Friday, April 29, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 13

Halfway through the decade gamers would see the best that the genre had to offer. Capcom cemented their legacy with two of the best arcade titles ever released. The first one that I mention was not a brawler, Red Earth / Warzard was a fantasy-based fighting game. Unlike Konami’s Monster Maulers or Banpresto’s Metamoqester which allowed two players to combat monsters Warzard was a strictly one-on-one fighting game. It was actually the first title created to show off their new CPS-III game engine. This was something important because most in the industry and most fans had expected Capcom to show off the advanced colors, effects, animations and larger sprites that the engine could render with Street Fighter III. Capcom did release SF III on the CPS-III a few months later, but visually it was not any more impressive than Warzard.

Warzard had some RPG elements in that progress and experience made in the game could be saved on the system. In addition to leveling up armor, weapons and health bars the game also used a “magic” system that was invoked as a special attack. The four main characters, a ninja named Mukuro, an anthropomorphic lion named Leo, a witch named Tabasa and a martial artist named Tao were among the best character designs in any fighting game The redefined the archetypes from which they were based on. The villains in the game were equally amazing.

The game featured a sprite-scaling system for the sprites but when the camera zoomed in and out of the action it was not as extreme as the Sega games, the shift was slight and did not make the sprites appear flat at all. The game had a fun story and even offered multiple endings and a hint for a never to be produced sequel. It gave gamers a reason to replay the title Unfortunately the game was very rare and few arcades ever had one of their own. Of the dozens and dozens of arcades I’ve had the fortune of visiting I’ve only seen one Warzard cabinet. But I digress, I was supposed to be talking about brawling titles.

The other game Capcom released in 1996 was built on the older CPS-II engine. It was arguably the greatest brawler they ever developed and a contender for greatest brawler of all-time. Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow over Mystaria was a follow up to their previous D&D title, the Tower of Doom. It improved on the earlier title on every level.

The weapon upgrades, magic and combat systems were preserved from the previous D&D title as were the branching paths. The game was a bit longer than the original while the diversity of locations and opponents had increased. An entirely new cast of playable characters was introduced in Shadow over Mystaria including a Cleric, Dwarf, Elf and Thief. The characters had more than cosmetic differences between them, their move sets and abilities were vastly different. The Thief was a fast character that could jump off of walls and detect traps, they appeared to players as flashing signals to avoid. A group that played without a thief would end up walking blindly into traps, like having rocks drop on them from above. Just as a group that played without a Cleric would find it harder to fight undead characters or heal themselves without the aid of magic potions.

Shadow over Mystaria demonstrated how if the brawler were designed properly then it could be the perfect action-RPG. Players had real-time fights, real-time inventory management and reason to work as a team in order to survive in a fantastic but dangerous world. The artistic stylizations that sprites provided added an additional layer of appeal to the game. No 3D MMO, with its point-and-click mechanics and canned animations could ever hope to match the actual interactivity and gameplay that the brawler provided. Yet Shadow over Mystaria had a rival that year, a game that some would argue as being an even better experience and for many the greatest brawler ever released.

Treasure had a short but memorable list of games at that point in the market. The independent studio was known for their original ideas and amazing animation. Guardian Heroes was their entry into the fantasy brawling genre. The game was released on the Sega Saturn and took advantage of the 32-bit processor and increased storage capacity that CD media had over the 16-bit cartridges. Actually Treasure had pushed the hardware past its breaking point, as the game often allowed so many characters on screen and effects to be happening at once that the Saturn would slow down in the middle of the most frenetic battles. Despite the slow-down issues the game was so well designed and executed that it caught players and reviewers completely by surprise.

Players could choose from one of five character types, a warrior named Samuel, a female knight named Serena, Genji the ninja, a magician named Randy and a cleric named Nicole. Each of course with their own strengths, attacks, magic and weaknesses. Players learned what character combinations worked best for them and their style of gameplay. The game, like the best brawlers worked best with multiple players. Treasure found a way to give single players that experience by providing them with a computer controlled Undead Warrior. This character could be set to attack, defend or even go berserk by players. Being able to know when to trigger the teammate abilities was crucial to beating some of the harder bosses. The game actually began right in the middle of the action where soldiers from the kingdom were trying to recover a magical sword that Samuel had gotten. Players had to quickly learn the control and magic system while a tavern they were staying in was burning to the ground. The pacing between story and action moments was well put together.

The gameplay took place on a 2-dimensional plane rather than on an open field as in most brawlers. The reason for this was understandable. Characters could perform complex combo attacks on opponents, similar to fighting games, which required advanced commands. In a typical brawler if a player did not properly line up an attack after entering the command then it was a wasted strike. Keeping opponents on the same plane eliminated those missed opportunities. However that also meant that wave of opponents would also be able to approach from the front and back on the same plane. To give players some freedom, Treasure made it so they could jump up to two levels into the background to fight or escape opponents. It could also be done to spread out the sometimes chaotic action. No other brawler had ever offered this gameplay mechanic before. But to be fair the fighting game Fatal Fury had featured a similar mechanic years earlier.

Guardian Heroes game offered many paths to follow. It was possible for gamers to have dozens of different experiences each time they played. Players could even spend points that they had earned by defeating opponents to increase their stats and abilities. Players learned to carefully balance their physical and magical attacks and take advantage of the environment and opponents. If multiple characters were near each other then players could perform a single lightning, ice or fire attack and let that attack travel like a shockwave through all of the careless enemies. Players could rack up scores of experience in the process and extend their magical attacks. Players could even take advantage of careless enemy sorcerers. If an opponent activated a healing disk for enemies to stand on and replenish their health then players could knock opponents off of that disk and give themselves the energy instead. In other videogames enemy magic seemed to only help enemies. In this game it applied to either side

The best part of the game was that every defeated opponent, from muscle bound thieves, to demons, giant robots, sorcerers, plant monsters and boss characters could be played as in a bonus fighting game. It was more like a battle royal as up to six characters could take the field at once. Some of the characters were difficult to unlock because they often did not stick around long enough to be beaten before a cut-scene loaded. Players learned to work together and take out characters as fast as they could so they could play as them in the bonus game. To say that my brothers and I played a hundred hours or more securing the characters in the Saturn’s internal memory was an understatement. Guardian Heroes was the brawling experience we had all been waiting for only we did not know it.
Treasure appeared to come out of nowhere and set the standard for animation, character and level design, control, story and even music for every console brawler yet to come. What many players did not realize was that Treasure had built Guardian Heroes on the legacy of their team. The studio was composed of former Konami employees, then known as “Star Team” for their ability to crank out hit after hit. People that had worked on their best arcade brawlers including Aliens, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Vendetta and the Simpsons had finally returned. When they were not bound by a license and allowed to develop an original brawler then they absolutely flourished. Not simply one of the greatest brawlers ever made but one of the greatest videogames ever made. Unfortunately many players did not get a chance to experience the title when it first came out. Because it was on the Saturn console rather than in the arcade meant that it would not get the exposure that it deserved. Thankfully Xbox Live would be available some 15-years later to give a whole new generation a chance to experience it. However for fans of the arcade brawler the genre seemed to have peaked in 1996. The industry went from a few great titles every year to a few years between great titles. Find out about 1997 and Capcom’s last sprite-based arcade brawler in the next blog.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 12

There was a steady decline in brawlers from 1992 through the rest of the decade. Most publishers were investing every available resource developing fighting games based on the success of Street Fighter. The studios that stuck around had to push even harder and try out new formulas to hold the attention of gamers. By this point Capcom was fully entrenched in both fighting and brawling titles. Having several of the artists and designers behind the Street Fighter franchise helped make sure their new brawlers would become hits.

Capcom started 1994 with another high profile license, this time stealing the spotlight from Konami. Alien vs Predator was inspired by the Dark Horse comic book series but did not take any particular plot points from it, instead trusting that they could craft a story that was as memorable as the comics or movies they were based on. The game was also a direct shot at the Aliens game that Konami had released a few years earlier.

The game was designed for 4-player action but most arcades had scaled back on the deluxe cabinet orders. Instead of four separate controls a regular 2-player JAMMA cabinet with the option for players to select characters was more often seen in arcades. Capcom relied on the designs from the legendary Bengus to help sell the game to audiences. He designed two Predators for the title, a Hunter and a Warrior He complimented them with two humans, Lieutenant Linn Kurosawa, a female android and a cybernetically enhanced Major Dutch Schafer. Dutch was the character that Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the original Predator movie. The vehicles, weapons, uniforms and even robots in the game were pulled from canon.

The game capitalized on everything that made the Capcom brawlers great, with the exception of the leveling system from Dungeons and Dragons. It had an intuitive fighting system, punches, kicks and grapples were supported. It also had a ranged attack system. All of the characters could shoot at Aliens and even rival Predators with ranged weapons. So that the game would not become dependent on simply gunning away the opponents there was a built in meter that tracked the ranged attacks. Characters had to wait for the weapons to either charge, reload or cool down when they overheated. This balance between shooting and brawling was very well done.

The stages and story in Alien vs Predator (AVP) unfolded into a complex narrative with betrayal from corporate and military factions, similar themes were used in the movies and comics. Even the ending was a perfect set up for a sequel that never came. If ever there were a perfect science fiction brawler then this game might have been it. The only competition it truly had in that arena was also released by Capcom.

The same year of AVP arcades saw Armored Warriors. It was a very unique take on the brawler where 25-foot tall robots instead of humans battled. Like AVP it was designed for a maximum of 4-players. Each robot had its own strengths and weakness, to give them personality the robots were shaped and colored differently plus the pilots could be seen during the cinema and text exchanges.

The game was set on a colonized planet that had the Earth pilots fighting the natives of Raia and their machines. The gameplay of fighting with a robot as compared to a human were subtle. The robots could cross the screen quickly on dash attacks plus they seemed to have weight and mass as they lumbered around the screen Human characters moved lightly in most brawlers. The robots could be upgraded to incorporate weapons into their combat throughout the game. No upgrade was better than a giant frame that the players could attach their robots to. The giant robot only lasted for about 20 seconds before it would have to return to base. It made the game too easy if players could summon it at a whim. This enormous robot was reminiscent of the classic anime shows, like Voltron, that inspired the development of the game.

Capcom had wrestled the brawling crown away from Konami and did not look back. In following years other studios would release games in hopes of earning a foothold in the market. Banpresto was one such studio and in 1995, a year that neither Capcom nor Konami had delivered a brawler, they kept the genre alive. Their biggest title of the year was a sequel actually Denjin Makai II, known as the Guardians everywhere else, was a sci-fi brawler with seven characters to play as including several species of aliens.

Each character had a set of regular and special attacks. The special attacks were often ranged and depended on a separate meter, similar to AVP gun mechanic. However players could hold a few buttons and charge up the bar manually to replenish the special strikes. A similar charging mechanic had been used by SNK with their fighting games years earlier. It was a fun brawler filled with interesting details and locations, elements that made the futuristic alien world seem alive.

Banpresto’s next title for 1995 kept the exotic designs but changed up the gameplay. Oni the Ninja Master / Metamoqester, Was a two-player fighting adventure, similar to Konami’s Monster Maulers from a few years prior.

The game had some fun designs as it took players around the world challenging all sorts of giant monsters. The most memorable thing for me and what I believe to be the biggest contribution from the game was the use of 3D modeling in the levels and some of the bosses. Everything in the game was sprite-based however some of the bosses and level effects were modeled from CGI shapes, lending a certain level of precision with the objects and animations in the game that would have been impossible to do by hand. Many gamers had first seen the use of CGI models as the basis for sprites in the 1994 in the games Killer Instinct and Donkey Kong Country, both developed by Rare. Banpresto kept the anime-style colors and designs so that they maintained the fluidity of traditional game animation. The seeds for using CGI backgrounds over sprite-based combat were not planted by SNK or Capcom in their VS games as many would believe, they began with Metamoqester. The 3D technology provided by working with polygons was changing the landscape of both arcade and console gaming, the days of the sprite-based brawler were coming to an end. In the next entry we will look at the fantastic send off that Capcom and an independent studio gave the genre.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 11

The year 1993 saw an increase in the number of brawlers released. Konami was in fine form as they continued to innovate and redefine what the genre meant. Monster Maulers was one of the first experiments between the brawler and the fighting game. The mechanics of the game were very much based on the traditional fighting game. The gameplay took plane on a 2D plane. Characters could not move into the foreground or background. Players could perform special moves on top of regular punch, kick and grapple attacks.

The only thing that made this game a brawler instead of a fighting game was in that up to two players could battle against the collection of monsters, aliens and mythological creatures on each stage. The designs were uniquely Japanese but nothing extraordinary.

Konami the turned around and released Violent Storm. It was one of the most random, poorly designed and executed brawlers they had ever released. It was hard to believe that the same people that had released the X-Men, Ninja Turtles and the Simpsons had developed this game. It was as formulaic as brawlers got with absolutely no redeeming factors.

The sprites were large, the animation rushed, the levels sparse, the opponents bland and the bosses insipid. Konami was going through the motions and releasing brawlers just because they could. The company that could previously do no wrong had a half-hearted effort wasted on arcade owners. Their hubris would cost them market share.

Even though they pioneered a lot of fight mechanics in 2D games and were responsible for inspiring the genre through Karate Champ, Data East did not have a strong history with brawlers, especially following after Captain America and the Avengers. Night Slashers made up for that. It was a dramatic, gross and violent brawler as ever there was one. It was exactly the type of game the genre lacked.

The designs were a bit over-the-top, with a suit-wearing British vampire hunter teaming up with an American rockstar-looking monster hunter with cybernetic arms and a Chinese martial artist. The premise was dramatic gold. Monsters, mutants and the undead had taken over the world, it was up to a trio of fighters to make things right. The characters had specials and super attacks at their disposal as they took on waves of zombies and other undead creatures. The gore, like the violence featured in brawlers was catering to the tastes of guy gamers.

What really set this game above the crop of brawlers were the bonus games. Players took turns playing things like zombie bowling, in which players threw zombies from 10 yards out and zombie whack-a-mole where players kicked the heads off of zombies as they popped up from holes in the sand. It was an absurd premise as audiences gathered around these zombie events, standing behind barricades emblazoned with sponsor logos like Zombie Burger and Drug Zombies. That dark humor was what Konami was missed in Violent Storm. Sadly of all the arcades I visited I only saw one dedicated cabinet. With the popularity of zombies then perhaps we might see this Data East gem come out on PSN or Xbox Live.

Capcom did not wait to see what Konami was up to next. They secured the rights to another Marvel character and released the violent Punisher title. The game was still a co-op brawler with Nick Fury filling in for player-2. Classic villains like the Kingpin were placed alongside modern villains including Jigsaw and Bushwacker.

The game retained the Capcom Japanese aesthetic rather than strict US comic book designs. The studio did, as they always had, place exaggerated muscles on their figures so they would appeal to western gamers. Other developers were often unsure of those proportions so they always went lean with their characters. The subject matter was a little more intense in order to reflect the Punisher comic books. The Punisher comics were often more mature and brutal than other superhero books. They predated the anti-heroes from the Wanted and Kick Ass graphic novels. The game itself was violent for brawler standards, when the Punisher pulled the trigger on his guns opponents went down hard.

Capcom kept the intensity up with their next comic-to-brawler. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs was an indy comic series with a small but dedicated following. The game was based more on the work from the short-lived animated series than from the comics.

The title featured the same impacting gun play from the Punisher with the great designs from the comics and animation. The best Capcom title of the year, and for that matter the best brawler of the year, was based on a license. It was neither the Punisher or Cadillacs and Dinosaurs but instead something that was previously considered the nerdiest of pursuits.

Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom was based on the fantasy roleplaying system and brought over a lot of their mythology and design into the brawler. The older Capcom fantasy brawlers, including King of Dragons and Knights of the Round, seemed to have been building towards the D&D license. The oldest of the fantasy brawlers, Magic Sword was set in a castle tower as well, some 50-stories tall. It was a brutal but rewarding quarter grabber, the levels were filled with traps and monsters, it predated the Tower of Doom by years. The game did have plenty of different character classes and even a rich narrative, still it felt as if something were missing. The D&D license allowed Capcom to bring everything together.

The Tower of Doom featured a small group of character classes that player could build through collecting coins, equipment and potions from defeated opponents. Players could visit nearby towns and upgrade their equipment and restore health with recovered loot. Instead of starting with nothing on each play through the cabinet allowed players to save their progress locally.

The attention to detail, character designs, art and animation were superb to every other title released that year or any year before. The brawler with role-playing elements was a long time coming. Capcom waited to apply it into a genre that they had become exceptional at. They knew the ins and outs of the brawler, including the nuances of timing, the difficulty curve, problems with repetition and boss encounters. While the D&D subject matter was not appealing to all of the gamers, the lessons learned from its design were invaluable.

By comparison Konami was now going through the motions with each arcade release and losing more steam by the moment. It stood to reason why their best developers were starting to leave the studio and move into console development. Their last brawler of 1993 was Metamorphic Force. The game attempted to marry the fantasy elements of warriors set in a world of shape-shifting monsters. Any of the 4-players could transform into a were-animal, including were-tiger and were-bear. Unlike the clock on Sengoku the transformations here were not timed.

The concept was great. It was as if there was a brawling version of Sega's Altered Beast. It was the execution that was lacking. The quality of the designs, brightly colored levels and sparse gameplay elements felt unpolished. This title felt more lacking than even Violent Storm. It was not however the worst brawler released that year.

Atari had become aware of the popularity of the brawler. They had been losing a market share in arcades since the late 80’s to the Japanese. To try and turn things around they published their own brawler developed by a company called Toaplan. Knuckle Bash was unique in concept, introduced some new elements but ultimately had an abysmal execution.

The game was an attempt at making a narrative out wrestlers and the wrestling business. The story revolved around crooked wrestlers and crime lords tarnishing the good name of pro wrestling. The game began with one of three characters, a masked luchador, an Elvis-gimmick wrestler and a straight-shooting wrestler. Three more characters, which were at some point in the game were bosses, could be added to the lineup. The game allowed players to switch characters between levels. Adding bosses as playable characters and allowing the switch of characters between stages was a fantastic idea. Unfortunately the game was formulaic, nonsensical and had poorly designed characters and bosses. Despite the good ideas it was one of the worst brawlers ever released. 1993 was an interesting year but the brawler was steadily declining in popularity, less and less memorable titles would be released over the rest of the decade. Some of the best experiences were still to come.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 10

Konami made sure that 1992 got off to a good start with the X-Men game, their next title was also a licensed brawler. Bucky O'Hare was a popular animated series based on an independent comic. It featuring a crew of anthropomorphic alien / animals that were fighting for freedom out in the cosmos.

The game was lighthearted and followed the visual style of the cartoon, going so far as to include sound bytes from the voice actors from the TV series. The game was not very difficult for seasoned players, it was not meant to introduce new gameplay elements. The game was important however because it was designed for a new generation of gamer. The bright colors, smooth animation and clean level design could be seen as an attempt to make a kid-friendly brawler. Those players would be interested in trying out the other titles from Konami and help keep the industry going.

One of the other titles that could be described as player-friendly was Silent Dragon by Taito. It was a very formulaic 4-player brawler, capitalizing on the western fascination with ninjas, fights and random monsters. The large colorful sprites were very animated and the game never felt heavy-handed.

The game was about as simple and straightforward as a brawler could get. Taito did not develop a game as much as they picked characters, designs and themes from other studios and put them in a game. Taito had not done players any favors but was helping move the industry forward with a cross pollination of elements.

Irem did a better job with the brawler they introduced that year. Undercover Cops returned to the Japanese roots of pandering to the west while making some interesting design choices. In the far future (2015) crime had run amok. Different gangs, some bordering on cults, ruled the streets. Officials formed a team of "City Sweepers" to clear out the thugs, mutants and creeps. I think there was something lost in translation when the characters were created. The three playable characters were Claude the ex-karate master, Bubba the ex-pro football player and Flame ex-female vigilante. I always laughed wondering how somebody could be an ex-karate master, as if they got hit too many times in the head and forgot how to perform karate. Or Flame, who was a rip-off of Blaze from Streets of Rage. Flame was an ex-female vigilante... I thought Poison and Roxy from Final Fight were the only transgender brawlers… but I digress.

The game was unique in that it allowed all three players to choose the same character rather than being forced to use their partners. Characters also had special attacks and techniques that allowed them to knock leaping opponents out of the sky or strike opponents on the other side of the screen. The best brawling experiences were built around characters that weren't slightly better than opponents but had access to techniques and abilities that made fighting fun rather than redundant. The hard hitting heroes that young boys idolized were and should always be head and shoulders above the lowest goon and almost on par with boss characters.

This game was notable also in that the visuals were dark and detailed. Those were the trademarks of other Irem titles. Some of the artists that worked on Undercover Cops would be the same people drawing the insanely detailed pieces for GunForce II, In the Hunt and the iconic Metal Slug series.

The last two great titles worth mentioning were both set in the Middle East. Sega returned with their System 32 engine and scalable sprites with Arabian Fight. The game featured some of the largest sprites ever in any brawling game. The engine would pan out to show more of the stage as players moved further and further away from each other. It was not until this game was released that the limitations of sprite-based combat in pseudo 3D environments became visible.

A sprite is an animated 2D image, it can be presented to gamers with a sense of weight and depth if artists and programmers remember to draw in shadows and highlights as well. The other visual elements in the game like the perspective and angles used to draw levels could help players visualize the sprite as moving in three-dimensions. Arabian Fight constantly scaled in and out, far more often than in the Spider-Man game. As the camera kept changing distance it became obvious to players that they were looking at 2D objects. The sprites appeared like animated hieroglyphs, flat characters from the walls of some ancient Egyptian tomb. Now if Sega had meant for the entire story to play out on the walls of a temple, or on the pages of a book, then the effect would have been revolutionary. Unfortunately the game was supposed to take place in 3D space and as often as the sprites scaled the game suffered. Players were not fans of the paper-thin sprites. They seemed to ignore the magic system from the game and even the exotic locations featured within as well. The game was Sega's second sleeper in a row. They would shy away from further arcade brawlers and concentrate instead on the home series with Streets of Rage sequels.

Despite the lackluster showing from Arabian Fight the genre was still in need new places to visit and explore. The use of exotic places and legendary characters to play as would help expand the universe. Taito answered the call through Arabian Magic. Like Arabian Fight it too featured multiple characters to play as and a magic system. The locations were even similar, including elaborate palaces, mysterious dungeons, flying carpets and pirate ships. The similarities ended there. Taito used a fixed camera that highlighted the small but detailed figures on elaborate backgrounds.

The game worked because it pandered to the fantastic legends that most gamers in the west had grown up with. Not necessarily from reading the adventures of Sinbad or the 1001 Arabian Nights of Scheherazade but instead from consuming those legends in moves. That was certainly the case for my brothers and I as we were raised on classics like the Thief of Bagdad and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

Many a Sunday afternoon was spent watching those movies on TV. Wondering how the Kali statue was brought to life or how the other special effects were accomplished before the aid of computers. The legends of Sinbad were always more appealing to me as a youngster. It was always easier to identify with a dark-skinned hero (even if it was only a tan) than the pasty white guys playing King Arthur and Robin Hood. Not to mention the love interest, a chesty Caroline Monro that sent my adolescent head spinning. Guinevere and Maid Marian could stay locked up in a tower for all I cared! Anyhow, my brothers and I loved the magic, fantasy and worlds that those movies exposed us to and we were eager to see how they would be adapted in a game. Prince of Persia, released by Broderbund gave us taste of that world in 1989. Still we longed for something a bit more epic.

Arabian Magic was the title we were hoping to see in arcades much earlier The sprites and opponents were a fraction of the size of those in Arabian Fight but the game was exponentially greater. The archetypes fought in exotic palaces, decorated in elaborate tiles and ornate rugs, many of them set with traps and pitfalls. Towering minarets of gold dotted the background. Players battled guards, assassins, skeleton warriors, sorcerers and magical creatures. The boss characters could be captured and placed in lamps if they were defeated. The magic system in the game was unlike those from other titles. Players had a finite number of djinn (genies) that they could capture and use. Each spell had its own effect and range. Once used the spirit was gone forever. This management of items was unique among all the brawlers. The locations and heroes from myth, including Sinbad, were icing on the cake. The game was imperfect for its minimal animations. Had a studio like Capcom developed this game then it would have easily made the list of the top 10 greatest brawlers of all-time. 1992 was a very quiet year for brawlers compared to the previous year. The handful of games released did have their own charm but would be forgotten as the industry pushed forward.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Will the King of Fighter XIV be something old or something new?

Did you know that Chinese publisher Tencent licensed Terry Bogard and Benimaru Nikaido to appear in their own fighting game called the King of Combat a few years ago? The reason I bring this up is because some people online have speculated that a few characters revealed in the King of Fighters XIV trailers were originally created for the King of Combat. I do not know if the developers working on KOF XIV are a team from China or the SNK-Playmore team from Japan. I can say that the models and animations do not appear to have been used in the King Of Fighters XII, XIII, or in the King of Combat game.

The developers working for Tencent used resources and created 3D models that had the same shape, form and proportions as the "Dot Art" sprites created for the KOF XII and XIII games. There was an uncanny resemblance to the characters between the different games and it was a sort of trademark style.

If you compare the models and moves in the KOF XIV trailers with those used in either KOF XIII or the King of Combat you will see how the developers created entirely new resources. New models, textures, costumes, animations, the works. The differences are subtle but they are clearly there.

I have a few questions to run by you. Are you planning on picking up King of Fighters XIV when its released? Would you have cared if a Chinese, or Korean company had developed it instead of a Japanese company? Do you think KOF XIV will have a smoother release than Street Fighter V? I'd like to know in the comments.

Also an important question for anyone that reads or follows my posts here or on my personal blog. Would you be interested if I converted my blogs into podcasts? Would you tell your friends or even think about sponsoring me on Patron for that matter? Even $1 a month from a handful of people is enough to put some gas in the car and buy me some time to do some research and find something interesting to share. You may not know it but some of my longer posts sometimes take months to put together. I do everything on my free time, just about every weeknight and weekend I spend writing and editing pics. I don't have much of a social life aside from that. I enjoy sharing and would still do it even if I didn't get any sponsors but you can imagine it would be a little easier for me to focus on games when I'm not focused on paying bills. Just something to think about, here's my logo in the meantime...

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 9

As 1991 was ending Sega was getting back aboard the arcade brawling bandwagon. Their last effort, Golden Axe, was met with favorable reviews. They studied the trends and were looking for a way to break the monopoly that Konami and Capcom were building. Sega was putting the finishing touches on their new arcade hardware, the System 32, which they felt was a powerful enough graphics engine to differentiate their next title from anything else out there. To show off their new processing power the first thing they did was secure a high profile license. They went to Marvel Comics and managed to get the license for Spider-Man. It was a surprise to me that Marvel would trust another Japanese developer following the debacle of Data East's Captain America game. What was even more surprising was that Sega had once gotten a cease and desist from Marvel because the original Shinobi featured a wall crawling ninja wearing red and blue tights at the end of Level 1 that looked an awful lot like Spider-Man.

Anyhow, the Sega game was a 4-player title featuring Spider-Man, the Black Cat, Namor the Submariner and Hawkeye. Unlike the hack job that was Captain America the developers seemed to have done research on the Marvel Universe and then went above and beyond in trying to recreate the western comic book format for arcades. The game was actually designed to reflect the pages of Marvel comics Characters would speak in word balloons, even during the fighting sequences. Level cinemas would play out in the panel per panel format. There was a certain gritty aesthetic to the visuals, as if it were a traditional 4-color traditional comic book come to life. The characters appeared to have been colored and even inked using traditional methods instead of strictly digitally. Proportionally there was something odd about the characters. They appeared as if a Japanese artist used to the manga format were trying their best to draw in the western style. The nuances of the poses, muscles and frames for the characters was slightly off compared to the actual Marvel model sheets. Not that it mattered, Sega released a game that was part brawler and part side-scrolling adventure.

The new graphics engine they created could scale the sprites with very little loss in fidelity. Sega used this to zoom out of action sequences and allow all four players to be seen climbing buildings, castles or going through caves independently. It was a groundbreaking gameplay and visual element

The game was fun if a bit hard. Unlike the Captain America game I didn’t mind putting quarters in this title. I’m not sure if it was a rare title but of all the arcades I visited in my youth I only saw two Spider-Man cabinets. Perhaps this lack of exposure was why the game was rarely mentioned in comic book to videogame comparisons.

Konami had a higher profile release with the six-player X-Men arcade game. The deluxe version of the cabinet was pure excess but could actually be found at several arcades I frequented. It was two oversized screens wide and featured a dedicated joystick and buttons for the individual characters. The massive cabinet was about as big as three regular cabinets stacked side by side. The wraparound art featuring full color graphics from the Marvel artists themselves was a statement to the industry as much as to gamers. Konami had declared themselves the all-time king of the brawler (and of licenses too).

The game had a certain anime stylization rather than the comic format from Sega. This was because the 1992 brawler was based on an animated pilot from 1989. The Pryde of the X-Men was Marvel's first attempt at getting an X-Men animated series off the ground. It was produced by the Japanese Toei animation studios. That was the same studio that worked on other iconic shows from the 80’s including GI Joe, JEM and the Holograms and the Transformers.

My brothers and I loved the pilot episode and had wished that a series would have been made from it. The quality of the designs and animation were much better than the Fox Kids! series that appeared a few years later. But I digress…

The game itself pulled the locations and character designs right from the animated pilot. Each of the X-Men had a special, screen clearing attack based on their powers. For example, Storm could summon a series of whirlwinds and Nightcrawler could zap across the screen with his teleporting powers. Other powers, like Colossus' energy field were made up by the game designers, but this discrepancy was overlooked by most fans because the game was tremendous fun. It worked well with a single player but was best experienced when all six characters were on screen fighting off waves of robots, sentries and lizard men. The title was difficult as were the other Konami arcade brawlers and like those experiences the last level featured a battle royal against all of the previously defeated bosses.

Where Sega's hardware could render scalable sprites Konami's was capable of throwing sheer numbers on screen. Between the players and all the possible opponents there could be up to 16 large sprites on screen, fighting, shooting and performing vibrant special moves all without slowing down the game. It was an impressive feat that would have possibly been impossible on any other hardware.

One studio that tried their hand at the brawler would disappear as fast as they came. Tatsumi released Big Fight: Big Trouble in the Atlantic Ocean in 1992. The game was rarely, if ever seen in the arcades. It borrowed a number of elements from the Capcom brawlers, not the least of which were it's character designs, especially the gang members. The game was unique for a number of reasons. It took place entirely inside of a gigantic cruise ship / floating city. Players could actually select the path they were going to take at the end of each stage. This was one of the few games that allowed players to explore different branches.

Something else that made the game unique was the story mode. If a player defeated a boss character then that boss could be selected as a playable character as well. The game was unique graphically for its use of parallax scrolling. Different layers of sprites moved at a different speed and it created the illusion of depth between the foreground and background. This was an important technique in the pre-3D era of game programming. Unfortunately the game was simply too ambitious to accomplish everything the studio wanted to. The control was lacking, the animation sloppy and the experience felt rushed. Tatsumi took their best shot and they should be remembered for pushing the genre forward.

Where Sega capped the end of 1991 with a big licensed title, Konami had given the genre another high-profile title in 1992. This buzz was important because there was a tremendous drop in the number of brawlers that year and a downward trend through the rest of the decade. I featured 18 games released in 1991 but only highlighted 8 for 1992. Those few numbers had not been seen since 1989. The brawler was a fun diversion but had fallen out of favor for most gamers. This was because Street Fighter II was released in 1991. The modern fighting game had arrived. The market changed overnight. Studios were busy answering the demand from audiences and arcade operators. Yet the brawler would not die, Konami, Capcom and now Sega would make sure of that.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 8

Capcom and Konami seemed to dominate the market in 1991 however several other developers were innovating the brawling experience as well. Video Systems Co. (VSC) was a startup not widely remembered. Their actual contribution to the industry was in creating the Aero Fighters series. The team that developed Aero Fighters formed Psikyo and took the series with them when Video Systems Co. closed at the end of the decade. VSC developed a stand alone brawler named Karate Blazers that was not bad, it combined elements and design aesthetics from titles like Final Fight and Streets of Rage but with slightly different play mechanics.

The main characters in Karate Blazers had the typical punches and kicks used against waves of opponents. The distinct element the game had were that attacks could be powered up and kicks or punches could release waves of energy. Think of the Street Fighter special attacks but in a brawling game. The characters could also perform strikes that moved horizontally across the screen, flying kicks and diving headbutts that traveled further than any regular jump attack could. This ability to cover the screen in attacks gave the brawler an interesting dynamic as players now had the effective range of firearms with the combo ability of a fighter.

A better established publisher, Jaleco, was trying out different themes with the brawler as well. The studio gave 64th Street, A Detective’s Story some unique elements. Visually it was a sort of hard-boiled brawler set in a prohibition-era city. Of course it would have been more authentic if the fashion wasn't based on a late 80's interpretation of the culture, not to mention steampunk robots that fought the heroes. I'm pretty sure that Elliot Ness and the Untouchables never had to fight Al Capone's robot mobsters. But I digress…

64th Street was memorable for how the grapple element worked on opponents. Up until that point a person could grapple an attacker and perform a judo throw to the immediate left or right. In many cases the throw could hurt opponents that were approaching. Jaleco allowed players to choose which direction the thrown opponent would go, this included directional up or down on the screen. Previously the top or bottom of the screens were blind spots for players. Opponents could sneak up on them and strike them cheaply that way. 64th Street allowed gamers to not only throw opponents at each other in those directions but to even throw them off of platforms, like moving rail cars. It was a play mechanic that I do not recall ever being used again.

By this time SNK and their Neo Geo arcade cabinet were beginning to gain momentum. They wanted to capitalize on the success of Capcom and Konami by developing and publishing some memorable brawlers. Burning Fight was one of SNK's first dedicated brawlers. The game was very formulaic and nothing exceptional in terms of character design, animation or bosses. The only notable things about this game were the obvious rip-off of Hulk Hogan as one of the boss characters and the location. Burning Fight was set in Japan. The architecture, locations and landmarks were clearly Japanese. It must have been refreshing for Japanese gamers to see an urban brawler set in areas they recognized, going so far as to feature a cameo from Osaka's creepy robot clown Kuidaore Taro. The rivals appeared more like the silly gaijin and Yakuza that they had seen in pop culture than fantastic gangs made up from hair metal bands.

Japan was beginning to break out of the shell of pandering brawlers exclusively to the west. More manga and animé-inspired designs would begin appearing in titles. Mutation Nation was another title released by SNK that had a little more polish and originality than Burning Fight.

The game was based around two heroes with unique fighting abilities taking on a mad scientist and his grotesque mutants. Scores of human gang members, masked weirdos and monsters made their way out of a futuristic city towards our heroes. Players had access to special moves that could be triggered by holding down and releasing button combinations. These special attacks did not diminish the health bar. The rivals were unique character designs. The mutants were less the off-color humans depicted in Marvel comics and more like the monsters fought in the henshin / Power Ranger type shows. The experience was fun, original and proof that SNK was quickly becoming a contender in the brawling arena.

The next titles they released that same year would further cement their status.
Japanese developers were going full bore into the Neo Geo platform. Previous to SNK most publishers developed arcade games using their own proprietary hardware and software. There was a standard created by the Japanese amusement organization, JAMMA, that standardized control boards so that games could be swapped out by arcade owners. Changing out some vinyl stickers and marquee signs while keeping the same controls was less expensive that buying entirely new cabinets for each game. The problem was that publishers took most of the profits from developers they might have contract to program the title. The Neo Geo platform could be configured with multiple games on a single cabinet. Each arcade board was encased in a large cartridge, like a home console. Arcade owners would be able to swap out marquees and games relatively quickly on an SNK cabinet. Developers got a cut of the profits on the Neo Geo setup with SNK publishing all of the titles.

Alpha Denshi was one of the early Neo Geo developers. Their game Ninja Combat was quite more than a take off of Ninja Gaiden. There were five playable ninjas, a generic red and blue ninja, a larger green ninja and two females, each with their own specializations from weapons to magic. Characters had strong and weak attacks depending on how long the buttons were held. The attacks were ranged, from ninja stars to shockwaves sent from a samurai sword. Characters did not have to wait for opponents to be immediately upon them in order to do battle. The boss characters ranged from modern martial artists to demons. The main boss was a green-robed magic user that grew exponentially into what was, at the time, one of the largest sprite based characters ever featured in a game. At his maximum size the character took up 2/3 of the screen. It was an awe inspiring site for arcade players and a bit gruesome as the hands and head of the character could be removed during the battle.

The hardware from 1991 was not capable of handling sprites at a tremendous size. The effect was achieved when the clever programmers at Alpha Denshi made up the segments of the body (like hands and forearms) from individual large sprites. This technique was not really seen again until Marvel vs Capcom, some seven years later.

Robo Army was another SNK title with a decidedly Japanese take on the west In it a pair of soldiers were transformed into cyborgs to combat a mad scientist bent on turning people into machines. It was not unlike Mutation Nation, replacing mutants with robots of course.

The title did poach the location and theme from the film Robocop. In the sci-fi movie Robocop was patrolling the streets of New Detroit. In Robo Army the soldiers were fighting through Neo-Detroit. There were no truly revolutionary elements in the game. Visually and thematically is was fun nonetheless. The robot and cyborg designs were cool and they broke up the monotony of punching random thugs in the face.

The last noteworthy title that SNK released in 1991 was Sengoku. It was a hybrid title in that it featured both brawling and slashing elements. The game had a power up system that automatically upgraded the user from one sword, to multiple swords and finally to be able to transform into different magical creatures in order to defeat spirits and monsters in a sort of post-apocalyptic world.

The game was very heavy on the stylization. It featured a cool Japanese guy wearing a red leather jacket and a shirtless "cool" American wearing a purple vest, purple chaps and purple hat. Once the characters were powered up they could transform into one of several different types of mythological ninjas or samurai. These transformations came with speed and attack power ups. They were not permanent changes for the character, each spirit character was on a fixed countdown clock. Unless the player transformed back or collected spirit orbs then they would out of time and turn back into their original characters. The ability to switch between characters on the fly was revolutionary. The best character for each type of villain could be queued up at a moments notice. It was not unlike the ability to switch swords in Muramasa the Demon Blade.

In one year SNK dropped a library of brawlers that would have made any major publisher proud. They would continue to follow the trends over the decade and try out many other genres. The brawler that saw the most sequels was Sengoku, getting 3 numbered titles over the decade.

Not to be outdone Irem had released a sleeper fantasy title named the Blade Master. It featured sprites and details that were a higher quality than Golden Axe, and arguably Knights of the Round and King of Dragons as well.

The game was a pure hack and slash version of the brawler genre. There were no magic potions, no weapon upgrades, just level after level of fantasy monsters. Stylistically some of the monsters appeared more like aliens but overall the designs were great. Boss characters were huge, some were steam and magic machinations that were a sight to behold. The gameplay was nothing new but the use of exotic locations and combining some tried-and-true mechanics in a fantasy world helped Irem carve out a niche for themselves in the incredibly busy year. The year would close out with a revisit to comic book licenses. One of the titles was considered the best comic book brawler ever made and the other faded into history. I hope to see you back for that blog.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 7

Konami came out swinging in 1991. Their first licensed title of that year was considered by many long-time Simpsons fans as the best videogame based on the animated series. I would be inclined to agree with them. Konami approached the series in the completely opposite direction than Data East did with Captain America and the Avengers. The show was just beginning to gain momentum, it was not the pop juggernaut that it became a few years later. Konami did not have to go out of their way to ensure it received any special treatment. Instead of simply licensing the series and throwing some random game together, or worse yet, ignoring the important Simpsons canon, Konami did a great deal of research and stayed completely true to the source material. They went so far as to capture the early artistic style of creator Matt Groening, whose fingerprints were all over the earliest seasons. Konami had applied a greater level of detail even than when they released the TMNT game which was impressive because at that point there was still not a tremendous amount of Simpsons animated material to draw from.

The game revolved around the kidnapping of Maggie Simpson by Mr. Burns. The Simpsons clan traversed the known Springfield universe to get her back, including a stop off at Moe's Tavern, the Springfield Discount Cemetery, Channel 6 and the Nuclear Power Plant. The game was filled with details pulled right from the show and plenty of hidden gags. Players were tempted to go near doors only to have them swing open and flatten the heroes. The same gag had been featured in Crime Fighters, also by Konami, a year before. Other gags involved not moving the joystick and watching the hidden animations and word balloons appear over the characters. To break up the monotony mini games were placed between the levels.

As far as brawling titles went the game had it all. Wave after wave of unique rivals, mostly goons hired by Mr. Burns, but also the rabbit characters from Groening's Bongo comics, wrestlers, robots and ninjas as well. There were also secret double-team attacks as well. If two characters stood side by side and the players did not move the controls then they would team up to do damage to opponents without getting hurt themselves. Homer could throw Bart at opponents, Marge and Homer could roll over opponents and Bart and Lisa would hold hands and run down opponents while yelling their lungs out (my personal favorite). The animation was great with plenty of nuances that followed the style of the show and didn't appear to have been designed or programmed by the Japanese.

Capcom was trying a multi-tiered approach to the brawler that year. They tried out different genres and artistic styles for the brawler. Two of which were medieval titles that came out the same year. King of Dragons was a brawler with RPG elements. Players could choose from one of several classes including the traditional Elf, Wizard and Dwarf. Characters fought off waves of orc's, goblins, dragons and other fantasy monsters.

The characters had weapons that could be "upgraded" by collecting treasures and defeating opponents. This meant for stronger attacks and vitality through the course of the game. These same elements were explored in the sister title Knights of the Round. Knights of the Round was a fantasy brawler as well. Instead of five character classes there were three main characters to choose from; King Arthur, Lancelot and Percival. They, and their opponents, were based on the legendary figures. The sprites were slightly larger than those from King of Dragons and more detailed. As the characters progressed and gained levels and experience their weapons and armor reflected the changes. If a player went from beginning to the end then they would have earned the best possible version of the weapons or armor. If a player decided to join a game in progress then they would begin at level 1 weapons and armor. The game offered no shortcuts to eager cheaters.

Knights of the Round and the King of Dragons were not Capcom's first attempt at sword and sorcery action games. A year prior they had released Magic Sword. It was a 2-D adventure game that had many of the same elements featured in both brawlers. Characters could earn weapon, armor and magic upgrades. They could even earn sidekicks to help with battles and those sidekicks could be upgraded as well. The three games were very fun to play and offered a unique take on the fantasy brawler. They were all far enough removed from Golden Axe as not to draw immediate comparisons yet were still as accessible. The games worked in the arcade and were able to be ported to the Super Nintendo home console quickly because they lacked the complexity or large sprites featured in the Simpsons arcade game. Capcom would see a tremendous potential in keeping their arcade efforts and home versions almost identical. In many cases they could charge people twice for playing the same game.

Both Konami and Capcom were experimenting with animation techniques and visual stylization in 1991. Both put forward games that featured original characters with cartoon elements.

Captain Commando, the game featuring the company mascot (CAPtain COMmando). The good Captain was joined by a trio of odd archetypes. The alien mummy Mack the Knife, the futuristic ninja Ginzu and the robot-piloting Baby Head.

The characters were silly and their opponents were over-the-top. The game was like a send up of the old superhero shows where a handful of heroes fought against impossible odds to save the planet. The game was fun but featured elements that were reminiscent of things explored by Konami the previous year. In one part of the game the main characters could jump into robot suits and set opponents on fire. This was similar to the robot suit that players could use against the alien queen at the end of Konami's Aliens game. Also a portion of the Captain Commando game featured the characters flying over the ocean on rocket powered hoverboards. This was not unlike the skateboard mechanic used in Konami's TMNT game.

Konami did not just meet the challenge laid out by Capcom, they exceeded it in many regards. The Simpsons was a runaway hit in the arcade, their other brawler was not as popular but it was equally fun. Sunset Riders was a brawling interpretation of the wild west. It featured four generic heroes, two of which fought with pistols and two of which fought with rifles. The four were on the search for outlaws and their bounties. The characters could walk along frontier towns, forests and trails, in some parts of the game they could even climb hand over hand on suspended rope bridges. Some of the levels featured the cast on horseback chasing down opponents. The game was filled with as many hidden animations if not more than the Simpsons. Players that happened to pass an open door could run into the room and get kissed by a girl for extra health. The characters could also interact with the environment. They could shoot ropes holding barrels down onto opponents, take hold of gatling guns and shoot up to fortifications and swing on chandeliers while shooting at bosses inside a saloon.

Sunset Riders was not the first attempt for Konami to get into the western. In 1986 they released a game called Ironhorse which played somewhere in between a brawler and Castlevania, which they also created. Ironhorse was set entirely within a stolen train and the main character had defeat wave after wave of opponents as he ran towards the engine. Ironhorse was nothing special, especially when compared to Sunset Riders. The game was a caricature of the wild west, further distilled by Japanese animé aesthetics. Despite being entirely based on gunplay the title was cartoony and lighthearted. The title was definitely not politically correct. Good guy and bad guy archetypes were brightly painted interpretations of history. The Mexican character for example, Cormano, wore a pink sombrero and poncho. Saloon girls entertained our heroes with a flirty can-can, in the opening credits the hero Billy could clearly be smoking a cigarette and the Native American boss character "Chief Scalpem" and his tribe were as stereotypical as the studio could get. Needless to say a game like this would have never been released by a US developer. Yet remember that the Japanese and most other Asian countries do not share the same cultural perceptions. Many countries on the other side of the Pacific did not have a Civil Rights Movement, they did not change policy or social customs because of the minority. What some people in the USA would consider stereotype they might consider entertainment. If anything Sunset Riders was pandering to the same crowd that grew up on westerns in the USA.

Despite its skewed take on the west the game was still highly memorable and playable. The levels were familiar versions of western locations. Characters battled scores of bandits not only on horseback but also while riding atop a train, while raiding a fort and even running on top of bulls during a stampede. The levels were an amalgamation of cool movie moments that never were just as the cast was made up of familiar faces that were brand new. The boss fights were intense but not outright cheap and the music kept a familiar guitar twang throughout. In fact there were several digitized audio files that worked well in the game, none more than the dialogue between the characters and bosses. After the very first boss, Simon Greedwell was defeated he took a tumble from the balcony of his business and said with a Southern drawl "bury me with my money." That overly dramatic line would stick with my brothers. 20 years later whenever one of us said that line we would laugh and wonder why there was never a sequel.

Most brawling games rarely saw a sequel, the few ones that came out were mostly released on consoles. Double Dragon had a couple of arcade sequels which, depending on whom you asked, were of diminishing quality. Konami did develop a sequel that was hands down better than the original title. Vendetta was a sequel to Crime Fighters, the 4-player brawler from 1989. The original game had the bad luck of being released the same year as Final Fight. Konami got buried by Capcom's urban brawler. A few years later they came back with an updated game which met, and in some ways, topped Final Fight. Now I don't want to say anything too outlandish because it appears that 99% of the arcade vets remember Final Fight but only 1% remember Vendetta. If it were great then surely it would have been enshrined in the arcade hall of fame. I certainly would not want to offend the 99% but the game definitely deserves a spot in the top 10 list of all-time brawlers.

Vendetta was a trip back to the elements that made the brawler so appealing, especially to young men. To audiences it was a better version of Double Dragon with support for 4-players. Then they could dig deeper and find all sorts of advances to the genre. Players could punch, kick and combo attack opponents just as they could in other urban based brawlers. They could also grab and strike as well as throw opponents, that was nothing new. However the moves that characters had in this game were unique and greatly rewarding especially for those that played in a group. Players could sneak up behind opponents, grab them in a full nelson and let teammates punch them. Players could also strike opponents on the ground. Best of all none of the four playable characters shared the exact same move set; one kicked, one punched, one dropped a knee and one dropped elbows on the prone opponents. Up until that point most brawling games had characters that played fair and let gang members get up before they could be hit again. The bad guys fought dirty and heroes never could in other games. Vendetta was a counter to that logic. If a bad guy could pull a knife or gun on the heroes then why should they hold back? Players could smack into opponents with a running clothesline, throw molotov cocktails, pick up dropped shotguns and swing nail bats with reckless abandon.

There was nothing more satisfying than playing in a group and experiencing the mayhem that was Vendetta. Throwing opponents off of elevated platforms, hitting them with a sack of cement and watching them go blind for a moment before following up with a sucker punch. It satiated the bloodlust of the teenage mind by allowing it to fulfill the violent fantasies that were denied in other brawlers. It predated the design and chaotic atmosphere that made State of Emergency one of my favorite games of all-time. However it was a game that wast best enjoyed with a group of players, the best mechanics in the game were dependent on having other players team up on the rival gang. Arcade players rarely ran in packs, let alone played the same game at the same time. Final Fight could be enjoyed as a solo experience or with a team, that was the balance that Konami lacked here and why Vendetta was not as well remembered. The other reason why it might have been overlooked was because it was a retelling of the original Crime Fighters plot. Except instead of kidnapping several women this time it was one girl that was kidnapped. The damsel in distress was starting to become a stale plot.

Vendetta was a spectacle, every level tried to outdo the last and even the final level consisted of taking on all of the bosses in a battle royal (just as in the original Crime Fighters). The gang characters were not quite typical with the occasional masked, chubby voodoo brawler or whip-cracking dominatrix chasing down the heroes. The game even allowed players to fight off rabid doberman pinschers (much to the chagrin of animal lovers). The bosses were typical exaggerated gang archetypes. Leather-clad tough guys and suit wearing kooks that could have fallen out of a comic book. Those bosses and even the heroes themselves were actually a Japanese interpretation of US pop culture. In the original Crime Fighters the four main characters looked identical with only the color of their pants separating the brawlers. In the sequel there were four distinct characters, members of the Cobras gang. The black ex-boxer Blood (wearing red mind you), the former pro wrestler Hawk (which looked just like Hulk Hogan), Boomer the blonde karate fighter and Sledge the ex-military convict (who looked like a white version of Mr. T.) made up the playable characters. The crew was fighting off the menace of the Dead End gang, which did sound very intimidating, and featured characters like Buzzsaw Bravado, the Rude Bros. and the leader Faust.

It was always interesting to see how Western pop culture or even sub-culture was assimilated into gaming design. Hard rock and heavy metal had always maintained a certain level of popularity in Japan. The characters Poison, Roxy, Axel and Sodom from Final Fight were inspired by the metal scene from the late 80's and early 90's. In Vendetta it was a bit of US wrestling culture that took the lead. Mr T and Hulk Hogan were old favorites from TV that had appeared in Japan following their pop explosion in the 80's. A lesser-known wrestler by the name of Bruiser Brody had made quite an impression on the Japanese during his various tours. A version of the character was featured in Vendetta, dubbed the Missing Link (not to be confused with another wrestler actually called the Missing Link). The videogame version was a crazed fighter not far removed from the actual wrestler and his gimmicks.

It could be argued that the brawler evolved from Japan pandering to Western markets. Kung-Fu Master and Karate Champ were groundbreaking games but in order to appeal to the US arcade market the publishers had to reflect the culture. Double Dragon succeeded because it was set in a pseudo New York. Almost every successive brawler from that point on was steeped in western culture. The Simpsons, Aliens and TMNT were popular licenses. Sunset Riders was a take off on the TV western. Even fantasy brawlers, Knights of the Round and King of Dragons were based on western rather than eastern mythology. Final Fight and Vendetta were superior versions of Double Dragon with hopefully enough western cultural references to keep gamers putting in their quarters. Both Konami and Capcom made sure that 1991 was a very good year for players. The rest of the industry would continue pushing the genre forward, releasing wave after wave of new takes on the genre. We shall explore these in the next blog.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, Part 6

The start of the new decade, 1991, was a gold rush. Every arcade company wanted to make their fortune on a brawler. Data East saw the runaway success that Konami enjoyed with their licensed titles and decided to secure a high profile Western license for themselves as well. The result, Captain America and the Avengers, was without a doubt the biggest quarter-waster my brothers and I had the misfortune of playing.

The game featured Captain America, Iron Man, Vision and Hawkeye taking on the Red Skull and a collection of villains from Marvel Comics. Unfortunately the people at Marvel seemed to have little creative control once they signed up with Data East. The game played as if the Japanese developers flipped through some comic books in the lobby of Marvel studios and then never looked at them again. The character sprites were small and not detailed, possibly so players in the USA would not be offended by the gross disregard to the legendary designs. Playing as the characters was fun, I am not going to lie about that. Each character had ranged attacks and close up strikes. The first time I threw Captain America’s shield into the head of a robot and watched it bounce back to me I was quite giddy. I’ve enjoyed almost all of Data East’s arcade releases however this game left me disappointed.

The game ate quarters like mad. Every strike from rivals seemed to eat up health at an alarming rate. Quite honestly it probably ate quarters faster than P.O.W. Back then SNK had an excuse, the genre was just getting started. The line between difficulty for the sake of challenge and difficulty for the sake or ripping off players hadn’t been established yet. Data East had no excuse. Once they were out of health the characters would drop to their knees and exclaim “I can’t move…” at which point my brothers and I would yell out “Feed me another quarter!” The more time I spend talking about this game the more disappointed I get. So let’s move instead to another company that let me down and then redeemed themselves in the same year.

My friends know that I am passionate about Sega games, however D.D. Crew, the first traditional brawler from the publisher left me cold. Visually it was impressive. The size of the sprites, the level of detail and animations were pretty good. However watching Sega appropriate early Hip Hop culture and try to make a brawler “urban” and “street” was painful to watch, or rather listen to. The soundtrack consisted of an endless loop that sounded like a rip-off of a Whodini song with Tracy Morgan saying “Shut up already” over and over.

The game was as formulaic as it could be. There were four named characters, the buff King, the cool cop F.F., the black boxer Buster (possibly named after James “Buster” Douglas for which Sega had just released a Genesis game) and the elderly kung-fu master Gung Ho. They fought wave after wave of typical baddies on a way to fight yet another crime lord. The nonsensical phrases the bosses spouted off was laughable. There were two things I did enjoy with the game, the level set atop of a cable car which was great design. Too bad they had to fight a Bruce Lee clone. The other thing I enjoyed was being able to hurl opponents straight up in the air and watch them come crashing down a few seconds later. Other than that the game didn’t hold my attention, or the interest of the rest of the public for that matter. Sega managed to do far more for the genre in a game on a platform with less memory and processing power that same year.

Streets of Rage by most estimations, or at the very least the passionate Sega community, began the best console brawler series ever released. The variations on the formula were subtle but well executed. There were three playable characters, all undercover police officers and one of which was Blaze, a female cop. A strong female lead in a brawler hadn’t been seen since Tyris in Golden Axe. The three characters played more or less the same. Sega did not follow the conventions of having one being the slow strong one, the small fast one or one in the middle. Those character archetypes would be featured in the sequels.

Streets of Rage was a great game. The officers were on the trail of a crime lord. They had to beat up the gangs he controlled in order to get to him. The city was slightly futuristic and fairly original. I always felt that the rival designs were poached a bit much from Final Fight but it was still a great game. Where it innovated was in the use of crowd clearing moves. Players could earn special attacks which consisted of radioing for backup and having a cop car shoot a round of flaming mortar shells which rained down on opponents. This acted similarly to the magic spells in Golden Axe which affected all opponents on screen. By comparison Final Fight and other brawlers featured characters that could perform a crowd clearing move at the cost of some health points. I enjoyed the Sega mechanic much more.

1991 started out a bit rough for the arcades but things quickly improved. While not all the titles were winners, the majority were memorable. Sega showed that the arcade was no longer the exclusive domain of a great brawling experience. They managed to pick up where River City Ransom left off and brought the brawler into glorious 16-bit life at home . As for Capcom and Konami the rivalry to claim the title as greatest arcade developer would reach a fever pitch. The next blog will look at the greatest single year that both studios had in the arcade.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 5

By the end of 1989 and the start of 1990 several studios began experimenting with the direction of the brawler. In addition to Capcom the major innovator of the decade would be Konami. At that point the best most studios were doing was copying the Double Dragon formula. As exceptional as Final Fight was it still borrowed heavily from the Double Dragon elements. What was needed was something different. Konami became very successful at applying the brawling elements to licensed games.

Good arcade games based on movies or TV shows were very sparse. Great licensed brawlers were even rarer. Konami changed all of that in the end of 1989 by releasing an arcade version of the wildly popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. This game was far more memorable than Crime Fighters, their previous brawling effort.

The game was layered with amazing details pulled right from the cartoon series. Plenty of gags, inside jokes, sound bites and hidden animations were crammed into the game. It was fanservice of the highest caliber, but it was quality fanservice that tried out new directions for the genre. The majority of the game was the traditional brawling experience. However that branched out when players were zipping down the streets fighting the evil Foot Clan on rocket powered skateboards. The illusion of moving quickly through a location while still being able to fight opponents with the existing play mechanics had not been done better than that previously. Konami was definitely onto something with this game.

In 1990 Konami turned Aliens, a groundbreaking science fiction movie, into a different type of brawler. Despite being two completely different types of subject matter, the lessons they learned from TMNT were carried over into Aliens. They preserved the attention to detail from canon and shaped that as a game narrative.

Where Aliens differed from the other brawlers was that the players did not use their hands or feet. Instead programmers put different types of high powered machine guns in the hands of players. Several of these weapons were pulled right from the movie. Each gun, rather than each player, had its own effective range, strength and weakness. This distinction made for a unique gameplay element. In the traditional brawler each player was free to explore the screen and take on any rival they could. It was very much every man for himself in those games. In Aliens some of the species took several shots to put down and by that time there would be another following it or sneaking up on the player from the opposite direction. Gamers that worked closely together, perhaps one with a short range flamethrower and one with a long range assault cannon could get further into the game than players that went on their own.

That year was not filled entirely with great advances in the genre. Studios were quickly developing their own take on the brawler and they weren’t all great or memorable. Several were applying the formula as fast as they could and pushing a title right to markeet. That was the sense I got from Taito when they released GROWL. A brawler set in the '30s-'40s about a group of adventurers tackling poachers in the jungle. The game was a thinly-veiled Indiana Jones ripoff as scores of thugs went after fedora wearing heroes.

The handful of rival designs had nothing more than color palette swaps. Random men and women wearing the same costumes in different colors would simply show up to fight players over and over. The only interesting elements going for the brawler were some of the stage designs. Fighting aboard a steam ship as it sailed down a river, or atop a train as it sped through the jungle made for memorable levels. Everything aside from that was truly forgettable.

Technos was guilty of poaching the Double Dragon formula when it released the Combatribes. They added a third, black character, to the lineup of Billy and Jimmy Lee clones just to keep things fresh. I will go on record to say that the first time I saw the famous Guile haircut from Street Fighter II. It  was with the blonde character in the game a full year before Capcom revolutionized the fighting genre. Granted the graphics and animation were improved over Double Dragon, but the case was true for every other game released three years after Double Dragon.

The things that made this game unique had to do with the combat system. Downed opponents could be kicked, picked up or swung around by the ankle. Swinging opponents around and throwing them into each other was truly my favorite part. Rarely did brawling games allow for rivals to be struck while they were down. If they were allowed to fight dirty why couldn’t the players be allowed the same luxury? The game also exploited the health allowance that Konami charged in Crime Fighters. Quarters granted players a set amount of health. Thankfully unlike Konami that health did not go down by the second.

After Konami had pushed the genre forward with TMNT and Aliens players had an elevated expectation for brawlers. Taito and Technos seemed to have missed that expectation and as such GROWL and Combatribes saw a limited following. The next year would be the defining moment for the brawler. Unfortunately it got off to a rough start.

Westone (a publisher I never heard from again) developed a game for Sega. Riot City would be one of the companies first forays into the genre. The game was a pretty forgettable brawler, with a questionable design team and lackluster graphics.

About the only thing I remember from the game was the funny strut that the black character had. I guess he had to be even cooler than the white guy in the game so he walked like a rooster. Seriously Sega, what was that all about? Thankfully the rest of 1991 would give Sega another chance to get things right. In fact every major developer and publisher seemingly released at least one brawling game that year. Some were fantastic, some were okay and a few ones were real stinkers. We shall explore these over the next few blogs.