Home consoles had been trying to get in on the brawling action through most of the 90's by the turn of the millennia they had found their rhythm. Unfortunately at that point the brawler had lost popularity. This blog will highlight the arcade influence on console versions of the brawler as well as independent brawlers inspired by arcade hits.
In 1990 Konami released RollerGames in the arcade as well as on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game was licensed from the television show about an updated version of roller derby. The teams and players in the league were very over-the-top, not unlike pro wrestlers. It was great fun on TV and part of that spirit made it into the arcade. The game took place on one of several roller rinks located throughout the USA. Players actually could move all over the screen as they could in other brawling games while their characters automatically skated on the rink. The effect could be dizzying if players focused on the changing track instead of the approaching opponents. While fun the arcade version was a shameless quarter waster.
The player had to win a set amount of matches between the male and female teams. All the while the opponents were relentlessly dropping teammates and earning points. The battles were nonstop as teams seemed to have an unlimited supply of opponents right up until the clock ran out. Players that did not manage to throw, dropkick or punch out enough opponents could kiss their quarters goodbye.
The experience changed completely when RollerGames was brought to the NES. The game became an adventure platformer featuring one playable character from each team. The character traveled from city to city, avoiding obstacles and pitfalls en route to defeating a boss, or manager from each team. At the end they fought through a corporate tower and defeated the big boss. It was nonsensical, just like many things that were popular in the 80's!
Very few brawling titles worked well on the 8-bit systems. The limit on sprite sizes, animations and colors made the brawler look like a minimalist genre. The next generation of hardware would be able to create experiences much closer to the arcade.
Of course there was always the PC, which promised to bring arcade-quality graphics home. For the most part they did. The gameplay, design and animation however were sorely lacking in many of the independently produced PC brawlers. One of the worst of the lot was by a British company called Electronic Devices. In 1990 they created a brawler set in San Francisco that was simply horrendous.
There were generic heroes and villains. Audiences could tell that they had poached various titles in order to recreate the genre. The control was bad, the villains were silly, there was one bad guy made up of three little people riding on each other's shoulders! The power ups made no sense, one even looked like an Academy Award! The prize for worst PC brawler was clearly won here.
The consoles on the other hand had a lot of promise, especially once they transitioned to 16-bit systems. Capcom, as always, was one of the first to develop console titles based on their popular arcade games. Final Fight 2, released in 1993, was a Super Nintendo exclusive. The sequel to the arcade gem came out years after the original and featured new characters, locations and gameplay elements. It expanded the universe of Final Fight by taking Mike Haggar and his associates Maki and Carlos out of Metro City on a trip around the world.
Players learned that Mad Gear was a global crime syndicate that touched just about every continent. The bosses in this game were as memorable and diverse as they were in the original. The control was solid and Capcom had finally learned how to make a brawler that featured three characters. In the original Final Fight release for the SNES only Cody or Haggar were playable characters. A special edition featured Guy and cost more because of the memory costs associated with storing the information for one more sprite-based character.
In 1996 Final Fight 3 had returned to the streets of Metro City. Haggar returned to clean out the scourge of a new gang that had moved into town. The game introduced super attacks for the main characters. Dean and Lucia had replaced the other supporting characters in this story. A separate energy bar could be filled up and a screen-clearing super attack could be unleashed on bosses or groups of Skull Cross gang members alike.
It was a fun play mechanic that helped keep things fresh. The details in the sprites, animations and character designs did well to mirror the original title, however the sprite-based engine was beginning to show its age. Consoles were quickly moving to 3D experiences and players expected the genre to follow suit.
Fighting Force, released by Core Design in 1997, was originally pitched to Sega as Streets of Rage 4. Sega passed on the title so the title name was changed. The game was an early attempt at moving the brawling franchises to 3D. The polygon characters were large and animated slowly. The fighting mechanics lacked the speed or accuracy of 2D titles. The camera focused the attention of the player towards a particular direction and could not be changed. Core Design gave a clear example of how difficult it was to create the brawler in 3D using console hardware.
A few year later, in 2000, Naps Team tried to improve o the 3D brawler formula with Gekido. The animation was faster, camera improved, levels slightly more interactive and designs a bit more polished than Fighting Force. The console still lacked the raw 3D rendering power of most arcade cabinets but they were quickly catching up.
Very shortly the Playstation 2, Dreamcast and original Xbox would debut 3D brawling titles that were visually as impressive as anything released in arcades. Gekido could have been considered a forerunner to the Bouncer, which had been looked at in the previous blog.
Naps Team had released a sequel on the GameBoy Advance in 2002. Gekido Advance; Kintaro's Revenge was a step back to traditional 2D, sprite-based gameplay. Which at this point was very unique. Most studios were struggling to bring 2D franchises into 3D. Naps Team made a sequel that convinced most gamers that the series was originally rooted in 2D. It was well done, well animated with solid character designs.
The game was decidedly Japanese animé influenced. The villains ranged from typical goons to monsters and mutants, a sort of Night Slashers meets the King of Fighters. The main character, Tetsuo, looked and moved similarly to Kyo from the KOF series. The game did well at recreating the classic feel of a brawler but kept things fresh by incorporating some fighting game mechanics and visuals.
The PC market in the west had a lackluster history with original brawlers however in the east things were different. In parts of Asia the PC market was often more popular than the console. The PC allowed DVD playback of course but also homebrew apps and small publishers could flourish. The PC's were of course online well before the consoles. Places like China and South Korea had a rapidly growing PC market. The studios in both countries were catching up with the trends in gaming. They were creating their own brawlers and fighting games less than a decade after they hit it big in the USA and Japan. That window of following the trends had grown shorter and shorter every year after 2000. The countries were able to develop and release their own mobile and MMO games a year or less after a popular title in the west had debuted. In other cases they were experimenting with the genres at a rapid pace.
Two of the better brawlers released in South Korea were Dark Judgement: by SOHO Studio of Hong Kong and localized in Korean by Frankenstein Studio, the other was Eojjeonji Joheun Il-i Saenggil Geot Gateun Jeonyeok by TG Entertainment. The second game had a long title but it was based on the manhwa "Lights Out." Comics in Korea were known as manhwa, comics in China were called manhua and you probably know that comics in Japan were manga. The two games came out in 1997 for Windows. Dark Judgement borrowed the aesthetic from the Capcom brawlers and mixed in some of the action of the Konami ones as well. It was created by a small team from Hong Kong and distributed by a Taiwanese Publisher. The SOHO Studio name was removed when it was released in South Korea. Thanks to the graphic artist, Lambonbon, who worked on the game for the bit of insight. Lights Out had a more distinct Korean style of animation and character design that was based on a bunch of high school tough guys fighting. Both of the games were well done and helped bring back a sense of the classic era of the brawler. There was something to be said about 2D graphics. They seemed to work better for the genre. In the arcade an indy developer would do similar things and release fantastic sprite-based titles within a sea of 3D releases. This game and more will be featured in the next blog.