Japanese developer Yukes had one thing (a cynical lot would say only one thing) at which they excelled, and that thing was fast-paced, cinematic fighting games whose appeal lies more in their personality than their actual fighting systems. “Gamers” in the USA probably know them best as developers of the original WWF Smackdown, a pro-wrestling simulator which boasted (you guessed it) a fast-paced, cinematic engine.
But Yukes also made one of the few games that I genuinely like to watch more than play: Evil Zone, or, if you pretend to know Japanese, Eretzvaju. Evil Zone caught my attention and that of others because it embellishes so much of its visuals and presentation with the conventions of Japanese animation, all genres more or less represented. And really, it’s almost difficult to explain just how enmeshed Japanese animation and Japanese video game fandoms were in the nineties, especially in the west, where video game magazines like Die Hard Game Fan and Gamer’s Republic featured whole sections devoted to anime news and reviews. This is the second draft of this post; the first included, around this point, a nearly eight-hundred word digression on this subject.
You, the readers, have been spared the torment of a ramble about decades old anime for the sake of brevity. So we jump straight into the problems – oh, the problems. The fighting system utilizes only the directional pad and two buttons, one for attack and one for defense. Which attacks the fighters use are based on distance and which directional button the player presses. Attacking at close distance usually results in three hit melee combo, and at a distance, the standard attacks are all projectiles. Pressing a directional button while attacking will usually send a projectile that either stuns or knocks the opposing character to a distance. Pressing “down” while attacking executes a trapping attack that will result in a brief cinematic sequence, which generally does a good bit of damage. The fights generally boil down to each character blocking until somebody either gets caught in the trapping attack or one of the characters manages to launch an effective stunning projectile, which generally opens up an opportunity for that trapping attack or maybe a throw.
The player can also hold the attack button to charge. The charge bar is actually the length of the player’s current health, so the lower the player’s health, the faster the charge. The charge can be used in one of two ways. The player can throw a slow moving projectile that, if it connects, will initiate another cinematic attack that causes absurd amounts of damage, but the player can also use the charge to boost a regular projectile. Again, the strategy for this is roughly the same as executing the trapping attacks.
The fighting system is quickly mastered and is fairly dull. When I first played Evil Zone, I tried to do evasion attacks and rushes, neither of which are really as effective as throwing projectiles and waiting for the opposing fighter to make a mistake. The melee fighting is ineffective, for the most part, and the characters all play the same since they all have projectiles that stun and trapping attacks. The only differences come from which directional key causes the stun attack. Character preference stems mostly from the character designs.
But what character designs they are! As mentioned, I really like Evil Zone when I’m watching it. The presentation here is incredibly fun. The story mode is actually done as anime, each fight representing a new episode, and each story mode featuring some hilariously dead-on parody of the animation genres associated with the characters. Danzaivar, the tokusatsu hero, utilizes everything from ultimate attacks to henshin code words to satellite laser guns that shoot enemies during charge and trapping attacks. Every character introduces new episodes and the game even collects the world-building and character data in an encyclopedia for the player’s perusal.
It’s uncanny how closely the game imitates the tropes of various anime. The story for Setsuna, the magical school-girl, even includes some vaguely sapphic overtones that would have been unusual in a localized game in 1999 (though the localization team at Blue Sky software changed her age from 14 to 21, understandably), and the character themes resemble anime themes in all ways except the lack of vocals. The best story line is actually for Keiya, an onmyoji who fulfills the bishonen badass archetype to a tee, whose “episodes” take the form of a write-in advice show. The characters he fights write in before each episode with some ludicrous problem or other, Keiya renders his advice with deadpan snark. The voice actor for Keiya, Chris Wilcox, stands out from the rest; his delivery is pitch-perfect.
The whole idea of a context sensitive fighting system is cool, and I like a lot of the attack animations. And the graphics were great for a 1999 Playstation game. Unfortunately, the fighting engine is underdeveloped. There are also some problems with the localization. Voices often fail to sync with the animation, leading to some very odd timing during the in-game conversations, and translating what were originally English, German, Latin and Welsh words from Katakana leads to some very odd spellings. “Cocytus” becomes “Cocotus” and “Claiomh Solais” becomes “Klau Solas.” If that’s nit-picky, well, I’m a nit-picker. If you like vintage anime and video games, Evil Zone is an enjoyable diversion, even if it’s a mediocre game whose charm will be lost on the uninitiated. Yukes seems to have used the basic idea for their recent licensed titles, but those really don’t have the same personality or tongue-in-cheek appeal of Evil Zone.