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August 5, 2012

BlazBlue Appreciation Day: Why ArcSys is Amazing

I find it hilarious that I’m only two days away from owning Persona 4 Arena -- with the pre-order soundtrack, no less -- and now, out of nowhere, I have a new reason for irrational hype and girlish squealing.  A new fighting game is on the way…and you may have heard the name before.

BlazBlue is on its way back.  And it’s about to be better than ever.

Only you, ArcSys.  Only you.

I should probably also mention I find it hilarious that -- in the same sense that I consider Atlus to be one of THE greatest game developers out there right now (in spite of its modest size and sales), I’ve never put too much thought into which company is my favorite developer of fighting games.  Until now, that is.  That honor would have to go to Arc System Works -- not only because they’re the only ones who wisely decided to partner up with Atlus to put out Persona 4 Arena , but also because they’re the masterminds behind the cult-classic franchise Guilty Gear as well as the highly-respectable BlazBlue.  (And to a lesser extent, a Fist of the North Star game.)

Even though I’d argue that Tekken is my favorite fighting franchise, it’s still a VERY close call between it and a game from the ArcSys camp.  But regardless of who’s ultimately on top, praise and appreciation are necessary for the House of Guilty Gear.  So in light of the reveal of BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma, I’ll be more than happy to honor and educate you fair visitors of my blog.  Because as you know -- or I hope you know -- there are other games out there besides Street Fighter 4.

So let’s get started.  Using BlazBlue as an example, allow me to present…

1) A commitment to creating and developing stories (for better or worse).

I remember right around the time Super Street Fighter 4 was in the works, and Capcom was proud to show off their latest character Juri.  In addition to being the first Korean character in the series’ roster, she was going to be pivotal to the plot, and create a new benchmark for the SF mythos.

…Still waiting for that, Capcom.

There’s a current in the fighting game community -- in developers as well as gamers -- that the story doesn’t matter.  So long as there’s a token effort to showing each character’s ending, there idea is that there’s not much need.  Superhuman fighters gather.  There’s a tournament headed by a shady individual.  The fighters fight.  The bad guy reveals his master plan.  Insert cheap-as-all-hell boss fight.  You win and see that character’s ending.  The end.  It’s a formula that’s withstood the test of time, and doubtless will be seen again soon enough.

But BlazBlue wasn’t content to leave it at that.  It had a full, multi-hour, multi-path story mode that invited you to explore and enjoy the universe it created.  It fleshed out its characters, more so than a simple prologue/epilogue ever could.  You got to see them interact, develop the world, establish the stakes and the villains, and give you something to latch onto…or if you were THAT committed to the old ways of fighters, you could ignore the story and just plunge into the arcade mode or online play.  Nobody asked for a story, but ArcSys offered one to those who might have wanted it, whether they knew it or not.

But is the story actually any good?  Well, it’s good enough.  It’s good in the sense that it makes the world feel less like a backdrop, and its characters feel like less than a collection of sprites and frame data.  In terms of comprehensibility, the jury’s out.  The first game more or less invalidated the efforts and events of several characters’ story by way of a time loop (though you eventually break it in the end).  The second game had a villain that, while “charming,” was essentially an invincible genius until the plot decided to throw the heroes a bone.  The world-building elements are dense enough on their own, but throw in time loops, paradoxes, shifts in the probability of events, past events that form the backbone of current events, MIA characters whose presence would fill in plenty of gaps, and a story that’s been prohibitively expanded on other devices besides the widely-used consoles, and you’ve got your fair share of problems.

Still, what’s important is that BlazBlue put in the effort, and it DOES do a number of things rather well.  But let’s leave the jibba-jabba about the story aside for now.  Let’s go to…

2) An earnest desire to keep sprite-based games alive.

Sometimes I wish we lived in a parallel universe where sprite-based games dominated, while the Unreal Engine-powered ilk was banished to obscurity.  Given that the former allows for unique expression, style, and color, you’d think that’s where a lot of the developers would go to realize their creative vision.  But then again, that would be assuming that they have…oh, what’s the word I’m looking for?

Spongebob, give me a hand.

Ah, yes, that’s it.  Rainbows.

To be fair, I know that sprite animation is extremely impractical and extremely cost-ineffective.  It’s probably the reason why King of Fighters used the same handful of sprites for years -- and when the time came to update them (in KoF12), they gave us impressive sprites at the cost of the rest of the game…to say nothing of a watered-down roster and half-empty move sets.   

In spite of the difficulties, BlazBlue managed topull it off.  I won’t debate whether BlazBlue or Guilty Gear or Persona 4 Arena or KoF13 or any other contenders has the best sprites.  What I WILL say is that for all intents and purposes, BB has some “successful” sprites.  They convey information with their appearance and motions, whether they’re at rest or on the move.

Let’s take a look at the game’s lead, Ragna.  Here’s his default stance in a still image.

Here it is in motion.

And for comparison’s sake, let’s look at his brother Jin’s stance.

Now, take a moment to come up with words to describe them.  I’ll give you…oh, about thirty seconds.  Go ahead.  Give it a try.

…You done?  All right.

Ignoring the way they look for a moment (and yes, they ARE indeed brothers), think carefully about what’s being conveyed here.  Ragna’s stance emphasizes toughness.  Confidence.  Annoyance, and perhaps even anger.  He doesn’t even have his weapon drawn, but he doesn’t need to; he knows all he needs is a quick swipe to make heads roll.  There’s a calmness to him that keeps him balanced; he’s breathing in and out without much hesitation, but you know he’s all too willing to launch himself into a Hell’s Fang at a moment’s notice.

Compare that to Jin’s stance.  He has a similar confidence and annoyance, but there’s more elegance to him -- and with it, an air of superiority.  Whereas Ragna’s willing to face an opponent with his full attention, Jin hardly feels the need, and turning his head is all the recognition he’ll give his foe.  He doesn’t have his weapon drawn either, but there’s a calculating nature to him that Ragna lacks; I can almost imagine Jin thinking, “Now then, I wonder how many pieces I should cut this piece of trash into?”

Their movements -- and looks, of course -- may not be the most realistic, but that’s the point.  They’re stylish.  They’re unique.  Their exaggerated designs and motions emphasize their traits.  The information isn’t just conveyed, it’s elevated to a whole new level.

It certainly helps that there’s…

3) A slew of combat mechanics to help you and hurt your foe.

Sometimes I question whether games in the Capcom camp are as easy and beginner-friendly as they’re purported to be.  The mechanics seem simple enough -- jumps and throws and fireballs, oh my -- but the nuances make me think otherwise.  Before I understood fighting games (and even now that’s in question), I used to look at the six-button layout and think to myself, “Well what’s the point of having four weak attacks when I have the two strongest ones here?”  So I just used fierce punches and roundhouses.  Thankfully I’ve learned NOT to rely on just those two buttons in the years since, but that just invites a whole armada of questions and nuances to learn.  What’s the proper application of this move over that move?  What’s the proper timing for a link?  What is a link?  What?  Back-dashes have invincibility frames?  Wait a sec, what are those?  Eh screw it.  I'll just go with what I know.

There are a lot of things you need to learn about SF (and by extension, Street Fighter X Tekken) before you’re even remotely ready to start playing online -- some of which don’t feel even remotely intuitive.  And even then, there are still issues that create crap-shoot situations.  What do you do when someone’s pressuring you with safe attacks?  What do you do when one lucky hit turns into a life-eating combo?  What do you do if you make the wrong input, or your attack misses by a big margin?  They’re all situations that contribute to the SF metagame of course, but those all depend on you having the right answer at all times.

ArcSys games work differently.  The idea is that the mechanics in their games make for a harder-to-understand experience, but I’d argue that the reverse is true.    What do you do when someone’s pressuring you with safe attacks?  Why, use your barrier to push them back out and make an opening -- or just spend some meter and blow them off.  What do you do when one lucky hit turns into a life-eating combo?  Don’t worry, just use your burst to stop their combo…or use a burst offensively to completely fill your super meter.    What do you do if you make the wrong input, or your attack misses by a big margin?  No problem, just Rapid Cancel and return to a neutral state -- a technique that lets you save yourself, dupe the enemy into attacking, or just open up new combo opportunities.  You can do things offensively and defensively that you can’t in other games.

And in addition to that, there’s…

4) A dedication to character balance and relevance.

The reason I want to focus on BB specifically is that it has its “Drive system.”  Essentially, each character has a slew of moves with special properties -- often accessed with a single button press -- that sets them apart from all the others.  Ragna has his “Soul Eater,” which amps up his basic offense by stealing enemy health for himself (a boon, since his health is curiously low for the standard Shotoclone).  Jin has “Frostbite,” which lets him freeze opponents solid and leave them wide open for some tasty combos.  The resident grappler’s drive can pull in enemies -- and generally, the last place you want to be when fighting a grappler is within his grab range.  Zoning characters can be extremely effective thanks to their drives, either turning the stage into a bedlam of blades or utterly confusing you with an insectoid onslaught.  But I have to give Carl Clover major props for giving players the chance to control not one, but TWO characters simultaneously, and allowing for some deadly setups.

The original BB took a lot of heat for having the audacity to show up with only twelve characters, especially since the original SF4 showed up with about twenty.  Likewise, SSF4 brought in ten new characters (and four added with DLC), while BB’s update brought in…a whopping two, and three DLC characters added over a staggering period of time.  To say nothing of Marvel vs. Capcom 3’s FIFTY characters. 

But there’s a fault in that approach. While Capcom games give you a lot of characters, their effectiveness ranges from “why would you use anyone else?” good to “hope your affairs are in order” bad.  Even with that aside, there are some similarities that diminishes a character’s effectiveness.  Both Guile and Dee Jay are zoning characters, and share a couple of moves -- a projectile and an anti-air kick -- albeit with different properties.  But here’s a question that comes up often: why would you use Dee Jay when Guile can do much of what he can, but better?  I’ve played with them both, and I can see the merit to the question; the most I can say in Dee Jay’s defense is that he has some better cross-ups, unique knockdowns, and is black.  Similarly, why play T. Hawk when Zangief is considered far superior?  The most you could say is “character loyalty,” but that’s not enough for a lot of players.  And as I recall, IGN once knocked E. Honda for being eerily similar to Blanka.  A blanket statement, but I can see why they’d think that.

With the (strenuous) exception of Ragna and Jin, nobody in BB plays quite like one another.  The strategies you use as cyborg samurai Hakumen are vastly different from those used as cat girl Taokaka.  Even though Carl and Litchi both use indirect attacks via their semi-controllable Drives, their gameplay is still markedly different.  Nobody knew what the hell to make of Arakune when he was first revealed, and there have been few comparisons to him before or after the game’s release.  More importantly, the smaller cast lends itself to greater balance; it’s much more difficult to balance forty or fifty characters than it is (at most) a dozen and a half.  There have been more than a few niggling issues, like projectile characters at one point being inherently better than the others, but with each iteration each character comes closer and closer to 100% viability.  And with that viability -- that balance -- comes more interesting fights.  Rather than see wall-to-wall matches with teams featuring Doctor Doom or Magneto, wouldn’t be exciting to be left guessing which character you’ll see in the next fight?

5) An effort to explain its world’s mechanics.

To the credit of most fighters, there’s not too much world-building to be done.  SF takes place largely within the context of the present, and Tekken is pretty much the same way (though it does rationalize the presence of things like the Mishima Zaibatsu and G Corporation).  Soulcalibur gives you a bit of historical context, but focuses more on its characters.  Virtua Fighter…well, Virtua Fighter doesn’t give a shit about its story, as far as I can tell.  There’s not much context besides “your character wants something, so he/she enters the tournament and fights some dudes.”  I guess Sega’s under the impression that it doesn’t have to work on the story because “nobody cares about the story in a fighting game.”  Besides, VF takes place in the present-day as well; there’s not much to tell, really.

That’s precisely why I have to give ArcSys some credit for trying to do something different.  It’s hard enough trying to build a living, breathing world.  Worse yet when it’s a thankless job in the context of the “hurf durf who cares about story?” mindset.  But there’s genuine effort.  How can you look at stages like this and not wonder “Wow, I wonder what kind of world these characters live in?”

…And then you realize that the reasoning behind such wild architecture is never given.

That aside, the actual workings of the world are explained in the main story and in easily-unlocked extras -- another one of those “it’s there if you want it” little flourishes.  Even if you never touch those extras, there’s enough info conveyed to you in the main story to satisfy you.  What’s with all the crazy weapons?  Who are the bad guys working for?  What’s a Terumi?  What’s the fuel for everyone’s bitchin’-damn super moves?  All questions answered in the story’s context, and then some.  I say “and then some” because -- if you haven’t already, BB is a game that BEGS to be played…or better yet, watched.

I say this because of four simple words: Teach Me, Miss Litchi.

Other games -- not just fighters -- are content with giving players a codex or datalogs or supplementary materials (often only available in Japan) to read in order to fill in the blanks.  It’s passable, but not exactly ideal.  BB on the other hand gives you a slew of fully-voiced, character-driven, and genuinely entertaining shorts that explain the world as well as offer their own little side-stories.  That way, you’re not just learning; you’re laughing, too.

And on that note…

6) A sense of levity that keeps things from getting too heavy-handed.

I think video games are WAAAAAAAAAAY too serious nowadays.

Not all video games, of course, but enough to make me weary and wary.  Chalk it up to being violent/cinematic/epic, but there’s a striking lack of levity that a nineties-bred gamer like me sorely misses…and a levity that I appreciate all the more whenever it appears. 

And then, one day, BlazBlue came riding into my heart on a daffodil-powered motorcycle, leaving behind trails of rainbows and balloons and smelling like miracles.  There’s a tongue-in-cheek nature to the game that keeps it from getting too heavy.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s no shortage of serious moments, thanks to some dramatic backstories, falls from grace, and some generally…well, unpleasant villains.  But it rarely forgets that it’s a game, a product designed to entertain its owners. 

There’s an awareness of how ridiculous all the characters are.  Jin’s lust for his brother isn’t just made explicit, it’s slammed in your face with a clown car the size of an elephant.  Litchi, the resident improbably buxom fighter, is repeatedly referred to as “boobie lady.”  Hot-blooded ninja Bang can override the game to have his theme song play -- and I swear the volume jumps up about forty decibels every time.  The mid-battle dialogue ranges from over-the-top (“Don’t put down science!” or “MY DEFENSES!”) to hilariously insane (“Your breasts are illegal!” and my personal favorite, “Ragna the Bloodedge…YOU’RE STUPID!”).  And the story mode’s got plenty of golden lines.  Actually, I should probably go into a bit more depth on that one.    

See, the story mode has branching paths for each character.  Some paths lead to their good ending. Other paths lead to a bad ending, and the expected game over.  But if you make certain choices, you’ll end up on a third path, and unlock a character’s gag reel.  In my opinion, the gag reels in themselves are worth the price of admission. 

They are nothing short of cinematic genius.  Fly, you fools.  Go and watch them.

Here.  I’ll even post a video here for you.  You don’t even have to put in the legwork…well, finger-work to go to YouTube.    

7) A product that allows for fast-paced, pulse-pounding action.

As you may know, I have a lot of fond memories playing fighting games with my brother.  Even if he’s become an unrelenting (if a bit reckless) tiger in terms of gameplay, and even if I’ve become an unmoving (if a bit panicky) dragon, we still go at it relatively often…even if it DOES have a nasty habit of taking about three hours out of my life.  But one of our most memorable matches was during a game of Guilty Gear.

Neither of us were very good at the game (in the conventional, tournament-worthy sense), since it was our first experience with the franchise.  But my brother put in time in the combo lab as he often did, while I familiarized myself with the game via arcade mode and a few dozen playthroughs.  When it came time to throw down during a visit to our grandma’s house -- because at the moment there was nothing else better to do -- we popped in the game, plopped down, and selected our alter egos.  He chose Sol Badguy.  I went with Ky Kiske.  Tensions flared as the match started, heralded by the blare of the swordsmen’s rival theme. 

What transpired was one of the biggest slobberknockers of a match we’ve ever had.  The explosive booms of Sol’s Gun Flame.  The resounding blows of Ky’s Greed Sever.  The pulverizing force of Sol’s Ground Viper, grinding me across the ground before pounding me skyward.  The crackling lightning of Ky’s Vapor Thrust, followed up by a blow that could send Sol flying.  My brother’s relentless assaults, held in check solely by my defensive array of bolts and blocking.  High and low attacks.  Staggers and stuns.  Characters zooming in on one another with dashes and slides, and practically flying through the air. 

But the most memorable moment was when my bro went for a Force Break, cancelling into Sol’s add-on attack -- an attack I blocked with ease.  Looking to retaliate, I went for my overdrive, Ride the Lightning…but Sol’s last move was safer than I expected, allowing him to hold off my attack.  The counter?  A Tyrant Rave, a massive burst of flame exploding from Sol’s fist…and a burst I blocked without issue.  My response?  Another Ride the Lightning, hoping to capitalize on the mistake.  But once more, I was blocked, with neither of us gaining an advantage.  Drained of both our meters and running low on health, we both scrambled to find a way to clinch the match.  And as it turned out, my brother found the way first; with one well-placed Riot Stamp, he zoomed out of the way of my attack, and ended the match with a flying kick.

I lost the match.  But I think I gained something even more precious.

I know Guilty Gear isn’t BlazBlue.  And as much as I like the latter, the absence of the former is severely missed, and one that I hope doesn’t last too much longer.  But for what it’s worth, BlazBlue (and inevitably Persona 4 Arena, and undeniably Guilty Gear) is a positively thrilling experience.  It’s fast.  It hits hard.  It gets you pumped.  It lets you play your way.  It gives you all the tools you need to succeed so that when you lose, you know it’s your fault alone.  It’s cool.  It makes you feel the heat.  It gets you hyped.  It makes you laugh.  It gives you a fantastic, colorful world.  It gives you a story, and lets you play at your leisure.  It lets you be you, whatever sort of fighter you may be.

And for that, Arc System Works, I thank you.  But I will get down on my knees and proclaim you an aggregate embodiment of the heavens because of…


I don’t think Guilty Gear would be half as memorable and adored by gamers if it wasn’t for the music.  That’s probably to be expected, given that its mastermind had a heavy hand in the soundtrack as well as the story and characters.

I’m thankful that Daisuke Ishiwatari got to exert as much control as he did -- and that he got to continue nurturing his baby into something utterly fantastic.  Each song in the game adds more to the character than even their sprites; Sol’s theme emphasizes his rough and rowdy nature.  Venom’s, a calculating professionalism.  Zappa’s, a horrific and tortured being.   Slayer’s…well, Slayer’s theme is unrestrained badassery. 

And you know what?  Ishiwatari is only getting BETTER at this whole rock god thing.  Good as those songs are, they’re fairly old now.  Not to say that their effect has been diminished, but when you compare them to the work Ishiwatari’s done more recently, you can certainly see how much his sound has evolved. 

Here’s Jin’s theme.  Listen to it.  Just…listen to it.

I don’t know if it’s your cup of tea.  I don’t know if it means anything to you.  I don’t know if it affects you, or conveys information, emotion, and perhaps even a story within its four-minute play time.  But you know what?  If I had to guess, I’d say you at least felt something.  And who knows?  You may be scrolling YouTube to check out the other themes.

Now, what that something is -- from this song, any song, or my wide-eyed ranting -- remains unclear.  But at the very least, I know where I stand.  Arc System Works is, right now, in my opinion, the fighting game company to beat.  I thank them for all they’ve done, and I sincerely hope that they keep up the pressure…and release a new Guilty Gear.

Better watch yourselves, Capcom.  You’re on blast now.

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