"Art of Fighting will break you harder than Ivan Drago."
What with not being made of money and all, I never owned a Neo-Geo back in the day, so I never had the promised experience of a box-sized arcade cabinet to play in the comfort of my own home. I did have a Spectrum 128k (the +2 one with the build-in cassette player!) but it can be argued that the two offered vastly differing playing experiences.
So, while I was free to play the likes of Hungry Horace on whim, I had to miss out on all the big, colourful titles the mighty Neo boasted unless I took a trip down to the local arcade and battled my way through all the Asians playing Street Fighter II to get at Fatal Fury and the like. I was very bitter about the whole ordeal. Art of Fighting Anthology gives all of us who own a PS2 (which, lets face it, is all of us) a belated chance to right this great wrong.
Containing Arcade Perfect™ renditions of all three of the Art of Fighting trilogy, what you'll find inside is a refreshing slice of 2D old-school smash-mouth mayhem. The side-effect of this is that it carries across the inherited function of all arcade cabinets everywhere: to make a game compelling enough for you to feed cash into, but hard enough to ensure you keep feeding it to advance. Life-long console gamers got the shock of a lifetime when the arcade version of Street Fighter II hit XBLA and promptly kicked the stuffing out of everyone who remembered being really good at the SNES version. So we should be thankful that, unless we were related to millionaires or royalty, we never owned a Neo-Geo to cloud our memories with half-forgotten competence.
Which is just as well, because all three Art of Fighting’s will break you harder than Ivan Drago.
The first Art of Fighting features only two playable characters, should you decide to brave the story mode. Ryo “Don’t call me Ken Masters” Sakazaki’s little sister, Yuri, has been kidnapped by a sinister underground mobster wearing a red kabuki mask and going under the name of Mr. Karate. With a name like that, you know you’re going to need help, so Robert “Ninja Yuppie” Garcia tags along for the ride. The two travel to the mean streets of Southtown to take the syndicate down, one member at a time.
On the porch of a wooden shanty hut, the pair find Ryuhaku Todoh. He tells you without hesitation that you need to earn information through your fists. Then he proceeds to kick the crap out of you. Remember – arcade perfect!
The PS2 pad makes a reasonable substitute for arcade sticks which allows you to pelt Todoh with the usual fare of fireballs and flying kicks. Soon his 70’s porn ‘tash and protective chest padding will falter, leading you on to tubby bar bully, Jack Turner. Here you're pelted with mammoth drop-kicks and fat-fuelled sliding attacks. The pacing is the biggest problem with the first title’s progression through all these battles, but the staple gimmicks of the series distinguish themselves early. As each fight progresses, each fighter will start to look worse for wear; noses bloody, cheeks puff up and swell with deep purple bruises. There’s something the other 2D fighters didn’t have going for them.
Neither did they have limited special moves. Chi-inspired fireballs could be thrown from the hands of Street Fighter II’s Ryu all day long should he wanted (and, if you played the kind of people I did, often were), but Ryo isn’t so fortunate. Each fighter has to depend on a well-stocked spirit bar to pull off their special moves, meaning that they can’t mindlessly spam the same attack over and over again. Want Ryo to stream across the screen and deliver a devastating kick combo or Robert to pull off a soaring uppercut? Both can, but sparingly. The opponent can even degrade the spirit bar by mocking a downed opponent with a push of the taunt key. Watch them wiggle a bottom or casually blow a bubble from their gum and your gauge plummets in response.
The second Art of Fighting picks up where the first left off, but offering some recognisable changes, least of which being stocky boxer, Mickey Rogers’, dramatic transformation from dreadlocked black warrior to short-haired tanned guy. He still can’t throw a kick to save his life, though.
But the enemy cast can do a lot more than they used to. Androgynous fighter, King, has her(?) move-set expanded from three kick attacks ripped and renamed from Ryo and Robert’s repertoire to a selection more unique to herself. The same can be said of returning fighters like the monkey-masked Lee Pai-Long, who now has new and exciting ways to slice you up with twin bladed claws.
At least one clawed fighter per fighting game. It’s the law.
Worth noting that the second game also has a few welcome technical updates. As well as tagging on laughably inept voice actors now and then (such as a now-playable Yuki’s hilariously bad delivery of begging her brother to hold off battering someone to death in the game's intro) as well as the hand-drawn character animation being upgraded from ‘serviceable’ to ‘gorgeous’. Big kudos has to be offered to SNK for resisting the urge to try and filter the graphics and nullify their appeal. But the biggest plus has been how the first games ‘plodplodplod’ approach to fighting has gone under a remarkable speed-up transformation, leaving the finished product with a level of smoothness its predecessor could only hint at.
Then Art of Fighting 3 decides to leave them both behind and strike out anew. There’s no more Southtown, no more battles against stick-wielding Mr. Big or Albert Wesker look-alike John Crawley. No more chasing after Yuri and no more Ryo hogging the limelight while poor Robert plays second fiddle quietly in the corner.
In fact, Yuri’s only role in the game is to lament over Robert’s reunion with old friend Freia as the pair take on the wraith of ne’er-do-wells in Grass Hill Valley – which is a much fought over territory and not a bonus stage on Sonic & Knuckles. With Ryo in tow, the old cast is thrown away to make room for a brand new roster, including nightstick packing Rody Birts, dumpling-turned-dwarf Wang Koh San and rope-whirling hottie Lenny Creston. With the new cast comes a tightening on the old formula, adding in new features such a Heat Mode, which kicks in to super-power your character should they find themselves with only a sliver of health left, perfect for staging the ultimate comebacks. It also feeds in various momentum-fuelled assaults designed to catch your opponents off-guard of negate their balance as well as offer up an Ultimate KO which grants you two victories for the price of one. But perhaps the best advancement is how you need to time your button presses to fit in with your character’s attacks, effectively banishing away those of you out there who button-mash your way to victory.
The evolution of the Art of Fighting series is such a one to have each title in the trilogy be worthwhile on its own without making earlier chapters obsolete, which is a good place to be if you’re going to release all three games on one disk. There’s a lot to like and because SNK decided not to send their series out in the last chapter with a complete rehash of the established cast and concept, means that you’re not going to play through all three titles with a sense of déjà vu. Anthology isn’t an easy title to learn nor master, but that’s what arcade ports offer you, a challenge you’re not likely to find elsewhere, and if you’re already a big fan of fighters that reigned supreme back in the days of 2D, then there’s no excuse for not owning this game already. It’s even on a budget price tag, for Christ’s sake! Price is probably the only reason you didn’t own this game back when the Neo Geo cost the same as a mortgage on a small European country, and you no longer have that excuse.
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