Fighting Vipers (1996, Sega AM2 for Sega Saturn)

Fighting Vipers is the Motley Crue of videogames: flashy, trashy, wild and out of control. It’s similar in many ways to its sober cousin, Virtua Fighter 2, and welcomes new fans with familiar controls and promises of martial arts action. Then it quickly raids the liquor cabinet, smashes the hotel room, and drives a motorcycle through the window into the outdoor pool below, leaving you stuck with the bill. These cats have come to rock hard and burn out in a blaze of glory.

These are a great cast of characters. They all look like Prince and the Revolution from the Purple Rain era, with wild colored costumes, big hair and all full of energy and attitude. This was especially daring in the 1990s, which battered down with a Puritanical bent anything that resembled those horrible, decadent ’80s. These were the days of angst and two layers of flannel shirts, not neon hairspray and alcohol-fueled amphetamine blasts. We were halfway to Vegas when the drugs began to take hold… One fighter wears rollerblades. Another kid carries a skateboard like a weapon. Another dresses like an L.A. Rocker Dude and carries a v-neck guitar. Another wears a long, dark trench coat and a toothpick sneer. One fat bastard dresses in armor that makes him looking like a walking bowling alley (when he grabs and throws you into a wall, crashing pins are heard). And one female fighter looks like Private Vasquez from the movie Aliens.

The action in Fighting Vipers is very similar to Virtua Fighter, with punch-kick-guard controls and simple moves that belie a deep complexity based on a rock-paper-scissors system. Attack beats throw, throw beats guard, guard beats attack. With that solid foundation, AM2 pushes forward: the speed seems to be boosted a little, attacks are breezier and more immediate than in VF2. The action feels more immediate. Attack combos are more plentiful and fluid, especially for beginnings. Some specialized attacks can send opponents suddenly smashing into the back wall. Fighters knocked into the air can roll back to life before they hit the ground. Walls and cages surround the fighters who find themselves bouncing off when hit in a jarring motion, and it’s quite a kick.

The armor is an especially cool touch. All of the Vipers can lose their armored shells if they absorb too many ultra-powerful hits, sending pieces flailing in all directions as the camera goes for multiple replay angles. More 1980s cliches. These armor breaks aren’t just titillation for the boys, showing the slutty girls in their g-strings, they make the victims more vulnerable to damage. This adds a bit of danger to your game, and might cause you to step back and play a little more defense.

The best part of the game? The finishing moves, which send the opposing fighter through a shattered wall, splintering a dozen times over. It’s a great thrill to knock away at one another, then finish your foe off by hurling them into the horizon. Add in the breakable armor, cage combos and hurling attacks, and you have a terrific brawl on your hands.

The Saturn version of Fighting Vipers is very close to the arcade, if not quite up to the level of VF2. The graphics are rendered in “240” standard definition, but this trade-off enables AM2 to create some excellent gauraud shading and realtime light sourcing effects. At the time, this was a new frontier for home videogames, and it was a race between Sony Playstation and Saturn to determine who could champion the coolest effects. This was a fight that Sony easily won, and in retrospect, Sega should have stuck to their strong hand, which has always been clear and clean high resolution graphics. That said, the visual effects in this game are highly impressive, and demonstrated that Sega could compete. Jane’s boxing ring stage is the most impressive, with four sets of different colored lights that switch off during fights. Thankfully, the 60 frames-per-second that is Sega’s trademark is perfectly preserved. Such a feat was rare in the Fifth Generation, and Sega never got enough credit for that. I never understood why.

The Japanese version of Fighting Vipers includes one of the all-time great bonus characters: Pepsiman, a Japanese spokesmodel for the soda giant. He appeared in his own commercials and at least one videogame on the Playstation (it was a cheap gimmick, but a fun one). In this game, he’s a perfect fit, full of fast and flashy moves and some cool winning poses. He might be a little too powerful, but maybe he’s just closer to my style. It’s a shame that he was removed from the American version. Thankfully, the other two bonus characters, the final boss and a giant bear balloon, are retained. The bear, especially, is seen as a “joke” character, but that’s half the fun of these sort of videogames. Heck, half the bonus characters in Fighters Megamix were “joke” characters, and nobody seemed to mind. Be honest, when you fire up that game, you play as the Daytona race car. We all know it.

I can’t fully explain why this game has become obscure, almost forgotten, all these years later. Perhaps Megamix simply filled the void and became the default Saturn 3D fighting game, leaving most casual players uninterested in anything else. Perhaps the lack of any further sequels (Fighting Vipers 2 is even more obscure) is another reason. I think Sega had a lot of killer ideas for this title. They were trying to bridge the gap between the strict and strategic Virtua Fighter with the more immediate 2D fighters from Capcom and SNK. I think they succeeded, and I wish they would revisit that success again.

Of the two Saturn versions, the Japanese disc is the one to get. You can’t go without Pepsiman. Also, the US disc costs three times as much. Whatever. You need to save that money for cheap booze and ’80s rock mixtapes. Life is short, kids. Rock on.

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