Ryu from the Street Fighter series is among the most imitated videogame characters of all time. His influence on the fighting game genre is incalculable. His look established the foundation on what fighting game main characters are supposed to look like, from the tattered and torn white gi to the flowing red bandanna. Studying his character, we now understand protagonists to be stoic, mysterious and always satisfied with the fight itself, not with winning or losing. As a martial artist, his movements dictate what fighting game moves must look like, from a sweep of the foot to the now classic folded hands stance for a fireball. And, more importantly, performing as a fighter he laid the foundation on how special moves must be performed, beginning with the immortal quarter-circle and punch movement. Most every fighting game character, from games as diverse as Samurai Shodown to Virtua Fighter, owes allegiance to Ryu, who was at the forefront of the dawn of fighting games.
Then there's Zappa from Guilty Gear X2 (GGX2), Sammy's sequel to the estranged Guilty Gear series. He may not be the main character of the game, but he remains a fighting game character nonetheless. And although his moves follow the basic principles that Ryu laid out more than a decade ago, everything else about him does not. Starting with his design, one look at the portrait in the instruction booklet will tell you he's about as far from the Boy Scout martial artist image. Zappa is a young boy in tight spandex and pointy shoes, long hair, fairly chiseled and modest looking. While that may not be spectacular in itself, what's shocking is the ghost behind Zappa, whispering sweet nothings into his ear, brushing his hair while its hands creep up the boy's thigh. While ghost molestation is hardly a thought that comes as comfortable to anyone's mind, Zappa looks still, his eyes closed with complacency.
A description of Zappa, who is possessed by the ghost, is a fitting way to introduce the perverse world of Guilty Gear X2, featuring the most out-of-this-world videogame character designs. There's Bridget, a little nun who was brought up to think that he was actually a girl, and currently "working surreptitiously to be more manly." Some designs are less bizarre and much more intriguing, like Dizzy (a 3-year-old scantily clad girl with wings), one that looks like the Grim Reaper and another that looks like an angel. And Millia Rage attacks with a flurry of split ends from her limitless length of hair.
These character designs buck the trend of designing characters after the original Street Fighter designs, and that includes animations for movements. GGX2 is probably the most vibrantly animated two-dimensional videogame ever made, with each attack and movement drawn to exceptional detail. It may take a few moments to realize where Zappa's legs go when he performs his "Dust Attack" (an uppercut that sends enemies flying into the air) or discover Testament's true form when he performs his "Psych Burst" (an attack that repels enemies while you're taking damage). Not only are animations for each character fluid and lively, but they often add a certain aesthetic beauty, making each battle as interesting to look at as they are to play.
Further pursuing the hyperactive nature of the game is the gameplay itself, which is a direct descendent of the Vs. Capcom series, like Marvel Vs. Capcom. However, the engine for GGX2 is much tighter than the Capcom engine, but also far more difficult to master. There are a variety of techniques, counters, cancels and recoveries to learn, and most are simply executed by pressing at least two buttons at the same time. But even with simple commands like that, you must be able to use them within the context of a bout. For example, a skillful player will easily be able to know the difference and execute at will a Dead Angle Attack, which is performed by pressing two attack buttons while pushing the D-pad forward right after a guard. This is as opposed to a Faultless Defense, performed by pressing punch and kick together with the D-pad back.
Despite the unorthodox character designs, the influence of other fighting games (including Street Fighter II) becomes apparent. All the moves are executed with similar half-circle and quarter-circle movements from other games. The Overdrive attacks, complete with a gauge that fills up during the fight, also function in a similar manner to other games. However, the instant kill moves throw the game's balance off. These gloriously exaggerated death moves can be performed at any point during the fight. Sure, there is a slight penalty to activating the instant kill mode, but its definite turning of the tide results in unfair bouts that are based on luck (actually landing the move) as opposed to skill. If the instant kill hit is missed, then the player can't use Overdrive attacks. Still it doesn't excuse the fact that three-second battles are no fun to play, even though each instant kill move takes fighting game graphical and conceptual excess to new heights.
Interestingly enough, most of the 20 characters in the game are well balanced and none of them have too great of an advantage over the other. If there's one character that is severely handicapped, it is the obligatory "slow but strong" character, now in the form of Potemkin. All the characters in the game move at a much quicker pace than he can. And since the gameplay is based more on hyper fighting rather than dealing damage out with a minimal amount of moves, Potemkin is rendered practically useless. And Sol-Badguy, the main character of the game, is a bit too strong for anyone's britches. Not only is he incredibly fast, but his moves deal out entirely way too much damage, especially for moves that are extremely simple to do(following the Ryu template of execution).
In a refreshing display of cohesiveness, the soundtrack for the game is very consistently and very loudly driving industrial heavy metal. Trained music enthusiasts can know the difference between bad metal and good metal, which can be bad in its own way. The soundtrack's cheesy riffs and licks won't make anyone jump to buy the soundtrack, but it's a plus to hear a soundtrack sticking to its guns as if it were the stubborn old fools of AC/DC. With so many composers making poor attempts to diversify the soundscape of their game (and their resume), it's nice to hear a game that doesn't have any "hot mixes" or wannabe MIDI reggae jams.
Alas, the game is sometimes too hyperactive for its own good. While it's fun watching Zappa writhe in agony as arms grow out of him and attack in a short instant, it's also confusing to see what is actually going on in the battle. Zappa's case is the most confusing; since every move he does causes him to scream and twist in ways humans weren't meant to twist, it looks like everything you do causes you to take damage. And in the heat of battle with sparks literally flying all over the screen, it's difficult to see what you are landing on and what is being landed on you. Even with other characters, the case remains the same. The most basic of moves calls for needlessly elaborate animations that make you scratch your head. Applause must be made for attempting to make the game look as unique as possible, but doing so at the expense of coherence isn't the right way to go.
However, I have willingly played the game for hours at the expense of my thumbs, which ache after every session I had with GGX2. Normally a run-of-the-mill fighting game wouldn't have an effect, because of the rolling motions of the special moves. But because this game causes you to react while you're taking damage, and damn near every other instance you're fighting, it forces your thumbs to be in a constant state of motion. My sore thumbs are a testament to the excited nature of this game, a fine example of original character design and tight, intuitive gameplay. The amount of thought and creativity that went into the artistic direction of the series pays off in the end because of a deep fighting engine that borrows shamelessly from other games before it. Hopefully, subsequent 2D fighting games, unfortunately a dying genre, will take a lesson from Guilty Gear X2 in designing tight gameplay engines and original premises. But maybe this game can keep its cross-dressing boy nuns, perverted ghosts and half-naked, fully developed three-year-olds.