In the modern era, dedicated video game consoles are no longer a necessity for avid gamers. There’s plenty of content that doesn’t make its way to the PC and a lot of great console exclusives, but the biggest titles often hit as many platforms as possible, and the genres that have long flourished only on consoles now are easily found on the PC.
The nineties were a very different time. Console gaming and PC gaming had developed in parallel during the past decade; consoles were inheriting arcade-style games while both developed their own genres. Of course, it was the consoles that received mainstream popularity. Many PC developers attempted to make their own console-styled games, and though some succeeded, most felt like “me too” efforts that didn’t really stand up to console games they were inspired by.
One Must Fall isn’t much of a series. It consists of three games with vastly different gameplay. But One Must Fall is something that could really only have come from that era of gaming history. It is a fighting game series for the PC to call its own; a console-style game built with only the PC gamer in mind.
The year is 2097. World Aeronautics and Robotics, cutely referred to as “WAR”, is the largest and most powerful corporation in the world; the de facto ruler of the planet. They specialize in the production of HARs; Human-Assisted Robots, gigantic space construction robots that are controlled by a brain-computer interface. The board of directors needs to select an executive to run the colonization of Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons. In order to test their machines and earn further publicity, the board sets up a robot fighting tournament with the Ganymede operations as the prize.
The setting is obviously inspired by eighties dystopian sci-fi and cyberpunk such as Blade Runner or RoboCop. Japan has absorbed the United States, self-serving megacorporations rule the world, and mankind is forced to expand into space after depleting the Earth’s natural resources. It mostly serves to justify giant robots pummeling each other, but it’s still not a common setting in video games.
One Must Fall: 2097 is a fighting game; not a genre that commonly competes with heavy story. The lore is largely buried away in the manual. But the dark environments and electronic music do create a genuine atmosphere. All of the endings are wordy, introspective monologues written in second person, maintaining that somber feel.
There are ten playable pilots to use in one- and two-player modes. Angel aside, they’re all executives at WAR, so the cast feels a little different than other fighting games. That said, they ultimately serve as little more than talking heads, so they’re pretty forgettable. They also have slightly different behaviour patterns when computer controlled.
Works in genetic engineering. Crystal’s farther was a head researcher at WAR whose life was claimed in a shuttle accident. Suspecting murder, Crystal seeks to gain access to WAR’s database and find out the true. Her only clue: the word “Nova”.
Works in sales and marketing. Steffan is the youngest and cockiest of the competitors, being only seventeen. He has no goal but to climb the corporate ladder. Seems to be canonical winner of the tournament according to a cameo in Tyrian, but it’s not so clear in Battlegrounds.
Works in security. The son of one of WAR’s founders; he was originally known as Milano Angston. He has joined the company in order to reclaim it and to transform it for the good of society.
Works in genetic engineering. Twin brother of Crystal. Christian is seeking revenge for his parents’ assassination, similarly to his sister. He also intends to defeat her in order to keep her out of danger.
Works in public relations. The oldest participant in the tournament and, in fact, the one who proposed the whole thing. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy who doesn’t seem to care much about the problems surrounding the game’s events.
Works in market analysis. The genius of the cast, and fully aware of it. Jean-Paul is apparently trying to lead competing companies to overthrow WAR, but this is completely forgotten in his ending.
Works in robotics engineering. Ibrahim simply loves HARs; he desires little more than to continue working with them. He is the designer of this game’s Jaguar, as well as the Mantis and the Omega. The Mantis made its first appearance in Battlegrounds, though the Omega has yet to be seen.
Unknown. Angel has no known background. She does not appear in Interpol’s databanks. She does not even work for WAR. One has to wonder why she’s even allowed to compete. This being a sci-fi game, you can probably guess what her secret is in just a few tries.
Works in space station design. Prior to the use of HARs for sport fighting, robots with a pilot in physical cockpits were used instead. Cossette lost the use of her lower body in a such a competition. She operates a HAR in order to feel able-bodied. She’s also the designer of the Electra. Cossette may be the first playable paraplegic in a fighting game, though it’s only apparent through text.
Works as a bodyguard. Raven directly serves Major Hans Kreissack, the president of WAR. His primary function is to defend Kressack from the assassins that he is constantly targeted by. Despite this, Raven has no feelings of loyalty, instead seeking to overthrow his employer himself.
This time the gameplay draws inspiration not only from Street Fighter, but from Mortal Kombat. The fighting mechanics are more similar to the former. There is only one kick button and one punch button, but the player can hold forward or back to distinguish between weak and strong attacks. The weak attacks can be peppered in for an easy combo while the strong attacks can knock down opponents give you a breather.
The giant robot aspect is not used just for flavor. Both a pilot and a machine are selected at the character select. The pilot has three stats that contribute to their machine’s damage, health, and speed. They also determine the pre-match banter, ending, and paint job, though the last one can be changed with the number keys. The robot, on the other hand, mainly determines moveset, along with more subtle base stats.
There are ten normally playable HARs; the final boss is also available through a code or in tournament mode. Some are clearly better than others, although most of them are still viable. They’re all distinct and best suited for different pilots. Since the inputs for special moves are designed to be simple even with a keyboard, it’s easy to try out different machines.
A security robot. The Jaguar is the easiest machine to use and is essentially the face of the franchise. It’s agile and has varied attacks, including its Concussion Cannon projectile and its aerial Overhead Throw. Its strong, long-ranged kicks are very useful as well, even as an anti-air measure. Like with Ryu and Ken, players often use nothing else.
Shadow’s definitely one of the coolest robots: it can project copies of itself to do different kinds of attacks and it looks like a Dragonball Z villain. However, it’s very vulnerable at the start of its special moves, and it feels the effect of attacks that hit its clones. Still, it’s a fun HAR to use even if it isn’t all that good.
The Thorn is one of the game’s power characters, though it isn’t the better of them. Since command throws are blockable in 2097, its Spike-Charge is not safe to use from a distance. While it can effectively counter jump-ins with its Speed-Kick, there really isn’t much else it has going for it.
A spaceship construction robot. Pyros doesn’t seem to have any legs, so it attacks with flamethrowers instead of kicks. Oddly, it can use its midair flame attack as a sort of aerial backstep. The Pyros isn’t particularly versatile: it can charge forward by using it flamethrowers as thrusters or it can do a spinning clothesline. Thankfully, they’re useful attacks when playing defensively, so Pyros isn’t bad.
An electricity generator robot. The Electra’s pretty solid all around. It has a long-ranged projectile, a short-ranged one that pushes enemies away, and it can roll like Blanka. While its special attacks all keep opponents at bay, its normal attacks are also very solid and have nice reach themselves.
A military robot. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Katana is geared towards a close-ranged rushdown. Its Rising Blade attack deals multiple heavy hits and comes out quick – not an easy move to counter. It can also stomp on opponent’s heads or leap off the wall for a spinning attack.
A mining robot, also used for combat. The Shredder’s namesake is its ability to shoot out its bladed hands as a medium-ranged multi-hit projectile. However, the hands themselves as vulnerable, so it’s best used to prevent jump-ins and punish attacks. The Shredder’s best asset is its ability to safely close the distance to its opponent with its Flip Kick.
A construction robot. Having wheels instead of legs and a mushroom-like shape, the Flail is pretty unusual. It attacks with the spikes on its wheels and chains instead of kicking and is hard to hit with some high attacks. The Flail feels like the better half of the Thorn. It has a powerful command throw and can keep opponents away with its Swinging Chains.
A reconnaissance robot. In case the wings weren’t a giveaway, the Gargoyle is all about the air. It is the only HAR that maintains some horizontal control during its jumps. It can strike as it ascends, dart forward to punish openings, or dive on the opponent to slam them against the wall.
A space rescue robot. Like the Shadow, the Chronos has interesting abilities, but it isn’t nearly as useless. It can freeze enemies with its projectiles, and can even use a variation that remains in place to trap the opponent. It can also teleport around for surprise attacks, but that can be dangerously slow.
The mechanics of the fighting itself are solid, but not very adventurous. There is not too much One Must Fall: 2097 does that other nineties fighting games did not. Players can perform a super jump that allows them to easily cross to the other side of the arena. The optional hyper mode powers up some special moves, often enabling their use in the air, and rehit mode enables juggle combos. Both are found in the found in the gameplay options menu, but the latter requires the advanced options code. These features help the game remain interesting even against Street Fighter Alpha and other fighting games of the late nineties.
The main distinguishing mechanic of the battles are stage hazards. They are all very predictable and can be used to the player’s advantage. For example, in the desert stage, the player can use quick attacks to nudge their opponent into the line of fire of the swooping jets. This is particularly useful for causing the dizzy status, which is rather common in general due to the slow recovery of the stun gauge, and is especially dangerous as it increases vulnerability to juggles. Graciously, fighters cannot be dizzied repeatedly. The stage hazards can also be disabled.
The aspect that really makes the game stand out is the tournament mode, a single-player focused mode using a custom pilot. This actually follows the traditional single player mode chronologically. A few years after the Ganymede competition, HAR battles have become a popular sport, and your hero is just one of many competitors. In a way, this can actually be thought of as the game’s sequel. It was originally intended to be included in an expansion, but it was ultimately included at the beta testers’ behest.
Winning battles earns money, which the player can use to upgrade the pilot’s stats, the HAR’s stats, or to trade in their current HAR for another. The score count also translates to money at the end of a match. The player can thus increase their winnings by doing combos, delivering numerous hits without being hit in return, or performing finishing moves. They can also lose money by taking heavy damage or losing a match, both of which will have them chewed out by their chief engineer. If the player runs out of money completely, they may have their upgrades sold off in their repair or be booted from the tournament entirely.
The game’s robot fighters were designed not only to to reduce the amount of work needed to create graphics, but also to allow for fatality-like finishing moves without fear of controversy. Each machine has at least one move that brutalizes the opponent (“scrap”) and exactly one follow-up move that demolishes them (“total destruction”). These are rarely particularly impressive and they’re finicky to pull off; it’s often best if the player repeats the input until it works. There is no declaration of “finish him!” to mark when a fatality can be performed: they are simply done after the winner enters into their winning pose.
Tournament mode gives these moves a true purpose. Besides the score bonus providing additional earnings, finishing off opponents can sometimes trigger a bonus fight from an unranked challenger. They may be difficult opponents, but they can greatly add to your winnings and may upgrade one of your robot’s special moves when defeated. Hyper mode turns a lot of these unlockable enhancements on by default.
Battles in tournament mode take place in a ladder format. Each rival has a numbered rank, and entering the tournament puts you at the highest. By challenging opponents one by one, the player has to make their way down to number one to face the champion and see the ending. While you have to go through the ranks in order and do not receive any ranked challenges yourself, opponents’ placement may shuffle a bit. Tournaments may be completed in any order but have an entry fee increasing with difficulty.
Naturally, the player faces rivals with increasing parameters as they progress through the tournaments, but their stats also increase to match the player’s growth. All of the enemies at the end are completely maxed out. As a result of these continually increasing stats, the endgame ends up being significantly faster than at the start. The more agile characters also greatly increase the potential for combos. In a way, it comes across as educating players of slower early fighting games on how to play more the more intense breed that followed.
Tournament mode features new characters as well as the old ones from one-player mode. New ones don’t even have backstories, but some do reappear in the later tournaments as ranked or unranked opponents, and they all have their own colour schemes, attributes, and pre-match taunts.
The game is balanced for two-player, which becomes a slight issue in tournament mode; it’s not the same as the balance concerns all fighting games must face. Part of the player’s reward for progressing through the game is that they can trade in for other, cooler machines. Even ignoring the fact that these robots are already available in the one- and two-player modes, the allure tends to disappear when the player realizes that the familiar Jaguar they start off with is about as good as any other HAR. Though the player is compensated for their trade-in, a new robot is expensive and comes without upgrades, so the player inevitably ends up trading for a weaker machine. While it’s not a huge problem, it does subtly discourage players from trying out other HARs.
Besides single player and local multiplayer, the game also features different kinds of network multiplayer, making it possibly the first fighting game ever to feature online play. Modem, null-modem cable, and IPX protocol are available network options. It should be noted that these outdated technologies can be emulated via DOSBox for Internet play. The game also has an option to connect with a modem to a bulletin board to participate in tournaments. For another possible first, matches can be recorded and played back by executing “OMF REC” or “OMF PLAY” on the command line.
The game is also full of cheat codes and other secrets, probably inspired by Mortal Kombat‘s. By executing another fatality-like command after performing a total destruction on an opponent on a certain stage, the player can bust through the floor to fight a secret opponent, Fire, who possesses a unique fireball attack. They can then do it a second time during that fight to face a second secret opponent, Ice, who has a freezing wave attack.
The game’s graphics consist of sprites made from 3D models, a technique Donkey Kong Country would impress with later in the year. The actual models are far more primitive, however. The Jaguar and Chronos in particular seem to be made out of building blocks. Still, the game has a variety of nice little graphical details. There are some faux lighting effects on some stages: the robot’s sprites will brighten as they approach the center of the Stadium, and will darken when night falls on the Desert. Chronos’ and Electra’s powers will go haywire when they are defeated, and the robots’ palettes turn red when hit by fire. In tournament mode, you can see the damage on your HAR and your tiny crewmen repairing it. The androgynous newscaster that appears after matches is an oddity: they are drawn in an amateurish anime style that doesn’t entirely match with the other characters.
The music deserves some note. Composed by Kenny Chou, the electronic dance music mostly serves to keep player’s excitement up during the match. But it also helps to maintain the oppressive atmosphere that is characteristic of cyberpunk. It’s as good as it gets for PC games in the early nineties. The menu theme in particular will definitely worm it way into your head. Kenny Chou later created a reconstruction of the theme; it has been uploaded to Soundcloud and YouTube.
The manual lists a fictional designer for all the HARs. While some of these are characters appearing in the game, others are mixtures of names of employees at Epic MegaGames. For example, the Thorn is designed by Cliff Brussee while the Chronos is designed by Arjan Schmalz, references to Jazz Jackrabbit‘s Cliff Bleszinski and Arjan Brussee. Arjan Schmalz also refers to Solar Winds’ James Schmalz. The Pyros is designed by James Sweeney, a reference to the company’s founder, Tim Sweeney. One Must Fall: 2097 cameos can be found in Tyrian, Jazz Jackrabbit, and Jazz Jackrabbit 2. Furthermore, Rob Elam and James Schmalz appear in tournament mode as Iceman and James.
One Must Fall: 2097 originally had a shareware demo advertising the full CD version, but that full version has now been made available as freeware. If you’re interested, you can go ahead and play it with DOSBox. Additionally, a handful of fans are currently working on an open-source remake that runs on modern computers. As of this writing, it’s still fairly early, with one-player mode only just implemented. However, it promises to keep the game alive in the future with modern online play, gamepad support, additional graphical options, and other new features.
Following on the heels of Super Street Fighter II, CD copies of One Must Fall: 2097 also included an advertisement for an “Enhanced CD-ROM Version”. This version was quietly cancelled. No information is available about this expansion outside of this advertisement. No images have been released. The advertisement promised new pilots, HARs, arenas, and special moves. As is the convention for fighting game expansions, this was meant to be released as a stand-alone product, but owners of the original full version would be entitled to a discount.
One Must Fall: 2097 is not the most robust fighting game nor the most revolutionary. But it is a pretty unique, fun game that could hold its own against the greats of the time. It has a remarkable amount of depth, something that was often lacking in common Street Fighter II imitators.