Guilty Gear X was a wonderful anomaly. It’s an unlikely combination of hundreds of 80s metal references that went over the heads of 95% of its audience with an oversexed anime style that would make Goku feel uncomfortable. The scantily-clad, blue haired, exposed abdomen male model with a pool cue as a weapon would zip across the screen like a gnat, throwing pool balls of death to the scythe-sporting, cross-dressed Marilyn Manson character as he retaliated with blood explosion attacks. All the while, a thrash-metal guitar riff played in the background and a Satanic announcer deemed every match to be a battle of “Heaven or Hell”. It was such an inexplicable experience that I disposed of my copy of Guilty Gear X like it was the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis and I was Bruce Campbell defeating the forces of evil with a mighty chin held high. Fortunately, the more polished and more bizarre Guilty Gear X2 helped me understand the “80s sex-metal meets 90s androgynous anime“ concept, and the promise of existing as one of the most balanced fighting games helped turn me from a conservative protestor to a tie-dyed hippie rebel experimenting with new a new chemical cocktail.
What followed was numerous Street Fighter 2-like refinement updates with increasingly stranger names (Guilty Gear X2 #reload Accent Core Plus?) and experimental genre-hybrid failures like Overture that left me feeling like Sonny Bono had latched on to a key programmer at Ark System Works. If the Guilty Gear franchise is the Beatles, then the band has since broken up and we now have Paul McCarthy’s Wings project; a game called “BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger.”
Blazblue maintains Ark System Works’ journey to further weird out Americans. The game starts up with an anime intro of the characters doing random acts of action to a J-pop song. Already going from glorious electric guitar to this strange track feels like something of a jarring shift to a metalhead like me. Couple that with organ-driven menu music and a church-inspired menu screen and you have a game that’s making even the Guilty Gear fan in me feeling a bit confused. The announcer is a Japanese woman who pours her heart out trying to pronounce these hard English words that the writer has handed over. Included in this bizarre script is the new fight introduction, “The Wheel of Fate is Turning.” Oh, and the sequences of battle are no longer referred to as “rounds”, they’re “rebels”. Is intentionally poor translation trendy in ? Should rounds end with one fighter declaring Victoly? Maybe this is what the kids of today find trendy, and I’m the Led Zeppelin fan accusing Nirvana of being too raucous.
The game has a wealth of backstory worth ignoring. Reading the manual reveals information of past wars over magic, evil demons, legendary heroes, evil librarian empires and a lot of nonsense that screams out loud “there will be sequels with new characters!” But the Coles’ Notes are as follows; there’s a really angry dude that the announcer affectionately calls RAGNA—THE-BLOODEDGE~! and a lot of people want to kill him and sell his pelt for money. If you would like to know more about the Blazblue universe, a Story Mode akin to Guilty Gear X2 #whatever version appears. A wall of dialogue of varying quality between characters will greet each player, a wall that usually polishes off at “hey you! Lets fight!” followed by “yeah sure! Lets fight!” Some storylines have branching paths and if you’re a completionist nutcase, you’re going to have to go on the internet to find out how to unlock some of the hidden storylines. It’s not a great single player mode, but at least it’s the presence of a single player mode in a fighting game that feels courteous.
On the surface, the fighting mechanics of Blazblue appear identical to that of Guilty Gear. But buried underneath, you’ll find that Blazblue is really….identical to Guilty Gear. You dash around the screen a lot, you have blocks and super-blocks that take no chip-damage, you’ve got your super-cancels that my simpleton brain can’t handle implementing in real combat, there’s even the return of the one-hit-kill attacks. But the circumstances for using a one-hit-kill (or an Astral Finish, as the game wants you to stylishly call it while you hang out in front of the Bubble Tea store) are so strict that the player will only want to use one in the name of being a complete show-off in the face of a petty noob (like me!). These one-hit-kills look cool enough to be considered the next evolution of the Mortal Kombat fatality, butin a rather selfish jerk-move, you have to play mode with most of the characters to unlock their Earth-destroying attacks.
The differences between Guilty Gear and BlazBlue begin to manifest themselves when you look at each character individually. At first glance, one will assume that RAGNA—THE-BLOODEDGE~! is meant to fill the shoes of another famous red-wearing, spiky-haired Guilty Gearhead. While that assumption is right on the money, RAGNA—THE-BLOODEDGE~! carves a bit of an identity with his sword into your skin. He brings to the smashed table (a smashed hotel room table with an unconscious hooker on top of it, of course) powerful attacks that will sap away some of the enemy’s health for his own use. In fact, each character will have the “D button” designated to some kind of unique gimmick attack. Iron Tager, the Blazy version of Potemkim, can magnetize opponents and draw them towards his powerful throws. Jin, the game’s angrier, more homosexual Ky Kiske, can freeze opponents like Sub Zero… if Sub Zero could spam combos like they were junk mail. And if Sub Zero had dirty thoughts about Scorpion’s harpoon.
Setting up combos and controlling space seem to be the crucial strategies amongst characters. If Blazblue is to be praised for anything, it’s for not having any Ryu/Ken/Guile like character simple archetypes. Even if a character appears to be channeling the drug-induced spirit of a Guilty Gear personality, they’ll also have some new gimmicks that help rework the player’s fighting style. But on the same token, without those familiar archetypes, the game lacks any kind of “good for beginners” character for a casual fighting game fan to jump in with and just play. As a result, uninitiated players will be experiencing a Calamity Trigger in their brain trying to wrap their mind around the game’s more complex characters as braggadocios elitists thrash them around in the arcade while flicking back their long, dyed-blonde hair and sipping Bubble Tea. (I’ve been a tad racist here, eh?)
Blazblue’s biggest flaw, in my mind, is the lack of in-game tutorials. Each character is such a unique and beautiful snowflake that without proper explanations, I can’t but help but develop a Tyler Durden mentality on the evils of “human individuality”. Trying to successfully wrap your mind around one in the name of not being one of the many, many players online using RAGNA—THE-BLOODEDGE~! is going to take a lot of practice, pain and passion. If you got the Collector’s Edition (which seems to be as readily available as the regular edition, which is to say “it’s damn hard to find”) then a bonus disc will assist with videos explaining character-specific strategies. But Collector’s Editions of games are normally bought by the hardcore fans, and it’s the curious newcomer that worries more about saving ten dollars that need this included guidance more. And the Bonus disc was done by IGN…seriously?
Now, once you’ve overcome the steep-as-Hakuman’s-overcompensating-sword learning curve, then Blazblue shines as a competitive fighter. Then you can go online and really get your tight buns whooped by what I presume is international competition sporting a year’s worth of practice. The online options are among the genre’s beefiest; you can either arrange quick Ranked matches or alternate battles in a room with four friends (assuming you know four friends that are into this stuff). Each player has a profile card highlighting statistics from past defeats, plus you can save the replay of any past ass-whooping.
BlazBlue is a mighty fighting game. Too mighty even. In fact, its biggest flaws may stem from its mightiness. Here’s another example of such; the game considers Standard Definition television screens beneath it, and as a result, bits of text are cut off from the screen in each character’s mode introduction; this would be a major flaw if this game had a story worth following. The game is staggeringly deep but equally rewarding, and if anything, is just enough of a breath of fresh air in a genre riddled with sequels, spin-offs and clones. If you’ve got a passion for 2D fighters, you should try your hardest to find a copy, but those foreign to the 2D fighting genre should look to Street Fighter 4 as a gateway drug first.