that I believe can contribute to consistent high quality plus a developer and series to help illustrate each point.

“It’s done when it’s done”

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Say what you will about Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series but the developer doesn’t rush the next game out, no matter how loud the fanbase is calling for a remake of Vice City or a game that is even bigger than the last one. A new GTA simply arrives when it arrives and the consistency in the results is staggering. Each new game is bigger than the last, more feature-packed than the last, prettier than the last and all of this without sacrificing quality. Every game has small glitches but GTA games don’t arrive as buggy messes that need enormous day one patches to repair. They also manage to remain relevant and the series has avoided stagnation over the years as a result. The only deal-breaker is personal preference and for some gamers, the violence and outrageous moments are a turn-off but this aside, you cannot deny the quality of the completed product. Truly a safe bet for a pre-order.

Love

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I’m technically cheating here – since I’m not focusing on one single game/franchise but a developer’s entire output – but this is my blog so screw the rules. You may recognise Vanillaware’s Dragon’s Crown up above and that’s because Vanillaware are a developer that clearly pours a lot of love into their games. The art is always beautiful and the team make the games that they want to make based on influences close to their heart. There is also an element of “it’s done when it’s done” with this developer in particular because there is always a long wait between new releases given that the team is relatively small BUT the wait is always worth it. Basically, if you adored the likes of Odin Sphere, Dragon’s Crown and Muramasa: The Demon Blade then you can safely slap your money down on day one, whatever comes next.

This long gestation time allows Vanillaware to put a lot of themselves into the game(s) and ultimately, they are making said games because they want to, not because some marketing bloke in a suit has ordered them to get to work on whatever’s hot right now. Of course, this way of working can also go the opposite way when a superstar developer uses his position to indulge personal fancies and the results are interesting games that suffer with horrible mechanics or dull gameplay, all the originality being confined to plot and wacky characters (see some of Suda51’s less critically acclaimed releases for example). On the whole however, I see love as absolutely essential for a series to remain of a consistent high quality. After all, if a developer truly loves a game then they won’t be satisfied with a shoddy hack job.

Constant Enhancement

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Sega’s Yakuza series is almost a contradiction to the very factors that cause the stagnation of videogame franchises. After all, they have been pumping these games out at a crazy rate for a good while now with the older titles being completely remade at the same time that brand-new sequels are in development. We already have four Yakuza games on the PS4 for example which is noteworthy given how the first five (not including the two Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan spin-offs and Dead Souls) were spread across two hardware generations. How many will we have on the PS4 by the time the platform is obsolete? Who knows.

Additionally, while the games improve technically and visually, you are basically doing the same thing every time: working through a cinematic, Japanese crime saga with many, many sidestories and distractions, beating up thugs and exploring Japanese cities/culture. Yakuza avoids the repetition factor however because each new game remains familiar enough to veterans whilst constantly introducing enough new stuff to surprise. These enhancements range from significant updates to the combat engine to smaller details such as new mini-games. Yakuza 4 introduced multiple characters/storylines for example while Yakuza 5 pumped even more fresh content into the game in the form of in-depth, character specific sidestories such as Kiryu’s taxi racing and Shinada’s baseball missions. Basically you know what you are getting but there are always enough enhancements and additions to keep the series feeling fresh. How Sega consistently maintain the overall quality and production value of the series while their other franchises (Sonic for example) are all over the place is something even I cannot answer properly however.

This constant, gradual enhancement is necessary for a long-running series to endure. Too much too soon and hardcore fans run away. Change too little and consumers will eventually ask “what’s the point” and not rush out day one.

These are just my thoughts on how to achieve consistency. Are there any other major contributors that I’ve overlooked? Let me know in the comments!

The Golden Age of Fighting Games: When it happened and why it ended [Part 3]

It’s well past time that I published this third and final part of my look at the fighting game’s “Golden Age” but, well…life/shit happens and I’ve been a bit lacking when it comes to those all-important creative juices. With that said, I’m back now so I apologise to anybody who has been waiting for Pt.3 but here it is – at last. So far in parts one and two, I have declared that the genre was at its peak from 1991-2000/01 and have discussed the reasons (as I see them) for its eventual, disappointing downfall. All things have to come to an end after all but worry not for Part 3 of this mini-series will focus on the happy stuff, namely what made this point in time so bloody fantastic for fans of fighting games…

A decade of innovation

It would be an outright lie to say that modern-day fighting games don’t bring new ideas to the table but it’s a stone-cold fact that the majority of genre staples and general mechanics (that are now taken for granted) were introduced throughout the 90’s and thus is was a very exciting time to be a player of fighting games. What we tend to see in modern fighting games by contrast are refinements, gimmicks (not necessarily always a bad thing) and attempts to be as flashy as possible.

Street Fighter II kicked things off in ’91 and while I have previously said that SFII cannot take any credit for being the original one-on-one fighting game (a statement I stand by), it certainly created a template that is still in use today. Best-of-three, special move inputs (now commonly used across the majority of fighting games), play styles (grappler, charge, projectile etc.) and character archtypes were all either born or made mainstream with SFII. SNK’s Art of Fighting would introduce ‘Super’ moves to the genre (before Super Street Fighter II Turbo popularised them) and Capcom’s other fighting game, Darkstalkers, debuted air-blocking. It’s actually astonishing that for all the visual and mechanical evolution of fighting games, Street Fighter II is still running in the background.

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How easy is it to forget that air blocking/guarding originated in Darkstalkers?

The next important innovation was already happening at the very same time that Street Fighter was dominating the scene however. Sega released Virtua Fighter in 1993, creating the first 3D fighting game. Comical moon-jumps aside, VF also championed more realistic fighting styles as opposed to the pyrotechnical wizardry and unlikely gymnastic feats of Street Fighter and began to carve out a niche of its own that would see major fruition with Virtua Fighter 2, a sequel widely regarded as one of the all-time greats within the genre. The likes of Tekken and Dead or Alive would follow (and overtake Virtua Fighter in terms of popularity) but Sega had got there first and created the genre’s second ‘main’ style.

So many smaller innovations were happening at the same time however. Fatal Fury experimented with plane-swapping, The King of Fighters brought team battles to the mix and Capcom’s Vs series would kick off the concept of crossovers between more than one company. Namco’s Soulblade (or Souledge in other territories) gave us weapons-based fighting while developers also experimented with taking fighting games into a more arena-based environment with the likes of Capcom’s Powerstone and Taito’s Psychic Force. Meanwhile, Super Street Fighter II X For Matching Service and Vampire Chronicle For Matching Service were quietly introducing online play to Japanese console gamers via their Dreamcast modems.

Obviously you can point out that it’s unfair to criticise modern fighting games for their lack of innovation due to the fact that there is only so much you can do with the genre and so the 1990’s would always boast the bulk of new, core mechanics. Regardless, the 90’s has to be remembered with greater fondness for this period of rapid evolution.

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Virtua Fighter 2: the sort of huge leap forward that will likely never be seen again within the genre.

Art that blew us away

Outside of  the technical stuff, this was THE most incredible period in terms of artistry for fighting games. Hand-drawn backgrounds and sprites were often beautiful to behold with the absolute zenith emerging towards the latter part of the decade. The likes of Street Fighter III, Vampire Saviour, The Last Blade 2, Marvel Vs Capcom and Arc’s Guilty Gear series boasted gorgeous 2D sprites that were a joy to behold and it was fascinating to imagine how many hours of painstaking work and skill we were witnessing on our screens. Today, the same developers behind these games are using 2.5d character models and ‘2D’ characters that are actually layered over polygons as well as cinematic super move animations with multiple camera angles. All of this is far from offensive and does actually look pretty nice but it simply cannot awe in the way that fully hand-drawn characters once did.

Backgrounds and backdrops were just as mind-blowing with the very best featuring ridiculous levels of detail and – in the case of larger crossover games – lots of hidden easter eggs and cameos to pick out. These were often more impressive than the characters themselves and even earlier 3D fighting games featured some lovely, static backdrops that were appealing in their simplicity without needing to rely on distracting background action. Below is a small selection to illustrate what I mean because art speaks for itself…

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Savage Reign [Neo-Geo]. Incredible levels of detail.
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Tekken 3 [Arcade]. King’s stage. The distant, cloud-topped mountains in the background are a simple yet beautiful backdrop.
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Tekken 2 [Arcade]. Jun’s ‘Morning Fields’ stage. So, so basic yet so beautiful. The peaceful countryside is a stark contrast to the bone-snapping combat but works so well.
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Street Fighter Alpha 2 [Arcade]. One of the most atmospheric stages in any fighting game.
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Samurai Shodown IV [Neo-Geo]. Ridiculously beautiful. Capcom were the masters of sprites but SNK were the GODS of backgrounds.

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More Samurai Shodown IV because why not when it’s THIS pretty?

And this amazing, transitional stage from The King of Fighters ’99 that never fails to blow me away…

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This is just the tip of a very large iceberg and if you (like me) have spent countless hours exploring the full spectrum of fighting games from this era of hand-drawn artistry, you will very likely have your own nominations and personal definition of the term ‘impressive’. Given the vast quantity of fighting games that were produced in the 90’s, there is so much to see and many, many hidden gems when it comes to stunning backgrounds.

Sounds good to me

Of course, tight gameplay and pretty aesthetics need suitably good audio to match and this golden age of fighting games just so happened to represent developer sound teams at the peak of their powers. Modern fighting games tend to have very orchestral ‘epic’ soundtracks, pulse-pounding techno or mixes of older themes. The former work within the game(s) and are of good quality but are usually not that memorable. The latter – to me at least – demonstrates a distinct lack of confidence on the part of the developers when it comes to composing original, catchy themes that will be remembered in years to come.

Fighting game music from the 90’s though? It stuck in your head and is the kind of stuff that gamers flock to Youtube to listen to again all these years later. Importing expensive soundtrack CD’s from Japan is WORTH it for these OST’s. This was also an era when console ports of arcade fighting games such as Virtua Fighter, King of Fighters ’96 and the Playstation Tekken trilogy featured arranged versions of the entire soundtracks that took advantage of the CD medium. Clear effort was put into re-arranging soundtracks and catchy arcade riffs suddenly gained transitions, extra layers of instrumentation and more depth in general. The best part was that BOTH the arcade and home arrangements were usually worth listening to and I can’t have been the only one who regularly switched them about in the options menus!

There are literally hundreds of amazing tracks to choose from so below are (Youtube) links to just 10 of my favourites from the era.

Those are just a fraction of my favourites and if I’m being honest, I feel that the list does a major disservice to some of the more obscure fighting games of the era as well as some of the major ones but I could genuinely sit here linking away forever to what I consider to be amazing pieces of music.

Heart and Soul

All of this – the innovation, art, music – are however, all mere ingredients that come together to form the biggest characteristic of the fighting game genre in ’91-00/01 that gives it the Golden Age status. That characteristic is SOUL. This was an era when developers were battling to outdo one another at a terrific pace, developing bigger and better arcade boards, fighting fire with fire and racing to be the first to introduce their new innovations to the market. Capcom and SNK slugged it out for the decade (before the incredible Capcom Vs SNK series paid tribute to their war), 3D fighting games evolved at a great pace and bigger and bolder sprites vied for our attention on a constant basis.

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Let’s be honest: do modern fighting games feel as colourful and creative as this?

When the dust settled though, it was us – the fans – that were the real winners. Fighting games during this period felt like more than just simple money-making products (which they obviously were intended to be). They felt alive and you could feel how the developers had put so much creativity and artistry into trying to make the best possible product, pushing the available hardware to the limits and beyond (see the necessary RAM expansion cartridges for Sega Saturn ports of several Capcom and SNK games). The graphics, sound and even conceptual character artwork just kept getting better and better as each year passed and it was a real treat to behold.

Modern fighting games are still very enjoyable but there is a lot of focus on the almost clinical tournament play (as it is streamed over the internet as en E-Sport), online play and DLC. The creativity is still there but computer modelled characters and environments simply cannot stop the heart in the same way that hand-drawn animation once did. There is also so much recycling and updating of old music and stages from the past with an over-reliance on the glory days. True, fans don’t help this matter at times when they demand to see throwbacks in order to feel comfortable with a new generation of their favourite series but even so, the current fighting game scene certainly doesn’t feel innovative or aesthetically special (rare exceptions aside of course).

Taking one final, quick look at the stages and music for example, it felt like developers created these specifically to describe the characters that they belonged to, conveying their personalities wordlessly through the tone of the music and themes of the stages. Things are a lot more generic today by contrast.

This was actually a difficult topic to tackle because rose-tinted vision is a very real threat and we – as humans – love to tell the next generation how the old days were better (before they themselves do the same to another younger generation, despite believing that they won’t!). On the subject of fighting games however, I do genuinely believe that 1991 through to around 2000/2001 was the defining Golden Age for the genre. It was when fighting games had the most soul and a capacity to thrill with their visuals and move the heart with their sound. It was the birth of countless icons and still the place for superb gameplay.

And that concludes my three-part look at why I believe this was the one, true Golden Age of fighting games. I’d love to hear what others think!

Pigs Fly as Streets of Rage 4 is announced

Us grizzled, old-school gamers have waited a very long time for this day: the day that an official Streets of Rage 4 is announced. It was one of those most-wanted sequels that seemed doomed to never happen but as the likes of Shenmue III have proven in recent years, never say never.

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Sega themselves aren’t on development duties this time around. That honour falls to a conglomerate of developers/distributers consisting of Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games and Dotemu who – between them – are responsible for the remake of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, Irem Arcade Hits and Streets of Fury to name just three projects.

The initial trailer shows SoR mainstays Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding back to doing what they do best: beating the shit out of hoods in an urban 2D environment. Not much is given away but it has to be said that the art style is utterly drop-dead gorgeous as well as completely hand-drawn which is a serious turn-on for me in an age where even 2D fighting games have polygons hidden in the background.

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There’s no sign of Max, Adam or any of the other classics as of yet but this is very early days so I see no need to start getting concerned. What I can see is that Blaze looks sexier than ever while Axel’s new facial fuzz has made him look more than a little hobo-esque. But otherwise, the art is beautiful, the animation superb and it’s amazing just to be able to have a brand-new Streets of Rage on the way at last.

The original fourth installment was to be a 3D game back in the 90’s (since going 3D by default was THE law in the 32-bit era) before it hit troubled waters due to a disagreement between developers Core Design and Sega, the game morphing into the lacklustre Fighting Force. A further demo by original SoR developers Ancient was put forward for the Dreamcast but this too came to nothing.

Ironically, it was an unofficial fan-made project that was arguably the greatest sequel to the SoR saga. Streets of Rage Remake was an incredible achievement that fused all of the levels and characters together for a huge, branching game with lots of new features. You could now play as enemies such as Mr.X, Shiva and Electra and mess with the expansive settings to pick and choose the best bits from each of the original games to create a truly enjoyable custom Streets of Rage experience. Sadly, Sega missed a trick by not picking the game up and officially releasing it, deciding instead to put the corporate boot down and ensure that Remake was pulled from the internet which is a shame because many will not have experienced this love letter to a series that Sega (at the time) had left to die in the gutter. I imagine that Remake is still available somewhere however; this IS the internet after all…

Anyway, Streets of Rage 4 certainly has a lot to live up to with both its official and unofficial predecessors raising the bar so high. What I have seen so far looks very promising however and I genuinely cannot wait to get my hands on the game.

Linky Linky to the trailer!

 

Retro Re-Release Wishlist [Part 1]

Gaming is a vast medium with an enormous history, some of it mainstream but much of it niche or obscure. However deep you choose to delve into our hobby however, there will always be great games that never get a modern re-release on the likes of PSN, XBLA or Steam due to licensing issues, a perceived lack of profit potential for the IP owner (often a legitimate reason) or for more bizarre reasons such as Sega claiming to have lost the source code for such classics as Panzer Dragoon Saga and the original House of the Dead (arcade version). Ignoring ALL of these boring, technical explanations for a moment, I’d like to kick off a new series where I look at some retro titles that I’d love to see re-issued for modern platforms. Take my money!

#1 – Outrun and its sequels

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The original 1986 Outrun has been re-released several times and is fairly easy to play. Discounting period conversions that all differed wildly in accuracy, some ‘arcade perfect’ ports eventually appeared including the Sega Ages edition for the Saturn and – more recently – a handheld version for the 3DS under the ‘Sega 3D Classics’ umbrella. Outrun‘s sequels haven’t been shown the same love however and that’s a shame. My personal favourite is Turbo Outrun which swapped the Testarossa for the mighty Ferrari F40, added a turbo boost feature, more hazards (such as oil slicks and wet surfaces) and fantastic music. Japan were lucky enough to receive a 3DS conversion of Turbo Outrun but that’s it as far as accurate arcade conversions go. Then there was the visually-thrilling Outrunners, a further sequel that seems – bizarrely – all but forgotten by Sega despite it channelling the essence of the original game and being a lot more exciting to behold.

To go even further, there were also the console-exclusive sequels like Outrun Europa and the divisive Outrun 2019 but I would be stoked just to have a digital collection containing arcade-perfect conversions of Outrun, Turbo Outrun and Outrunners. If the (long expired) Ferrari license is an issue then Sega could just slightly alter the details on the cars as they have been known to do before.

#2 – Capcom Vs SNK (and other Capcom VS series fighting games

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Capcom VS SNK 2 is a near-universally loved fighting game that brought the curtain down on the 1990’s and a fabulous era for fighting games. The game deserves the love it receives and it is a firm favourite of mine BUT the original Capcom Vs SNK is also a tremendous fighting game that is – in some ways – superior to its lauded follow-up. The stage backdrops for example were among the last to be hand-drawn and animated by Capcom for example (the sequel uses 3D and while perfectly attractive, aren’t as impressive) and the music is superb as well as exclusive to the original game. Sadly, the original CvS only saw period Dreamcast and Playstation conversions with the latter being the only way to play the ‘Pro’ update outside of Japan without resorting to importing the Dreamcast version. Even worse, CVS: Pro on the Playstation suffered (like with many of the VS series) from downgraded animation + audio as well as frequent load times as Sony’s machine struggled to host the game. The PS2 version of the sequel has been re-issued on PSN but the original game is mysteriously forgotten about. As somebody who no longer owns a DC, I’d dearly like for Capcom Vs SNK to get a re-release.

And while on the subject, not many of the Marvel VS series entries have been re-released. Marvel Superheroes and the original MvC had their arcade editions packaged together for an ‘Origins’ digital re-release but the other early entries in the series – X-Men: Children of the Atom, X-Men Vs Street Fighter and Marvel Superheroes Vs Street Fighter – remain exclusive to the arcade, Playstation or Sega Saturn. Capcom began producing VS games again with MvC3, Ultimate MvC and the recent-ish Marvel Vs Capcom Infinite so the sensible time to whack the older games on PSN/XBLA seems to have been and passed. Add in the poor performance of Infinite and it would seem that the window of opportunity may have disappeared which is a shame. A compilation of all the older games would be an instant purchase as far as I am concerned.

#3 – Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder

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The debate over which Golden Axe game is the best is a popular one. Some say that the arcade original is the only answer to the question while others have a fierce, nostalgic sentiment towards its Mega Drive conversion. Golden Axe II floats the boat of others while almost nobody opts for Golden Axe III or the spin-off, Golden Axe: The Duel. And if you try to claim that Beast Rider on the PS3/360 is the best? Get out of here! The tragedy of this once great side-scrolling beat ’em up series is that its best installment remained exclusive to arcades. The Revenge of Death Adder is bigger, brighter and so much more expansive than any of its predecessors with new characters, fantastic effects and more depth than ever before yet it has never been re-issued on anything at all, not even receiving an obscure port in some form on a Japanese-only computer. It’s understandable that Sega would see little merit in watering everything down to cram Revenge onto the Mega Drive or even the 32X but a belated Sega Saturn conversion would have been perfect. A counter argument would be that interest in 2D gaming and beat ’em ups was waning by the time of the Saturn but you only have to look at how revered the likes of Guardian Heroes have become to see that Revenge would have fitted the Saturn like a particularly snug glove. Besides, how many other styles of games that were perceived to be of little consumer interest were nonetheless released for the Saturn and Playstation in the 90’s?

#4 – Snatcher & Policenauts

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It might seem odd now but Konami actually used to make a lot of great games. Even typing that feels wrong but unfortunately, they have lost their way with high-profile stories about poor treatment of employees and severe scaling back on active use of their wealth of enviable IP. Yes, Konami may be a Metal Gear Solid/Pro Evolution creature propped up by pachinko machines and the Yu-Gi-Oh!! card game but in the past, they put their name to such games as Snatcher, a distopian cyberpunk graphic adventure that remains frustratingly difficult to play by conventional means (emulation and bootleg fan translations notwithstanding). The only English-language version of the game was released on Sega’s Mega-CD (Sega-CD in the US) and now commands insane prices due to it’s desirability and notoriety for being a game very much worth playing on a system where the quality of the software library otherwise borders on being schizophrenic. At the time of making this post for example, copies are selling on ebay UK for between £250-£300 with ease. Higher condition copies with the spine card are pushing £500 while even loose discs have been snapped up for close to £100.

Spiritual follow-up, Policenauts, suffers an even harsher fate having never received an official translation of any kind. Both games were released for the Playstation and Saturn in Japan (along with various native home computers and – with regards to Policenauts – the 3DO) and language-patched translations are available for emulation or chipped consoles capable of playing back-ups but wouldn’t a proper, digital release be nice? Translate both games and I wouldn’t be able to hand my money over fast enough for the double pack.

#5 – Violent Storm

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I’m ending part one with another old-school Konami game: 1993’s Violent Storm, an arcade beat ’em up designed (like so many games of the period) to capitalise on the popularity of the likes of Final Fight and Streets of Rage. Thing is, Violent Storm is every bit as slick as Final Fight but manages to be a bit more light-hearted despite the main attraction still being smashing in the faces of thugs. The characters are big and bold while the crazy music and questionable enemy designs help Violent Storm stand out from its peers as an amazing beat ’em up in its own right. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t ever converted to a home system and – for some reason – it is quite obscure and unknown today outside of those in the know. Yes, I play it on MAME but I’d still happily pay for an official re-release.

Well, that’s part one done and dusted (with many more still to come no doubt). Please feel free to comment with your thoughts on my choices or for any suggestions for other games that are crying out for a modern-day re-release. We can but hope that some of these wishes may some day become a reality!