Fighting Game Primer Entry #2
Ever so rarely, there’s a game out there, that when you get down to it, in form and function, gets everything right that it set out to do.
Vampire Savior, is one of those games.
It may of not been apparent at first to the fighting game playing public, considering how it was more or less a financial bomb everywhere besides Japanese arcades. But the Vampire trilogy (called “Darkstalkers” everywhere else) are the second most important 2D fighting games ever made.
In my opinion, the Vampire games represent the turning point for the genre. They’re the landmark representing when fighting games started experimenting with new concepts. Most of which would be continued to be borrowed, modified, and expanded-upon to this day by other companies.
On the other hand, the Vampire games also represent the point where fighting games started getting deeper and more complex. This meant that developers started catering games to top players and obsessive fans. In a way, the Vampire games can possibly be attributed as the harbinger of the stagnation the genre faced.
However, I am one of those obsessive fans, and I believe that the Darkstalkers games aren’t the harbinger of doom, but rather, the catalyst that sparked creativity of game designers for years.
So that breaks this down into one question:
“What did the Vampire games get right?”
The first thing that comes to my mind is that these games were the first to give their fighting game characters, well, character.
And I don’t just mean that the games are about Halloween monsters punching each other instead of Ryu and Ken, I mean in the idea that these games had animation that showed you who these monsters really were.
Take for example, Victor’s walking animation. From first glance, you can tell he’s the Frankenstein monster. Huge body, green coat, visible scar on his arm.
But what makes this even cooler, is that if you look at him closer, a trail of electricity goes from one side of his body to the other, showing that he’s powered by, or can generate electricity. You notice his shoulders take broad, slow turns, and how he plants his feet into the ground and his back leg gives a very noticeable push as he steps forward.
Doesn’t that give you the idea that he’s determined to not stop at anything, and has a narrow focus on just the fight, as shown by his unmoving head?
Which seriously, think about that. In just a walk animation, the audience has a feel for Victor’s character. There was no cutscene, no text, and no voice acting, but yet, you could say you have an idea on who Victor is.
Isn’t that awesome? Few video games actually write their characters well, but yet though the animation in Vampire Savior, you can tell all those things about Victor.
Still, this detailed animation wouldn’t mean as much if the characters themselves were boring.
Thankfully, this is adverted. Vampire Savior’s cast is easily one of the best designed casts around. Both in terms of character and game design. Instead of just making normal looking attack animations, everyone stretched, hopped, lilted, and sprung into life, with a degree of fluidity that became the original “gold standard” for sprite animation.
And well, even without the animation, everyone is so cool!
Take for example Lord Raptor, a punk rocker turned zombie, who turns his arms into chainsaws to beat people up.
Or what about Bishamon, a haunted suit of samurai armor, brought to life with an unquenchable blood-lust.
Then there’s Q-Bee, a broodmother who feasts on the souls of the world.
Or Jon Talbain, a kung-fu werewolf!
And if that’s not bizzare enough for you, what about B.B. Hood? A psychotic take on Little Red Riding Hood, who’s packing heat.
Or what about Jedah, the guy 13 year old goths wish
Then of course, there’s Morrigan. The poster child
pin up girl for both the Vampire games, and succubi.
Or if none of this convinces you how awesome any of these people are, there’s Sasquash. Did I stutter? He’s fucking Sasquash! As if this game couldn’t get any better, they let you play as Sasquash!
Seriously, I love the night warriors, they’re an incredibly fun bunch. Some of them keep it light, like the aforementioned Sasquash, while others are still absolutely brutal like Jedah, and some are fun to watch come to life, like B.B. Hood, and Q-Bee.
Either way, creativity wasn’t in short supply during these game’s development,
and we got an absolutely awesome cast of characters.
It’s probably no surprise, with art direction this strong that VS is an incredibly immersive game. Musically, it takes a more atmospheric approach, focusing less on making iconic melodies, and more on fitting the fight. I feel as if the track “Forever Torment” gives the best idea of what Darkstalkers music is like.
However, the real unsung hero of the Vampire games is the stages. Each of them compliment the crazyness of the cast very well.
Some are classic horror type locales, like a vampire’s castle, or a dark street. Others, like certain members of the cast, are just straight up bizarre, like “Tower of Arrogance” a stage where you fight sideways
on a skyscraper. And some are “Fetus of God.”
Which still creeps me the hell out.
However, as truly wonderful as the aesthetics and polish is, the true crux of Vampire Savior is the fighting itself.
The game takes the same ideas from how SF II plays (6 attack buttons, 3 punches, 3 kicks, blocking by holding the opposite direction your character is facing, jumping by pressing an upward direction, etc.)and like it’s characters, it subverts the living crap out of fighting game conventions.
Some of them, are fairly standard fare, but still posses unique stuff like Demitri, and Morrigan. They’re the stand in for the shoto archtype.
While others like Jedah and B.B. Hood combine archtypes together. This time in the case of “rushdown” and “zoning.” They’re characters who win by being aggressive, but also by positioning themselves correctly. (more so than most fighting game characters.)
Then there are characters who are in a specific archtype, but are designed with a completely original theory like Victor. A grappler with incredibly long range, and due to his electric nature, has immense power.
Like I said before, the Vampire games created mechanics just as unique as the cast itself.
The most well known one is the “Hunter Chains” a.k.a. a combo system. In VS you can chain together normal attacks in the order of “Weak attack, medium attack, hard attack.” It’s pretty intuitive, and makes combos easy to do. However, this never gets out of hand, because there’s a pretty strict rule of what kind of moves can go into each other. Without going into too much jargon, you’ll have to take my word that combos don’t last longer than 10 seconds tops.
It also lets you block in the air. (not the first game to do so, but the first to pull it off right) This takes away the “high risk, high reward” aspect of jumping in SFII. Instead, it actively encouraged you to use air attacks. In doing so, air combat made the fight go from “only use air attacks when you have the advantage” to “the entire screen is a battlefield.”
There’s other stuff it introduced is a bit more technical, but I’ll try to clarify it.
Darkstalkers made “super” moves, which at the cost of a filled up meter, at the bottom of the screen, allowed you to unleash a super powered version of a special move. (For example, instead of a normal fireball, you can get a SUPER fireball.)
It also allowed you to dash, not just on the ground, but in the air. Now, granted, only four characters can airdash, but now it's almost an obligatory feature in certain fighting games.
As awesome as the super moves are, there’s another way you can spend your super meter, called “Dark Force.” DF let’s you go into a “super state” which gave your character an extra bonus to their normal gameplay. Sasquash for example, takes control of penguins that explode while he attacks.
Then there’s “healing” or “white” life. While VS wasn’t the first game to do it, the way it executes it, makes a dynamic element. If you get hit, you slowly heal a fraction of your life, but, if you’re hit during that healing process, you take full damage. This forces you to decide between whether or not you want to risk losing your positioning/momentum, so you can get back some life.
The breakneck speed of the game really complements this dynamic. Because not only A) The constant assault, and free flow of attacks make every decision meaningful and tense. B) The lifebar is secretly two lifebars.
When your lifebar is depleted, instead of resetting your position to the center of the screen, and beginning at a new round, like many other pixel punchers, the game immeatly heals your character, and puts you back in the fray. Basically, it’s one big round, and an absolute rush.
Again, that’s a lot to take in, (and there's a bunch of stuff I didn't mention) but somehow, when playing the game, your brain naturally processes it. The reason why all these abstract concepts work is because the cartoony look sells them. Because these characters were so weird Capcom could get away with making a game that has all these abstract concepts.
By the end of the day, Vampire Savior is this:
A fighting game that has the rush of combos without the “sit around for 30 seconds until it ends” problem that combo heavy games have, a blindingly fast speed that makes it possibly the fastest fighting game ever made, characters with strong “skeletons” which gave all of them the tools to win, but yet are specialized enough to make a totally diverse roster that miraculously remains balanced, and enough defensive options to ensure that the game doesn’t become overly aggressive.
Vampire Savior is the bee’s knees. It’s an extraordinary achievement in fighting game design because again, fighting games still use these takes on character archtypes and mechanics.
Unlike many other trailblazing games, this is a fighting game series that didn’t just think of all these concepts, and implement them poorly, it executed these high concept ideas spectacularly.
It opened the floodgates for what fighting games could do, and inspired so many game designers for more than just gameplay reasons.
Above all else, it’s aged like wine. It remains as fast and fun as when it first came out, even today, it’s gained a pretty sizable world-wide tournament scene, one big enough to make Capcom take notice.
If Street Fighter II is the game that is what we use as the framework to make fighting games, than Vampire Savior is the detail work.
Still, even if it didn’t quite receive the money it deserved, and only broke out of cult classic status, it’s always going to be immortalized as one of the greatest fighting games ever made.