Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Sublime Scrap: Dreamcast Fighters (part 1)

The Dreamcast was one of gaming's most fascinating paradoxes. It was a 21st century console that came to the party a few years early and left just as the festivities began. It had all the good games in 2000, while the Playstation 2 got all the attention from customers. It courted a young male demographic, yet had a distinctly feminine, sterile design, looking disconcertingly like a Japanese tampon dispenser. Considering Sega's misfortunes in the late 1990s and its eagerness to abandon the Dreamcast shortly after its American debut, perhaps this peculiar system shouldn't have existed at all... but gamers were nevertheless glad that it did.

Captain Parakeet here is tougher than he looks.
(He'd just about have to be!)
Without a second analog stick or the horsepower of later consoles of its era, the Dreamcast didn't do everything well... but one genre it mastered was the fighting game. Arcade hits that were a challenge for the Playstation and Saturn were no trouble at all for the Dreamcast, and it was capable of so much more. Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive 2 are still considered some of the best games in their class, and even the bad fighting games don't seem so awful in hindsight. Take Plasma Sword, for instance. This Dreamcast conversion is barely improved over the Playstation-powered arcade game, with flat levels and noticeably boxy character models. It's hardly brimming with technique, either, but it's still dumb fun to cut down a motley assortment of cyborgs, hairy giants, and space cockatiels with your light sab... er, plasma sword.

Freeze, punk! (Sorry.)
Mortal Kombat Gold is another Dreamcast dud that's sweetened with age. It's painfully dated next to the 2011 Mortal Kombat remake (even the Vita version!), with stiff animation and splatters of blood that look more like scattered gems. However, it at least plays like classic Mortal Kombat, which is more than can be said for the dreadful Deadly Alliance and its sequels. It's fast and frantic, and the addition of weapons doesn't gum up the works like the many pointless features in the Bush-era Mortal Kombat games. (Why give each character three fighting styles when none of them are any fun to use?) The two on two battles are also a welcome feature, although you can't swap fighters on the fly like you can in Mortal Kombat 2011's tag-team mode... one character just leaps into the fray after the first explodes in a shower of blood and limbs.

Tennis the Menace.
The Dreamcast fighting games that were pretty good in 2000 remain so today, although I'vestill got mixed thoughts about Rival Schools 2 after all these years. On one hand, it's the best high school-themed versus fighter in a crowded market (trust me, there are a lot of these in Japan), with outrageous parodies of familiar student archetypes. You've got a surprisingly tough bookworm, a big-breasted cheerleader, and a dozen flavors of athlete, ranging in size from a tiny tennis phenom to a (literally) barrel-chested sumo in training. It's hard not to love a cast this crazy, but the gameplay is a harder sell. It borrows from a handful of previous Capcom fighting titles, resulting in an awkward patchwork that doesn't play as well as any of the games that inspired it. Combos feel stiff, jumps don't have enough horizontal reach, and in an unwelcome change from the first game, super moves can be interrupted with a brief showdown which the computer opponent usually wins. It's not Capcom's best work, but Rival Schools 2 certainly has its moments. There's nothing like calling out your massive partner to shrug off hits meant for you, then flatten your would-be assailant with a tooth-shattering blow!

My money's on the walking tank.
One Dreamcast game I didn't get to play back in the day was Tech Romancer, but after trying it in an emulator I wish I had. It's not fighting in the traditional sense, but rather an epic battle between giant robots. Each metal colossus is based on a character from a popular Japanese cartoon- for instance, Giant Kaiser is a dead ringer for Mazinger Z- and the action follows suit with bright colors and big explosions. I haven't gotten the hang of the gameplay yet (super moves are possible... somehow) but I really like what I've seen so far. It's way more approachable than Virtual On, which offers all the confusion of piloting a fifty foot tall metal soldier without much of the fun. It's just a shame about the title, which brings to mind a really uncomfortable fetish.

I'll cover some of my favorite Dreamcast fighters in a future update. Believe me, there are a whole lot of them!

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