Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Street Writer Blogcast, Episode 4

Every time I release a new Podcast I will release the text version for my hearing-impaired friends. I don't want them to miss anything that I cover. Also you are welcome to leave comments and questions for this podcast as well as future podcasts on this blog.

Welcome back to the Street Writer: The Word Warrior Podcast. I'm your host Noe aka BigMex. Our series on the great rivalries in fighting games continues. Today we are going to look at one of the most heated science-fiction rivalries of all time. Most fans of the Star Wars films know that the series creator and director George Lucas was heavily influenced by Japanese cinema, in particular the work of Akira Kurosawa. The pacing, story arc and even characters were influenced by different Kurosawa films. The designs for the Jedi and Sith, especially Darth Vader, were based on the robes, kimonos and samurai armor from classic Japanese culture. The question that some fans have is what would have happened if a Japanese studio had designed the heroes and villains in the Star Wars universe instead of the US or British counterparts? How would Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader have appeared? How would the weapons and technology have differed? Would there have been such a thing as "The Force." Perhaps the closest we will ever get to knowing is actually from a game developed by Capcom. Star Gladiator Episode: I Final Crusade was released in 1996. It was promoted as if it were a movie. The arcade posters for the game were designed to look like theater posters. The characters were listed like actors in a movie and the credits included the names of the actual developers at Capcom. Star Gladiator was a 3D fighter, which was still rare for Capcom at the time. It was the first entry in what was hoped to become a series. At the core of the universe was a deep-seated rivalry. A hatred between a villain that would try to conquer the universe and an orphan that stood in his way.


To be fair the Japanese orphan named Hayato Kanzuki (no word if he was the descendant of Karin Kanzuki) was infinitely cooler than Luke Skywalker. For starters he got around the galaxy on a space motorcycle (Lobo eat your heart out!). It wasn't just any old space bike but one that could do warp speed! His costume consisted of a dark black armor (which was actually villain armor) over which he threw a white tee shirt to signify he had changed sides. He wore a futuristic hachi game, a forehead protector worn by ancient Japanese soldiers. These could also be seen on the head guards worn by the characters in the Naruto series. Hayato's hachi game was of an unknown alloy. Without it chances are a cut he received in battle would have gone clean through his face. At the very least he was left with a cool scar and an even better story to tell his friends. He was a scoundrel with a heart of gold and some pretty great fighting moves. A sort of martial arts Han Solo. He helped take care of orphans like himself on Earth but knew he needed money. So he became a bounty hunter but that didn't pan out too well for him. He joined the Fourth Empire a secretive group that wanted to take over the planet. This was when he received his uniform and scar. When Hayato learned of their terrible plans he joined his friends at the Star Gladiator program, the elite warriors of the Federation Force.


 So if Hayato was the combination Luke Skywalker and Han Solo of the universe who were his respective Chewbacca and Princess Leia? Well Capcom was going for broke and they had a large hairy alien named Gamof Gohgry from the forest planet of De Rosa. The enormous Gamof was the obvious substitute for a Wookie. The love interest was a British-Chinese gymnast named June. She had lost her father, a scientist recruited by the villain of the series, and mother during the events leading up to the Fourth Empire. June had a personal vendetta and was willing to die in her quest for revenge. She was anything but the dainty type of female character. In a nod to Star Wars continuity June actually had bun-shaped pigtails that looked like Princess Leia's hairdo from Episode IV.


The villain, the one that had put the entire planet on notice was a brilliant scientist named Dr. Edward Bilstein. He was a Nobel-Prize winning physicist and geneticist. He had picked up on some work started by his ancestor. He was looking for a new limitless source of energy called Plasma Power. Bilstein became obsessed with his work, turning him mad in the process. He made a breakthrough and discovered that Plasma Power was based on emotion. He learned that all living creatures had an innate sixth sense and that it could be tapped into and controlled. This is what generated Plasma Power. This was Capcom's way of addressing the Force without naming it outright. By harnessing this psychic energy Bilstein could create perfect weapons. These Plasma tools deflected projectiles and never ran out of power. The difference between the plasma weapons and the traditional lightsaber was that plasma weapons could be shaped for a particular role. For example Hayato's sword was curved like a samurai katana. June had hoop and Gamof had an axe will all the properties of a lightsaber. Except that those that mastered the plasma weapons could actually touch the blades without losing fingers in the process. Humans or aliens that did not know how to control their powers would be cut to ribbons. With his weapons Bilstein wanted warriors that he could control. He began recruiting people from across the cosmos for his research. Those he couldn't coerce he simply kidnapped. This went for both the scientists he needed as well as the people that would be experimented on. Bilstein had secretly begun creating clones and even robots that could use Plasma Power. He was eventually found out and arrested for his crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to life on a remote prison satellite circling the planet Zeta. He created a cyborg body for himself and broke out, massacring everyone along the way. It was easy to see why he was feared.


With his robotic body Bilstein was much stronger than any human. He fashioned himself a Plasma Broadsword, larger than any lightsaber. With his army of clones and robots he began terrorizing the cosmos. He dubbed his army the Fourth Empire. The reason for this was because the number four was considered unlucky in many Asian countries. In Japan the number was synonymous with death. Bilstein, like many legendary tyrants (and politicians!) worked on fear. The design of Bilstein was amazing. His armor was illuminated with codes and runes, similar to the costumes in TRON yet retained the classic armor shape of the shogun warlord. The addition of a skull-shaped face mask upped the intimidation factor. I was much more impressed with the design of this villain than any other in Star Wars canon. Yet to be fair it was poached from the design of two of George Lucas' greatest creations. Darth Vader was the obvious one, the less obvious cue was from General Kael, the villain from the 1988 film Willow. Capcom had of course worked on a Willow arcade and console game that they released in 1989. They knew the heroes and villains well. General Kael was a fearsome warrior, and like Vader he was huge. General Kael also had a great sword with angry serrated edges and armor that put fear in other men. The rumor was that the General was named after movie critic Pauline Kael, who seemed to be extra hard on every Lucas film. This was George's way at taking a jab back at her. But I digress...


The Earth was without hope. The Federation Force did not have an answer to Billstein's plasma warriors. They assembled a task force made up of any fighter that knew how to use plasma energy. It was a rag-tag group of soldiers, aliens, space pirates and even street performers. Some alien races saw Plasma Power as magic rather than science and could easily harness its abilities. Others saw it as divine right and knowing how to use it made them inherently better than other species. Hayato was crucial in the Star Gladiator lineup. He was an accomplished fighter without a weapon but was the best one-on-one chance against Bilstein. He also knew the inner workings of the Fourth Empire because he had seen it first hand. He knew about the cloning tanks, the genetic manipulation and even mind control experiments. There was actually a clone of Hayato causing havoc in various outposts on orders from Bilstein. By switching sides there was now a price on his head. Humans, aliens and bounty hunters would be after him. None of course was more dangerous than Bilstein and his soldiers.


Capcom did a wonderful job of creating a world, or rather galaxy that audiences could sink their teeth into. Their development team had been used to creating some memorable 2D stages but in 3D they didn't have an extensive history. Their PSX console development came in handy when it came to modeling and texturing unique locations. Within a few years of starting 3D fighting game development they had really come a long way. As for how they built the levels themselves they took a page from what other studios had done. In the far distance there were flat backdrops that rotated around the players. This created the illusion that they were in three-dimensional space. Closer to the foreground were actual 3D sets. Some of the models were buildings, elevated roads, space ships and satellites. Some of the stages had working elevator platforms that made it look as if the player were headed into the cosmos. Other stages actually had battles happening in the distance where the Federation Force and the Fourth Empire space ships were shooting at each other. And still other stages were pitch black where only strikes from the plasma weapons illuminated the environment. It gave the game a tremendous sense of atmosphere, this was especially true when facing Bilstein. In the final stages the only things you could make out were his eyes, the runes on his armor and his sword. These were certainly cues that the Star Gladiator team picked up from Episode VI, Return of the Jedi. Specifically the battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader when they dueled inside the darkened Death Star II.


Bilstein had built Hayato from up from nothing. He taught him to harness the power of plasma weapons and become a mighty warrior. He was so impressed with his development that he made a clone of Hayato known as Black Hayato. The two actually shared a psychic connection. The betrayal of his star pupil enraged the tyrant and made him all the more crazed. In the final battle of the game Hayato and his group managed to topple the Fourth Empire. Hayato himself had killed Bilstein in an epic space duel. I could only imagine that this would have been one of the greatest things to appear in film. Hayato and Bilstein doing battle aboard the Fourth Empire strike cruiser as it orbited the Earth. Hayato hoping that the force field creating an atmosphere on the ship did not fail and suck him into the void. Bilstein fuming with hatred towards the young orphan. Back and forth they went, hacking at each other with their glowing swords until Hayato struck the final blow. He returned to Earth but had no time for the heroes welcome. The first thing he did was help the orphans he had left behind.


Now if you compare the rivalry between Hayato and Bilstein to all of the other great rivalries I have been mentioning so far which one does it remind of? It is closest to the one between Terry Bogard and Geese Howard. The two characters had different styles and different purposes. Bilstein was a boss character that did more than mirror the moves given to Hayato. He had a counter for every fighter in the game, plus he could extend his sword so that it covered more than a body length ahead of him. This gave him a tactical advantage regardless of his opponent. Just as in Fatal Fury there was a tremendous amount of planning going on here. Directors Hideaki Itsuno and Eiichiro Sasaki had to map out the story. Character designs were fleshed out by lead artist AKIMAN. The team had to pick and choose the high points of their story. These things would be reflected in each stage and every playable and secret character. Their influences for these places and characters extended beyond Star Wars and included nods to Blade Runner, Buck Rogers and 2001: A Space Odyssey as well. As with Fatal Fury and even the Art of Fighting the player went from location to location and got a piece of the story with each fight. Except instead of going from borough to borough in Southtown the characters were going from planet to planet. Bilstein, like Geese, wanted it all and the final showdown aboard his ship circling Earth was not unlike the showdown atop Geese Tower overlooking the city. The scrappy orphan managed to take down one of the most powerful bosses ever. Just like Fatal Fury it turned out that killing the rival was only the beginning.


The universe was at peace for a very short moment. The various colonies had begun rebuilding when suddenly were under siege from Fourth Empire loyalists and remaining soldiers. A lot had happened in one year, there were new alliances and even human warriors rather than clones defending the Fourth Empire. The 1998 title Plasma Sword - Nightmare of Bilstein was a worthy sequel. It was one of the last 3D Capcom fighting games. Bilstein was back with a vengeance. His armor had changed somewhat in both plating and color. This time the helmet was a variation on an ancient Japanese imperial court headdress. It turned out that his rage was what kept animated him from beyond the grave. The physical portion of Bilstein that survived the first game was encased in this new armor, his psychic energy now existed elsewhere in a new form called Ghost Bilstein. Ghost Bilstein was the ultimate plasma weapon. He survived everything the Federation Force threw at him, walking through explosions and fire without so much as a scratch. He went from planet to planet with a single minded purpose, revenge against Hayato. As you can imagine the only thing more dangerous than one Darth Vader was two of them. The Star Gladiators were joined by some new allies, including former rivals. The team traveled the cosmos putting down Bilstein's warriors and breaking his hold on key planets. They gambled on the idea that if they destroyed Bilstein's physical form that his ghost would die was well.


There was a major shift in the graphics this time around. They were improved as animations, character models, and textures had greater fidelity. Capcom did not create any 3D objects in the foreground this time. No gantry, no roads, vehicles or buildings encompassing the field of view. They instead created a higher resolution 3-dimensional plane for the play field which offered better lighting and reflection effects. In the distance the 2D wraparound was based on a much higher resolution 3D image so that it appeared as if Capcom had created worlds in greater detail. Players got a chance to play through many traditional science fiction settings, including the inside of a strike cruiser, an asteroid field, a wrecked metropolis and a jungle planet outpost. Also unlike the original game there were no real edges on these maps so players could not simply score a ring out against their opponent. Each fight was a fight to the death. The main characters raided Bilstein's flagship at the end of the game. They blew up his cloning tanks and destroyed the ship it from the inside out. Everyone jumped ship right away and in dramatic fashion Hayato escaped from the burning wreckage at the last moment on his space bike. They assumed that Bilstein died in the process but could never find a body. The disappearance of Ghost Bilstein would suggest that the heroes had prevailed. I would like to think that somewhere out there the rage of Bilstein was still alive. It was putting together a new body and looking to get revenge the heroes of galaxy. Perhaps in the year 2360 he would launch another crusade. There would be a scrappy orphan, his wife June and talented daughter Ele ready to stop him. After all, great rivalries never really die at least not in video games. One of the most heated rivalries had indeed transcended death. In the next entry we will look at two more characters that had a beef that went beyond the grave. As always if you would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help...

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Monday, May 30, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 26

Gauntlet had established a market for fantasy-inspired brawling games and Golden Axe shifted the overhead perspective to the side scrolling brawler that most fans came to appreciate. Two years before Golden Axe however Taito had released a side-scrolling hack-and-slash title that was also inspired by the Conan films. Rastan Saga was released in 1987 and featured a barbarian that was not unlike the character from the Schwarzenegger films.

The character made his way through caves, dungeons and castles fighting off all sorts of mythological monsters. Along the way players could swap out the sword for a battle axe, mace or flaming sword. The game was notable among side scrolling hack-and-slash titles because it allowed our hero to jump down onto opponents with his sword drawn. Stabbing bad guys in the head was something that young male gamers could never get enough of.

The game developed a following and a sequel came out a year later Unfortunately Rastan Saga II did not manage to capture any of the atmosphere of the original. It was bright and cartoonish, not unlike the difference between Bad Dudes and Two Crude.

When I first saw and played the game I was wondering if Taito had made a hack-and-slash for kids. It was one of the few arcade games that I didn't have a taste for or even a desire to beat. Thankfully there were many more games at home and in the arcade to keep me occupied.

When Taito came back to their senses they released a game worthy of the legacy. Warrior Blade: Rastan Saga III took advantage of the runaway popularity of the brawler. It was released during 1991, the biggest year for brawlers. The game had the same visual stylings of the original game and added a whole new crew of characters including a thief, sorcerer and bandit. The deluxe version of the game also featured a dual screen display similar to the Ninja Warriors. It was well done but did not really have any groundbreaking elements that were not already covered by Golden Axe.

Gaelco, a Spanish arcade developer had published their own 2D hack-and-slash title in 1991 as well. Big Karnak was a 2-player title that was set in ancient Egypt. The heroes fought within caves and tombs using magic against all sorts of mythical creatures. The sprites were kind of small and the graphics unimpressive when compared to the games that other studios were producing. The setting and theme were about the only memorable things from this title.

If you remember the previous entries to the series I mentioned that the brawler declined steadily year after year following 1991. While there were some amazing titles over the next two decades they would become more and more spaced out. The true spirit of the brawler was actually filled in during those in-between years and not always with the multi-player experiences arcade visitors had grown to love. When developers began incorporating the best elements of the brawler into new console experiences the sheer number of "pure" brawlers fell. In the next entries we'll see how the brawler evolved into some of the most successful titles of the modern era.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 25

The following games found a balance between the traditional side scrolling mechanics and the free-roaming brawler. They too featured wave after wave of opponents to battle but offered new ranged game mechanics to do so. Players no longer had to wait for an opponent to come to them, they could instead pace out the advancing bad guys with some well timed projectiles. We'll begin with the one that combined animé stylization with side scrolling action.

Namco's Rolling Thunder from 1986 was not a typical run-and-gun game. Instead players had to carefully track through an enemy compound while shooting or avoiding hooded sentries. Players could jump up or down to platforms and even sneak behind fences or inside of doors to evade captors. Although the game was still set in 2D, being able to interact with the environment gave players the illusion that there was height and depth to the levels as well. It also added a bit of a puzzle playing element to the shooting mechanic. Players did not have unlimited ammo so simply running and shooting was out of the question. Players could save up machine gun rounds between levels by shooting only when they had to. What the main character, the super spy named Albatross, lacked in this game was the ability to perform close range combat with the bad guys. That gameplay element would be introduced a year later by Sega.

The original Shinobi had very similar play mechanics to Rolling Thunder in that the character could jump to different levels and avoid enemies and strike from a distance. Joe Musashi used ninja stars to strike but could upgrade to a pistol. The game was unique for its use of a magic system which could wipe opponents off of the screen or do tremendous damage to a boss character. Both Shinobi and Rolling Thunder would stay popular with gamers and sequels would be released on arcade and home consoles.

The ninja was beginning to develop a following in the US and by 1988 two major ninja games were released. The brawler Ninja Gaiden I had featured previously in this series. The second was the side scrolling action game the Ninja Warriors by Taito. As the game allowed two-players on screen fighting against opponents at the same time it could be considered a brawler. What made this game remarkable was that it was the second game that Tecmo released that was two monitors wide, the previous one was Tecmo Bowl from 1987. Ninja Warriors was a brutally hard game. Players had to have an absolute sense of range and timing in order to get very far into the game on one quarter The ranged ammunition, the ninja stars, were limited and there were no weapon upgrades. Players could wait for opponents to reach them and then cut them down with a short sword, but that also put them at risk of having opponents reach them from behind.

Visually the game was impressive. The levels were highly detailed and the sprites were large and well animated, I want to say that the moves were rotoscoped for how fluid the animation looked. On two displays it was like being the hero in a widescreen movie. However that sensation would be short lived. The Ninja Warriors was the first arcade game where I felt as if the ending were a hollow victory. I do not mean the poor translation in the credits either, the part that read: "A revorution broke out. And everything became to and end. The troubled country seemed to be finished by the death of the wicked machines. But the peace did not came."

Instead I refer to the defeat of the military dictator. He was a fat military character that was groveling and running with fear inside of his palace. He was impervious to ninja stars so players had to walk right up to him and cut him down with a knife attack. He went down with one stab, not very final boss-like at all, what came next would shock and sadden me. Some general, whose face was hidden in the darkness, pressed a red button, detonating a bomb hidden inside the robots, flattening the palace of the dictator. I was stunned. There would be no sequel, no chance to continue the adventure. The heroes were disposable. By extension the players felt the same way as well.

That same year another Japanese studio made players feel like real heroes. Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja was released by Data East and had some of the best two-player side scrolling combat in any brawler. In fact when I did not mention this title early on in my brawler series my friend was upset. He was wondering how the "Double Dragon" of 2D side-scrollers could be left out. I told him that I would actually be saving this entry for when I spoke exclusively to the 2D brawlers that helped define the genre. What Bad Dudes did was more than define the genre. They set a standard for the Japanese pandering to young Western male gamers. President Ronnie, who happened to look a lot like the popular Ronald Reagan, was kidnapped by the Dragon Ninja clan. It was up to a duo of street fighters to save him. If that wasn't a premise for a low-budget 1980's action film then I don't know what was!

Bad Dudes was a better version of  Kung Fu Master and Vigilante. To show off the pedigree Data East even made Karnov, the first boss in the game. The famous strongman and fire breather was one of their earlier arcade stars. In Bad Dudes players fought waves of ninjas approaching from the sides, and could jump to different platforms to continue the adventure similar to Rolling Thunder or Shinobi's mechanics. Players could get knives or nunchaku's for weapons, however their best strikes were dished out with bare hands. The characters could charge up a punch by holding down the attack button and then release it once their character was glowing with energy. The force of the punch would actually send an invisible shockwave through the air, knocking down any ninja that was at least 2/3 of a screen or closer. This worked well on boss characters and large groups of opponents. Players could kick ninja stars out of the air, knock opponents off ledges and do all sorts of over-the-top moves.

The only game that could have possibly topped this game for action and impossible stunts was another one by Data East. Most brawling fans might think I was referring to Sly Spy, the 1989 title that gave Rolling Thunder a run for its money. The game even began with the secret agent jumping out of an airplane and shooting at terrorists while free falling over the White House! However like Shinobi and Rolling Thunder the game was a 1-player affair.

The title that tried to outdo the Bad Dudes was called Two Crude Dudes aka Crude Buster. The 1991 title had a completely different art style, one which did not settle with most fans of the original Bad Dudes. The characters were large, brightly colored, mohawk wearing bruisers, fighting to save a post apocalyptic New York. It was as if the Japanese were trying to make a game that looked like a comic book, complete with word balloons during strikes, only they had no idea how American comic heroes were supposed to look or act. The game allowed the Crude brothers to interact with the scenery. They could lift and throw cars at opponents, yank street signs out of the ground and swing them like clubs and even knock down buildings The game pandered to every insignificant detail the programmers knew about the USA. There was graffiti on the walls, a fallen Statue of Liberty and even a KISS knock-off boss in the first level. The problem was that the game might have been appealing to pop culture from 1981, rather than 1991.

The other side-scrolling Data East games would fare better because they would be based on licenses. Before the company ruined their good name with the abysmal Captain America and the Avengers game they released Robocop. The 1988 title was based on the hit movie and featured locations, sound bites and villains right from the film. Players could shoot or punch opponents, they could even get different types of ammunition as well. The film and game based on it were so well made that Sega poached the concept in ESWAT a couple of years later.

Just as they had released a one-two punch with Bad Dudes and Two Crude in 88 and 91, so too did they follow up their run-n-gun attempt with Robocop 2. The sequel played out as you would expect, the publisher took some liberties with the characters and locations but followed the general direction of the movie including turning Cain into the nemesis. The game was actually more like a brawler as it provided 2-player action and free roaming levels. The game was notable for the limited use of depth in the game. If the two player-controlled Robocops came at the intersection of a street or an alley, they could actually shoot at opponents in the distance as well as those to the immediate left or right.

Licenses were hot for many of the arcade brawlers, one of the biggest licenses from 1988, Superman was again developed by Taito. Unfortunately this arcade game was very simplistic. It was a 2D brawler that had side scrolling levels where Superman could kick and punch his opponents as well as flying levels where he could shoot his heat vision and even energy punches at meteors and helicopters.

The reason I would consider this a brawler was because it was actually a 2-player game. The second person could play as "Red Superman." He was nothing more than a palette swap of the original character. Same powers, same strength, same everything. Which was a shame really. My brothers and I would pretend that he was actually Valor, an alien from the far future that had powers and abilities that were comparable to Superman. DC had actually featured Red Superman characters for some time, not including Shazam / Captain Marvel. The best part of the game was probably the soundtrack which was a digitized version of the classic John Williams soundtrack.

A slightly better 2D brawler based on a comic book appeared in 1991. SNK published Eightman, a game based on a classic manga and anime character. Eightman was a cyborg that could move super fast. He was defending humanity from rogue robots and cyborgs. The character was very influential and helped inspire cyborgs like Robocop and even some of the villains in Mega Man.

The game had a unique power up system which allowed Eightman to gain stronger attacks and even get screen-clearing moves. Player-2 in the game took control of Nineman, the red palette-swap version. The two fought in futuristic landscapes. On some stages of the game they ran quickly along the ground, racing cars and fighting other high speed villains. It was a great effect that was even better than the flying sequences in the Superman game.

Post 1991 the side scrolling brawler, run-and-gun and even hack-and-slash were not long for the arcades. The formats were kept alive on home consoles through the early 90's but trends were quickly shifting. The next blog will highlight the last great hurrah from the hack-and-slash brawlers. I hope to see you back for that.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 24

The previous blog mentioned the migration of the run-and-gun from the overhead to the side scrolling format. Several studios were experimenting with what could be accomplished with the different camera perspectives. Sega had a stealth style game called Crack Down in 1989. It allowed two players in the role of special agents to travel through maze-like factories and offices while planting bombs and sabotaging the plans of a mad scientist. The levels were presented on two half screens for each player with a shared map at the top of the display. This allowed both players to move independently from each other and meet up at the exit once the objectives had been reached. This independent gaming was something never tried before in brawlers or other genres in arcades.

A year later Sega returned to the super cop theme in the game ESWAT. The title ditched the espionage format from Crack Down and went with a side scrolling shooter. In that title players took a cop through the ranks from beat cop to ESWAT (Enhanced Special Weapons and Tactics) officer. They earned power armor to take down massive opponents like helicopters, robots, monster trucks and giant gorillas.

Through the 80’s and 90’s a solid theme always took advantage of the available technology. The original Metal Gear, released in 1987 by Konami was set in an overhead perspective and it allowed gamers to run, gun, sneak and spy. The game probably would not have been as successful if it were in a side scrolling format.

By 1998 when technology improved Hideo Kojima and company delivered a much richer experience in 3D through Metal Gear Solid. Hideo always fancied that the game would work in 3D and took every effort to make sure that players understood that his game was more about stealth, inventory management and logical puzzle solving rather than just running and gunning. Not every game was able to make the transition into 3D and find some level of success. One of the earliest hack-and-slash titles also included RPG elements of inventory management and magic.

Gauntlet was released by Atari in 1985. It was a wildly popular arcade game that laid the foundation for every multi-player, arcade hack-and-slash title. Players could choose between a warrior, valkyrie, wizard and elf, each with close and ranged attacks. Gamers could not stop pouring quarters into the title through most of the 80’s. Without it making the fantasy genre accessible then there probably would not have ever been Capcom’s amazing Dungeons and Dragons or Treasure’s Guardian Heroes.

Unfortunately when Williams decided to dust off the license in 1998 and put it back in the arcades with updated character designs, mazes and 3D graphics the players did not really seem to notice. Gauntlet Legends was feature-for-feature a superior title but the gameplay lacked. Williams did not understand that because the title moved to 3D it did not mean the gameplay was able to make the transition as well. There was almost the same amount of time separating Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid as there was between Gauntlet and Gauntlet Legends. Some games worked well in 3D but by and large not the brawling experience, or in this case the hack-and-slash. I had pointed out the nuances in control and gameplay that suffered in 3D when the brawler moved to that format in previous blogs.

Sega found out the same thing for their side scrolling brawler Altered Beast. The 1988 title was a cult favorite. Players took on the role of a resurrected Greek hero as he fought through waves of undead creatures and monsters to save a princess. Along the way the character could power up and transform into a half man half creature including a werewolf, weretiger and werebear. Each creature had their own special attacks and could even be supported by a second player.

WOW Entertainment, a Sega in-house studio, decided to bring back Altered Beast in 2005. They expanded the library of creatures that the hero could transform into and even updated the story to make it contemporary. Science rather than magic caused the hero to mutate into different beasts. The title was panned by players and reviewers. The transition to 3D, updated story and loose controls could not hold a candle to the original brawler.

Other studios would find that working closely in the side scrolling format could be successful if they kept experimenting with gameplay elements and themes. The next blog will highlight games that combined elements of the run-and-gun with the side-scrolling brawler. Without these titles introducing new elements then modern brawlers like Double Dragon and Final Fight might never have existed.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Street Writer Blogcast, Episode 3

Every time I release a new Podcast I will release the text version for my hearing-impaired friends. I don't want them to miss anything that I cover. Also you are welcome to leave comments and questions for this podcast as well as future podcasts on this blog.

We are still looking at the great rivalries in fighting games. Up until now most of the rivals were strangers. Terry Bogard knew that Geese Howard had killed his father but that was about all he knew about the man. Ryu knew even less about Sagat before the two fought. Was it possible to create a rivalry out of two people that knew each other, or more important, two people that were related? How would that be presented and would it make a fighting game series interesting? Many games featured "friendly" rivalries. Ken and Ryu were best friends and fought from time to time in canon. Ryu did not always come out on top which lent credibility to Ken being the greatest fighter in the Street Fighter universe. Other games also featured friendly rivals and some even had siblings that fought with and against each other. The most dramatic of all rivalries however was between father and son. This was the basis for the Tekken series by Namco. There was actually an inter-generational rivalry happening in the franchise. The founder of the Mishima Zaibatsu, a powerful multinational private army and weapons supplier, was Jinpachi Mishima. He had a son named Heihachi whom he despised almost immediately. The feeling was mutual and when Heihachi came of age he took over the family company and had his father imprisoned. Well imprisoned is a kind way of saying he chained Jinpachi to a rock and buried him alive. Heihachi had a son named Kazuya. When Kazuya became powerful enough he dethroned his father. Well dethroned is a kind way of saying he threw his old man off of a cliff. Kazuya had a son named Jin, care to guess what happened when Jin came of age? The heart of the rivalries really began with Heihachi and Kazuya. The two debuted in Tekken, released by Namco in 1994, and had appeared in every sequel.

Kazuya was the star of the original game and Heihachi was the original boss. As was tradition the boss had started a tournament to find the greatest fighters. This tournament was called Tekken: the King of the Iron Fist. At first audiences did not know that Kazuya and Heihachi were related. They also did not know that Kazuya was just as bad as the boss. Up until that point every fighting game had been about good versus evil. This was the first series that broke from tradition. The main character and boss were both evil. I'm not talking about anti-heroes versus villains either, I mean both of these men were really the bad guys. Series producer Katsuhiro Harada had a very different approach to his fighting game. Tekken was one of the early titles to be completely in 3D. The graphics immediately grabbed the attention of players. Once hooked Mr. Harada wanted to hold their attention. He challenged convention at every turn. He placed robots, cyborgs, assassins and monsters in the lineup against the human characters. The plot involving a father and son rivalry was icing on the cake. Mr. Harada showed audiences how extremely dysfunctional one family was. This game was as far from Street Fighter and Fatal Fury as could be.

The rivalry between Kazuya and Heihachi started at a young age. Jinpachi warned Heihachi that having a son would make him weak. Heihachi wanted to prove his father wrong. When Kazuya was five years old he threw him off of a cliff. He said if he was the true heir to the Mishima Zaibatsu then he would climb out and return a powerful man. Kazuya survived the fall and did return many years later during the events of the first Tekken tournament. Kazuya was covered in scars, built from a lifetime of fighting man and beast. At the end of the tournament he returned the favor and took his father to the edge of the same cliff and threw him over. Audiences were not prepared for this. They thought that he was going to take his father to get help, or at the very least give him a proper burial. Instead he dropped him and turned to the camera and smiled. It was one of the more shocking moments in game history. Proving ever resourceful, and taking a page from the Fatal Fury playbook, Heihachi survived the fall.

By the time of Tekken 2 Kazuya had taken over the family business and Heihachi had to enter the tournament to try an extract his revenge. As with all great rivalries the two were evenly matched. Unlike Sagat and Ryu where they had two different martial arts forms, or with Geese Howard and Terry Bogard where they had clashing styles, the techniques used by Heihachi and Kazuya were almost mirror images. Each fighter focused on different strikes in order to gain an advantage in battle. What it all boiled down to was technique and experience. Heihachi was able to gain the upper hand and went back to where it all started in his ending scene. This time he dropped Kazuya in the heart of an active volcano and flew away on a helicopter. The ending movie was beat-for-beat the same as Kazuya's original ending. Mr. Harada knew that a little dark comedy went a long way in the series. Audiences were eating up this bitter rivalry.

What many failed to realize was that the rivalry was an homage to a classic manga. Osamu Tezuka was considered the godfather of manga and anime. He was a pioneering artist from Japan that created hundreds of original characters and some of the most beloved stories of all time. One of his heroes was a doctor named Kuro Hazama aka Black Jack. The comic debuted in 1973 and the original run went on for a decade. During this time Mr. Harada and the Tekken team were growing up and were more than likely influenced by many of Tezuka's stories. Kuro was caught in a land mine explosion as a kid, it killed his mother and left him barely alive. He had required reconstructive surgery and skin grafts. When the doctor working on him asked the parents of his classmates if their children would be willing to donate skin they all turned him down, all except his friend Takashi, who was half-black half-Japanese. The skin was applied to Kuro's arms, shoulders and face. This left Kuro with contrasting patches that gave him a unique look. People were often put off by his appearance because he looked monstrous to them. This discoloration was actually featured on the fighting game characters Preston Ajax and Charlie Nash. Kuro dedicated his life to becoming a doctor and honoring the memory of his friend. He practiced outside of the system because he saw there was terrible corruption in the medical field, where only the richest could afford treatment. He had a private practice far away from any town. He would treat mobsters and regular people alike for the right price. He didn't have many friends but made contacts along the way of people that he trusted. One of these contacts had reached out to him because he was afraid of his father. This was where the seeds of Tekken were planted.

In an issue of Black Jack titled "Amidst Fire and Ashes" the doctor was introduced to a cruel tycoon. The issue opened with a volcano, Mt. Roar, that was erupting near a research center. There was a man in a suit looking down into the volcano but quickly walked away as people got closer. A park ranger spotted a charred body in the crater and lowered himself down to rescue the man. The body was badly burned but the person was still alive. The body was taken to a visitor's center. The man in the suit sprung forward and announced himself as the father of Ryohei, the burn victim. He seemed distressed that his son was dying. Black Jack offered his services but for some ungodly high rates. He knew full well that the man was the CEO of Nippachi Trading and could easily afford the ¥20 million bill to save his son. The man reluctantly agreed but only after Black Jack produced a note from the son, saying that he was going to have a meeting with his father and something may happen to him. He wanted the brilliant surgeon there just in case. Ryohei had a suspicion that his father may do something drastic and his hunch was right. Despite the lack of witnesses placing the father and son together at the time of the accident the CEO felt the pressure to save Ryohei. He agreed to Black Jack's demands and let him operate.

Mt. Roar continued erupting and the visitors were evacuated. Unfortunately Ryohei was in no condition to travel and only Black Jack and the CEO were left behind. The CEO actually tried to leave with the crowd until he was called out by the doctor. After operating on Ryohei the father was still eager to kill his son. He tried wheeling out the body on a stretcher towards the volcano. The doctor punched him out and said he would never allow any harm to the man he had just saved. It didn't take too much prodding from Black Jack to get a confession. It turned out that Ryohei did not want to inherit the company. It had dealings that he found unsavory. His first action would have been to dissolve the corporation. His father would not let that happen to the company that he had built himself. He wanted his son to be strong, in the business world people had to be as cutthroat as he was. His son didn't have a mean bone in his body. The name Ryohei could be translated to "good boy," despite his father's actions he still loved and forgave him. This made the betrayal sting harder for readers. Eventually the CEO came to terms with this and was willing to stay with his son and make sure that he recovered.

The volcano had become too dangerous and Black Jack was ordered to evacuate. The CEO swore that he would stay with his son. The two died on the mountain when it exploded. When rescuers found the bodies they said their hands were clasped tightly together. It was a heartbreaking ending. Then again most of the Black Jack stories were melancholy. The seeds for the evil corporate archetype had been planted in that adventure. The CEO was without a doubt the basis for Heihachi Mishima. In addition to being extremely wealthy and enjoying throwing his kid into a volcano the physical traits were more obvious. Nobody else had the same haircut and mustache. The template would return in manga form years later. Daikenjuro Kanzuki, the father of Karin Kanzuki from the Street Fighter Zero / Alpha series, was another dead-ringer for the CEO. He was not in the game series but instead the manga based on the game. He shared the same physical appearance of the Nippachi Trading CEO. Daikenjuro was similar to Heihachi in that the two had amassed a fortune that could only exist in a fictional world. I'm talking about Scrooge McDuck levels of wealth. They both had private armies at their command, corporate offices in every corner of the globe, residences that stretched over several hundred acres of prime real estate and politicians in their back pocket. They both seemed untouchable. Of course both also had family members who were eager to dethrone them. This made for an interesting dynamic in the game and manga titles.

A volcano would appear in the backdrop of other fighting games but few stages were actually set inside of a volcano. This location certainly meant something in the Tekken series. Mr. Harada had meant for it to be the final resting place for both Heihachi and Kazuya. He had talked about finishing the Mishima Saga in Tekken 7. This was why he framed key scenes in the story mode and actual stages inside the cauldron. Unlike the reconciliation in Black Jack this father and son duo were willing to drag each other into hell. It was a bitter rivalry to say the least. You would be hard pressed to find two characters in any series that hated each other more. Yet even with their extreme distrust of each other they had been known to team up, especially during the Tekken Tag Tournaments. Of course each person had their own reason for entering and would betray their partner as soon as they reached the end. Not every legacy character was filled with as much hate even when there was just cause to hold a grudge. Some of the rivals could not bring themselves to hate. This was the case between Takuma Sakazaki and his son Ryo. Ryo did not know that Mr. Karate was his father until the end of the original Art of Fighting. Yuri Sakazaki had been kidnapped and once she was rescued she begged her brother to stop fighting. She revealed that Takuma was behind the mask. It was one of the best twist endings in a fighting game.

Takuma would keep the mask around for when other fighters needed to be taught a lesson. He eventually retired the name and his son took over. At the peak of his abilities Ryo entered tournaments under the name Mr. Karate II. This version of the character ditched the bright orange gi that he wore in the Art of Fighting and King of Fighters series. He went with a solid black one in honor of his father. This version of the character debuted in the Buriki-One tournament. But I digress... Tekken was a series filled with many memorable rivalries. None were as intense as the ones between the Mishima family members. Writers and artists putting together their own stories would do well to remember that family could create the most passionate feuds.

One of the greatest rivalries in fighting game history was also one of the shortest-lived ones. The next part in this series will travel across time and space to resurrect an often overlooked title. Until then please leave a comment or tell me what one of your most favorite rivalries was. As always if you would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help...

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Monday, May 23, 2016

The Abridged History of the Brawler, part 23

The mechanics of the brawler had been a part of the gaming history at least a decade before Double Dragon. Before arcade players could fight wave after wave of opponents with their bare hands they had to defeat wave after wave of aliens in a spaceships in titles like Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) and Galaxian (Namco, 1979). When those ships were replaced with humans, usually made up of a few pixels, the genre began to evolve. Starting with Kung-Fu master the "Beat-em-Up" was the earliest of the Brawler formats. A year later the "Run-and-Gun" and "Hack-and-Slash" formats were born. Really the only difference between the gameplay was that fists were usually replaced with either guns or swords. In some games players could use fists, guns and swords to combat opponents. What I would like to do in this series is highlight how the graphics, gameplay and genres were constantly evolving. How these titles borrowed elements from each other, explored different formats, visual styles and mechanics The first titles I would like to mention were among Konami's earliest arcade hits.

Largely forgotten by most arcade gamers, Rush'n Attack was the 1985 title that really established the side-scrolling run-and-gun action for Konami. In the game a special-forces agent could fight with his bare hands and take weapons from defeated opponents. From flame throwers to laser rifles, each weapon had its own advantage and ammo supply. This game laid the foundation for a more popular title and one which has received countless makeovers since its debut.

Contra became famous for the Konami code (up, up, down, down, left, right, left right, B, A) which allowed gamers to have scores of lives on the home console version of the game. The 1987 arcade gem featured two-player action which had improved on the Rush 'n Attack formula. Players could jump up or down on platforms and shoot in 8 directions now. In portions of the game players could even advance in a behind-the-back POV. The diversity of weapons and nonstop action made the title very popular in the arcades and at home.

Before Contra had taken off in popularity the run-and-gun had been experimenting with different camera points of view. One of the earliest titles was Commando by Capcom. This 1985 title was set in an overhead perspective. For many developers this approach made sense. The formula had been used with great success previously. The only thing developers had to do was replace the spaceship with a soldier and space with a battlefield for them to advance on. Players could move around the screen in several directions and shoot at opponents but the screen mostly advanced up.

In 1986, before they developed their own arcade platform, or became heavily invested in fighting games, SNK had released the Ikari Warriors. The game allowed two players to control the mercenaries Ralf and Clark as they made their way through some unknown jungle. The game introduced a joystick with an octagonal handle that could be rotated to shoot in 8 different directions. With commando players could shoot forward and to the sides but not behind them. Ikari Warriors proved popular and like Contra several sequels were made. Today most players are familiar with the Ikari Warriors thanks to the King of Fighters series.

Through the 80’s most of the studios would try to see which format worked best for the run-n-gun shooter. Data East tried a variation of the overhead shooter first with Heavy Barrel in 1987. The game also made use of the octagonal handled joystick. The “Heavy Barrel” itself was a super rifle capable of mowing down the strongest opponents. It was a precursor to the BFG 9000 featured in Doom. Players had to piece it together by locating keys from fallen soldiers and corresponding chests scattered throughout the levels. My older brother had played the game so many times he had the locations of all the keys known by heart. He could speed run through the game before that concept was even invented.

A couple of years later Data East released a sequel. The 1989 game Midnight Resistance was presented in a side-scrolling format, similar to Contra. It kept the octagonal handle on the joystick and allowed players to assemble the mega-weapon from the original game as well. Little by little the side-scrolling format began to shift away from the overhead view. The genre seemed to work better for run-and-gun as well as beat-em-up brawling.

In recent years several major and independent studios had been using the overhead camera to create remake or classic-inspired run-and-gun games. Capcom found great success updating the graphics by preserving the classic gameplay in Bionic Commando for Xbox Live and they Playstation Network. They also released Commando 3: Wolf of the Battlefield for the downloadable services. Developed by Backbone Entertainment in 2008 the game actually borrowed the full name from the original 1985 arcade hit. The game preserved many of the classic run-and-gun mechanics over improved 3D visuals. Unlike the beat-em-up brawler which mostly suffered the migration to 3D the overhead shooting titles worked well with newer technologies.

By using a fixed camera perspective several developers were able to create new gaming experiences with a moderate budget and release them across several platforms. Space Marine: Kill Team, released by THQ in 2011 showed that the gameplay could still be as entertaining as it was 26 years ago while the dedicated Space Marine console game used a third-person perspective and was designed for a more modern experience. The side scrolling format would still remain popular for many run-and-gun titles and the best of these would be the Metal Slug series, developed by Nazca and released on the SNK Neo Geo systems through the mid to late 1990's.

The Metal Slug games were a work of art, as difficult as the best side scrolling run-and-gun titles and more beloved than Contra, Ikari Warriors or any other long running title. The contributions of the game and team at Nazca to the run-and-gun genre were so profound that they deserved (and would get) a blog of their own someday… It turned out that side scrolling camera worked well for beat-em-up, run-and-gun and even hack-and-slash titles. We shall explore these transitional titles in the next blog.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The King of the Iron Fist Tournament is going strong through 2016!

If you like fighting games you are on the right blog. If you like fighting game tournaments and big prize money then you might not be at the right place. BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment America Inc. have kicked off the North America King of the Iron Fist Tournament 2016. Hopefully you have gotten a chance to compete as it has already travelled through a few states. For those that are big on conventions you can actually catch the tournament if you also happen to be going to Wizard World. Only about a quarter of the scheduled dates have passed and there are many more to come. The best part for competitive players is that each tournament event will feature a prize pool of $3,000 with $1000 going to the top winner. If you manage to get to the North American Final the prize pool sits at $20,000 with a cool $10,000 for the champion.

If you need some encouragement the Director of the Tekken Project, Katsuhiro Harada is keeping a close eye on North America and wants to see how our fighting game community competes. Of course knowing about the tournament and entering are two different things. Here is a link to the official rules and dates from BANDAI NAMCO. If you manage to win at one of the 18 locations you will receive travel and lodging to the final, scheduled to be at an unknown location. Sources say it might be the G Corporation Headquarters. I'll keep you posted as I learn more. For a list of upcoming and remaining tournament dates see the list below.

I hope to see you at one of these tournaments!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Painted faces, where have I seen that sumo before?

If you are a long-time arcade fan then chances are you are familiar with a rare Nintendo game called Arm Wrestling. It was a sort of spiritual successor to Punch-Out!!. The game came out in 1985 and it featured a cavalcade of silly arm wrestlers, including Frankenstein's monster, a burly Texan and pro boxer Bald Bull in a mask. One of the standout rivals was a sumo wrestler named Kabuki. What made this character unique was his face paint. Apparently this character had a flair for the dramatic. I'm not sure if the idea of mixing kabuki theater face paint with a sumo wrestler was solely Nintendo's idea or if the designers had mixed elements from various pop culture sources. I'm leaning towards the latter. The thing was that the seeds were planted for over-the-top characters to be featured in fighting games.

I credit Nintendo with developing a series of international archetypes in the original Punch-Out!! The various boxers from around the world had unique personality traits to go along with their memorable appearances. These caricatures would be emulated by Capcom and various studios when designing the first crop of fighting game all-stars. In 1991 E. Honda would take a page directly from Kabuki. Few remembered the Nintendo character came first and that was okay. Capcom was helping spread fight culture through their characters. The same year that Street Fighter II came out a manga called Aah! Harimanada debuted. The series was by Kei Sadayasu and would eventually be adapted into an anime series and fighting game as well. The series featured the brash Isao Harimanada, a sumo wrestler who was arrogant and insulting to opponents. He was a very dramatic character that would wear masks and headgear to the tournaments, including samurai helmets. The character would boast that that he would beat the 69-consecutive win streak of Sadaji Futabayama or retire trying. The series was kind of boring. It was a definite "Mary Sue" sports hero from Mr. Sadayasu. Isao could be rude and self absorbed and was somehow supposed to be appealing to young readers. As far as fictional sports figures go there was nothing that stood out for the hero. Audiences could guess that he would indeed reach 70 consecutive victories over the series. There was no real chance that he would lose any match. The only thing that changed were which techniques he used in order to beat his opponents. For that matter the rivals were far more interesting than the main character. One of the former champs that gave Isao a run for his money was named Kishin-Nada. The character had a nasty scar on the side of his head.

Kishin lost the match and felt humiliated by Isao, as did many of his opponents. They were all working hard to get a rematch but none took it more personal than Kishin. At the end of Isao's streak a mysterious figure appeared. This sumo was a former champ and he wore a creepy wakaonna, or girl mask from the Noh plays. It was as if Isao would have to wrestle someone with the same flare for the dramatic. When the wrestler removed the mask audiences gasped at his painted face. It was sacrilege that a sumo wrestler would actually wear kabuki face paint into the ring. This figure was trying to create a personae that was every bit as dramatic as Isao. Of course eagle-eyed readers saw that despite the face paint there was a noticeable scar on the side of this new character's face. This fighter called himself Kishin-Ryu, the dragon or ultimate version of Kishin-Nada. I'd like to think that this was Mr. Sadayasu's nod to E. Honda.

There was a Mega Drive (Sega Genesis) version of Aah! Harimanada that came out in 1993. The game by Megasoft was sorely lacking in the control department. Audiences could play through a campaign mode and every battle in the manga was presented in the same order within the game. After a few matches the game felt tedious. It would be a grind to try and beat 70 opponents in a row. What was cool however was how each sumo had their own strength and weaknesses. These things manifested as special attacks and super strikes. Imagine a version of Street Fighter but solely made up of sumo wrestlers. Super thrusts, headbutts, throws and slaps were some of the many techniques players could learn. A dozen characters each had their own super attacks that could be figured out and mastered in a two-player mode. I often wonder how Street Fighter would have been if characters had entirely new move sets applied to them in each sequel. What would have happened to E. Honda if he had new moves added to his library in Turbo, Hyper and Super versions of the game.

I hope you think about this rare series and the flamboyant sumo wrestler that appeared in other games the next time you play Street Fighter. Truth of course was much more interesting than fiction. Isao Harimanada was nowhere near as interesting as the real Futabayama. The record-setting sumo wrestler was blind in one eye but he never revealed this to anyone until after he retired. His opponents could have of course used this information against him. He was certainly much more humble about his abilities than Isao. Maybe a fighting game might base a character after a real legend. Stranger things have happened!