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Friday, February 6, 2015

Obscusion B-Side: Guilty Gear: Heaven or Hell... Duel 1... Let's Rock!

This past December marked the return of one of my favorite fighting game series of all time: Guilty Gear. The first true fighting game sequel in the series since 2002's Guilty Gear XX (in 2007 there was Guilty Gear 2: Overture, but that wasn't a fighting game & I'm not counting the upgrades), Guilty Gear Xrd is an great game that reminds one of why this series is so awesome, and the use of cel-shaded 3D polygons truly makes it look hand-drawn. With Xrd's release, though, I want to go back & give credit to where it all began, and how it made a unknown development studio into an actual name in the business.

Arc System Works was actually founded back in 1988 by Minoru Kidooka as a simple programming studio that ported games to other consoles. Its debut work was the Sega Master System port of Double Dragon that same year, and "ArcSys" would also be responsible for the Famicom port of Namco's Final Lap as well as the Genesis & Game Gear versions of Rare's Battletoads. They also had some original works for the time, like Code Name: Viper on the NES (published by Capcom), but in these early years the company mostly stuck with licensed properties, making games based on titles like Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger (a.k.a. the original Power Rangers), Banpresto's Compati Hero Series, & Future GPX Cyber Formula (which actually came to the SNES as Cyber Spin). By the time the company hit a decade old, though, something would happen that would change their notoriety, and it was mostly because of one man.

Daisuke Ishiwatari was a young man in his early 20s when he joined Arc System Works, but at that point he already had an idea for a video game. Having also worked shortly with SNK on what would become 1997's The Last Blade, though his involvement in the game wasn't anything influential, Ishiwatari would be given a team of 12 people to make this fighting game he had in mind; he would name the group Team Neo Blood. The game was in development for nearly three years, even switching from a pre-rendered, 2.5D look to traditional 2D sprites, and in May of 1998 the original Guilty Gear was released as an exclusive for a console that wasn't known for handling 2D fighters well, the original PlayStation; it would come to North America later that year via cult favorite publisher Atlus. Being heavily influenced by Shonen Jump manga Bastard!!, Guilty Gear was a stark departure from what Arc System Works normally did, and was the beginning of the studio's future as one of the premier fighting game developers. Still, nearly 17 years later, has this game held up well with time, or has it been outshined, outdone, & outclassed by its successors?

In some time, later defined specifically as 2010 (you know, the future), mankind discovered a new type of energy that is self-replenishing & seemingly endless; naturally, they called it magic. The use of magic led to making weapons, specifically organic weapons called Gears made by combining DNA with magic. Eventually, though, the Gears would revolt, led by first Gear ever created, Justice. After a 100-year war called the Crusades ended with the Sacred Order of Holy Knights sealing Justice in a dimensional prison, peace came to the planet. Now, five years later, Justice's prison is weakening, so the world government has decided to hold the Second Holy Knights Tournament, from which the members of the Second Order would be chosen. With the promise of the winner being granted any wish imagined, ten people have gathered to fight, some of which having a feeling that something isn't quite right about this tournament:
Sol Badguy, former member of the original Order & now freelance bounty hunter
Ky Kiske, who lead the Order to win the Crusades & now works as a police officer
May, young captain of the Jellyfish Pirates, who wants to free her leader Johnny
Kliff Undersn, former leader of the Order who senses terror from the tournament
Potemkin, slave soldier of the Zepp Empire, who is ordered to compete for territorial gain
Axl Low, an accidental time traveler who wishes to get back to his 20th century home
Zato-1, leader of the Assassin's Guild who is freed from jail by a mysterious man
Chipp Zanuff, a Japanophile ninja who seeks revenge for his master's death
Dr. Baldhead, a beloved doctor-gone-insane killer who has also been freed from jail
Millia Rage, the assassin who betrayed Zato & got him jailed, now wanting closure

Naturally, the tournament is all a ruse concocted by Testament, a Gear that survived the Crusades & needs the blood of victims in order to release the seal on Justice; these two make up the bosses of the game. Hidden within the chaos of the tournament, though, is Baiken, a mysterious female swordsman who has her own hatred of Gears, though her story is told in later games. Instead, she's nothing more than a bonus boss here, like Akuma in Super Street Fighter II Turbo.

Let's face it, until only a few years ago or so fighting games weren't the place to go for story. The only company to actually put some focus on story back in the 90s was SNK, which connected many of its different franchises into an vaguely overarching world & timeline, and Ishiwatari was obviously influenced by that style. While the backstories of the characters & the world building are all in the manual, Guilty Gear actually tells a lot about its world through its stage designs. Sol's stage takes place at the fallen Statue of Liberty, Kliff's stage is in front of the skeleton of a gigantic fallen dragon, & Potemkin's stage is at a Zepp facility, complete with giant robot warriors at the ready. Other stages simply establish a character's backstory, like how May fights on her airship or how Chipp fights at his dojo. There's a great style & allure to all of the stages that makes you want to actually read the manual & learn about the characters. That is, if you're a person who just goes straight into a fighting game without reading about why the characters are even fighting. The endings for each character are completely personal, but some of them do focus more on developing characters rather than simply celebrating their victories. While later entries in the series would greatly expand on the characters & world by including a literal "Story Mode" in each, the original game followed SNK's lead & told a lot with the little it had to work with. It sets up much of what the rest of the series would later flesh out.

Of course, the main focus of a fighting game is in the fighting, so let's stop dawdling & talk about the gameplay. Also like SNK fighters, Guilty Gear uses four attack buttons (Punch/P, Kick/K, Slash/S, & Heavy Slash/HS), plus two special buttons. Special moves are done in traditional 2D fighting fashion, with quarter-circle/QC, half-circle/HC, & "dragon punch/DP" motions plus an attack button, though there are some odd motions used here & there; Axl has a QC-forward/QC-down, Zato has a double-HC, & Kliff has a back/forward/HC-forward. Interestingly enough, while most fighting games from the 90s on featured the ability to taunt the opponent, this game ups the ante by including both Taunt & Respect buttons. Aside from being self-explanatory, plus quirky that you can praise your opponent mid-fight, Respect has a second use by being used to power up moves. Every character, minus Axl (oddly enough), has one special move that can be charged beforehand by doing the proper motion followed by holding Respect, allowing the player to charge up to Level 3; the next time the special is done normally it will be visibly different & stronger. It's a mechanic that's been rarely done in fighting games, and here it works pretty well & can be interrupted and canceled; one can also press the correct button while charging to immediately deliver the powered up move. Combos in Guilty Gear are influenced by Capcom's Darkstalkers & Vs. Series by allowing players to chain weaker blows into equal strength or successively stronger ones, along with canceling into special moves; here it's called the Gatling Combo System.

While the series is known for the Tension Gauge, which is the "super meter" equivalent, that wasn't introduced until Guilty Gear X; in the original we have the Chaos Bar. Unlike the Tension Gauge, which fills by simply being on the offense (even moving forward increases it!), the Chaos Bar is more traditional & fills by successfully landing attacks on the enemy, though blocking strong attacks also fills it up. When fully filled the player can use Chaos Moves, the precursors to what would later be called Overdrives, which require more complex motions, including the odd examples I mentioned above. The Chaos Bar is also used to do a Perfect Guard, which allows someone blocking to negate all chip damage by holding down Respect when blocking; this would be expanded upon & re-named Faultless Defense afterwards. While not using any of it, if the Chaos Bar is filled & the player does a dash across the screen, the character will flash & deliver a tackle. There is also the Dead Angle Attack, where while blocking the player quickly inputs a special move command to counter. There are also other smaller mechanics, like air dashing, double jumping (triple jumping for Chipp), as well as Aerial Combos which can be started with a move done by pressing S+HS (followed by jumping; this would later be made its own button called Dust), but the most well known game mechanic to come from Guilty Gear is obviously the Instant Kill System.

The Instant Kill is an attack that, if successfully delivered, will defeat the opponent & immediately end the round, regardless of how much health he/she has. From Guilty Gear X-on, one can go into Instant Kill/IK mode by pressing all four attack buttons & then doing the appropriate motion followed by HS; not hitting the IK removes the Tension Gauge from the player who tried it, however. In the original Guilty Gear, though, the Instant Kill had no such restrictions or tells to it; in fact, it was nearly as normal a move as anything else. All one needed to do was press P+K to do an IK Starter Attack. If properly delivered, the action would stop momentarily & the screen would turn red; at this instant the player who delivered the attack has to do QC-forward & any attack button. If done correctly, the IK would be delivered & the match would be over... The entire match. No successive round, no second chance, no hope for the loser. Yes, you can win the entire match immediately in Round 1 by successfully delivering an IK. If someone is hit by a IK Starter, however, he/she can escape by doing QC-back & any attack button, which will counter the IK, even if the attacking player did the proper motion & button already. Unlike its successors, though, an unsuccessful IK has no repercussions for the player; it can be attempted as many times as you want. Hell, you can even Dead Angle Attack into an IK Starter! It's been said that the IK in the original game "broke" it beyond all belief, but I'm going to guess that Ishiwatari conceived the mechanic as a game of chance mixed with testing reflexes. The concept was likely that, at any point in a match, a player can try to instantly end it with an IK, but if the opponent is quick enough the move can be countered, making the player hesitant to try it again right away. While it can definitely be argued if the move actually works as intended, it showed that Ishiwatari was willing to try new things out with the genre & not simply rely on established mechanics. In fact, the successive games weaken the IK to the point of being useless, with only Xrd arguably making it a possibly viable mechanic once again.

All of these mechanics combine into what is one of the faster-paced fighting games of its time. Simply put, the action is almost always on full bore, with combos being fast & heavy, characters flying all over the place at times (both purposefully & by being knocked around), & it's only even more insane if you play as or against a speedy character like Chipp; a Chipp mirror match can be absolute mayhem. What's most impressive, though, is that this is all done on a PlayStation, a system that was not made with 2D gaming in mind. It's lower amount of RAM meant that not as much sprite data could be stored for 2D games, not to mention that the hardware was made specifically for pushing polygons, and in fighting games it really was obvious. The system had notoriously poor ports of titles like The King of Fighters '95 & Samurai Shodown III, games which really shouldn't have been hard to port over, but the loss of frames & slowdown were going to be constant obstacles to deal with. It became even more noticeable when Capcom's Vs. Series came to the system, as it couldn't handle the amount of data needed to properly do the 2 vs. 2 tag battles, unless both teams had the same characters, lowering the amount of data to store. We may never know how Ishiwatari & Team Neo Blood did it, though Atlus credits a "unique compression engine" on the back cover, but somehow they made a 2D fighter work on the PlayStation with Guilty Gear, and it's probably the best 2D fighter on the system from a sheer technical perspective.

In terms of options, however, Guilty Gear is very barebones. There's Normal Mode, which is essentially the equivalent of the usual Arcade Mode, where you select a fighter & take on everyone else (minus a mirror match) before facing the bosses. Following that is Versus Mode, where two players can face each other, & Training Mode, where one can practice moves. Option Mode is pretty standard as well, though there are some interesting bits to it. There's a BGM player in the middle, which looks & acts like a CD player, that lets you listen to all of the music in the game. While most games of the time would simply give each song a number, Guilty Gear actually has names for every single song, which has led to them becoming easily identifiable & shared among fans, as well as some remixes of a few songs that can only be listened to there. Sadly, putting the game into a CD player only gives you one song, "Meths" by Takahiro Uematsu, and it's not one you'll hear during gameplay; still an awesome song, though it's shockingly not on YouTube. There's also a Frame Skip option, which will let you play the game without any slowdown by skipping over some frames of animation. Admittedly, though, the slowdown isn't problematic, so while it's a nice option you probably won't take advantage of it; I didn't even notice any difference when turned on.

The last interesting bit is that there is no difficulty select at all; Normal Mode has a single difficulty to play through. Said difficulty is a fair gradual increase, but it's not exactly a cakewalk if you don't fight seriously. While the first few fights aren't exactly tough, you could still wind up being caught off-guard if you go into Normal Mode & decide to slack off, and this is mainly because this is the only Guilty Gear game to have the CPU actually go for Instant Kills. Not just that, but the CPU is smart enough to not abuse them, but instead sneak the starter attacks in when you least expect them. I'll be honest & admit that I lost on the very first match once recently because the Kliff CPU hit me with one of his specials, followed immediately by an IK starter. It caught me completely off-guard & I lost the entire match in less than five seconds; again, this was the very first fight. What's even crazier, though, is the CPU in the last few fights. Battle 9, which is right before Testament, tends to have a CPU that's insanely good & maybe even overpowered. I've seen the CPU on this level doing things that I don't think are actually doable by a human player, like cancel an IK starter evasion with a special (normally the character just evades the initiator's advance), cancel a dash into a special while still having so much momentum that the CPU's fighter essentially goes half the length of the screen (often turning some moves into ones that cover the entire screen length), or even do special moves in rapid succession (I saw a Ky CPU do rapid Stun Edges, a fireball-like move, that let it stay in the air for a stupidly extended length of time). Combine that with the frantic pace the game already has, not to mention that Instant Kills get evaded much more often in later fights, and this specific fight tends to be the most psychotic one.

And then we have the bosses, which are actually really fun. Depending on who you play as, Testament can either be fairly easy to beat or pretty damn annoying with his use of traps, his Exe Beast special that attacks from both the front & back, and his Chaos Move that can poison you. Justice, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Justice is a prime example of what's often called "SNK Boss Syndrome", which is when a boss is overwhelmingly powerful to the point of ridiculousness. Justice can not just double jump but also triple air dash, though the CPU almost never takes advantage of this, has special moves that are supremely powerful (one of which, Imperial Ray, was made into an Overdrive in later games), and a Chaos Move (Gamma Ray) that is so powerful that it can nearly remove half of your entire health if it hits completely. Not just that, but Gamma Ray can also put your character into an instant dizzy state, even if you were already dizzied before being hit with Gamma Ray. Oh, and I forgot to mention that even blocking the move will result in about a third of your health being taken off. Luckily, blocking Gamma Ray also fills your Chaos Bar very fast, so knowing when to Perfect Guard is key. Finally, Justice's CPU can also be just as aggressive & insane as the Battle 9 CPU, resulting in rounds where she can literally take you out in a matter of seconds, if she doesn't just surprise you with the rare Instant Kill. Quite honestly, though, I love this about Justice. She's built up to be this god-like entity among Gears, & her stage even features a broken stairway to heaven, so having a final boss battle that truly feels like you're fighting such a being is awesome; Justice is possibly my favorite fighting game boss of all time. Even when I'm utterly destroyed by her, IK or not, I just get this feeling of awe & fun that I honestly don't get with other blatantly cheap boss fighters, minus a small handful.

I really wish I could experience this fight... But I'm no expert

As for Baiken, I sadly can't say how it is to fight her because I've never been able to do so. In order to fight (& unlock) Baiken, you have to go through all of Normal Mode as either Sol or Ky without losing a single match (I've seen some places say a single round, but I doubt it's that strict), and I just can't seem to do that; the best I've ever done is get to Testament without losing & even then there's Justice to beat. I've read that she's one of the most overpowered characters in the game, but I can only go off of hearsay & some videos on YouTube. It really annoys me, too, because Baiken is my favorite character to play as in the rest of the series (minus Xrd, which she's not featured in). Anyway, character balance is tough for me to properly judge, but that's also been a common complaint in this original entry in the series, and I can kind of see some elements of that. Sol & Ky are not just easy to play as but also very easy to dominate with, Chipp's speed is tricky to handle but impossible to beat, Kliff can do insane damage if you let him charge up, and let's not forget the fact that Axl can't charge any of his moves, putting him at a distinct disadvantage. In terms of balance, Guilty Gear definitely goes more on the side of showing off & having awe-inspiring moments rather than feel as balanced as possible.

Graphically, the game still looks good today, though obviously not like its hi-res side stories or high-def sequels. The sprites contain nice amounts of detail & visually don't mimic Capcom's general CPS2 style from the 90s, though (once again) it might look somewhat similar to SNK's NeoGeo look. As mentioned early on, the background environments are extremely well done & have some really nice detail to them; some of them still look beautiful today. Every character has a completely different look from one another & are now some of the most iconic fighting game designs in history, though there are some notable differences when compared to later entries in the series. For example, Axl has a much more muscular look & this is the only game where we see Faust's real face (as Dr. Baldhead). The only miss with the designs would be some of the in-game portraits, which can look a little off. As Ishiwatari was inspired by Bastard!!, the character & attack names feature all sorts of references to music acts, such as Metallica, Enuff Z'Nuff, Testament (obviously), Michael Kiske, & Axl Rose, as well as TV & movies, like Zatoichi, Battleship Potemkin, & Tekkaman Blade.

The voice work isn't too extensive, with everyone having only one win pose & phrase, though the after-fight text differs depending on who fights who, but it's all very well done; surprisingly enough, most of the cast has been retained throughout the series. There are some nice surprises, too, like how most people know that the late Kaneto Shiozawa voiced Zato-1 but I wonder how many knew he also voiced Dr. Baldhead (extremely well at that!). Finally, a special shout-out to Team Neo Blood member Takuya Mirotou, who helped with character & stage design as well as music, whose performance as the fight announcer is still my all-time favorite in the entire series. Finally, we get to the music, which could very well be the most iconic part of the series because of how excellent all of it is. Fittingly, it's a heavy metal soundtrack that also mixes in other styles, such as operatic & classical. Every single theme in the game is exquisite, having been remixed & re-used throughout the series, though there are a few that are exclusive to this game. Axl, Zato, May, Baldhead, Potemkin, & Testament all have themes here that were replaced in Guilty Gear X, and while all of their replacement are great songs, it still sucks that none of these originals ever saw use in later games, even if only as an extra theme; they would have made perfect DLC for Accent Core +R or Xrd. In fact, I actually prefer Testament's original theme, "A Fixed Idea", over his later "Bloodstained Lineage" somewhat. To be fair, however, Axl's theme in Xrd does start off with the intro from "March of the Wicked King", his original theme. Also, most of them have since been remixed in the style of the later games by ArcSys, with only Zato's ("Black Soul") & Potemkin's ("In Slave's Glory") being the notable exceptions. Still, it's great that you can come into this series for fast-paced & addictive gameplay, and then get one of the best fighting game soundtracks of all time as a bonus.

As the years have gone by & the series as a whole has become more & more popular and successful, the original Guilty Gear has seemingly gone by the wayside & become forgotten. I'm sure most people into the series have never played the original, nor would they know that this franchise was introduced to North Americans by the ever-loved Atlus; it came to Europe in 2000 by Studio 3. Sadly, this original game isn't cheap to come by, as even a loose disc will cost you at least $30; the original Japanese disc is a little cheaper. Even crazier is the fact that this game is on PSN as a downloadable title, but only in Japan & Europe. Atlus has supported the PSOne Classics catalog with a number of its games, including oddballs like Bomberman Fantasy Race, so it's weird that it hasn't put up Guilty Gear, especially considering the popularity the series has now. Is it one of the best entries in the series? Not exactly, considering how the mechanics have since greatly improved & the balance is much tigher, but playing it again for this review reminded me of how fun & unpredictable it is. It's still an excellent 2D fighter for the system it was released on, and I do feel that all fans of the series should play it at least once, if only to see the roots of everything. It's nowhere near like enjoying the Street Fighter series & then playing the first one... That's just torture.

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