Dead or Alive (1997, Tecmo and Team Ninja for Saturn)

Every Sega Saturn fan knows about Dead or Alive. We were absolutely thrilled by the 1996 arcade game, which used Sega’s Model 2 hardware board, and were doubly thrilled to learn it was coming home the following year. Then we were left hanging by Sega of America, as newly-installed CEO Bernie Stolar notoriously declared “Saturn is not our future.” Then he grabbed a shovel and began digging, and Saturn tried to crack a smile beneath another shovel load.

Why the bloody hell was this game not released? Yes, the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64 had thoroughly dominated the US videogame market by 1997, thanks to Super Mario 64, Goldeneye, Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasy 7. But the Saturn wasn’t dead yet, and if it was dying, the cause was starvation. Gamers were left high and dry waiting for quality software that delivered on the early promises offered by that spectacular Christmas 1995 lineup of Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop and Sega Rally Championship. We had many great games in ’96 and ’97, but nothing could really match that peak, which was beginning to look insurmountable.

Then Team Ninja arrived and conquered that mountain with ease. They not only created an arcade fighting game that could equal Virtua Fighter 2’s “480/60” high resolution graphics, they may have surpassed it. And if you thought Dead or Alive was a one-time fluke, Go Go Goal was waiting in the wings to slap you upside the head a second time. These guys could make the Saturn sing and it was glorious.

Today, two decades later, this game still looks glorious. The opening CG movie, the character menu screen, the stages, the character design, every moment glows with pride. This game knows how to strut with its feathers held high. The animation is wonderfully fluid and natural, and can easily stand alongside its more sequels. Indeed, even though DOA 2 and 3 are vastly more advanced from a technology point of view, the core gameplay of the original is so solid, so focused, that it has hardly aged a day. There’s a reason why Tecmo included Saturn DOA 1 on the Xbox for Dead or Alive Ultimate.

The fighting system in Dead or Alive follows the Virtua Fighter formula, with PKG buttons and a series of “canned” and “rolled” combos. The rhythm and tempo, however, is slightly different, focusing more on short, quick attacks that often result in multi-hit combos. You will find yourself on your back in the blink of an eye. The speed is very fast, and you must study your character’s moves and flow charts closely if you wish to have any chance at winning more than a couple matches. The computer opponents in arcade mode is especially brutal. You’ll get your butt handed to you on Lei Fang’s stage two.

Two gameplay innovations that define this classic: “hold” reversals and danger zones. The holds involve use of the guard button to repel an attack and can be used offensively or defensively, either by pushing the opponent aside or retaliating with a quick grab-and-punch. Sega dabbled with this idea in the Virtua Fighter series, but Tecmo made it universal for all characters, much like Namco would later do with Soul Calibur. The danger zones are an explosive perimeter that surrounds the fighting ring. When knocked down in this zone, your fighter is detonated by an explosive and shot into the air, allowing for more free hits.

Many of the characters lean hard on Chinese martial arts, offering many techniques and styles that are different from Sega’s franchises. You can tell that Team Ninja worked hard to distinguish themselves, which pays off handsomely. Yes, I find myself going for Jann Lee’s Bruce Lee’s copycat moves, but Lei Fang’s Tai Chi maneuvers are always hard to anticipate. Ryu Hayabusa’s (yay, Ninja Gaiden!) gymnastics set him apart from Kage Maru, and Gen Fu’s short-range strikes are nothing like Shun Di’s drunken kung fu.

One thing that really impresses me in Dead or Alive are the backgrounds. The graphics are a mix of 3D polygons and 2D bitmaps, much like Sega’s brawlers, but I think Tecmo does it better here. They do a better job of faking the 3D effect by keeping the camera perspective slightly lower, and, more importantly, drawing the backgrounds with perspective distortion. It’s very convincing in the heat of battle. Also, the backgrounds feature pre-rendered graphics, which look especially sharp. I’m thinking of Ryu’s mountain stage and Bayman’s military hangar. And Zach’s stage with the beach and fiery sunset that evokes memories of Rygar? Genius.

Finally, I need to bring up one infamous topic: the bouncing breasts. These giant balloons defy all gravity and logic and are guaranteed to make every sexually frustrated teenage boy swoon. Poor saps. Whenever I play this game, the first thing I do is turn that off. It’s distracting and stupid, and, frankly, embarrassing. This was a joke, right? Itagaki might as well have hung a sign around his neck that says, “I’m a virgin and I live with my parents.”

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