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Vs. - PlayStation, PSN (1997)

American PlayStation Cover

Even though Fighters' Impact was never released overseas, someone at THQ took notice and decided that it could use a drastic tailoring for western tastes. Presumably THQ had their own people come up with the general design of the game, which was then put together by the developers at Polygon Magic over in Japan. The result was the nigh ungoogleable Vs., which failed to make much of an impact and fell into obscurity.

Fortunately, we were able to contact the game's character designer, Kurtis Fujita, who very graciously agreed to provide additional insight to the development of the game.

Vs. was intended to capitalize on the Fighting game craze of the '90s. THQ actually took the engine from a Japanese fighting game (can't recall which one) along with all the character animations and in turn had myself design a new set of characters which Polygon Magic modeled. In essence Vs. was an overhaul of a previous game. I believe Polygon Magic and I had about 6 months to complete the project. It was quite rushed. I would work on one set of designs while the previous set was being modeled in Japan by Polygon Magic. Perhaps because it was an overhaul of an already released Japanese game, it was deemed only for a U.S. release, however I am not certain. The main idea and theme of Vs. was to create a game which had characters that Americans could identify with, while still maintaining the visual flair of Japanese Anime and Manga.

To be more precise, the game was given a street gang themed makeover. While this may come off as cynical pandering to 13-year old boys, it does give the characters some sense of identity compared to Fighters' Impact's generic martial artists. Despite the hasty development schedule, the roster is fairly large. Unfortunately, a lot of the characters share entire move sets and are thus identical gameplay-wise.

Characters

Mia

Gang: Streets
Occupation: Rave D.J.
Fighting Style: Baguazhang
Probably the closest thing the game has to a mascot character. Has some breakdance moves in addition to the basic baguazhang moves from Fighters' Impact.

Vikram

Gang: Streets
Occupation: Club kid
Fighting Style: Kung Fu / Aikido
Although all of the fighting styles in the game are more or less tweaked versions of what Fighters' Impact had to offer, Vikram's kung fu/aikido mishmash is among the fresher ones with its mix of fast strikes and counters.

Oleg

Gang: Streets
Occupation: Cab driver
Fighting Style: Wrestling
Oleg appears on the cover art along with Mia, wearing an ushanka to prevent any confusion as to just how Russian he is.

Slim Daddy

Gang: Streets
Occupation: Businessman
Fighting Style: Free Karate
A "businessman". Sly, THQ. Very sly.

Kenny

Gang: Beach
Occupation: Body builder
Fighting Style: Pro Wrestling
A gigantic meatloaf of a man whose voice just happens to be a comically high-pitched shriek.

Calucag

Gang: Beach
Occupation: Surfer
Fighting Style: Free Karate
Of course Vs. has a Bruce Lee clone too, complete with a Game of Death color scheme for his 2P outfit. This one's a surfer, though. He has a neat win pose where he balances on the ground surfboard-style while the camera shifts as if rocked by waves.

Mineo

Gang: Beach
Occupation: Street mime
Fighting Style: Aikido
Unfortunately, Mineo just uses the basic aikido moveset instead of pretending to be trapped in invisible boxes. The man has no respect for his art.

Kara

Gang: Beach
Occupation: Tattoo artist
Fighting Style: Baguazhang
Her style of baguazhang is actually lifted from Fighters' Impact's Faraha, and her 2P costume is an oriental outfit similar to hers.

Harold

Gang: Campus
Occupation: Exchange student
Fighting Style: Baguazhang
See Kurtis Fujita's comments for further details on his development. Ditches the blindfold in his 2P costume.

Kathleen

Gang: Campus
Occupation: Schoolgirl
Fighting Style: Aikido
Kathleen is the mandatory schoolgirl fighter, bringing both crippling joint locks and abundant panty shots.

Leath

Gang: Campus
Occupation: Cheerleader
Fighting Style: Martial Arts
Has a groin kick move. This is mentioned because there's a bizarre YouTube fetish video tribute to it, proving that at least someone found the game enjoyable in their own way.

O'Doul

Gang: Campus
Occupation: Principal
Fighting Style: Baguazhang
Has a "kick me" sign perpetually hanging from his backside.

Ramos

Gang: Hood
Occupation: Rapper
Fighting Style: Street Fighting
His 2P costume gives him a painfully '90s alternawhatever look and a Pop Will Eat Itself t-shirt for no obvious reason.

Jalil

Gang: Hood
Occupation: Recycler
Fighting Style: Taekwondo
Jalil is essentially a homeless taekwondo ninja with a Ronald McDonald color scheme, definitely breaking new ground in fighting game character concepts.

Thana

Gang: Hood
Occupation: Shrimper
Fighting Style: Taekwondo
Thana is completely indistinctive. He's almost a Bruce Lee reference with his high-pitched yells and jumpsuit, but the game already has a proper one.

Paco

Gang: Hood
Occupation: Mechanic
Fighting Style: Street Fighting
There isn't much to say about Paco, either. If the game had an actual story, his would probably deal with raising fight money to restore a sweet vintage hot rod. As it is, though, he's just an angry guy with an unfortunate haircut.

Eric O

Gang: Bosses
Occupation: Gangster
Fighting Style: Street Fighting
He appears as the final opponent of the Streets gang's challenge mode. Even though they are hidden bosses, the characters in this gang play exactly the same as anyone with the same fighting style.

Neige

Gang: Bosses
Occupation: Enforcer
Fighting Style: Kung Fu / Aikido
He appears as the final opponent of the Streets gang's challenge mode. Even though they are hidden bosses, the characters in this gang play exactly the same as anyone with the same fighting style.

Joel

Gang: Bosses
Occupation: Jock
Fighting Style: Taekwondo
While everyone else takes on a tough outlaw as their final boss, the Campus gang has to deal with a jock. This is probably par for the course for any gang that counts a disheveled old school principal among its members.

Hendrickson

Gang: Bosses
Occupation: Biker
Fighting Style: Street Fighting
The final boss of the Hood gang. Carries a shotgun on his hip, but it's only for decoration. Sort of looks like Jagi from Fist of the North Star.

As Character Designer it was my duty to create the designs for all the characters, as well as their costume designs. I would also come up with many of the victory poses and all the names for the characters. Some of the characters were my ideas from scratch. On other occasions, I was given a couple word descriptions. For instance, I was told to make a Russian Cab Driver, this became Oleg. The Taxi Driver elements were the yellow jacket and the black checker war paint on his face, mimicking the colors of a Taxi Cab. I was definitely inspired by the various fighting games of the day, Street Fighter and Tekken, however I tried to expand on the themes already made and come up with original solutions to the tried and true fighters already seen. As usual it was important to have a strong female character. Instead of having the typical Chun-Li like girl, I chose to make our female Kung Fu practitioner, the Rave Dj, Mia with a more street wise attire than normally seen in Fighting Games.

As you may have noticed, all of the characters (such as basically the entire Campus gang) don't fit into the street thug theme all that well. Fujita explains thusly:

In regards to the various designs. Initially I made quite a few designs on spec wherein I had free reign, without the knowledge of the Gang Theme that would become an intengral part of the Game. Characters like Harold were prime examples of this. These characters were later placed in to different Gangs that may not have directly related to them at first glance. In the case of Harold, I created him to be the ultimate Martial Artist. The blindfold he wore was originally to lead you to believe he was actually blind. However, my intention was for him to take it off at the end of the game revealing he could in fact see. The only reason he wore the blindfold was to provide a challenge in the competition as he was much more highly skilled than all the other competitors. When it came time for them to place him in a gang, THQ chose the Campus Gang and dubbed him the "New Zealand Exchange Student".

The controls are similar to Fighters' Impact, with a new special attack button. The specific purpose of the special attack varies between different fighting styles – the taekwondo guys go into a one foot stance, aikido practicioners perform painful counter grabs and almost everybody else does slow power attacks that stun the opponent and leave them open for further combos. The motion slide combo system is not present, though many characters have remarkably loose combo chains.

Most characters can use the sidestep counter system from Fighters' Impact. This time, throws can be escaped as well. However, the ground game is even more limited, with absolutely no evasive rolls or rising attacks – it is possible to tech out of falls and simultaneously kick your opponent in the face by pressing the evade button before hitting the ground, but that's about the extent of it.

Visually, the game is very similar to Fighters' Impact, right down to recycled character animations. Strangely enough, a few of the characters (namely Oleg, Mineo and Kara) have distinctively crude facial textures with malformed cartoon eyes. As for the music, THQ opted for licensed tracks from bands Razed in Black, Suicide Machines, Los Infernos and Pigs in Space instead of original compositions. It's an odd mix of goth-industrial, punk and ska but it ends up complementing the fighting action surprisingly well.

Maybe the biggest problem with Vs.'s gameplay is that it feels unfinished and inconsistent. Nothing really gels together and the fighting styles end up feeling like they've been taken from entirely different games. The closest thing to a fleshed out single player mode is the challenge mode, where you fight everyone within a gang for a chance to beat and unlock their respective boss character. However, there are no actual endings or any other form of narrative. The rumble mode where two gangs fight for turf is theoretically interesting, but functions as a generic team battle mode.

To put it bluntly, Vs. is subpar. But at the very least, it's still an interesting example of a game getting entirely refurnished for the western market.

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Shaolin / Lord of Fist - PlayStation (1999)

European PlayStation Cover

Japanese PlayStation Cover

Polygon Magic's next 3D fighting effort was Shaolin, which is a multiplayer fighting game with a Shaw Brothers-esque kung fu theme. The kung fu -centric approach is interesting in itself, as all the fighting styles in the game are based on specific Chinese martial arts. This is a pleasant change from the generic "just kung fu" style often seen in fighting games, and it gives Lord of Fist a certain veneer of authenticity.

The theme is carried on to the character roster, designed by animator Hirotoshi Sano. Shaolin has a wide selection of Hong Kong actor surrogates, pandas and wooden training dummies. Unfortunately, none of the characters really have distinct personalities, so they're basically blank slates for the fighting style of your choice. As far as gameplay is concerned, there are only six unique movesets in the entire game.

Fighting Styles

Shaolin

In reality, Shaolin kung fu is an umbrella term for various Chinese martial arts that may or may not have any connection to the Shaolin monastery. The game's interpretation of it is probably the most balanced style in the game, with a decent variety of moves and a focus on far-reaching kicks.

Jeet Kune Do

Renowned as Bruce Lee's martial arts system. In the game, Jeet Kune Do is the fastest style with the smallest damage output. Naturally, the one inch punch and Lee's other signature moves make an appearance.

Tai Chi Chuan

While it's commonly thought of as low intensity exercise for old people, tai chi is an actual fighting style. The game's version combines slow and powerful strikes with devious counters.

Tai Chi Chuan

This is the style that Akira from the Virtua Fighter series uses. In Shaolin, it focuses on devastatingly powerful attacks that are hampered by their short range.

Hung Gar

Hung Gar is the martial art practiced by Wong Fei Hung, Chinese folk hero and popular movie protagonist. It's the only style in the game with multiple stances – tiger, crane, leopard, snake and dragon. As a result, Hung Gar is the most complex style with the largest variety of moves.

Drunken Boxing

The style popularized by Jackie Chan's Drunken Master movies, commonly seen in other fighting games as well. Drunken Boxing relies on unpredictable movements to intimidate the opponent and catch them off guard.

Shaolin's most impressive feature is the multitap support, which allows up to eight players to brawl simultaneously. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that well. The game controls like a standard one-on-one 3D fighter, sidesteps and all, only with constant lock-on to a single opponent. There's only one button for switching targets, so taking on multiple combatants or even positioning yourself can be unnecessarily difficult. The eight player versus mode is almost chaotically unplayable and defaults the player models into differently colored training dummies, but it's good for a laugh.

Multitap support aside, the gameplay doesn't really differ from the established norm. It's got the standard assortment of juggles and counters, but it isn't particularly deep or original. Shaolin feels almost deliberately simplified to accomodate the multiplayer combat.

The camera generally does a decent job of keeping up with the action, but occasionally works itself into awkward and confusing angles. Pulling off specific moves at these times is unlikely, especially since the directional inputs are strictly dependent on the way your character is facing relative to the camera – e.g. pressing up+kick when facing right leads to the same attack as down+kick when facing left. No other fighting game does this, and the world is probably better off for it.

The game's main story mode is very ambitious - a lengthy RPG-style adventure, akin to the ones in Ehrgeiz or the Tobal series. There are separate storylines for each of the six fighting styles, ranging from avenging the death of your parents to wooing the prettiest girl in China. You begin the story as a little boy or girl and eventually grow to adulthood. Also, your play style affects the way your character grows up – eating a lot will cause your boy hero to eventually develop a bona fide Sammo Hung physique, complete with jiggle physics in the belly area. In theory, it sounds great.

Shaolin

Unfortunately, actually playing the RPG mode is tedious at best. The camera angle is awkward, the controls are tank-like, and a lot of it involves cluelessly seeking out the exact NPC that will arbitrarily progress the story. There's a lot of grinding, as opponents in new areas often have a significant statistical advantage over you. Although new moves can be learned as the story progresses, your character starts with a ridiculously limited moveset (such as being unable to use throws). In practice, you'll often end up pummeling your opponent with the one combo you can do until you learn something better.

In addition to the story mode, the game has a run-of-the-mill versus mode with both team and free-for-all matches for 2, 4 or 8 players. Playthroughs of the story mode will net you new character models, but as noted before, the effect is only cosmetic.

Presentation-wise, the game is decent. The character models look smoother than in Polygon Magic's previous titles, with some nice cloth animation for the era. While the frame rate can get a bit low during larger scuffles, it nevertheless runs at a steady and playable pace. If anything, it's a technically proficient engine that doesn't really get its chance to shine due to middle-of-the-road visual design. The music is mostly in a traditional Chinese style with breakbeats layered on top – very late '90s, but not exactly mind-blowing.

Mostly, Shaolin is just disappointing. It's got great ideas, but both the fighting and RPG modes end up feeling like afterthoughts to each other. It's definitely original, but in the end it stands out more as an oddity than a forgotten gem.

Shaolin

Shaolin was originally released in Japan as Lord of Fist, with the THQ-published European version renamed as Shaolin. Plans were made to publish the game in the US, but for one reason or another this never happened. Coincidentally, Kurtis Fujita was once again involved, this time as a martial arts consultant. Apparently, THQ was also involved in the game's production.

I was fortunate enough to work under Michael Haller at THQ who was aware of my experience in the Martial Art of Kung fu. He chose to have me serve as the Martial Arts Consultant on the Shaolin game. This entailed me looking over the dialogue, artwork, and motion capture animation of the game. This eventually led me to Polygon Magic's studio in Tokyo where I met with the team there for a week long consultation phase.

The European and Japanese versions are nearly identical – most of the Japanese version's menus are even in English. The most notable difference is the versus mode character Xu Bing's appearance, which was changed completely for the European version. The Japanese version wears a skintight leather outfit, so it's possible that it was just considered too risque for the game's 11+ ELSPA rating.

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Afterward

Polygon Magic's final PlayStation fighting game was the absurdly named Slap Happy Rhythm Busters, which has already been covered on the site. Strangely enough, the Vs. characters Mia, Oleg, and Ramos were resurrected for it. Fujita, who also worked on the game's comic book style loading screens, provides background information once again:

Slap Happy Rhythm Busters was actually a pseudo-sequel to Vs. On this occasion Kentaro Miyazaki provided and revamped the designs, adding his own unique flair and character to the project. While Vs. was the inspiration for this game, the U.S. sales of Vs. were not high and thus it was not named as a direct sequel to the original project.

Since then, Polygon Magic's only new fighting games have been a couple of licensed titles based on the anime series Bleach. While their contributions to the genre may not be part of its essential history, they are nevertheless interesting artifacts from its time in the limelight.

Finally, a tremendous expression of gratitude for Kurtis Fujita, who provided invaluable insights that transformed parts of this article from empty speculation to actual information.

Slap Happy Rhythm Busters (PlayStation)


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