Savaki (1998, Cygnus for Saturn)

Savaki appeared in the final months of the Sega Saturn in Japan in April of 1998, and it’s a highly polished title that demonstrates a great mastery of the hardware. It is a 3D polygon fighting game that leans heavily towards “simulation,” focusing on real-world martial arts while avoiding anything flashy or unrealistic. This focus on realism helps give this game a unique, original style that is very welcome. And for a system overloaded with so many fighting games, it becomes extremely challenging to stand out from the crowd. But Savaki stands out very nicely, even if it’s not for everyone.

This game revolves around specialized martial artists in an underground fighting circuit, probably taking place in some dingy mafia-run warehouse basement. The characters don’t have names; instead, they are designated by their fighting styles, including karate, boxing, muy thai, jeet kun do, tai kwon do and “freestyle,” which is the style employed by the extremely challenging and relentless final boss, a towering masked man in wrestler’s garb. I wonder if he’s related to the final boss from Pit Fighter?

Attacks are simple to learn, consisting of various punches and kicks that can be chained together in short combos. There are no throws or grapple techniques. Your defensive moves include blocking, “feint” moves that attempt to trick your opponent, and a move called “savaki” that can deflect an attack if timed properly. This was something that Virtua Fighter 3 dabbled with, and this game elevates it to a significant importance.

Successful play involves not only learning the rhythm of your attacks (as well as your opponent), but understanding that defense and psychology is equally important. Mashing buttons will not work for more than a couple rounds. Very quickly, the fights become extremely fast and challenging, and you must employ skilled technique to survive.

Visually, Savaki looks magnificent, employing smooth action at 60 frames-per-second, polygon shading, light sourcing, particle effects and a caged arena that combines 3D polygons with 2D VDP2 bitmaps. If there is one complaint to offer, it’s that there is only one arena, but this is perhaps part of the game’s “Fight Club” theme and was intended as such. Audio consists of solid effects for punches and kicks, and a looping crowd that cheers you on without becoming overly distracting.

According to research, Savaki was programmed by a single individual, Kozo Nishio, who was also the programmer of the 1996 Saturn/Playstation robot fighting game Robo Pit. He clearly understood how to maximize the Saturn hardware, something that very few programmers of the day could boast. Hardly anyone outside of Japan ever properly knew what to make of Sega’s massive box of processors and chips. Hardly anyone even bothered to put in the time to learn, usually just turning off the second SH-2 CPU and struggling to work with Sega’s crummy C compiler instead of working in Assembly language. Oh, well, whatever, nevermind. All water under the bridge.

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