About six months before the release of the original PlayStation, I was fortunate enough to attend a small CES (Consumer Electronics Show) near my home. After waiting in line for nearly an hour, I rushed inside in hopes of getting my hands on a demo unit for this crazy, unknown new game system put out by Sony of all companies. My first experience on the PlayStation was Battle Arena Toshinden, and regardless of what people may say about it now, at the time it was stunning. Still reeling from the mind-blowing experience at the show about a month afterwards, I ran into an arcade machine for the original Tekken. I had heard about it in magazines, but didn't know much except that it was also going to be released on the PlayStation, which I had immediately ran out and reserved after the show. I must have dropped nearly $10 into the machine that day, and my brain was set aflame thinking about the possibilities of having a fighter like that at home. A variety of fighting styles, bone-snapping throws, a huge amount of moves and a tighter feel of control than the other 3D competition at the time had me literally losing sleep until Tekken's release.
As one of the first fighters available for PlayStation, Tekken definitely bolstered the system's original lukewarm lineup and gathered a huge fanbase for itself and the PlayStation at the same time. It's only fitting that one of the biggest first-generation games back then is now once again a launch title giving some weight to Sony's new monster machine. Like chocolate and peanut butter, Namco and Sony are two great tastes that taste great together.
Tekken Tag Tournament is most accurately described as a 2.5-D fighter, with the backgrounds and characters modeled in 3D, but keeping the fighting limited to face-to-face on a 2-D plane. The ".5" comes into play as the characters are able to dodge into and out of the foreground and background. There are 34 characters total to pick from, with 20 being initially accessible. What makes Tekken Tag different from its predecessors is (obviously) the brand-new Tag feature. Instead of the traditional solo matches, the main event here is a two-on-two battle structure with a match ending when one player on any team is knocked out. Teamwork is essential. If you grow tired of tagging, the game also features the original one-on-one option as well as the standard Vs, Survival, Team, Time Attack and Practice. A superb new feature is Pair Play, where two people can be on the same team for up to four live players battling in a real tag match. Oh, and for something utterly new to the series, there's also Bowling. Yes, bowling.
The game has traditionally shared a particular quality with its closest competitor, Virtua Fighter; players either love it or hate it with very, very few people falling in between. Personally I love it, sort of, but let me explain. The way that the designers intended it to be played relies heavily on preprogrammed combos and juggling skill. I find both to be utterly repulsive in a fighter, but the way that I have come to appreciate it is something I like to call "Gentlemen's Rules." The characters are deep enough, and the game engine is flexible enough to play it a number of different ways, so when I hunker down for some fisticuffs I tend to me more of a stick-and-move type player rather than someone who looks for those uber-annoying opportunities to perform a pop-up followed by a nearly-infinite juggle. While not all of the characters have equally flexible playstyles, I think it's definitely a testament to the game's strong design that it's even possible to completely ignore the thrust of the game and still have something substantial to play. I would also like to add that I think basing a game around juggling and dial-a-combos is a really bad idea to begin with, but still.
Before I say anything else about the positives of Tekken Tag, let me just say that there are NO JAGGIES. For anyone who's been following the Internet or game magazines since the PlayStation 2's debut in Japan, it's been nearly impossible to avoid reading about "jaggies" (jagged stair-stepped edges on objects) and other various graphical shortcomings of the PlayStation 2's first generation software. As with any system, the first generation is always the roughest batch of games, and that's a perfectly natural thing to expect. Even with something as powerful as the PlayStation 2 is supposed to be, it was inevitable that the titles weren't going to be perfect right out of the gate due to programmers' lack of familiarity with the hardware or frantic production schedules trying to coincide with launch. It's pretty obvious that with all the hype running at a fever pitch prior to the release, people's expectations of the graphics were unrealistically high. Due to this, the outrage was intense when the games were released looking less than flawless, with Tekken Tag and Ridge Racer in particular receiving a huge amount of pans for their "jaggies." The talk on this was so prevalent, it was nearly impossible to read a sentence containing the term "PlayStation 2" without reading about the shortcomings in the visuals.
Taking this to heart before the American release, Namco took the extra time to rework the graphic code instead of doing a basic localization. It definitely shows -- there are no jaggies in the domestic version, and it's a very clean-looking game. In addition to the added smoothness, there are some very nice lightsourcing effects to be seen and a wealth of other technological touches which make it very easy on the eyes. If there are any graphical complaints to be made at this point, it's very minor stuff. The only thing that comes to mind are the puddles which don't splash in the Hong Kong stage, or the way that players can't ever reach the "end" of a particular area, but that's about it. In my opinion, this is a fabulous-looking game.
While eye candy is all well and good, it only gets you so far. Luckily, there is a lot of fighting game here for players to sink their teeth into. As I mentioned earlier, there are ultimately 34 characters to choose from. The moves list for each character is incredibly long -- almost beyond comprehension. There are a huge range of throws, counters, offensive and defensive moves which make it possible to play for weeks without seeing every thrust and parry. In addition to the individual moves available to each character, there are a number of team-specific tag moves which only work between certain characters. For example, while Gun-Jack and Jin Kazama don't have any common ground, Jin and his mother Jun have a combo attack that you only see when the two of them are together. (And let's face it -- how many games even give you the option of having a mean mother-son tag team?)
It's also important to note that in the past, about half of the characters were merely different-looking models with their moves consisting of a mixture of the other characters. While it was fairly entertaining to try and find the character with the right mix of moves to best suit your playing style, Namco has improved on this by adding a number of original moves to every character, fleshing them out into more distinct and individual people. It's such a pleasantly intricate game in fact, that most players will find themselves mastering only a small number of characters. Completely grasping the game would be a full-time occupation, albeit a very fun one.
As for the game's downsides, it's debatable that it has any significant flaws. Things likely to be mentioned are probably issues of taste rather than actual quality, and can be found recurring throughout the entire series. Off the top of my head, possible negatives would be the abuse-prone, juggle-heavy system I've already mentioned, the questionable non-captured animation of a few basic moves and the hot-or-cold reaction people have to some of the character design. Personally, I find the characters to be infinitely more interesting and appealing than Virtua Fighter's colder, less charismatic fighters, but that could just be me. The most significant and possibly most valid issue that's likely to be raised (yet really can't be called a quality issue, per se) is the 2-D nature of the fighting and non-interactivity in the stages. While a full 3-D approach has only recently become popular in fighting games, I feel there will always be room on the market for a good 2-D fighter done well, be it sprites or polygons. As far as interactivity with the levels and background elements, Tekken has yet to incorporate such features. Because of this it does tend to feel a bit dated, or at least behind the latest trends in fighters. If you've liked Tekken in the past you probably won't have any problems whatsoever with the game. But if you haven't signed on as a fan already, the formula hasn't changed enough to warrant another look despite the prettier package. You either like it or you don't—simple as that. Honestly, the only thing keeping it from a higher score is that Tekken Tag is more a "summing up" of the ground covered already instead of a bold new step forward for the series.
Boiling it all down, Tekken Tag Tournament is an excellent all-in-one, must-buy package for even the most casual fan of the franchise, or for a new PlayStation 2 owner who is looking for some involving, eye-catching action. Fast gameplay, colorful characters and a moves list deeper than the Marianas Trench make this game easily worth the price of admission. It may not be the on the cutting edge of innovation, but you can't go wrong with this disc—it's as solid as the Iron Fist it's named after.