When Super Smash Bros. landed in 1999, it turned the fighting genre on its head. By incorporating platforming elements and a greatly simplified fighting control scheme, Nintendo successfully introduced the party fighter. Now, it wasn't necessarily the first such title (it seems to have drawn heavy inspiration from the 1994 arcade game The Outfoxies), but you can't deny the impact it had on consumers as well as its influence on other developers.
Not to downplay the solid infrastructure that is responsible for the franchise's enduring success, but let's be real. People bought Smash Bros. because they wanted to kick the ever-loving Christ out of Pikachu. The game would have been nothing, nothing, without the legendary motley crew of Nintendo mascots, a fact that Sakurai understood when he pitched the original prototype. For a game of such scope, it's imperative for the cast to be both memorable and varied.
So what happens when someone creates a Smash Bros. wannabe but forgets to include characters that anyone gives a shit about? I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't have an example.
OFFENDER: Onimusha Blade Warriors DEVELOPED BY: Capcom RELEASED ON: PS2, 2004 TASTES LIKE: Super Smash Bros.
Let me preface the rest of this article by saying that I have nothing but love for the Onimusha franchise, one of my favorite new IPs in the past ten years. It's basically Resident Evil, right down to the pre-rendered environments and tank controls, only more action driven and set in feudal Japan. Totally amazing. Know what isn't amazing? The cast of characters.
For those unfamiliar with the Onimusha series, it is a reinterpretation of the events during the Warring States period, specifically Nobunaga Oda's conquest and later Hideyoshi Toyotomi's unification of Japan. As such, every pivotal character is either based on an actual period figure or is related to one. That's all well and good, but if I want a history lesson I'll take an East Asian studies class (which I did, come to think of it). Besides, we've been through this before. Give Nobunaga a break, guys! In the interest of ending incessant civil war, the man employed a number innovative battle tactics and economic policies for the good of the nation. How do we respect him? By demonizing him, literally! He expanded trade beyond China, fostered Western relations, and established a free market system that gave power to the individual. What a monster!
Across the entire franchise, the only character I have any interest in is the time-traveling Frenchman Jacques Blanc from Onimusha 3, but that's only because he's modeled after international badass Jean Reno. Is Jean Reno in Onimusha Blade Warriors? Of course not. Blade Warriors gathers characters from the first and second game and pits them against one another in a four-player free-for-all. Inafune and his Capcom posse must have thought their million-selling franchise was on the verge of total consumer disinterest after a scant two games to honestly believe that a party brawler was in any way a necessary venture.
I'm sorry, did I say four-player? Technically this game is four-player, but I only see two controller ports on the PS2. Do you know anyone with the multitap? No one bought the damn multitap. Part of that PlayStation experience, right Sony? Who needs friends anyway! You can watch DVDs now!
But that's another can of worms. For now, let's brawl.
HOW SHAMELESS IS IT?
Well, I can tell you that this game definitely does not play like Smash Bros.. If you are playing Blade Warriors fresh off of one of the previous titles in the franchise then you should feel quite familiar. The only significant change to the controls is the addition of a jump button not present in the series proper, but it's an ultimately useless addition since aerial combat is non-existent and environmental obstacles that require jumping appear infrequently. Battle arenas are split into multiple tiers that are visited by double tapping up or down, further highlighting the jump function's redundancy. Other than that, you have access to the same repertoire as before including the ability to absorb souls from downed enemies in order to regain health, obtain magic, or power up weapons.
The basics are near identical to mainline Onimusha; that would be totally fine if not for one important detail. The game plays like an action game when it should play like a fighting game. Could you imagine if there was Street Fighter spin-off that paid homage to Mega Man but no effort was made to adapt the controls to fit the parameters of Mega Man game design? It would be awkward at best and unplayable at worst. Though not unplayable, Blade Warriors doesn't have much in the way of a combo system (other than the 1-2-3 combo you perform by mashing the square button repeatedly) or variety in attack strategy (aside from attack, attack, attack, then pray you've broken the enemy's guard so that you can actually inflict some damage). The only technique that prevents the game from being completely shallow is the critical slash performed either by attacking the nanosecond an opponent's attack animation begins or by guarding an attack precisely as it comes swinging down and immediately following up with an attack. This is a Herculean feat to pull off in the main games, but in a fast-paced fighting game environment it's not even worth the sweat. Chances are you'll pull it off by complete accident, but the moment you become conscious of your actions you'll lose your momentum. What should be an advanced skill becomes a fucking roll of the dice.
Smash Bros. is famous for boiling all major actions to two buttons modified by simple tilts of the control stick. Blade Warriors on the other hand features a multitude of actions that just don't belong in a fighting game. You have a ready stance that locks on to nearby opponents, useful in a 3D world but pointless on a 2D plane where enemies can only ever be in front or behind you. You have a kick button that's meant to break enemy guards, but because combos don't exist you probably won't be able to attack before your opponent regains composure. There is the jump that I've already gone over. Finally, there is your basic attack button and the knowledge that every match will boil down to who can mash it the fastest. There are a number of modifications such as rising slashes and disarms but their level of usefulness varies wildly. In short, it's a fighting system that doesn't encourage high-level play.
Like Smash Bros., Blade Warriors features a single-player campaign that differs from the one-on-one tournament style of typical fighting games. Unlike Smash Bros., this mode perhaps has more merit than the multiplayer simply because the former somewhat convinces you that you are playing an actual Onimusha whereas the latter somewhat convinces you that you wasted your money on a half-assed slice of cow pie. You choose any of the available characters and play through a series of levels with specific goals such as clearing all enemies in a certain time limit or absorbing a certain number of souls. Every so many levels you will square off against a boss, some which are exclusive to the story mode and some which are available or can be unlocked for play.
Then there are the characters. Aside from the series heroes Samanosuke Akechi and Jubei Yagyu, you can take command of their second-string support crew or a number of demons. The games didn't have many characters to begin with so a lot of inclusions in the roster really scrape the bottom of the barrel. Like the random grunt soldier! Yeah, the model used for all the cannon-fodder NPCs! Or the fearsome Marcellus who may or may not look like a bitch! And finally, there is the all-important zombie, the very first enemy you encounter in the very first game! It's the goomba of the Onimusha world. No one wants to play as the fucking goomba. That's just sad. What's sadder is how the character selection screen is a direct rip-off of the "disembodied hand dragging and dropping tokens" gimmick from Smash Bros..
Of course, there are unlockable characters like Miyamoto Musashi and Big Bad Nobunaga himself. If you have Onimusha 3 save data on your memory card, you'll unlock one special character from that game. No, it's not Jean Reno. Fuckin' A. What a cock tease, Capcom, I don't even. Throw us a bone here. And they do! There are two extra-special bones that keep this game from being entirely nonessential. Enter MegaMan.EXE and Zero!
Yes! Inafune squeezed in these little guys hoping to drum interest for the Game Boy Advance Mega Man titles on the market as well as to attract fans of the Blue Bomber. More so than Solid Snake and Sonic's guest appearances in SSBB, Mega and Zero steal the show, run it to Mexico, and use the money they earned from hawking the thing to spend a night with a couple of Tijuana hookers. Once you've unlocked these guys there is no reason to play as anyone else. Don't believe me? Look up Onimusha Blade Warriors on YouTube and you'll find that literally 90% of all the videos feature one or both of these guys. That is the final word on whether the Onimusha cast has any appeal whatsoever.
Anyway, I'm jumping around here. Focus, focus, focus. Story mode. Right. So there are two types of story paths, one for heroes and another for villains. As the heroes, you face wave after wave of demon hordes before tangling with Nobunaga in his underworld lair. As the demons, you wage war against the human scum and ultimately confront the Onimusha team of Samanosuke and Jubei. Each character follows a different path with different challenges and different bosses with the final level always being the aforementioned confrontations. As I said before, the story mode plays just like the series proper minus the atmosphere and exploration. In other words, it's a grind. I won't lie. Onimusha games are grind-fests, especially once you've sufficiently powered up your character and just brute-force your way past squads of easily dissected meat.
You collect red souls and use them to raise your attack, defense, and magic stats between levels. Your beefed-up character can then be used in follow-up runs on higher difficulty levels should you choose to do so. You collect Victory souls which are used as currency in the shop to purchase healing medicine and such. As you complete challenges and beat individual stories, you gain new weapons and new story paths. You even have opportunities to visit the Phantom Zone, a sort of endurance test where you have to clear multiple floors of increasingly more difficult enemies with no chance to save in between with the payoff being the game's more powerful weapons and tools.
Of course, no fighting game would be complete without a cheap-ass final boss, so I'm happy to announce that Nobunaga keeps that tradition alive. His lair is filled with poison pools that drain your health and flame-spewing devil heads that force you to keep moving, none of which do any damage to him. He has perfect defense, perfect offense, and the support rifle-toting flunkies that appear to piss in your Cheerios. Your best bet is to absorb magic orbs and unleash them in his face, but you have to be standing right on top of treasure chests when you open them because the big bastard can steal that shit from across the room with unbelievably unfair Magneto powers, thus granting him magic attacks that are twice as damaging and three times as effective as your own. You will die so many times against this joker even if the rest of the campaign was a cakewalk to you, but thankfully after death you return to the weapon upgrade screen and use any red souls in your possession before the rematch.
Speaking of death, the way game deaths are handled is a bit of a peeve. You are given no option to restart a match immediately and must always visit the weapon screen. That's already a minor nuisance, but when you figure that it takes ten seconds to load the menu and ten more seconds to load a level, compounded by the number of times Nobunaga fucks your shit, that's a good portion of potential playtime wasted fuming at blank loading screens.
I realize I've wasted most of your time rambling about stuff you don't care about. What about the multiplayer? This is where the connection to Smash Bros. becomes apparent. You can play free-for-alls or with color-coded teams in matches with adjustable time, stock, and item drop rate parameters. The big kicker is the item selection that has been expanded from what was available in story mode. In single-player, you have souls, kunais and shurikens, and health and magic restoration medallions, but multiplayer drops a few curious additions like a fan... a giant hammer... a magic wand... a beam sword... a homerun bat... good Lord, they literally call it the "Homerun Bat" in-game!
If you so choose, you can play as the upgraded characters from story mode, but unless you put in the effort to play through the game with all the characters and unlock all their best weapons then you will be splitting the roster into "new hotness" and "old and busted" camps. Not that it matters because by far the biggest cop out is how every character plays the same. Exactly the same. People complained when there were three Star Fox reps in Brawl, but Blade Warriors really goes the distance! Sure, some may be faster than others or have a more powerful magic attack, but no one has any unique signature moves. The only characters that have any legitimately unique moves are Mega and Zero with their blasters, the only non-item projectile attacks in the entire game (as if you needed another reason to not pick anyone else).
The arenas feature highly detailed environments that often work against players. Whenever the camera zooms out, characters begin to blend in with the background. When you've got characters wearing intricate armor patterns painted in a washed-out color scheme, you need something like the Smash Bros. player arrow above their heads or a glow or something. Another downside to all that detail is that sometimes it's hard to tell where you can pass from one tier to the next. Sometimes you may think you can scale a wall but are unable to do so whether because the game doesn't allow it or because you are a few inches away from the appropriate shifting point. The "up" button is also a secondary jump button, so if you don't move to the next tier you'll just be hopping down like a fucking retarded kangaroo while whatever it is you were trying to get away from smacks you right in the God damn teeth.
I took the game to a party this weekend to gauge how it would be received in the appropriate environment. When starting up, the first question I was asked was, "Is Jean Reno in there?" No. Jean Reno isn't there. It's the crime of the century, I know. When I got a match underway, I had my ass handed to me immediately. I, the one with the experience, the one who played through the single-player mode several times and conquered the Phantom Realm, was bested by those damnable critical attacks. What is the point of developing skill when this is what the game boils down to? I quickly switched to the strategy I used to finally take down Nobunaga, one which involves shifting tiers and waiting for opponents to follow. Whenever you move to a new tier, there is a window during which your character is wide open, so it's never a good idea to shift right to where your enemy is standing. It's also a cheap way to win any match.
Another juicy tidbit is that when you lose a life, you respawn in the same spot where you died. You have less of an invincibility window than in Smash Bros., so the invitation to capitalize on easy spawn camping is too tasty to pass up. By this time, we had had enough. We put the controllers down and walked away. No gameplay depth? A roster of who-gives-a-fucks with identical movesets? No Jean Reno? How did this game ever think it could touch the magic that is Smash Bros.?
This game left me with a sour taste for the whole Onimusha franchise. The single-player mode was everything I enjoyed about the main games, only cut up and processed into something that was merely adequate. And when that adequate single-player mode is more enjoyable than what is supposed to be title's main draw, the multiplayer, then you can understand my indigestion. This game needed to be more of a rip-off of than it was. That's the worst part! I really wanted this game to play like Smash Bros..
Why did I spend so much time playing this game? It was such a time sink! I should have realized after the second day that it wasn't going to drastically change and turn into a shining paragon of genre excellence. But I kept at it for two weeks, for what? What was I waiting for?
What was I waiting for.
THE DEEP IMPACT SCALE OF ARMAGEDDON... OR IS IT THE ARMAGEDDON SCALE OF DEEP IMPACT? I HAVE NO CLUE: