IGS (International Games Systems) is not a company you hear about every day, but they are one of the most notable developers from Taiwan. The company is mostly known for their arcade games and the Poly Game Master hardware, or PGM. The PGM was an amazing piece of hardware meant to outdo SNK's NeoGeo, boasting more and better sprites on screen. Obviously, it is nowhere near as well-known as SNK's classic arcade hardware, and came a little late, in 1997, when 3D graphics were all the rage, but the PGM was still a very powerful 2D hardware for its time.
Martial Masters is one of the best and most well known games on the PGM. It's a 2D fighter with lots of characters, all of which are very well animated. The graphics are on par with Street Fighter III or Garou: Mark of the Wolves, which were released only a few years earlier. The backgrounds are very detailed too, though not nearly as impressive as those of Darkstalkers or Samurai Shodown. Unfortunately, the sound isn't so good, being mostly screechy and grating.
Besides looking fantastic, Martial Masters has a surprisingly deep fighting system. All characters have an ungodly number of special moves and combos, most of which can be canceled in mid-animation. There are super moves too, but the super bar can be used for other things as well. One such thing is called Wake Up, a move that all characters have. It knocks an opponent back and consumes a little bit of the super bar. It can act as a combo breaker, too. Another is the Shadow Attack, which is performed by doing a quarter circle forward (or backward) and pressing B and C at the same time. Doing this makes a shadow of your character appear and fight independently. It only consumes half a bar and will sometimes do more damage than a super move.
The story involves the end of China's Qing Dynasty in the later 1800s and is heavily reminiscent of the Once Upon A Time in China movie series. The story involves a fanatical cult, The White Lotus Sect, trying to take control of China during an unstable time. Once in control, The Lotus Master will set out to destroy all Western nations so that China can become the true ruler of the world. Entire continents will be wiped out and millions will die if Lotus Master's plans succeed.
Only about half the characters have anything to do with the plot. The rest of them have their own storylines that don't go anywhere. Most characters have names based on their fighting style, so no one has particularly interesting names.
The protagonist of Martial Masters. Master Huang's brother Dragon was kidnapped by The White Lotus Sect for defying their word and believing that it was wrong to kill entire continents of people. The White Lotus Sect soon labeled Dragon and Master Huang as demons for even suggesting that this may be wrong. Master Huang soon started his journey to rescue his brother, take down The Lotus Master and avert a worldwide disaster.
Reika's grandfather and easily one of the goofiest characters in the game. Drunk Master a strong resemblance to Chin from King of the Fighters, as his fighting style relies on weird and unpredictable movement. His movements perfectly capture how a drunk old man moves, and he has to be one of the most fluid and detailed characters in the game. He also has moves where he attacks with his wine jug, just like Chin.
A shy and introverted lady that also plans on rescuing Dragon. Crane does not talk a lot, but has a secret fondness for Master Huang. Her fighting style is ridiculous, as she flaps her arms like wings when she's standing still. Even so, Crane strikes extremely fast and can hit very hard if you know how to use her right, despite her silly arm flapping.
Ghost Kick used to be a very rich man, until he lost everything to gambling. After that, he started work for a rickshaw business and invented his own fighting style, ghost kick. Ghost Kick is very fast and rarely punches, even the punch puttons are mapped to many kicks.
The son of a Christian missionary that learned to fight tiger style from locals. The White Lotus Sect declared him dangerous for being a Westerner in China and a master of Tiger style. Tiger fights mostly with powerful punches, but he is not above clawing at his opponents as an actual tiger would.
Drunk Master's granddaughter and a very projectile-heavy character. The White Lotus Sect slaughtered her town, only she got away and is surprisingly cheerful for a character that had almost her entire family killed in front of her eyes. Reika has the unique ability to throw fireballs, something that most characters cannot to do in Martial Masters. She can be a real pain to fight, especially because she is also small, fast, and capable of hitting surprisingly hard for a little girl.
A very rich man with an unusual fighting style. Scorpion moves by crawling around on the ground with one leg up in the air, looking like a scorpion's tail. He also has a thing for prostitutes, something which Red Snake, his wife from an arranged marriage, does not like. He is based on the villain from the Kung Fu movie Operation Scorpio.
Heiress to one of the richest families in Canton, Red Snake has an arranged marriage with Scorpion, something she is not very happy about. She has a tendency to act on impulse and has a rebellious streak, something Scorpion finds unbearable.
A boy that lives in a cave full of monkeys that calls himself Monkey Boy. He is Reika's rival, but otherwise, has almost no story relevance whatsoever. Even so, he is a pretty cool character and has some very easy combos. Monkey Boy has a few strange moves, including one where he tosses fruit as projectiles. He also crawls on the ground instead of walking, making him a hard target to hit sometimes.
A huge and powerful monk from an unnamed monastery. Monk is actually a minor antihero, fighting with an unusual amount of anger and fury for a monk. In his back-story, Monk challenged Master Huang once when he was young and lost spectacularly. Later on, he challenged Master Huang again, this time far stronger and more skilled, and still lost. He's still looking to challenge Master Huang, determined to beat him at least once. Monk is very brutal and about twice the size of most other characters.
A hulking, clawed, demon-like character. Lotus Master is the head of The White Lotus Sect. He can make gold lotus flowers appear out of nowhere and disappear. They act very similar to Goenitz's Yonokaze (tornado) from SNK's King of Fighters, only much less obnoxious. Mastering these lotus attacks and knowing when, where, and which energy flower to use is key to victory, as Lotus Master is not particularly fast.
A hidden character, unlocked by leaving the machine on for a month(!) and waiting for people to pay 99 credits. Luckily, this enormous requirement is negated when playing on an emulator. Saojin is fascinated by Western culture and has learned a lot of skills from studying it, notably photography. She trains under Master Huang and secretly plans to help him out in his fight against The White Lotus Sect. Saojin is a comic relief character; she gets tired after special attacks, flails her arms wildly, and has a super move where she calls her friends to beat the opponent up and takes a picture of the scene.
True Lotus Master
True Lotus Master, misspelled in the game as "Ture Lotus Master" is the final boss and a secret character. Despite having a nearly identical sprite to Lotus Master, he has almost none of the same moves. He can make huge pillars of fire, shoot storms of small lotus projectiles, and slash with his very big claws. Like most bosses of fighting games, he's pretty cheap, but can be dealt with if you know what you're doing.
Part of what makes Martial Masters so much fun is that every character has a very large amount of moves. Since each character has two super moves, two shadow moves, and always more than five special moves, there ends up being a lot of depth in each character. That's not even getting into combos, as there are so many different ways to put combos together that you may end up accidentally discovering combo after combo.
With every character having so much depth, so many moves, and so many possibilities, Martial Masters ends up feeling very different from most other fighting games. Every character, even Saojin, the "joke slot", is very strong and easy to learn. This also means that none of the characters are weak or worthless in combat. The character roster ends up seeming a lot richer than most other fighting games. It helps that IGS put a lot of work into play testing and balanced everything until it felt just right.
Even though playing against your friends is where most people will get their enjoyment from Martial Masters, the single player mode was far from ignored. The AI is very crafty and cheats substantially less than most other fighting games. Working your way up to True Lotus Master feels like an accomplishment, much like taking down other well designed fighting game bosses. When you finally get to the end and beat the game, the game reveals a secret password one used to be able to register on their website to get onto an online leader board. IGS also did this with many of its other PGM games, including on their infamous Bee Storm: Dodonpachi II. Sadly, these online scoreboards are not used anymore, but were a pretty cool idea before consoles got in on the worldwide scoreboards.
Martial Masters was mostly overlooked when it came out. It saw a release in China, Japan, Europe, and the United States, but like all of IGS' other titles, never received a port to any console. It is a very good game, though, and should not be nearly as forgotten as it is.