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Series Retrospective: Tekken

posted on November 9th, 2006 by christian

Since the very beginning, the character roster in Tekken has had certain qualities which I can only describe as bullshit. The most glaring one is a distinct lack of originality. Any serious fan of the genre will recognize the number of character designs that are heavily inspired by or blatantly ripped off from characters previously created by Capcom, SNK, and Sega. Even if you aren’t, it is hard not to look at characters like Paul, Nina, Law and Ganryu and not make some immediate connections. There are still some original faces in the mix, but this lack of inspiration is disheartening, and gives a strong initial impression that Namco isn’t going to be trying very hard.

It is even harder to give any sort of shit about the story, as all of the minor characters create a hodgepodge of a back story featuring excuses we’ve already seen for entering a martial arts tournament. There’s also the issue of these already similar characters having retreads within the game. Nina has Anna. Michelle has Julia. There are two Laws, sometimes two Jacks, Hworang is there with his master, Yoshimitsu fights Kunimitsu. I shouldn’t even need to cite the army of Mishima fighters. This is all a bit better than a strict palette swap, and as Soul Calibur teaches us, similar does not mean identical. Nevertheless, it sends an even stronger message of laziness, as if the roster is only half as large as it looks.

Maybe laziness did play a part, but at the very least the Tekken roster indicates a clear motive on Namco’s part. Tekken came about in the early days of the Playstation, a time when a new generation began to find videogames, and when many older players came back after seeing that Sony was finally making the industry “grow up” along with them. This series was intended for a new audience, or in some cases an audience that hadn’t played Street Fighter in years, and probably had no desires to go back to it.

This actually looks like the attacker has a bigger problem than the victim. Is it a tumor?

From this perspective, the roster serves a dual purpose. Those character archetypes worked well in the past in Street Fighter or Virtual Fighter. That same popularity shouldn’t diminish with a young crowd who never saw them before. As for the older folk, they may find them comforting, perhaps better with a few modifications. Paul Pheonix doesn’t use magic fireballs and mystic kung fu; he destroys people with moves that take away half a health bar. By taking what had already worked and making it even cooler, Namco couldn’t lose. Not even the high number of similar characters could harm the series image. Quantity may not be the only grade when judging a quality roster, but it sure helps hide the blemishes.

But no one really rips that much on the roster. They’re much too busy berating the combat. So have I, and for good reason. Tekken never has been an all star when it comes to challenging, balanced fighting. The first two games are hardly worth mention these days. The third got better, but it only seems to have perpetuated the “Dial a Combo” style. Tag did nothing to change this. Point is, if you were looking for the best combat around, this was not the place to go.

And yet people still came in droves to Tekken. What does this mean? That people are stupid and too lazy to learn of the finer things in life? This reasoning is and will be popular, and there’s nothing I can do to change that, but it seems too convenient, the concoction of lonely Internet snobs that crave attention and superiority.

Tekken is a game that relies on simple martial arts combined with brutal moves and unique grapples. A round can end in mere seconds, or it can go down to the wire. A player who is down for the count can easily come back with the right mix of attacks. Each title has had incredible production values for its time. Most importantly, a beginning player can come in and do something with the game, while veterans never tire of showing their mastery of 10 hit combos. Everyone can play Tekken if they want to, and it isn’t a bore to watch it, either.

Let’s think of another game that dominated the fighting game market, had state of the art graphics and sound, and could be enjoyed by just about anyone. Any ideas? Anyone?

The more I think about it, the more I think that Tekken might be closer to Street Fighter 2 than most anything else out there.

SF2 was not a game about combos, infinites, OTGs and frame advantage. It was a big, loud game that put players smack dab in the middle of a street fight. A lot of the same can be said about Tekken. Both realize that it’s the intensity and brutality of the match that draws people in, both to participate and to watch. It doesn’t matter how you beat the shit out of your opponent, just that you do. I don’t think its coincidence that the only 2d fighter I can get some Tekken heads to play is Street Fighter 2.

How far technology has come.

So how exactly did we get to our current state when it comes to 2d fighters? Why did they become all about looking at frames and learning kara-canceled combos? When Street Fighter 2 first demonstrated cancels and combos to gamers, they went by another name; glitches. And as people began to master the game, they needed any new way to beat the next guy. So people began to exploit those glitches, began to hack arcade cabinets. Street Fighter 2 Turbo is the direct result of counteracting hacked versions of SFII that upped the speed.

Victory, not fun, became the defining reason to play for many fans, and soon enough the people were heard. Capcom, SNK, everyone began to embrace these gameplay mechanics, made them a part of the game engine. It continued to get deeper and deeper, until we got the likes of Marvel VS Capcom 2’s ridiculous infinites or players that could figure out how to do a command throw from almost half a screen away in Third Strike. I’ve seen combo videos of guys going into practice mode and laying out super combos with seemingly no delay between them in order to absolutely pummel someone. High level 2d play has taken the fighting game to new levels of absurdity.

To be fair, fighting games needed combos in order to evolve. But I still find it unsettling that so many of the “hardcore” games revolve around something that started off as a glitch. Even if it happens to be a beneficial glitch, if that’s what their focus is on, how much time do you think they’re pouring into the rest of the game?

Often not enough. For years 2d fighters relied on ancient sprites, or had tinny music, and to this day companies still can’t seem to put a solid effort behind home ports. Compare this to the absolutely slick presentation found in Tekken 5. Which do you think the average gamer is going to pick? It’s not just that some fighting games look unappealing; they’re also forgetting that the genre isn’t about how many layers of depth you can add to the combat engine.

I still love 2d fighting games. I’ll still play them, and still hope to enter their competitive scenes. Even if it takes a PhD to master them, the thrill of success in a good bout of 3rd Strike must be unlike anything else. But 2d fans need to take a look at the games of their choice, and wonder if maybe the problem is with them, and not with the rest of the world. They may play the actual successors to Street Fighter 2, but maybe games like Tekken and DOA do a better job at capturing the true spirit of Capcom’s classic. It would seem to explain why so many gamers gravitate to them in SF2-like numbers.

There will always be games for those who want deep competition (so long as everyone saves the discs). But the next time you have a chance to play with some friends and they whip out the Tekken 5 disc, don’t walk away. Sit down, pick a character, and stop thinking. Stop analyzing. Let go of your thoughts and give someone the beat down. You may very well be surprised with what you see.

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