Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - October 8

The Virtual Console continues to come of age. Last week saw a pair of classic games from Japan that never saw release in the West. This week, the arrival of the newest member of the Virtual Console family - SNK's Neo-Geo.

Neo-Geo was conceived by SNK as an arcade system that was also available for the home. It was never seriously meant to compete with Nintendo and Sega; rather, they would appeal to something of a hardcore luxury market. Just why SNK believed such a market really existed in 1990, I've never known. The home version of Neo-Geo sold for $700, and each arcade title sold - in an insidiously large cartridge, a true arcade board - for $200. Each. Yet, still, despite what you'd think, there were dedicated fans and collectors, and Neo-Geo became a popular staple in arcades for years, eventually outlasting most of the video arcades themselves.

Neo-Geo is remembered fondly by videogame fans, but it's easy to forget that SNK stumbled for a year or two before finding their groove. The games offered ranged from standard arcade fare - action games, shoot-em-ups, steroid-juiced sports games - but it would be the fighters that defined the system. It began as a trickle, then eventually led to a downpour. They began as rank amateurs, but SNK and licensed developers like ADK slowly mastered the art of the fighting genre.

So the great news is that we're going to get some terrific Neo-Geo games on the Virtual Console in the future. The bad news? Well, ah...remember what I said about the early fighting games? Rank amateur? Yeah, those are the ones we're getting this week. Sigh. Okay, let's get this over with...

Fatal Fury - SNK for Neo-Geo - 3/10

Fatal Fury bears the distinction of being Neo-Geo's very first fighting game, coming right on the heels of Street Fighter 2 in 1991. There's even some debate among the party faithful as to which game actually came first. Fatal Fury has its roots in earlier brawlers like Street Smart, while SF2 was the evolutionary leap from Street Fighter and Final Fight.

As best as I can remember, SF2 came first. Fatal Fury arrived in arcades later that year. Later it was ported to the Genesis and Super Nintendo, which ended up being fairly good and fairly terrible, respectably. And the game drew fans just because it was, well, another fighting game. Street Fighter 2 was the hottest video arcade game since Pac-Man. There was bound to be spillover.

I kinda liked Fatal Fury way back when, at least a little. I had some fun with the Genesis version. I was, what, 18, 19 years old? Yeah, there's a lot of things you like when you're 19 that you wouldn't be caught dead doing when you're 34. Like listening to Vanilla Ice and watching the MC Hammer cartoon.

Yeah. That's exactly how Fatal Fury plays. So now those of you who had better things to do with their time can sleep easy. You didn't miss much.

I know it's borders on the sacreligious to rip apart the game that became the cornerstone to the SNK Neo-Geo martial-arts fighting game empire. But it needs to be said. The original Fatal Fury was something terrible. It's not so much a game as a form of torture, some futuristic device Edgar Allan Poe could have dreamed of during one his better blackouts.

The game is similar enough to SF2, except it's far more basic and stripped down. Only a few basic punches and kicks are available. There are two or three special moves available, by rotating the stick and hitting buttons. Too bad I've never been able to pull them off. Imagine that. Standard quarter-circle moves, the bread and butter of fighting games, and I can't perform them here with any regularity. Not that this matters. The matches slog along with a stilted, slow movement, rough and jerky.

There's also the use of two horizontal planes, foreground and background. It's not something you can perform on your own; only the computer can jump into the background. This forces you to hop back and forth in a wasted effort to catch up. Not that this matters, anyway. It's just a cheap gimmick that may have seemed like a good idea at the time, only to fall apart into a thousand pieces only ten seconds later. Didn't anyone playtest this game?

Oh, and by the way, since you're all here and I have your attention. There are only three playable characters in the game. That's right. Only three. The total cast stretches to eight or nine, but you can't play as them. Tough luck. The beating of the hideous heart. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

Art of Fighting - SNK for Neo-Geo - 3/10

SNK was a games company famous for its coin-operated arcade games, but most of them were Rambo shooters, gun-toting steroid freaks running through jungles, reenacting various American war nightmares and wish fulfillments. I never knew why the Japanese were making those kind of games in the late '80s. Perhaps they were just being nice to us Yanks.

But one thing's for sure. These guys knew next to nothing about making a fighting game. Fatal Fury was actually one of the good ones, compared to some of the other beat-em-ups and brawlers that limped their way across the early Neo-Geo days. Art of Fighting showed one definite step forward: at least now the software teams had actually sat down and watched a couple kung-fu movies.

I guess I'm being generous when I say Art of Fighting is a work in progress, like all their early attempts at martial arts. It was a step in the right direction towards future success. But that all still sounds like generosity in the face of larceny. These folks aren't here just to entertain us, kiddies. They're here to take away our money. First they came for the quarters. Now they're coming for the plastic.

So I thought about it long and hard, and even put in double effort to try and find something entertaining and fun about this game. And I will give credit where credit is due. This was, and is, an amazing looking game. Characters are immense and vividly colored. They're practically glowing. Even the big fat guy, the one who mercilessly flies through the air, beating my hero's face purple, looks great. But the game still stinks, and I still can't play it or get anywhere fast.

Art of Fighting became another signature series for Neo-Geo, eventually fusing with Fatal Fury into the perennial King of Fighters. Even that series took a couple tries to work itself out. I remind myself that these games were originally created to extort quarters out of teenagers every thirty seconds. I guess that makes it a success, then. The electronic schoolyard bully. Gimmie your lunch money and no one gets hurt.

World Heroes - ADK for Neo-Geo - 6/10

Which brings us to the final game for this week's lineup, ADK's first title, World Heroes. By default, it actually manages to come out on top of this little competition. Which is like saying that cold was better than the bout with the chicken pox. The cruel little irony here is that, somehow, I can actually have a bit of fun with this one.

Among the Neo-Geo fans, World Heroes is the one that gets pilloried, the one that gets bagged on. Why this is I can't really say. Say what you will about this little brawler, about its sluggish speed, a martial arts fantasy set at Black Sabbath sludge-rock tempo, but at least this engine ain't broken. I can actually play this thing. I can actually figure out what the hell I'm doing, and get that character on screen to do what I want. Compared to the others, this qualifies as a minor miracle.

I knew those prayers to the Almighty would pay off. Now when the global warming kicks in, we'll be fresh out of cosmic Get Out Of Jail Free cards. Great.

It's funny to me that World Heroes gets bullied for committing the same crimes as nearly everybody else. A shameless, quote-chapter-and-verse of Street Fighter 2? Check. Big wrestler guy? Check. Menacing, Nazi-type villain? Check. Twin heroes who look identical apart from hairstyle and color of pajamas? Check. Hot, angry chick? Check. Bruce Lee? Check.

Funny on that last point. Eventually, even Capcom jumped on that bandwagon. They cloned The Dragon and put him into Super Street Fighter 2. And he has the same poses and bird noises and punches as every other brawler to feature him. And World Heroes, the lowly copycat, was actually the first. They were the beginning of that little trend. I don't know if that's something to be proud of. It's a pretty lame cliche. But it could have been worse. Imagine that kilt guy from the Atari Jaguar. Better yet, don't.

World Heroes is actually a playable game, and delivers a goofy enough cast of characters to make it worth your while. There's even a novel deathmatch mode, where you can be hurled into spiked walls or electric fences, just for kicks. If that's how you get your kicks, my dear. And like every other fighting game on Neo-Geo, it becomes far better with future installments. This is a good thing, I'm told. Too bad you're not getting any of those games. Too bad. It's like Santa sitting you on his lap and showing you all the fun and wonderful presents you're going to get next year. This year you're getting socks. Now have a lollipop and get the hell out.

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