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.

Review – Metal Slug Anthology [PSP/Playstation 2/Wii]

MSA-1Release Date: 2007 (Europe)   |   Developer: SNK Playmore/Terminal Reality   |   Publisher: Ignition (Europe)

If you’ve lived behind a tower of modern games or are a younger gamer then you may not be familiar with SNK’s Metal Slug series and that is truly a shame because you might be missing out on something special. For those already in the know, Metal Slug is a stone-cold arcade classic requiring no introduction but for the uninformed, here’s the deal. Released in 1996 for SNK’s Neo Geo arcade hardware, Metal Slug quickly became one of the quintessential run ‘n gun experiences that the rest of the genre suddenly found itself compared to. Nazca Corp. blended tight, challenging gameplay with their stunning 2D artistry to create one of the defining Neo Geo experiences and a killer app for the (incredibly expensive) home version of the hardware.

The game oozed charm and was overflowing with character thanks to the comical nature of the cartoon-like visuals which should have been at odds with the military theme and bright red blood. It was – as previously mentioned – challenging too but not necessarily in an outrageously cheap way; not to begin with anyway – that’s a sin for some of the sequels to atone for and we’ll hold court on that subject in due course.

By the time SNK called time on the creaking Neo Geo hardware in 2004, the system had hosted six Metal Slug games. If you weren’t rich enough to own a Neo Geo and splurge on massive cartridges sporting eye-watering price tags (so most of us then) then it was difficult to be a Metal Slug fan though. There were ports to all kinds of the consoles such as the Playstation, Saturn, PS2 and original Xbox but these tended to vary in terms of quality and accuracy. In 2007 however (2006 for the US), we were treated to Metal Slug Anthology for PSP, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii. This compilation from the retro gods collected unaltered arcade versions of the five Neo Geo ‘Slugs plus the Atomiswave’s Metal Slug 6 which was brand-new for the West when Anthology hit the shelves.

LOADING…

I’ll start by quickly talking about the compilation in general. I won’t discuss the Wii port as I haven’t been lucky enough to own a copy but I have owned both the Playstation 2 and PSP editions of the game. Sadly, Sony’s versions suffer from unwelcome load times, even in basic areas such as the front end menu or in-game character select screens. It’s not a deal-breaker but is still pretty unforgiveable in my opinion, especially since the PS2 and PSP shouldn’t have been at all taxed to run a small collection of old Neo Geo games when the PS2 didn’t appear to break a sweat over big stuff like Gran Turismo and Black. The PSP is a more understandable situation given that the handheld’s loading capabilities were often scuppered by the UMD drive. Even so, I play all of my PSP games direct from the memory stick (thanks to the wonders of Custom Firmware) and even then, the loading isn’t completely eradicated. The Wii port is meant to be a lot better as it was allegedly coded by SNK themselves while Terminal Reality handled the PS2 and PSP versions. Don’t quote me on that though; it’s something I remember reading in period reviews.

In terms of extras, there’s an art gallery to unlock using tokens earnt by playing through the six games. It’s not much but I’m personally a big fan because outside of the official press art for SNK games, there is a wealth of bizarre artwork resembling fan art and this is often included in their games. Artwork won’t be of interest to everybody, granted, but I love the quirkiness of SNK’s galleries at times. That said, what we are really for are the games so let’s talk about them.

Original and best

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original Metal Slug is in close contention for being the best game of the series. It’s a purer experience than the sequels and suffers with less of the bloat and often unnecessary variety that its successors injected (in a well-meaning way of course). You simply run to the right, avoiding enemy fire and blasting anything that gets in Marco Rossi’s way. You are granted three lives per credit and ten grenades per life. Continuing with a fresh credit gifts you the Heavy Machine-Gun power-up upon re-spawning as a welcome gesture. You might think then that Metal Slug is about as complicated as Paris Hilton and that’s a fair assessment as there’s nothing overly innovative about the whole thing. It’s HOW the game does what it does that makes it so endearing.

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First of all, the controls and ‘feel’ are spot-on and you should never find yourself condemning either for getting iced by an enemy. Secondly, the power-ups are just so damn fun to acquire and put to use. The Heavy Machine-Gun makes you feel like a force to be reckoned with, the shotgun’s explosive punch fills you with confidence and the Rocket Launcher is just the nuts. Special mention must go to the Arnie-like “Rocket Lowncher!” announcement from the voice-over dude when you collect the latter – always a pleasure to hear. Then there’s the Metal Slug tank itself which can take several hits before being destroyed. The tank is actually pretty cutesey thanks to its stubby profile and ability to jump but the rapid-fire machine-gun and cannon pack a serious punch.

Finally, there’s that distinctive art style which is a big part of the game’s appeal. Without it, Metal Slug would just be another solid run ‘n gun game but thanks to Nazca’s artistic sorcery, every backdrop, sprite and tiny detail deserves close attention. In fact, there is such a ludicrous level of detail in every single thing that it’s a wonder that they ever finished the game or were permitted the time to go so crazy in the first place. Special mention must go to the enormous bosses which are both intimidating and spectacular. Taking them down always feels like an achievement.

The visuals are backed up by the audio which consists of memorable voice-overs, fantastic sound effects (the explosions are awesome) and memorable music that blends military-themed composition with Nazca’s jazzy sound, the latter fitting in perfectly against all sound reason.

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[Source]
I’ve already stated that the game is challenging as it really is but the original Metal Slug is perhaps the fairest of the lot. The first three missions are no cake-walk but can be completed with minimal stress. It’s only towards the end of the game that the opposition begins to overwhelm and you will have to feed in credits in order to push on. This was an arcade game designed to part punters from their cash but that said, I’ve certainly played much, much worse that would have you searching for Dick Turpin’s name in the developer credits.

Put simply, the original Metal Slug is a creative masterpiece and a very enjoyable arcade action game that deserves its lofty reputation. If you only play one game in the series then this has to be it but SNK did make some sequels so let’s address those next…

Bigger isn’t always better

Metal Slug 2 is probably the closest rival that the original game has for the honour of being the best in the series. I did say that if you only play one entry then it should be the original but ideally, you’d play the immediate follow-up as well. MS2 is more of the same but bigger and more extreme than before. New power-ups and new Slug vehicles debut as do the Mars People alien enemies. The bosses are equally impressive if not better than before with special mentions going to an Arabian palace that turns into a missile launcher and the second mission’s boss which sees you constantly climbing to avoid the chasing jaws of an enormous machine. The only issue I have with Metal Slug 2 is that the last few levels are a bit brutal with the player being expected to dodge too much crap and kill far too many aliens. That aside, it is a worthy follow-up deserving of your time.

Metal Slug X is essentially a remix of Metal Slug 2. The first stage for example now takes place at dusk, there are new enemies, remixed music and new power-ups. There’s a handy list of the updates here on Wikipedia. Whether you prefer X over ‘vanilla’ Metal Slug 2 is a personal preference but being as it is very similar, I would also class X as a game you can definitely keep coming back to.

Unfortunately, the series takes a nosedive with Metal Slug 3 that it never really fully recovered from. This was the last game produced by the original Nazca/SNK partnership before SNK went bankrupt and rose from the ashes as SNK Playmore. They went all-out and cranked the creativity up to the max with MS3 which should have been a positive thing but ends up being both good and bad. Starting with the good, they went pretty wild here and introduced a ton of new stuff and awe-inspiring bosses, all rendered in the same agonisingly attractive art style. The game also still plays perfectly soundly. The first problem however is that you aren’t only fighting military forces this time around but all manner of organic creatures and aliens. This did allow Nazca’s artists the chance to flex and animate a bunch of crazy stuff (which all looks lovely) but you will miss the characterful enemy soldiers and military hardware when you’re shooting at crabs, insects and…zombies?

MS3-1
[Source]
Yes, there is a zombie-themed level that mimics a slasher movie and I really hate this shit. When you get killed, a bolt of lightning will resurrect you albeit as a shambling, sluggish zombie with none of the agility that you need to avoid the onslaught of enemies. It doesn’t fit in with what Metal Slug is meant to be but even if you can overlook that, playing as a zombie slows the action to a crawl and puts a definite damper on things. Even when you are still in human form, emptying vast amounts of ammo into walking bullet sponges is no fun. The only enjoyable thing that comes from the whole zombie thing is the ability to vomit a massive arc of blood that covers most of the screen and takes out enemies with the force of a grenade. That’s fucking cool.

The other killjoy is the fact that Metal Slug 3 is just too damn hard. They really wanted your pocket change with this game, possibly to stave off impending bankruptcy. The first level is reasonably manageable but the cruelty factor soon arrives with the player being expected to dodge an unreasonable amount of on-screen shit. The final stage in particular is downright sadistic with overwhelming quotas of dangerous enemies clogging the screen and an insane amount of lethal projectiles to avoid. It also feels as though it will NEVER end. Whenever I decide to play MS3, I find myself begging the game to simply stop by this point. The bosses in this game also absorb a ridiculous amount of firepower before they go down, to the point that you may question whether your game has glitched out and granted said bosses immunity to death.

Metal Slug 3 is not a bad game per se. It has a lot going for it in the aesthetics department but the difficulty spike and general madness of battling crustaceans, Aztec gods and zombies really let it down. I simply cannot enjoy this game when I play it because it’s the first time that Metal Slug felt too cheap and remorseless to WANT to perservere with. It was the end of the original era though so how did SNK and Metal Slug fare in the Playmore era? Hmm…

A mixed bag

By this point, SNK Playmore didn’t yet exist and it was entity simply known as “Playmore”. In conjunction with Mega Enterprise, they kept SNK’s franchises’ ticking over with Metal Slug 4 being one result. I have to be honest and say that I really don’t care for this game. It’s not that it’s bad but it’s incredibly “meh”. Unsurprisingly – given the financial situation – MS4 is a recyclathon of old sprites and ideas but the classic Nazca art clashes somewhat with new stuff doing its best to imitate. The game receives points straight away for returning to military enemies but then throws it all down the toilet by re-introducing mummies and zombies. The level design is incredibly by-the-numbers and dull with very few set-pieces since the game instead favours holding the player up on the same screen for an eternity while wave after wave of enemies pour in from both sides, often in suffocating volumes that slow the game down. Bosses aren’t too interesting either and trade patterns for simply filling the screen with as many bullets, bombs and enemies as possible. Granted, I’m no master player of videogames but I don’t see how it’s possible to avoid some of the stuff that later bosses throw at the player.

Metal Slug 4 could have been a lot worse but at the same time, there’s no avoiding the fact that it had very little charm or creativity going on. It’s not a sequel that I can recommend on any grounds, really.

MS4-1
[Source]
Conversely, Metal Slug 5 is far superior. Aside from some tribal enemies at the outset and the final boss itself, it’s back to military enemies for a more traditional ‘Slug affair. The opposing army isn’t headed up by series antangonist Morden this time (even though the sprites are blatant re-skins) but the darker colours, black ops-style enemies and gritty rock music do suck some of the series’ trademark humour out of the game it has to be said. However, this is a reasonable trade off considering that the game is much fairer than the previous two and as a result, far closer to the formula of the first two games which were challenging but not downright malicious as per MS3 and 4. Bosses too have much better attack patterns and as such, aren’t a drain on your soul to take down. The final boss is a bit cheap though and probably the most ridiculous, out-of-place end boss in the series. Looks awesome though.

Unfortunately, Metal Slug 6 ruins the redemption of MS5. This was the first post-Neo Geo Metal Slug with Sammy’s Atomiswave platform taking over the hosting duties. Appropriately, SNK Playmore tried to inject some new blood into the series by upping the character select screen to six with the addition of Ralf and Clark from Ikari Warriors/King of Fighters. In addition, each character has special abilities such as Ralf’s Vulcan Punch attack and Eri’s ability to aim grenades in specific directions. You can now also stock up to two power-ups and switch between them. Also, MS6 introduced an easy mode which lowers the difficulty and grants the player the Heavy Machine-Gun as the standard weapon at the expense of not being able to challenge the game’s final stage.

That’s the good/interesting stuff. Sadly, the game just feels like an imitation or a fan-made tribute. Yes, the familiar sprites and visual design are correct and present but as with MS4, the new backgrounds and enemies aren’t as impressive and clash with the old, classic Nazca creations. Sound effects and enemy voices are also different (not for the better) and once again, the series returns to aliens and weird shit before long. The difficulty beyond the first few missions is also tough to swallow with all manner of bullet-sponge aliens and bizarre creatures flooding the screen and demanding a ridiculous amount of firepower to put down. The game feels cheap too with so much shit happening at once that there’s no hope of surviving. The final stage takes a (rotted) leaf from Metal Slug 3‘s book and features and seemingly endless gauntlet of everything that makes this sequel so charmless and unenjoyable to endure. By the time I reached the final boss, I was both bored and frustrated – emotions that I would never have associated with Metal Slug when playing the first two games. In short, it’s still a solid run ‘n gun but only because of all the work that Nazca put in back in the 90’s. Without their blueprint and artwork, games like Metal Slug 4 and 6 wouldn’t even be worth talking about.

Conclusions

To sum up the core Metal Slug series, I would say that the first two games + Metal Slug X are utterly essential run ‘n guns that any gamer with an interest in old-school, arcade gameplay should experience. As for the rest…Metal Slug 3 is worth a look for it’s aesthetics but is simply too cheap to enjoy, Metal Slug 4 and 6 are not worth your time while Metal Slug 5 is surprisingly decent with genuine replayability. Personally I’d rank them as MS1 > MS2 > MSX > MS3 >MS5 >MS4 > MS6. As for the Anthology specifically, it’s a shame that there are those loading niggles with the PSP and PS2 versions but whichever port you go with, the value is undeniably strong.

Nintendo kill off SNK Heroines for PS4 Owners (thanks for that)

Console exclusitivity…it sucks, right? By and large though, we have pretty much moved beyond these practices over the last few generations and while some may say that it ruins the individuality between platforms, I say “bring it on”. There’s nothing worse than not being able to play all of titles you are interested in without owning multiple systems that cost hundreds and hundreds of pounds each, not to mention the storage space required.

This generation has been pretty kind to me in this respect. Nearly everything I want to play is available on the PS4 with the only Xbox One exclusives able to invoke envy within me being Killer Instinct and Rare Replay. The arrival of the Nintendo Switch didn’t initially mix things up at all but as the decent exclusives began to flow, I was seeing more and more things I liked. The Switch is, after all, the first Nintendo console that I haven’t owned since the N64. That said, consciously deciding to NOT buy a Nintendo console will always automatically lock you out of their exclusive properties so there can be no hard feelings about not being able to experience the likes of Mario Odyssey if you make a decision not to purchase the hardware.

Unfortunately, it certainly does grate my gears when something like this happens, ‘This’ being Nintendo striking a distribution deal with NIS America to make the physical edition of SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy and Switch exclusive in the West.

It’s time to get my moan on!

TTF-1
It’s more fan service-y than a serious fighting game but I’m still interested in playing Tag Team Frenzy.

The game had originally been slated for both the PS4 and Switch. I had personally been aware of the game’s general release window and was looking forward to picking it up but this crappy news only popped up on my radar yesterday. Annoyingly, there IS a physical release available for the PS4 here in the UK (and – I assume – the US) but to get at it, you have to buy the ‘Diamond Dream Edition’, a big Collector’s Edition box that comes with loads of extras and weighed it at around £100. Unsurprisingly, the asking prices for copies on ebay UK as of making this post are edging closer to £200. *sigh*.

This is my own fault for being a bit of a magpie when it comes to having a collection of physical games I suppose but downloading full retail games digitally has never sat well with me. DLC, retro re-releases and indie games…sure, that’s fine but when it comes to the full fat stuff, I want a box and disc for the shelf. Call it future-proofing or obsessiveness but I feel a bit deflated if the only option is digital.

TTF-2
The contents ARE admittedly very cool but (a few exceptions aside) I don’t buy these kinds of CE’s anymore. They are expensive, take up too much room and I’d never touch the extras again (other than the artbook perhaps).

Then there is the other consideration to take into account: The PS4’s HDD space and how fast that sucker fills up just with regular game installs, let alone full games. So the options left for me right now are:

  1. Don’t buy the game at all
  2. Buy digitally (yuck)
  3. Import a physical Asian/Japanese copy but be locked out of any DLC

I will likely opt for the third route even if means not being able to purchase any DLC down the line. I just need to get a good price which is a lot more difficult when dealing with imports versus domestic releases which usually drop in value quite quickly if you are patient enough.

So thanks for that Nintendo though I’m not sure that this game will be the big exclusive hit that you hope for on the Switch.

Bitter much? You bet!

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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KOF99-3

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!

The Golden Age of Fighting Games: When it happened and why it ended [Part 2]

In the first part of this little series, I explained that the one true ‘Golden Age’ of the fighting game genre took place – in my opinion – from ’91 – ’00/01. I’ve also discussed how I believe the decline of the arcades was a major factor in this most excellent era coming to an end. Now it’s time to continue where I left off with Part 2, where I will discuss two more factors that I consider to be highly influential to this disappointing demise.

Capcom pulling out of developing new titles/sequels

Like it or not, Capcom are a major driving force in the fighting game arena and what they do can have a massive effect on the genre as a whole. Fighting games DID exist before Street Fighter II (International Karate, Yie Ar Kung Fu and even the original Street Fighter to name a few examples) but SFII became a template for fighting games to imitate, something that is still happening today. The move inputs for specials for example were near enough universally adopted by every following fighting game with the same input motions still in use today.

I also made a note in Part 1 of how Capcom eventually returning to the fray with Street Fighter IV revitalised the genre, encouraging the revival of other dormant fighting games and creating a hospitable breeding environment for brand-new challengers to emerge. This is a clear example of Capcom’s actions carrying serious clout. No, the genre didn’t fully die out while they were away from the action but the return of Capcom and Street Fighter brought much-needed attention and popularity back to the world of fighting games.

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Niche productions such as the upcoming Blade Strangers may never have existed if not for a resurgence in fighting game popularity that goes back to Street Fighter IV’s emergence.

So when Capcom backed out of developing new titles post-Capcom Vs SNK 2, it was a big blow to the genre and the community. I will be going into more depth on those barren years for fans of fighting games in a separate post but Capcom basically focused on brand-new console franchises such as Devil May Cry while keeping their fighting game heritage on the backburner with some re-releases and compilations. In fairness, these were welcome additions to any fighting game fan’s library. The likes of Street Fighter Alpha Anthology, Vampire: Darkstalkers Collection, Hyper Street Fighter II and the PS2 port of Third Strike represented immense convenience and (in the case of the collections) fantastic value for money. Nobody could knock the quality of these releases but they weren’t proper, new sequels and gamers began to ask questions. Would we ever see new Street Fighter, Darkstalkers or VS games again?

Capcom did try something new with the 3D Capcom Fighting All-Stars, a project which was eventually cancelled. They then disappointed with the underwhelming Capcom Fighting Jam, a lazy crossover game featuring a jarring collection of re-used sprites and a limited roster. The game wasn’t broken but it was surprising to see such a poor original effort from a company that had previously been the gold standard.

Street Fighter was a household name and at this point, it was slipping into the background with the more casual gamers that had been caught up in the franchise’s prior popularity no longer being that invested in fighting games as a whole. Without any new, good games in the series, SF became a relic of a bygone age, something that people who had owned the game on the SNES talked about in nostalgic tones. 3D fighting games such as Tekken and Dead or Alive carried on thanks to the polygon-based side of the genre being more resilient such was its appeal to both the hardcore fans and casual console gamers alike. 2D fighters however became a serious niche and games like Guilty Gear and The King of Fighters were still around but consigned to a more obscure status. These were games that resembled Street Fighter to the casual observer – that old fighting game thing that they remembered playing in the 90’s.

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A nice idea and a bit of a novelty but the backdrops had more characters than the game. Also: look at that ancient Demitri sprite!

This is why I consider Capcom to be so influential. If they or the Street Fighter series aren’t around, it gives the impression that there’s no confidence in the genre or money to be made by publishers weighing up whether or not to greenlight a sequel for one of their own franchises. Capcom helped define the genre as we know it, the genre faded away as they took a step back and it finally experienced a resurgence when they returned. Whether you like Capcom or are more partial to the offerings of a different developer, there’s no denying their influence.

The bankruptcy of the original SNK

Every warrior needs a sparring partner or a fierce rival to help them push their mind and body further. SNK played this role for Capcom back in the 90’s and it was almost a decade of the two giants trading blows. SNK pumped out series after series: Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Samurai Shodown, The King of Fighters, The Last Blade and Garou: Mark of the Wolves to name the more well-known games. Not all of these games were great and the clunkiness of the older ones prevented them from being true Street Fighter II beaters but SNK were in this for the long run. Their Neo Geo MVS arcade hardware was massively powerful and long-lasting, easily capable of hosting fighting games that could beat Capcom’s for aesthetic detail and on-screen action.

If that wasn’t enough, the Neo Geo AES was essentially a consolised, home version of the MVS meaning zero reduction in quality when playing the latest King of Fighters on your TV as opposed to in the arcades. The downside was the immense price tag that the AES came with and the prohibitive cost of cartridges which quickly marked the system out as a premium product that only the richest gamers could afford to put beside their TVs. There were conversions to the Playstation, Sega Saturn and Sega Dreamcast available but these were largely confined to Japan with the Saturn needing a RAM expansion cartridge before it could handle the games.

In any case, blow-for-blow was traded in this little war. SNK introduced team-based fighting while Capcom put their iconic characters up against Marvel’s comic book heroes/villains for the innovative and very epic ‘Vs‘ series. Street Fighter III introduced the legendary parry ability to separate the men from the boys. SNK replied with the equally beautiful Garou: Mark of the Wolves which just so happened to feature its own counter system – the Just Defend mechanic. SNK had a Ryu-alike character named Ryo so Capcom had a playful dig back at their rival when they created Dan Hibiki, a parody of the Sakazaki family’s moves and win poses…garbed in a pink gi.

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The Last Blade 2: SNK at their zenith.

As the 90’s drew to a close, Capcom and SNK had actually teamed-up for the fantastic Capcom Vs SNK, an amazing event for fans of the genre which would receive a sequel and also a quirky version from SNK themselves (SVC Chaos). When the dust had finally settled, it was gamers who had won. Capcom had hit hard with Third Strike, Vampire Saviour, Marvel Vs Capcom and Rival Schools but SNK held its ground with Garou, The Last Blade 2, King of Fighters ’98 and Samurai Shodown IV. SNK had began the decade with ambitious but clunky and sometimes crude efforts such as the original Art of Fighting but they were eventually able to legitimately match Capcom for quality art, animation and fantastic gameplay.

Sadly, the original SNK went into administration before being acquired by Playmore and being subsequently rebranded as SNK Playmore. King of Fighters games continued to arrive but the quality severely dipped during the 2000’s with the constant re-use of ancient Neo Geo sprites being less and less impressive each time they were wheeled out for the latest KOF game. SNK Playmore also mirrored Capcom with a slew of ports and collections of their back catalogue to newer systems. As with the Capcom re-issues, these were solid, desirable products but not exactly new games. Still, where Capcom binned Fighting All-Stars, SNK did at least manage to release TWO 3D spin offs of the King of Fighters even if they weren’t all that great.

But if Capcom’s fighting game properties had fallen into obscurity then spare a thought for SNK. New ports to the PS2 and Xbox were published by the unreliable Ignition Entertainment and sometimes extremely difficult to track down on release such was the niche nature of their fighting games post-bankruptcy. Essentially, it was only those in the know and an ever-dwindling fanbase who sought out the likes of KOF: Neowave and Neo Geo Battle Colisseum. A giant had fallen and it is arguable that SNK would have needed Capcom’s active presence within the genre to continue thriving had they not found themselves in trouble. In any case, the end of the rivalry and the loss of the original (and still the best) incarnation of SNK was a defining moment in the genre’s history.

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KOF lived on with the likes of Neowave (pictured here) but the sprites were showing their age by this point and no longer impressing anybody.

All of these reasons for the golden age of fighting games coming to a close are closely interlinked. The decline in arcade popularity for example pushed Capcom to withdraw and focus their efforts on the profits available in the booming console industry. Street Fighter used to be their cash cow but there was greater commercial sense in developing new Resident Evil and Devil May Cry sequels for Sony’s world-conquering Playstation 2. Had SNK not run into financial issues, they too would have been affected. Given how ALL of SNK’s properties were arcade-centric, it’s a (thankful) miracle that they are still around today. It’s important to note that they also had their own issues to contend with such as piracy of the Neo Geo cartridge format.

With all of the negativity out of the way, join me for Part 3 when I take a closer look at the top reasons that make ’91-’00/01 such a special time for the fighting game genre.