Subject: Heavy-Metal Japanese Fighting Nonsense (Or, Thoth really likes Guilty Gear)
Posted on: 2021-06-10 02:47:46 UTC

This is pretty much just going to be me talking enthusiastically about something I very much like. Quite a bit. I thought people might find it interesting, especially if they weren't aware of the thing already. I dunno.

For those of you who are unaware (and why would you be aware), Guilty Gear Strive, the long awaited fifth sixth seventh fifteenth twenty-first wait, does the pachinko machine count? I mean I counted the spinoffs and unlike those that's actually canon... you know what? I give up somethingeth installment in the long-running Guilty Gear franchise, is releasing on Friday. Erm... unless you pre-ordered on Playstation, then it's already out, much to my dismay as someone who didn't do that.

If you don't know anything about Guilty Gear, you aren't alone, it's a fairly known name if you play fighting games, but it's not... exactly popular outside of that fairly insular bubble. But it is important and hugely influential inside that bubble. It's also completely insane, which is kinda why I love it so much.

The most important thing to understand about Guilty Gear is its creator: Daisuke Ishiwatari, South-African born Japanese writer, artist, game designer, game director, and possibly programmer, but I don't have a citation for that. He likes videogames and Rock and Roll. His favorite band is Queen. After leaving college, Daisuke joined a small Japanese developer called Arc System Works, started by ex-Sega employees in the mid 80s and up to then best known up to that point for making home ports of arcade games and Sailor Moon licensed games. In 1995, soon after Daisuke joined, they would release some of the first games that were entirely their own: Virtual Open Tennis, a tennis game, and EXECTOR, a 3D action game that apparently wasn't all that great. In short, they were a small company making games which, by and large, nobody cared about. Which is probably why when Daisuke pitched the idea of making a game "like Street Fighter" to management, they gave him 12 people and a budget. The newly formed "Team Neo Blood" subsequently take a year and a half to make a very strange videogame that would permanently change the course of the company.

I'm mentioning all this because moreso than almost any other AA or AAA series, Guilty Gear is the product of very specifically one man. Daisuke draws concept art, he writes the stories, he composes and performs the music, he does gameplay design, and in some cases he voices the characters. Plenty of other people are responsible for different parts of the games, but they are very specifically drawn from Daisuke's vision. So the game that released in 1998 for the Playstation 1 under the title "Guilty Gear: The Missing Link" was quintessentially Daisuke, and it was unlike anything else that existed at the time.

As much as Guilty Gear was pitched as "like Street Fighter", aside from being a fighting game, it's not very much like Street Fighter at all. It's more resemblant of a very different Capcom fighter released a mere ten months prior, by the name of Marvel vs Capcom. Like Marvel, Guilty Gear was all about upping the intensity and the ante on classic fighting action, driving up the speed of battle, the power of its characters, and the complexity of its mechanics. Combos flowed like water and assailants would go flying through the air as ludicrous super attacks made enemy lifebars melt. But if anything, Guilty Gear pushed the bar even further by being both absolutely off the wall and kind of broken. Honestly, by modern standards, it's just not very good. At the time, it was a thrilling game and an instant cult classic.

And it probably helped that Guilty Gear, aesthetically, was pretty dang beautiful and rather unique. Its pixel art couldn't stack up to the likes of Capcom (or especially to SNK's offerings, which by 1998 were absolutely stunning), but there's a sort of grunginess and dirtiness to the game's aesthetic that matches perfectly with Daisuke's hard rock and heavy metal soundtrack. And let's talk about that setting and aesthetic, because it is wild (and my primary inspiration for posting this here). The best way I can describe Guilty Gear's setting is... post-apocalyptic magicpunk, which is absurd. The world of Guilty Gear is a future where after a near-extinction event in the year 1999 where all technology malfunctioned, humanity lost all faith in any sort of technology. In their hour of need, a group of mages known as The Apostles (pseudo-religious imagery is another common theme in Guilty Gear. I think Daisuke just thinks it's cool, like Hideaki Anno does) teaches Humanity magic as a replacement for the technology of the past, and the world rebuilds, with everyone agreeing to deem old electronics "Black Technology" and prohibit their use. Except India, India builds a Zepplin Technology Empire using slave labor until a slave revolt brings the entire thing under the control of the exploited underclasses... but I'm getting ahead of myself. Anyways, scientific study of magic begins and all is well until 2016 (ugh, even in fiction that year is cursed) a Certain Country (it's America. It's totally America) decides to research magical alteration to human DNA, initiating the so called "Gear Project" under the watchful eyes of lead scientists Frederick Bulsara, Aria Hale, and a mysterious figure known as That Man. The Gear Project is a success, creating the first biomagic... well, not cyborg. Magiorg? Let's just call them Gears. Unfortunately, the prototype Gear escapes, and the project was shut down, briefly, before being restarted with a more direct charge: The mass-production of Gears based on humans and animals, explicitly for use as biological weapons. Other countries get ahold of the technology and an all-out Gear war begins, until a Certain Country (America, again) attempts to develop a Gear capable of controlling everyone's mass-produced gears (which are apparently non-sentient or something...). This is a wild success with the slight problem of said Gear developing a will of its own. Justice, as it calls itself, sets out to end humanity, destroying the entirety of Japan and plunging the rest of the world into a war against the Gears that will last 100 years before ending in 2175, when Justice is sealed away by the holy order of knights (the international force charged with dispatching gears is called the Holy Order of Knights, presumably because Daisuke thought it sounded cool). The game proper is set during a tournament established to select members for a new Holy Order, as a mysterious agent seems to be threatening Justice's resurrection. The rules, however, are... strange: Anyone, even convicts, can enter, and the winner will be granted a single wish. Unsurprisingly, the whole tournament is actually a disguised blood ritual designed to bring Justice back to life, organized because... honestly it's too complicated, just go watch Heaven Or Hell if you want a series plot summary, because I'm not up to the task. The point is that Guilty Gear's setting and lore is 1. very metal, 2. very cool, and 3. probably designed with being Metal and Cool as its main priorities.

And its cast is just as instantly appealing. Or... well, interesting. Most fighting games, especially in this time, had two protagonists—the "Ryu", a straight-laced do-gooder with no sense of humor, and the "Ken", a hot blooded rival to the first character who's always down for a bout but ultimately on their side (named for Street Fighter, of course) Guilty Gear's protagonst deuteragonist add a health dose of edge to this formula, leaving us with Sol Badguy, a grumpy, taciturn bounty hunter who wields a fire sword and is secretly Frederic Bulsara and also the prototype Gear (and less secretly a giant Freddie Mercury reference because the only man less shy about putting music references in is work than Daiksuke Ishiwatari is Hirohiko Araki) and Ky Kiske, a more obscure musical reference and also a former child soldier and ex-Holy Knight commander. Oh, and a lightning wizard. The cast gets rounded out a cast of eccentrics, like May, a sky pirate out to free her pirate captain, Johnny, from prison, Doctor Baldhead, an unparalled doctor turned homocidal when a conspiracy kills one of his patents, Chipp Zanuff, an American former drug trafficker and addict in the pocket of the Assassin's Guild (there isn't time), who overcame his struggle with addiction through training in the arts of Ninjutsu and is out to avenge his fallen master's death at the hands of the Guild, Axl Lowe, a former Pacifist from the 90s who's started time travelling and would emphatically like to stop, and that's just half the cast. As much as I enjoy a good fighting game, I'm terrible at them, so the consistently enjoyable and bizarre setting and characters has done a lot to keep me engaged.

Between Guilty Gear's cult success and Arc System Works' complete lack of any other hits of their own, a sequel was inevitable, but things got interesting when pachinko giant Sammy Corporation explicitly commissioned one in 1999. Suddenly, Arc had capital, a publisher, and a chance in the big leagues, because Guilty Gear was headed to the arcades. Japan's arcades, I mean. The ones that were still actually profitable. It was a huge deal, and while the trouble would come later, for now Team Neo Blood had the money they needed to make they game they wanted and set out to make a real sequel: Guilty Gear X. And what a sequel: Guilty Gear X gave the whole game a fresh coat of paint, bringing the pixel art up to arcade standards (read: beautiful), expanding the cast with pirate captain Johnny, one-armed samurai Baiken, perpetually curious Anji Mito, and expert martial artist and comic-relief restaurant owner Jam, as well as giving Doctor Baldhead a much-needed retooling into the bag-headed medical genius and mainstay series oddball, Faust. But if the visual overhaul was dramatic, the gameplay overhaul was drastic. As much as Guilty Gear knew what it wanted to be from the very beginning, this was the game that really achieved its goals. The fifth button, Dust, was added to the game, giving players a guaranteed obvious way to launch their opponents into the air for some of Guilty Gear's trademark juggling, the previously wildly unfair Instant Kill system was fixed, and most importantly of all, this was the game that introduced the world to the Roman Cancel, Guilty Gear's signature mechanic: at the cost of half a super meter, players can instantly end recovery on an attact, letting their character act faster to get out of danger, build an otherwise-impossible combo, or respond appropriately to an opponent. The changes are so dramatic it's almost hard to see the first game as a Guilty Gear. And of course it comes with a cheesy-as-heck console exclusive opening movie where bad voice actors explain the plot confusingly (the plainer arcade opening is slightly less laughable...).

But while Guilty Gear X was the first good game, its 2002 sequel, Guilty Gear XX, would be what defined the series' success, at least here in America. Releasing for the monstrously popular Playstation 2 probably helped, and a much, much better anime intro couldn't have hurt, but the most important things were mechanics, polish, and support: Arcsys weren't newcomers to the fighting game space anymore, and various minor tweaks and gamplay additions as well as across-the-board improvements make the game feel a little better. The whole thing looks just a little better too, and the console release included extra modes atop the standard arcade and story mode so you got a little more for your dollar. The new character additions were all very good, including the odd Robo-Ky, the ghost-posession afflicted Zappa, and the gentlemanly ex-assassin Vampire, Slayer. He's cool, he's collected, and he's the character I actually put some time into so I'm definitely biased. And the music. While a lot of the same themes from Guilty Gear X made it into XX, they were remixed and refined and just sound better, and any new tracks that are added are just as good. Holy Orders, Blue Water Blue Sky, Have You Got Eyes In Your Head, The Original... this is the first Guilty Gear game I played (not thst long ago...) and its music earned a spot on my playlists pretty fast. While I wouldn't have called it accessible, Guilty Gear XX was good enough to keep the hardcore playing for 12 years. Which was great, because it would have to.

The problem was, that deal with Sammy meant that Guilty Gear wasn't entirely an ArcSys franchise anymore–if a character was introduced in Guilty Gear X or XX, Arc... technically didn't own them. Sammy did. And if ArcSys wanted to go off and work with someone else, they'd have to lose the cast. So even as ArcSys set about rebalancing and expanding XX with updated editions (XX #Reload, XX Accent Core, XX Accent Core Plus), they also got to work on a new Guilty Gear, this time abandoning fighting games entirely for the game that would become Guilty Gear 2.

Dropping a substantial percentage of your established cast, changing genre from a 2D fighting game to a Single-Player MOBA while boldly declaring this not to be a spinoff but rather a true sequel was... uh... ahem... very brave. Some spectators might call it foolhardy. And those spectators would be right, because Guilty Gear 2 could charitably called a "hot, expensive failure" and uncharitably be called absolute garbage. The soundtrack is good, it did progress the story, and it introduced Ky's half-gear son, Sin Kiske, to the cast, but none of that could make up for the game's many, many flaws, namely that it was a single-player MOBA of all things. One year after that game's release, in 2008, Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus would come out. A new story mode and some minor improvements bolted onto a game that was already six years old. Guilty Gear would see no new releases for three long years.

In 2009, news grew even more sour for Guilty Gear fans: ArcSys, in the absence of control over their main franchise, decided to build something they'd entirely own. The result was BlazBlue, a series that... was met with a lot of honestly rather unfair and small-minded criticism and mistreatment of its fanbase from older Guilty Gear fans, reminiscent of the broader fighting game fandom's derisive treatment the so called "09ers" who got into the genre with the newly-released Street Fighter 4. Players complained that the new games were "dumbed down" and "lacked depth," which was, is, and always will be a constant. BlazBlue, honestly, isn't bad. I couldn't ever get into it—it's missing Guilty Gear's rock edge, instead being much more anime, to the point that I kinda almost resent it for how anime it is—but by all accounts it's a great series of well-made games. But it wasn't Guilty Gear. But after two BlazBlue games, things brightened up: Arc released a new, finally revision of Guilty Gear XX (Accent Core Plus R), and regained full rights to the franchise. Even as the third BlazBlue was released, ArcSys was gearing up to build the first brand new Guilty Gear in over a decade: Guilty Gear Xrd (geddit? Xrd? Like "third"? No? That makes no sense? Well just be glad they found a way to avoid calling it Guilty Gear XXX...).

I came to Guilty Gear late. I only got into it in the last few years, I've never put in the time to become good despite enjoying the series quite a bit, and I certainly didn't buy Guilty Gear Xrd at launch. I need to say this to emphasize the significance when I say that to this day, Guilty Gear Xrd is one of the most beautiful, jaw-dropping, graphically impressive games that I have ever seen. It is a stunning technical and artistic accomplishment, and I can only imagine how impressive it was in 2014, when nobody had seen anything like it. But I'm going to try. For context, at this point, Guilty Gear has looked like this for over a decade. Sure, it's a bit dated, but it looks pretty good. At this point, the latest BlazBlue looks like this, and while you can argue aesthetics, it's pretty clearly visually higher fidelity.

Yeah Guilty Gear Xrd looks like this. You can probably see what I'm getting at here, but if you can't, let me clarify. That was 100% in engine. No prerenders, no tricks, and absolutely no 2D sprites of any kind. What ArcSys did with Guilty Gear Xrd was make an entirely 3D fighter that looks 2D. I lack the words to describe how impressive that is because as far as I'm concerned it's black magic. If you want to know how they did it, New Frame Plus's Dan Floyd, a real animator, broke it down better than I ever could. And the incredible, jaw-dropping presentation upgrades don't end there. For the first time, Guilty Gear features a substantial number of lyrical tracks. If you can land Sol's Dragon Install, you're treated to this mid-fight. And the game's opener/arcade attract is one of the best I've ever seen, judging simply by the fact that after watching it I want to play Guilty Gear right now.

Xrd got two revisions, Revelator and Rev2 (heh), before ArcSys took a break from working on Guilty Gear to develop the rather popular RWBY/Persona/BlazBlue/UnderNight four-way cross-over, BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle, and also to develop and release the even more popular licensed tag team battle game, Dragon Ball FighterZ.

Which brings us to today. It's been a few years, and Guilty Gear Strive is Guilty Gear's big comeback from hiatus, as well as the conclusion to the story (this time around the story mode is apparently literally just straight-up an anime. Zero gameplay. I dunno how I feel about that...). Somehow, it looks even better than Xrd. But the interesting part is that Strive is, very deliberately, trying to be a more accessible Guilty Gear. The gameplay has been radically overhauled to reduce the reliance on long combos that you need to memorize to get going, damage is increased across the board so the stray hits of new players will do more than tickle opponents, and the many, many, many mechanics of xrd have been scaled back and simplified. They've also tried to strip the tutorial to its bare essentials, taking a lot of what would have been tutorial content and making it challenges instead to make it more comfortable to approach at your own pace. Arguably even more exciting is that Strive is one of the few fighting games out of Japan that plays well over the internet, so you can actually play online without living in perpetual fear (although it's still a good idea to avoid wifi if possible...), joining the elite ranks of Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R (which they are somehow still updating, specifically to make netplay good) and pirated versions of old arcade games.

So between the cool setting and characters and the jaw-dropping visuals, you maybe can see why I might be interested in Guilty Gear. If any of this makes you interested in playing and you can afford to, I do recommend giving Strive a go. Fighting games are hard to get into, pretty much universally, but there's never been a better time to get into Guilty Gear. And despite what some may tell you, you don't need an arcade stick to play fighting games. Any controller or heck, even a keyboard will do (I actually prefer keyboards to controllers for some of them). If you don't think it's for you and all of that sounds awful, that's totally cool too. Not everyone likes fighting games, and they tend to take a lot of dedication to get good at (I solve this by never getting good...). But I figured a neat game with a stupid but very cool setting might be something a few of you would enjoy.

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