blazeblue and gaiares
BlazBlue: A Fighting Game for All of Us

By Jared Petty

Video game history demands some fluidity from students. It’s a new, evolving field that’s not especially well documented. It can get murky. That’s doubly true when you go looking for the origins of certain kinds of games and genre conventions. 

Take fighting games: 1984’s Karate Champ seems like a good starting point for the conventions we recognize today, particularly the side-view aspect ratio and complex button inputs for moves, but a lot of earlier games embraced complex hand-to-hand combat in some pretty creative ways. The Bilestoad, a curious (and curiously addicting) little 1982 game for the Apple II zoomed in on hand-to-hand top-down duels with every bit as much emphasis on footsies and as a modern fighterer, and more gore and limb-lopping than most. Mortal Kombat would be proud. Despite the terrible, terrible chug, position was everything. 1980’s Boxing by Activision was MUCH faster and also took a top-down approach, and even its visual abstractions couldn’t overshadow its innovations, including a primitive position-based blocking system and rules for scoring light and heavy hits. Go further back to the seventies, and things get even weirder. 

In some alternate reality, fighting games are codified into a one-on-one top-down genre. But here in the prime dimension, they’re usually patterned as 2D or 2.5D bouts played out on a flat plane (Virtua Fighter, Soulcalibur, and their ilk being notable exceptions). Contemporary fighting games distinguish themselves from one another through nuance within the Street Fighter II pattern: art style, speed, accessibility to newcomers, ground vs. air dynamics, character design, defensive mechanics, gore, gimmicks, and single-player modes.

I suck at fighting games, but I play BlazBlue because it lands an irresistible combination of these distinctive subtleties. It’s a tasty cocktail of good ideas: solid ingredients blended in perfect proportions  Whether you suck at fighting games or rule at fighting games, you should play BlazBlue. It’s good stuff.

I first encountered BlazBlue in Japanese arcades around 2008 when it was a brand-new series, and I’ve never been able to let go. It was a hyperactive realization of the promise of Melty Blood, a fighting game whose basic rules weren’t so esoteric as to be inscrutable, and whose extraordinary unique characters begged to be experimented with and discovered.

This is a fighting game where your character choices are evocative of the best of Demon Slayer or Ghibli fantasy, with the commitment to single-player storytelling gravity to match. The story is very big and very in-your face, a narrative as blazing as the title. It’s anime AF. I picked Noel because guns, and I’ve stuck with her ever since.

BlazBlue’s hand-drawn character sprites evoke a massive, high-resolution, frenetic realization of Symphony of the Night’s Alucard sprite. Not a line is wasted, but the artists also aren’t stingy with their detail. Some of these frames are practically comic-book covers. The vibe really is anime come to life. The Dragon Ball elements are all there: attack names shouted out, massive flashes of light accompanying punches and kicks, explosive super-moves that shake the foundations of the earth.

BlazBlue is a top-tier multiplayer fighting game according to human beings who understand such things, and I’ve certainly had a delightful time getting pummeled by other players over the years. But it’s also a standout single-player experience, and I can really appreciate that. There’s a LOT going on in the narrative approach, a lot to do, and some pretty interesting revelations to uncover along the way.

Central Fiction ramps up smartly. It teaches you how to play any character you’re interested in learning more about, and builds in clever handicap options to help less-experienced players enjoy competing in multiplayer without a lot of tutorializing. Want to learn the complex button inputs? Cool. Want to automate those? Also cool.

I largely left fighting games behind after the Street Fighter II era. With very few exceptions (I’m looking at you, Waku Waku 8) the gradual shift of fighting games toward tournament-perfect technical mastery turned me off to the genre. But I keep coming back to the BlazBlue series. It’s so good, it makes me want to become a better fighting game player.

BlazBlue: Central Fiction Special Edition for Switch is up for pre-order right now at Limited Run Games and available through December 12. If you’re looking for a fighting game that’s really accessible for new players, that’s as much fun to play single player as multiplayer, and that creates a lot of room for you to grow and gives you the tools you need to do so, try it.

“Guy-are-us.”

I hesitate to admit it, but sometimes Genesis really did what Nintendidn’t. 

SEGA of America’s hyper-aggressive marketing copy was accurate, though not really in the derisive spirit intended by the tagline. The Genesis never proved to be a more capable platform than the Super Nintendo, but its voice, its library, and its legacy reflected a purposefully distinct experience. One nuance of its identity is that Genesis became a friendlier home for shoot em’ ups than Nintendo’s 16-bit console, with all appropriate apologies to U.N. Squadron.

It didn’t hurt that Genesis got a head start. In 1990 in the ol’ US of A, you weren’t going to find a shooter comparable to Gaiares on your Nintendo Entertainment System, and the SNES was still a year away. The best Genesis shoot em’ ups from 1989 and 1990 bombarded my pre-teen brain with their glorious beauty and mechanical complexity. Unless you were one of the prescient few who latched on to the TG16 for its brief moment in the American sun, you didn’t even have a context for comparison: on a technical level, the best NES shooters of the year couldn’t begin to compete.

On last week’s Runtime blog we talked about the challenging bullet-hell tradition around Mushihimesama. Gaiares is equally punishing, but in a different way. It’s a horizontal shooter for one thing, and those are very different beasts from vertical games like Mushihimesama: your axis of movement and the placement of solid barriers radically alter your threat response, especially since Gaiares lets you scroll up and down a bit to reveal off-screen threats. Gaiares also relies much more on insidious enemy placement than on the magnitude of threats typical of a bullet hell shooter. And perhaps most importantly, Gaiares’ patterns seem to respond to your play, with threats spawning in positions dependent on your actions and movement.

Gaiares emerged in a very unique moment in time when the transition from 8-bit to 16-bit gaming was lurching awkwardly and experimentally forward. Thanks to Mac, Amiga, Sharp, and Atari, the m68000 architecture utilized by the Genesis/Mega Drive was already a mainstay in home computer game development, especially in Japan and Europe. Several companies created very early, high-quality shoot em’ up games that showcased the Genesis’ sharp, colorful graphics and support for large numbers of sprites: Thunder Force II and Truxton especially come to mind. Gaiares is another member of this class, and arguably the most memorable.

I am a sucker for any game that lets you steal enemy powers and throw them back at foes. Kirby, Mega Man, Aria of Sorrow—these are my jams. Gaiares adapts that mechanic to shoot em’ up gameplay, and the result is satisfying. It’s deeply rewarding to rob your tormentors of the weapons they’ve been using to humble you and turn those implements of destruction back on them.

Watch the first few minutes of Gaiares and you can positively soak up the Konami inspiration and the Irem influences. It’s certainly a better Gradius game than the rushed-feeling port of Gradius III that launched on the Super Nintendo the following year. But its innovations on timely ideas hardly stop there... you’ll find Castlevania III-esque branching paths, colorful anime storytelling a la Ninja Gaiden, and the aforementioned Mega Man-esque power stealing.

In popular culture, Gaiares’ most lasting legacy is its promotional campaign which focused on video game industry professionals endorsing the game. Celebrity promotion entered video game marketing fairly early, with the likes of Goerge Plimpton, William Shatner, and Bill Cosby hawking consoles and game-centric home computers through the early 80s, or pro athletes like Larry Bird and Dr. J lending their likenesses to video games many years before Genesis. But Gaiares’ approach struck as something a bit more folksy and inside baseball: their endorsers were people who played games for a living. It was an unusual approach, almost a proto-influencer take on messaging. And a testimony to its effectiveness is that these ads, well, if you read gaming magazines in 1990, you probably remember something like this. 

 

And while I’m grateful for the marketing and for the good humor of Mr. Bunker in posing for this reshoot (and for the courage and judgment he shows in abandoning that mullet), I do kind of regret that for some folks, the meme is the most they know about this game, because Gaiares holds up. It’s easy to get your head around the rules, but it’s also viciously challenging and just the right amount of different from the stuff you’ve already played. If you own a Genesis, Gaiares is a must-have.

Gaiares is ready to pre-order today at Limited Run Games and will be available through December 19. Inside the box, you’ll find a real, working Genesis game cart and a bunch of delightful extras including that famous “Can You Say Gaiares” T-shirt. 

November 24, 2021