Last Bronx (1997, Sega AM3 for Saturn)

Of Sega’s 3D arcade fighting videogames — Virtua Fighter Remix, Virtua Fighter 2, Fighting Vipers, Fighters Megamix — Last Bronx is the weakest title of the bunch. Only the original Virtua Fighter, notoriously plagued with programming growing pains, would rank lower in my opinion. This isn’t to say that it’s a poor game, as it’s actually quite good. I just find myself reaching for another title on my shelf when I need my martial arts fix. I’m not sure why this is.

Last Bronx was created by Sega AM3. They gave us Sega Rally Championship, Virtua On, Decathlete and Winter Kings, terrific games, all. They’re great at creating genre classics that feel fresh and innovative. Here, they create a world of underground criminals in Tokyo who belong to rival gangs and beat each other senseless with large, bulky weapons. Stage designs include airports, empty warehouse districts, and city rooftops. A young man wearing steampunk goggles may be behind all the violence. Fast violence and cheap thrills await.

The game is presented in Saturn’s “480/60” high resolution, and there’s no question that it looks very nice. It probably looks better on a CRT television, as there are many moments where graphics display “interlaced” effects that can be seen on an HDTV. Characters are very large and well animated. Stages once again employ a mixture of 3D polygons and 2D bitmaps, this time also including short fences around the perimeter. Sega AM3 especially wows us with two indoor stages that take place within a parking garage and subway station. The combination of ceilings, perspective-distorted walls and stationary objects create a stunning recreation of a 3D world in 2D, thanks to the Saturn’s VDP2 processor. It’s even more effective than Dead or Alive, and never fails to dazzle.

I’m trying to think about what holds this game back from greatness, and I struggle to remember my experiences with it in the late 1990s, before Namco’s Soul Calibur arrived on Dreamcast and blew all our minds. Now that is how you make a weapon-based fighting game, one that flows and gels, where the weapons are an extension of the characters’ bodies. Last Bronx never gels the same way. There’s a distinct clunkiness to its combat; the fighters don’t dance or sway with athletic grace. Instead, they just beat one another down with large sticks. Sometimes it feels very satisfying, especially when you mount a great comeback victory. At other times, it feels very two-dimensional, very up-and-down.

One thing that really irritates me is how so many attacks push your opponent away from you. Many fights result in the players kept at arms’ length, and it’s difficult to get up close. You’re just left to poke-poke-poke at one another from a distance. And since there are no reversals or parrying moves, we lack the tension felt in Dead or Alive or Soul Calibur or the Virtua Fighter series. That interaction and balance just isn’t there. There isn’t enough defense, or enough throws. The lack of a sideways dodge is especially surprising. This feels like a step back from where the genre had progressed during the 32/64-bit era.

The character graphics have an urban grittiness to them, and they’re highly original when compared to the genre. I do enjoy that. I really like Kurosawa, a gangster who wears an purple suit and an Elvis Presley sneer, and Yoko, who dresses in SWAT fatigues and a baseball hat. The rest of the cast tries too hard to look like comic book heroes, and there’s not much personality to them. They’re largely defined by their weapons, and that’s the problem. There’s really no difference between one weapon and another in terms of style and technique. It’s all the same punch-punch-punch.

Also, since I’m on this rant, is it just me, or do the polygon characters look blocky and low-rez? The flat color tones, thick lines and chunky limbs are surprisingly jarring. After playing for a while, I swapped in Anarchy in the Nippon just to compare, and was immediately struck by the smooth, refined and colorful character designs. AM3 might counter by suggesting this was all part of the game’s urban design aesthetic. Maybe they’d have a point. Maybe not.

I’m probably being a bit harsh. I do enjoy Last Bronx when the mood strikes. It can be good in fits and starts. I should also point out that I own a copy of the Japanese version, which is notably glitchier than its American counterpart. Sega had a nasty reputation of rushing software titles to market before they were ready, and it contributed greatly to Saturn’s terrible reputation for 3D graphics. If you’re building a software library, I strongly recommend finding the later release. Sega Rally and Tomb Raider in Japan, Daytona USA and Last Bronx in the US. That sort of thing.

No doubt Last Bronx suffers from being on a system with such a strong lineup of fighting games. When you have to compete against AM2, DOA, Anarchy, Zero Divide and Savaki (to say nothing of the 2D fighting game lineup), it’s almost impossible to keep up, especially when your design team is unfamiliar with the genre. If this game were released on the Nintendo 64, diehard fanboys would be howling about it every single day for the last twenty years. It’s all a matter of perspective.

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