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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ehrgeiz vs. Ehrgeiz: Can Final Fantasy VII Help Defeat Giant Robots?!

There are only so many words in any language, so therefore it's only natural that, when it comes to naming things, there will be repeat uses. One thing to remember, though, is that just because multiple titles have the same name, that doesn't mean that they are similar in idea or execution. Just recently, Disney released a CG-animated movie titled Frozen, based loosely on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, but as time goes on one could easily mistake this movie with Frozen (the 2010 thriller about a group of friends who get stuck on a snow lift during a blizzard), or Frozen (a 2005 British film), or Frozen (a 2007 Indian film), or Frozen (a 2010 Hong Kong film), or Frozen (a 1997 Chinese film), all of which are completely different from each other. In manga, this kind of thing can happen at times, just look at how many manga are called Toriko, but in anime it's a pretty rare instance. Still, going with the Highlander reference in my anniversary post, I've decided to pit two sets of titles with the same name against each other & see which one is "better", simply because, "There can only be one." So let's get started with our opening bout!

Logo Battle: No contest...  Game Wins.

When it comes to similarly-named titles being released at nearly the same exact time, there are probably none more fitting than these two. Next Senki/Record of Next War Ehrgeiz was a mech anime that ran on a late-night slot on TV Tokyo, from October 2 to December 25, 1997, making it the first mech anime to ever air that late. Two months after the anime finished airing, February 26, 1998 to be exact, Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) & Namco (now Namco Bandai Games) teamed up to release Ehrgeiz: God Bless the Ring, a 3D fighting game developed by DreamFactory. Three months after the game debuted in Japanese arcades, on May 25, the anime received its first home video release, a VHS & LD that both containing the first two episodes. The last anime VHS & LD came out October 25 & two months after that, December 17, the game was released on the Playstation. Essentially, throughout 1998, Japan had two titles named Ehrgeiz in the (relative) public conscience, but they were not related to each other in any way! Even their katakana spellings were only barely different, with the anime being エーアガイツ, while the game is エアガイツ... Yes, that one "ー", which stresses the initial character, is the sole difference!

This similarity & confusion also stretched into North America, when AnimeVillage (which would become Bandai Entertainment) announced on February 8, 1999 that they licensed the anime for North American release. Two months later, on April 30, Square Electronic Arts released the game's PS1 version in North America, followed by the anime's first subtitled VHS tape being released that November. After 2000, though, both the anime & the game were mostly forgotten, & the confusion died down. On July 9, 2008, Square-Enix released the PS1 version of the game for the Japanese Playstation Network, as a part of the PSOne Archives. Almost as if the bring back the confusion, though, Bandai Visual has since made the anime available on Japan's PSN via the Bandai Channel, as well as making it available digitally via computer; there still isn't a DVD release of the anime in Japan, though. So let's finally put an end to the confusion, & have these two titles duke it out. Which one is superior?!

Tagline Battle: Crises Upset! or God Bless the Ring?
Honestly, both are equally ridiculous Engrish, so it's a tie.

Let's face facts here, because it's pretty obvious: Comparing a mech anime against a 3D fighting game is tough. In the end, the simplest way to do so is to compare & contrast the basic elements they both share: Story, Characters, Visuals, Music, Voice Work, & Execution. Above you can see the "Tale of the Tape", so let's get started with one of the more basic comparisons.

The anime takes place during a war between Earth forces & a rebellious group of space colonies that have united under the name of the Next Government, named after the colonies themselves. During a relative lull in battle, a Next-developed MV/Metal Vehicle, named S.A.C./System of Absolutely Conscience escapes & disappears from its creators, causing destruction in its wake. While Next is trying to recover "S", a boy named Hal, who leads a Earth-resistance group called Terra, feels the growing presence of the MV & wants to know more about it. Next & Terra's involvement with "S" also brings in a group of outlaws who live on the abandoned Next 7 colony, which was ravaged due to the war, resulting in a disruption to their carefree lifestyle. While it seems like a lot of backstory that needs to be understood, the first episode explains the world the story takes place in, & the show essentially becomes more about how "S" affects the lives of Hal, Akane Aoi (the woman in charge of recovering "S" for Next), Arnold (the man who helped develop "S"), & the Next 7 outlaws, instead of being about the actual war or the recovery of "S" itself.

In comparison, the game is about a tournament that is held every year, & its relation to a mysterious sword named the Ehrgeiz, which is also the namesake of the tournament. Each playable character has their own goals & reasons for entering, some of which have a relation to a mysterious organization called Red Scorpion (which wants the Ehrgeiz for its own purposes), but in true 90s fighting game tradition, you wouldn't know any of this from actually playing the game; most of this is revealed in the manual. In fact, the original arcade version didn't even have ending sequences, as those were added in for the PS1 version! Nowadays, fighting games do try to put more effort in telling actual stories, but back in the 90s the only company to really put any kind of true effort in telling a story in fighting games was SNK. To the game's credit, there is an RPG mode that focuses on the mystery behind the Ehrgeiz itself, but that still doesn't really expand on the tournament or the characters you can fight as. While one can forgive the game for having barely any story to it, due to context, there's no contest here: The anime, with its focus on telling an actual story, wins out in this category.
Winner: Anime

This is probably a much more even fight in this regard, because a title can rise or fall depending on its characters. For the anime, I mentioned that the story was based more around how "S" affects the lives of the characters, which means that they have to be worth paying attention to; thankfully, they are that & more. I brought up how memorable they are in my review of the anime, so instead of simply regurgitating what I had said before, I'll simply quote an old review of the first four VHS tapes from Sci-Fi Weekly's Tasha Robinson:
"But those people themselves are Ehrgeiz's saving grace. The pirates are colorful, larger-than-life characters reminiscent of the offbeat stars of The Irresponsible Captain Tylor. The conflict between Hal's self-effacing sense of responsibility and his contemptuous pride is more significant and engaging than the mecha battles of his faceless followers. And Akane, a ramrod-stiff soldier rebelling against reality after being punished for not performing an impossible task, is hard to like but easy to sympathize with. Tetsuya Yanagisawa's character design, which centers around wide, thin mouths and oddly angular eyes, is attractively unconventional, and helps make the stars more interesting than their vaguely defined universe. At heart, this is a story about personalities, not politics. And the conflicts that are based entirely on personality are engaging, funny and often powerful."

I do find interesting, & kind of cool, that Robinson actually went so far as to compare the anime to something like Tylor, which is generally considered to be a classic. Whether it's Akane's steadfast dedication to capturing "S" (no matter how impossible it is for her), Hal's dream of peace (even if "S" slowly warps it into something else), or lead character Jay's love of living for the moment without worry, all the major characters are interesting to see in action, & when they all meet up in one fashion or another everything just clicks.

Thankfully, a fighting game's most important facet is its characters; who would want to play a fighting game that has bland characters? This stretches over to this specific fighting game, too, which features a small but interesting line-up. In terms of "major characters", there seem to be three: Ken "Godhand" Mishima, a mercenary who used to work for Red Scorpion, & has a gun hidden inside his right arm; "YOYO" Yoko Kishiboujin, a teenage member of Interpol, who fights using a yo-yo; & Han Daehan, a Tae-Kwon-Do fighter/actor, who has a mechanical leg after a mysterious cloud of black smoke took his real leg away, & it can indeed be recovered during the final boss battle. The rest of the cast includes Prince Doza (Naseem in Japan; a kickboxer), Lee Shuwen (the founder of Hakkyoku-Ken who has found an elixir that makes him grow younger), Sasuke (a ninja who works for Red Scorpion), Dasher Inoba (a legendary pro-wrestler & disciple of the man who founded the tournament), "Wolf Girl" Jo (a girl raised by wolves who also works for Red Scorpion), Koji Masuda (an archaeologist & 3-time reigning champion of the tournament) & Clair Andrews (Koji's assistant during his search for the Ehrgeiz mystery). The final boss is Django, a large wolf-like creature that transforms into Red Scorpion itself, a monstrous beast, for the final battle.

These characters no doubt make tons of references to titles like Sukeban Deka, Cobra, Tekken, & Street Fighter, as well as professional wrestling legend Antonio Inoki, but that does help make these characters fairly memorable among fighting games... But I know what everyone thinks of when they think about this game: The Final Fantasy VII connection. Yes, the original arcade game featured FFVII's main characters Cloud Strife & Tifa Lockhart as hidden sub-bosses (under the names Guardian & Summoner, respectively), & the PS1 version made them playable from the start, along with main villain Sephiroth, with Yuffie Kisaragi, Vincent Valentine, & Zack Fair being unlockable; Django's wolf form is also blatantly based on Red XIII. If anything, this is the main reason why the game even became as "popular" as it did back then. This doesn't exactly take away from the main cast of the game, but it does make it noteworthy simply as a talking piece. So who wins this round? Honestly, while the anime has fun & developed characters, the game does have a good bit of that "cool factor" with its characters; plus, the addition of FFVII characters only helps it keep up the fight.
Winner: Draw

Once again, we get a tricky comparison here; how do you compare a traditional/hand-drawn "2D" anime with a polygonal "3D" video game? This is going to come down to two things: The designs, & how well the visuals hold up over time. This essentially becomes a case of the duo of Isamu Imakake & Tetsuya Yanagisawa going up against Tetsuya Nomura in terms of character designs; a handicap match, no doubt. For the anime, Imakake did the original designs, which can be seen via the VHS & LD cover artwork, while Yanagisawa re-purposed them for the actual animation. While this does result in some differences, like how Jay's hair is blonde on the artwork but black in the show itself, Yanagisawa stayed true to Imakake's work. The end result is a multitude of styles in terms of faces, which keeps everyone separately identifiable & hard to mistake for one another. Along with that, Yanagisawa's general style, as Robinson mentioned in the quote above, does give the show a more "unconventional" & down-to-earth (no pun intended) look to it. In comparison, Tetsuya Nomura's style is a more "impactful" one, with sleek designs, lots of sharp angles, larger eyes, & "battle ready" faces. While there are people who have tired of Nomura's design style over the years, this game is still one of his early major works, so it doesn't have all of Nomura's general design choices & the like. If anything, they still look really good to this day, & since he did the main designs for FFVII, those characters looks exactly as they should; the CG artwork doesn't hold up quite as well, though it certainly isn't bad. The anime has an added benefit, though, by way of Takahiro Yamada's mech designs, which are nicely varied in style & overall looks; Jay's MV & S.A.C. (both it's general form & "final" form) are especially memorable.

Visually, though, how do these titles hold up after 15-16 years? Well, the anime came out during the earliest days of "modern" late-night anime, which means that the animation budget was lower than usual & it does show. Almost as a design choice, mixed with saving money, the MVs don't walk around but instead "slide", via air boosters in their feet. Admittedly, after some time, battles eventually take place mostly in space, where going anywhere doesn't require things like lots of fluid joint movement. Luckily, the show doesn't feature any real animation errors, at least nothing terribly noticeable, & the Imakake/Yanagisawa character designs help keep the show from looking terribly outdated; it definitely looks like a mid-to-late-90s late-night anime, but it still manages to look good. With games, though, the mid-to-late-90s haven't always been able to hold up as well. This was a time when game developers were really pushing for 3D graphics, simply because the technology was finally there, but at the same time, some of these early "modern" 3D graphics don't always hold up. Quite simply, the technology really shows its age at times. Luckily, this game holds up slightly better, and that's mainly because DreamFactory knew how to work hardware. Lead by Seiichi Ishii, who helped create both Virtua Fighter & Tekken, DreamFactory first became known for its work on the Tobal series, which featured character designs by Akira Toriyama. The original Ehrgeiz arcade game in particular still looks pretty good to this day. Meanwhile, though the PS1 wasn't exactly as powerful as the System 12 hardware in the arcade, the console version still looks okay as well. Overall, it's a close fight here, but Nomura's designs do come off as slightly more "exciting" & stylish, while the game's graphics hold fewer flaws than the anime's frames.
Winner: Game

Once again, it's a handicap match here, with the team of Shiro Hamaguchi & Akifumi Tada, both of which made their composing debuts with this anime, taking on Takayuki Nakamura, who had already made his mark with work on the Virtua Fighter series & Tobal 2. For the anime, Hamaguchi & Tada went a heavy focus on the orchestral, which is their forté. They both trained under the likes of Kohei Tanaka and Ko Otani, & Hamaguchi was even personally chosen by Nobuo Uematsu to arrange orchestral renditions of FFVII songs. The end result is a mix of some pretty grand orchestral pieces, a smattering rock-style songs mixed with the synthesizer, & even some excellent acoustic songs. I've mentioned how much I love "A DAY OF NEXT 7", Tada's anthem for the outlaws, but there are some other truly excellent songs in the anime's OST. "NEARLY IN THE FUTURE" (Tada) is an uplifting orchestral song that gives a great majesty of what the future of space can hold for humanity, "Hakuheisen/Hand-to-Hand Combat" (Hamaguchi) is a fast-paced synth/rock mix that fits the hit-and-run attacks the outlaws do to their targets perfectly, "S.A.C" (Tada) is a simply badass orchestral theme for "S" that truly makes it come off as a force of destruction, & "Soukougeki/All-Out Attack" (Hamaguchi) is a slower orchestral tune that always fit the the anime's most serious moments.

Since this anime, Hamaguchi would find his mark with One Piece, which he composes alongside Kohei Tanaka, as well as helping with arrangement for video games like Final Fantasy VII-XI, Unlimited SaGa, & Monster Hunter Tri. Tada, on the other hand, went on to work on Haré+Guu, The Law of Ueki, YamiBou, & Tokyo Underground, and these two composers would return as a duo for titles like Dinozaurs, Final Fantasy: Unlimited, & Big Windup!. If anything, this anime's OST was only a precursor to what these two would go on to do, and for a composing debut these two did an excellent job. Backing up the OST are the opening & ending themes. OP theme "Dream Jack" by HUMMING BIRD is an addictive rock anthem lead by the excellent Yoshiki Fukuyama (it's my favorite song from the band), while ED theme "One Voice for EHRGEIZ" by Mariko Fukui is a very nice slow song that puts a fine end to every episode.

That's not to discount Takayuki Nakamura in any way, though. One immediate flaw that's apparent, though, is that fighting games aren't known for their slower-paced songs; while there are memorable slow songs in fighting games, the genre tends to skew fast-paced due to the action. Still, Nakamura does a really cool job with this game, with each stage theme having a great pace to it & fitting the environment nicely. In fact, Nakamura doesn't stick to one single genre of music, utilizing the likes of techno ("ESCAPE"), hard rock ("Run Away in the Airship!"), reggae ("Hong Kong Reggae"), synth ("The Tale of EHRGEIZ"), & south-Asian ("Door of Truth") influences. He also does manage to sneak in a slower-paced theme with "A Song for the Man of the Future", the theme of Django. My favorite theme, though, would have to be "Fate", the song that plays in the stage before Django (unless you fight Cloud & Tifa afterwards), due to it's insanely memorable beat that's both simple yet complex in its speed. To make up for the relative lack of slower themes, though, is the RPG mode, which adds in some very fitting & moody anthems for the dungeons you fight your way through, with the song "Phoenix" being the best of them all with it's orchestral eeriness. For those interested, Nakamura would go on to compose for Kengo 3, Custom Robo (the GameCube entry), helping out with Ninety-Nine Nights, & the Lumines series.

Unfortunately, there are some flaws with this OST, at least from a personal standpoint. First off, Nakamura's arrangements for Uematsu's FFVII songs just sound a bit "off". "Those Who Fight", the main battle theme, just sounds a little too muddled, with too much being added to it; the original song's beat is there, but it just doesn't sound right. "Prelude", the iconic Final Fantasy theme, fares a bit better, but honestly sounds a little like it's being playing played from underwater, at least with the iconic riff. Also, "Prelude" just doesn't really work in a fighting game; I would have easily preferred "Fight On!", the boss battle music. The second flaw comes about with the Arranged music that was made for the PS1 version, as it just isn't as good as the original music overall. That's not to say that they are bad arrangements, & there are one or two that at least are as good as the originals ("ESCAPE" & "A Song for the Man of the Future" both sound really damn good), but overall most of them don't quite end up as good as Nakamura's original work. To it's credit, though, some of the songs do try something different ("Hong Kong Reggae" is a lot more laid back than the original version), & there is a 100% original song, "11th", that sounds really cool. In terms of the FFVII music, "Those Who Fight" sounds just about as "off" as the original arrangement, while "Prelude" actually comes off a good bit better than Nakamura's first version. I can understand if some people prefer these arrangements, but personally they didn't interest me much. All that aside, though Hamaguchi & Tada's anime soundtrack is just better on the whole.
Winner: Anime

Voice Work:
Is this even a fair fight, honestly? Comparing a fully-voiced TV anime series to a fighting game that, even among its peers, doesn't have much more than grunts & kiais is almost too much, so I'll keep it short. I actually didn't cover the anime's cast in my old review, so I'll give it proper respect here. Mitsuo Iwata's Jay is downright infectious, giving the character all the energy & spunk that was needed & then some. Meanwhile, Osamu Saka's Balzac is a perfect "tried, old drunk", Jouji Nakata brings his iconic "lovable asshole" voice to Camel, Miyuki Ichijou's Akane is strict & tough but shows nice signs of weakness when needed, & Nozomu Sasaki does an excellent job with Hal by starting off as calm & benevolent, before slowly transitioning into madness; the man did voice Tetsuo in Akira, after all. For the rest of the cast, Yuusaku Yara's Arnold was fittingly unemotional & creepy, Tessho Genda's Galbraith was caring but battle-hardened, and Ikue Ohtani & Urara Takano worked together nicely as Ann & Ken, respectively. Hell, even Masamichi Sato & Nobuyuki Hiyama put out fine (if barely heard) performances as Gord & Roddy, respectably.

In comparison, the game is pretty barebones. To be fair, you probably wouldn't even be able to identify who voices who without looking at the cast list I supplied at the beginning of this battle, unless you know how the likes of Nozomu Sasaki, Shinichiro Miki, & Hideyuki Umezu sound via grunts & the like. Admittedly, though, Kazuya Nakai is pretty easy to identify as Prince Doza/Naseem, & Fumihiko Tachiki probably pulls out the best performance with Dasher Inoba. Tachiki's imitation of Antonio Inoki's "Aaah-cha-cha-cha-cha-cha-cha-cha-cha-cha!" while dashing towards his opponent is infectiously memorable. In fact, the only actual voice work you hear in this game is by the announcer, who sounds fine, & the duo of Hiroya Ishimaru and Yukana Nogami, who do a fully-voiced intro for the RPG mode; they do a fine job with that, but then you hear nothing else of importance, really. Considering how other fighting games do have voice clips for things like attack names & win quotes, this game has nothing of the like, making this battle one-sided at best, if not an outright massacre.
Winner: Anime

For the final battle, we'll look at how each of these titles handle themselves in an overall fashion: Does the anime tell a working story & is the game fun to play? For the anime, the story does have its flaws, which I did mention in my old review, so I'll simply recap. First, the whole "Earth/Next Conflict" is nothing more than a backdrop, with Earth itself becoming unimportant & essentially forgotten after Episode 4, when Terra moves to a Moon base. Effectively, you don't watch this anime for a war story, but instead you watch it for the characters. Likewise, the mech battles are mostly simplistic fare, with a lot of bullets & missile being fired, but nothing extremely fancy outside of one or two moments. Granted, the fights with "S" are really cool & fast-paced, but there's only about two of them, capping off each half of the show. Finally, the main story is a slow starter, with the three main factions (Next, Terra, & the outlaws) not really interacting until half-way through Episode 4, when Ann runs her MV into Terra forces, after escaping Next forces she tried to steal from. While one can still enjoy those first three episodes, because the characters are fun to watch, others who want the main story to start up right way might end up feeling like the show is wasting its time; it does take 1/3 of the show to really get going, after all. The LDs do feature some neat extras, though, with posters featuring artwork on one side, & production drawings and interviews on the other, as well as each release containing a My Favorite Battle of MV video, which take clips from the show edited together by director Toshifumi Kawase, & detail his favorite scenes from the show.

For the game, the battle system was actually somewhat revolutionary for its time. While other 3D fighters existed before it, they all still worked on a traditional execution: Two fighters battle against each other, while always facing each other. True "free roaming" fighting didn't exist until this game, which allowed the players to literally go anywhere in the environment, all without having to continually face the opponent; holding block allowed you to "lock" onto the opponent. Not only that, but the stages weren't flat surfaces, featuring awnings, rooftops, & sharp drops to jump onto or fall down in. Virtua Fighter 3 did introduce variable-height stages in 1996, but Ehrgeiz made them into actual "worlds". There does exist a slightly more advanced battle system in the game, with the ability to counter/interrupt attacks, time attacks with a wait ("just", as the game calls it) to extend combos, a second gauge to keep players from abusing special attacks, and even boxes that hold weapons to can be throw at the opponent, but overall it is a simpler fighting game. That being said, there is an innate enjoyment to be had in this kind of freedom, and the throws tend to have a neat MMA or wrestling theme to it, which is neat & fits the style of gameplay; name another game where you can powerbomb a giant, wolf-like creature! The PS1 version adds in the previously-mentioned RPG mode, called "Brand New Quest", which is a dungeon crawler & tries mixing in a simplified Materia system, ala FFVII, as well as a hunger meter that affects your stats. It's a neat addition, continuing off of Tobal's RPG mode, but it can get highly repetitive, & the saving system is downright bizarre. You have to pay money for each save, using the in-game Gil currency, & the cost is proportionate to your level, i.e. the higher your level is the more you pay. It's like some weird, in-game microtransacton system, years before it became known in video games! Finally, the PS1 version infamously adds in a variety of mini-games. There's a survival move, a racing mode, a beach battle mode (that's essentially all button mashing), & a real-time combat variant of Othello. Your experience will vary with these mini-games, but they are original for a fighting game, at least.
Winner: ??? (Which would you choose?)
-----Yeah, that last "Winner" slot might be a cop out, but they way I see it it's only fair. Including the quickie battles I mentioned in the captions on the top two images (Logo & Tagline), the final tally comes out to 5-4 in favor of the anime, so either the game wins definitively or it's a draw. Sure, neither Ehrgeiz will go down as one of the best in their respective "worlds", but both do at least make their marks on history. The anime, from what I could find out, was the very first mech anime to air in a late-night slot, opening the door for other mech anime to do the same; it also marked the composing debuts for two men who would go on to do other great works. The game opened the fighting game genre to the idea of an open world with free movement, removing the "rails" that games before it stuck to. Nowadays, every 3D fighter features some sort of free movement, even if you're still facing the opponent most of the time. The game itself would also lead into development of PS2 game The Bouncer, which expanded the gameplay into a more cinematic & beat-em-up formula. People also consider the Ehrgeiz game a spiritual predecessor to the Dissidia: Final Fantasy games for PSP, which featured free movement & multi-tiered "worlds". The word "Ehrgeiz" is German for "Ambition", and while the anime used it as a thematic element & the game used it for novelty, both creations stayed true to its origin by doing something new & ambitious; their first attempts are now seen as standards of their respective industries. Honestly, do we need a "winner" between them?

Sure, & I'm going with the anime in the end. But, for those of you who gave the "Execution" category to the game & need a tie-breaker, here's a simple one: Which product says their German title better?

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