Square’s prolific publishing and development on that system, unfortunately, seems largely reduced to its three Final Fantasy titles, the Final Fantasy Tactics spinoff, Xenogears, and, among those who fancy themselves connoisseurs, Vagrant Story and maybe Parasite Eve. You would think that the company developed and published RPGs exclusively during the mid-to-late nineties, but, in fact, the company’s output became more varied on the Playstation than it had been since their early days publishing for the Famicom and Japanese home computers. They developed and published an excellent horizontal scrolling shooter, Einhander, experimented with mascot themed cart-racing, and released a gaggle of fighting games by developers Dream Factory and Lightweight.
Fighting games at the time were about as far removed from RPGs as you could get (unless you actually liked Culture Brain’s Flying Warrior series) and the ones that Square published were esoteric even by the standards of fighting games. Tobal No. 1 and Tobal 2 by Dream Factory required split second timing to perform combos, and Bushido Blade and its sequel actually attempted something I don’t think had ever been done before: they tried to simulate actual sword fighting.
Lightweight, the developer of the Bushido Blade series, had only one idea, and it was actually pretty interesting. It also has the added benefit of being original. I have not played the first game, and have very little desire (or money) to track it down. But I do have a copy of Bushido Blade 2.
The first thing that I notice after booting the game is the hilariously goofy “FMV” (that’s the 90’s era game nerd acronym for “Full Motion Video” as opposed to, y’know, video that isn’t full motion), rendered in above-average-at-the-time CGI. The direction is almost unbearably cheesy, matched by an equally silly electric guitar score and some of the ugliest character design on the Playstation. Ostensibly set in contemporary Japan, Bushido Blade 2 features characters who wear Edo-era Japanese attire, cowboy outfits, purple leisure suits, Victorian-era dress suits, and underwear to wage a centuries old war between rival feudal clans -- a conflict that somehow transplanted itself into rival martial arts schools in contemporary Japan. The incongruous character design and nonsensical story are almost typical of lower-tier Japanese games of the time, though one character in particular, a jive talkin’ black man with an improbably large afro, purple suit, and bling, is tin-eared even by those standards.
But then, games of this era were in the middle of an awkward creative adolescence, moving from being fairly simple forms of entertainment to incredibly complicated multi-media pieces. When appraised only as a game, Bushido Blade 2 is one of the most interesting fighters of the time. The developers attempted to make an actual simulation of sword fighting, with character movement based on actual martial arts techniques (clearly motion captured by people who understand their functions). The animations actually emulate the inertia of a chunk of metal swung into or drug across somebody’s corpus in a way that at least feels accurate relative to the player’s role behind a controller. The only other fighting game that attempted “realism” at the time was Virtua Fighter, but even that game had health bars and, perhaps, slightly more questionable kinesiology than Bushido Blade 2. But then, Bushido Blade 2 also allows characters to jump around like they're on wires.
Each weapon has three stances, high, low, and mid-guard, and to score a killing hit, the player has to pass the guard. Scoring a hit is not that easy, particularly against opponents with long weapons like Yari spears, Naginata, or No-Dachi. Selecting a weapon appropriate for your character is critical. Obviously, physically weak characters do not perform well with heavy broadswords; less obvious is that certain characters have special stances when using certain weapons. With a good character/weapon combo, the fights are just a matter of timing and strategy. I won most of the matches by attacking during the up or downswing of the opponent’s attack.
The matches start out with the player fighting generic “ninja” enemies before fighting playable characters, which generally put up a better challenge. These matches are great fun by themselves, and the gimmicky modes (first person mode being the worst) superfluous to the experience they offer. The basic fighting game could work exceptionally well as a quickly played online game for portable systems, but with Square Enix as focused as it is on expanding their market share in the west and original developer Lightweight seemingly defunct, that isn’t likely to happen.
Lightwing23 cajoled me into this review with an e-mail in which he mentions the existence of a game based on Spike TV’s embarrassing television series, "Deadliest Warrior." I would rather play Kabuki Warriors, Lightweight’s infamously bad follow up to Bushido Blade 2, than anything that will encourage Spike TV to continue making episodes of that rancid series. The characters in the "Deadliest Warrior" video game can kill each other with a single good hit, which I guess reminded Lightwing23 of Lightweight’s early output, but, from what I can tell based on YouTube videos and reviews, the fighting system better compares to Dream Factory’s Ehrgeiz. The game also looks bland, artless, and crass, which means that it’s nothing if not a faithful adaptation of its source material.
Both Bushido Blade games could be described similarly. But at least they've got personality.