I didn’t know much about Tecmo’s offerings, other than that they were working on one of those gem-dropping super-deformed anime puzzle games, and some Model 2 fighter that I was anxious to check out.
I went to Tecmo’s reception desk, grabbed some of their product literature, and grabbed a handful of tokens I could use on the Dead or Alive machine. Another journalist was playing, and he graciously allowed me to take him on in two-player mode. I was hooked after one round – it played like Virtua Fighter, but the block button was replaced with a “hold” move that could reverse your opponents’ attacks. After being initially impressed, we were back at the character select screen.
“Wait a second,” the other guy said, “I seem to remember there being something ‘special’ about the girls in this game.” I shrugged, and we both picked two of the female combatants.
“Ohmigawd!” we gasped in unison as the round began. The, ah, chestal protrusions of the female characters had been rendered in hyper-realistic detail, and bounced all over the place like a pair of water balloons. It was offensive and sophomoric, but that didn’t stop us from playing – nor did it stop the crowd gathering around us to gape at the geometric naughty bits.
I graciously gave up my position and supply of tokens to another onlooker (unlike the ten-year-old game tester who kept hogging the Lost World arcade machine – the little punk), and moved on to the next booth, reminding myself to start playing Dead or Alive religiously when I got to the arcade back home.
In any case, I was seriously worried about the Saturn port of Dead or Alive. After all, Last Bronx had appalling amounts of polygon flickering, which knocked it down more than a few rungs in my book (it’s disheartening to see your character start disappearing in the middle of a throw move). But after hearing how Dead or Alive got the thumbs-up from the Japanese gaming press, I was on the phone with my local importer. And man oh man, is this game a doozy.
One of the bigger challenges in porting a fighter to a home system is contending with the character polygon counts. While the original Dead or Alive was coded with a dedicated geometry chip in mind, the Saturn’s polygon engine would have to be written from scratch, and the characters would have to be remodeled with roughly one-fourth the polygons of the originals. Fortunately, Tecmo has optimized the models and created the best texture work I’ve ever seen. While Virtua Fighter 2’s poly-people looked a smiget different than their arcade big brothers, the Dead or Alive cast is virtually indistinguishable. The whole shebang runs at 740×480 (which is actually higher than the arcade version) at 60fps, without any slowdown or pixelization. This is easily the best-looking fighting game on any platform, even though the 3D backgrounds were cut in favor of scaling parallax backdrops. The character movement is positively luscious. The skeletal-based system is based on real-life motion capture and traditional hand animation – while some of the moves couldn’t be performed in real life, they move with such fluidity that it’s easily forgivable. At first, I thought that Dead or Alive was running off a continuous-mesh system (as in Tobal) due to the utter smoothness of the characters. This isn’t the case – it’s the same animation system used in VF2, but the superior texturing and modeling hide any joints visibly poking through. Mesh animation is used to portray the bouncing breasts, and some of the different parts of the characters’ costumes. There’s even a mini-particle system – when Hayabusa pops in at the beginning of a round, leaves fly everywhere, and when Kasumi vanishes at the end of a match, all that’s left are floating cherry blossoms. This game looks really good.
Dead or Alive’s character designs feature a lot of spunk – though they fulfill the fighting game template (old dude, Japanese schoolgirl, ninja guy, hulking but slow gaijin), they do it with class, and they’re much more likable than the Tekken punks. Also, anime dorks such as myself will recognize some of the voices – Zack is played by Bin Shimada (from You’re Under Arrest, among others), and Kasumi is played by the actress Sakura Tange (from, uh, everything else).
In terms of gameplay, Dead or Alive is the first game I’ve found that actually eclipses Virtua Fighter – and that’s not an easy thing to do. The 3-button control allows you to pull off the typical VF-like moves, but the hold button is the greatest thing since sliced bread. After you start learning the ropes of the game, you’ll be able to go back and forth with the hold reversals, slapping away each other’s attacks like in a kung fu movie. A friend and I reversed each other’s attacks for ten seconds straight, and it was one hell of a rush.
But the best addition is the Danger Zone – an explosive ring that surrounds the fighting area. Knock a foe into the Danger Zone, and they’ll go hurtling into the air, giving you ample opportunity to jump in and start juggling them. If you’re into up-close and personal combat, multi-part throws are available to most of the characters, and there’s a good emphasis on grappling. Dead or Alive is jam-packed with extras. Secret costumes (from the skimpy to the truly bizarre) unlock each time you beat the game. Jann-Lee gets some snappy Miami Vice-style suits, the girls get naughty outfits, and Zack is awarded with a metallic Snork costume that looks simply amazing. There are several goodies that let you tweak aspects such as the fight order, Danger Zone damage, and whether or not the girls’ breasts bounce. Even with Saturn support fading to black, Dead or Alive is just so damn good, it’s a pity Sega of America won’t port it over to the States. Strangely enough, Dead or Alive might make a resurgence in American arcades, running off the ST-V board (which is the equivalent of Saturn hardware). In any case, this is the game to import, and I regard it as the best fighting game we’ll see before Virtua Fighter 3 makes its way onto the home market. And all of this from a third party, too. Congratulations, Tecmo.