If you had asked me what I wanted out of a new fighting game in 1995, I would have described a game that is exactly like Battle Arena Toshinden. “3-D” had already begun to grip the gaming populace, and the old, beautiful sprite based 2-D fighters were considered archaic, so a new fighter had to be a massive wad of polygons to succeed. But the new wave of 3-D fighters, with Virtua Fighter leading the charge, were dramatically more realistic than their 2-D brethren, so gone were the fireballs and absurd uppercuts that cleared a greater vertical height than some helicopters. I missed those discarded fantastical elements. And can everyone have weapons? The only thing more interesting than a fist fight is a sword fight, so let’s get some swords, daggers, clubs, and maybe a halberd? That thing was rad in Castlevania. Oh, and a whip! Nearly forgot.
So, to satisfy twelve year olds the world over, Battle Arena Toshinden was created. It really was the killer app of the Playstation that we were not E for. I, unfortunately, was not as adept at whining to my parents as some of my friends, so I had to satisfy myself with simply playing the game at my friend’s house for an estimated 60,000 hours. Yes, there were only eight characters (ten with the bosses, but they’re banned from use or there might be some violence in the real world) but that was all we needed.
Playing the game again as an adult, though? Well, it’s pretty clear that someone took that “list of what kids want” from a paragraph or so ago and just made a game around it without really considering how it all would actually work. Quick example? Ellis has a move that is, essentially, a dragon punch on steroids: she dashes forward, hits her opponent, and then rises high into the air with the connecting blow. The problem? She flies about, oh, let’s say eight or so human heights into the air, and then plummets back to Earth. The opponent? They take the initial hits, but do not rise with Eliis, nor are they knocked down, so by the time Ellis “returns” from a successful special move, she’s vulnerable to a reprisal. A successful assault is punished. No one is going to be playing BAT at Evo.
But, as children, we didn’t care about any of that, because it was just plain fun to knock each other around and play one-player mode once in a while to beat up that guy in the giant scorpion suit.
And then Battle Arena Toshinden 2 arose the following year. I didn’t grab it at release, but I had finally acquired a Playstation (thanks Grandma!) within its launch window, so now I could actually play the game on my own or over and over and over again with friends. I usually chose the second option. Come to think of it, between this and Killer Instinct Gold, it’s a damn wonder I didn’t grow up to battle ninja for a living.
Needless to say, BAT2 was a hit in my social circle, mainly because it was BAT1’s Super Street Fighter 2. All of the fighters were back, but now with marginally improved graphics and generally improved special movies. It was like someone who actually knew how a fighting game was supposed to play sat down with BAT1, took notes, and improved all the dull bits to be actually viable. It still wasn’t at the level of Street Fighter 2, but it looked like it might get there in a generation or two.
And, whether he was added as a programmer’s joke or a legitimate new challenger, BAT2 had Vermillion. The simple concept behind all of the BAT games is that this is a fighting tournament where weapons are allowed. By the end of BAT1, they were already stretching the idea of “weapons” by adding gigantic mecha armor, but BAT2 introduced a hidden character who decided to bring a gun to a knife fight. Vermillion wasn’t much for combos, but he had a pistol and a rifle, so good luck hitting him with your lousy little club, caveman. Vermillion was probably the number one chosen character amongst my friends, because, dude, guy in a trench coat with guns, is there anything cooler? (And we were still years away from the answer: Yes, but what if the guy in the trench coat with guns could control the entire universe by thinking at it. Oh, and he’s a computer nerd, too.) But Vermillion was well hidden in the game, and didn’t seem intended to be a legitimate combatant. Just a fun little easter egg for the intrepid player, nothing to hang a game on…
And then we hit Battle Arena Toshinden 3, and the franchise imploded, never to be seen again (shut-up, Japan and Europe, you don’t count). Rather than iterate on BAT2, BAT3 went in a completely different direction and seemed to change everything it could get its hands on. First major issue? Vermillion took over the game. Now, at least a quarter of the characters had guns, and an “ammo” system was implemented so you could spend time standing around reloading. Exactly as fun as it sounds! And completely necessary when characters can already generate fireballs! Speaking of characters, the roster was doubled, which should be a good thing, but not really, because someone at Takara learned the magical technique of copy and pasting a movelist onto a slightly different character model and calling it a day. And a pile of the new characters are just kidnapped existing characters and/or the thinnest shells of an actual idea, like Pirate Guy, Angry Robot, Not-Michael Jackson, Boyacky, Not-Jason Voorhees, and my personal favorite, Just Catwoman. I’m all for padding your roster with interesting characters, but I emphasize the word “interesting” here, everything is just worse when someone decides to “create” a character that is simply “preexisting character, but, ya know, wears red.”
Oh, and they replaced the Chinese magician who turns out to be an assassin with… a dancing monkey. An oblique move at best.
But the worst part of BAT3 was unmistakably the changes to the actual combat. The arenas are now enclosed, so every match is a cage match, and ring-outs have been eliminated. This could have been an improvement, but the levels are so small that everything feels claustrophobic. You will run into a wall inside of a few seconds, and never leave. They also added… oh, they probably have names but I’m not looking them up… “super orbs” that allow a character to perform a devastating super orb move. Two orbs per match are provided. On its own, this might not be a bad thing, but it adds to the already existing overdrive and desperation moves, so every fight becomes less about “skill” and more about budgeting your various crazy powerful move resources. And to tie it all together in an odious package, your health has seemingly doubled since the last game, likely to account for all the super moves flying around, so matches take forever to complete. And, oh yeah, blocking automatically moves your fighter into the proper position, high or low, to accurately block. Genbu doesn’t turtle this much…
Terrible food, and generous portions. Rargh!
The amusing thing is that BAT3 had stolen its “double the roster by adding characters that are just model swaps” move from the Tekken series just in time for Tekken to mostly drop that concept for Tekken 3, aka the game that guaranteed I would pretty much never play Battle Arena Toshinden 3 with my friends. The graphics of Tekken 3 were lightyears ahead of BAT3, but what was really important was that a match in Tekken 3 didn’t take an entire presidential term to complete, which makes all the difference when you’re passing a controller around the basement.
And it’s a shame, too. You know what? If you asked me right now what I’d like to see in a fighting game, and maybe made it multiple choice, I would choose the option that included Michael Jackson fighting Catwoman with over the top special moves, but Battle Arena Toshinden completely blew it. In fact, I played all three BAT games this weekend, gladly sighed when that was behind me, then hopped on the ol’ Xbox 360, noticed Tekken Tag Tournament 2 was a whole five bucks, and went back to getting my Kuma on. The more things change…
FGC #19 Battle Arena Toshinden (1, 2, 3)
- System: Playstation, and never to be seen again anywhere else. Alright, I guess there were Saturn versions, and one really weird, kinda alright 2-D Gameboy “port”… But it sounds so much more definitive the other way!
- Number of Players: 2, though you can stretch that number much higher if everyone cooperates and, dammit, yes, Vinnie, you’ve got next game.
- Favorite Character: Ellis has always been my main for the trilogy. Strangely, when I was a kid, I always gravitated toward the fasted, most nimble character, and now, as an adult, I almost always choose the strongest character with the greatest reach. Juggernaut changed me…
- Admit it: What? No.
- Do it! Now: Fine! Like, I was barely a teenager and… ugh… Yes, I thought Ellis was cute and since she was just a little bit older than me I figured if we ever met we’d be totally best friends and maybe she’d think I was cute and oh well I guess we could go out sometime maybe my dad can take us to a movie or something. And that’s why I can’t bring myself to mock anyone for waifu ranting.
- That explains all the gifs: No, I just thought that was an easy way to compare the graphics advancing. What was going on in the early Ellis models, anyway? Is clothing supposed to be that transparent?
- So no one actually wanted to play BAT3, but you unlocked all eighteen hidden characters: It’s a compulsion. Tell me there are unlockable characters or costumes or whatever in even the most horrible game, and suddenly I’m driven to playing something I don’t even enjoy over and over again. Game designers are well aware of this.
- So what’s Takara up to nowadays? Oh, it looks like they just had a game come out this past week. Let’s see here… oh… looks like they’re still designing games to impress 12 year olds. At least they’re constant.
- Did you know? Okay, yes, there was a Battle Arena Toshinden 4 released everywhere but North America. It’s anime as hell, most of the cast from the first three games was scrapped, and the gameplay looks like it draws more from BAT3 than other sources. Heck, it’s a “team” fighter like King of Fighters, but there’s like five, total, teams. And is Naru wearing goggles? Oh, now I just find it personally insulting.
- Would I play again? Maybe, maybe on a lark, basically just to mock the idea of “Playstation” era graphics. But to actually have fun playing a video game? That’s not happening.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Dragon Quest VIII Journey of the Cursed King. Oh, hey, vaguely topical. Hop on the caravan and come along! Stay away from the stupid pot. Please look forward to it!