A cup of coffee is a cup of coffee, or is it? After all, the way to make one is basically the same any way you look at it—some ground-up beans, some hot water, and there you go. But really, even though coffee is basically the same across the world, different recipes and intricate variations can create unique flavors and new sensations. The same could be said for fighting games. Although The Con doesn't completely reinvent the genre, its personality and essence are robust enough to make it stand out from the crowd like a challenging cup of small-café Vietnamese in an ocean of too-familiar Starbucks.
Starting at the most basic level of design, The Con eschews tradition and goes with an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective somewhat similar to the classic Punch-Out boxing titles found on the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Super Nintendo. This view lends a very up-close feel that never materializes in most fighters, the standard side-view or distanced third-person preventing players from really getting it on in a visceral way. Here, it definitely felt personal.
The fights themselves are rough and gritty, partially from the viewpoint and partially because the engine itself is not as polished and reflexive as something that hews more closely to standard lines. The control feels loose, and little split-second delays creep in often. Still, once I was able to learn to play the game on its own terms, there was much satisfaction to be had by landing a few solid blows that rocked my opponent instead of the surreal 374-hit combo flurries that seem to be standard fare.
Reinforcing this pared-down back-to-the-streets approach, the heart of the game centers on dodging and weaving. It's just as important to get out of the way as it is to strike when an opportunity presents itself, and in this respect The Con reminds me of some fights I've been in myself—messy, chaotic struggles while trying to look for a clear shot.
Though The Con's take on fighting is already fairly unusual, the other significant ingredient adding to the recipe is the one alluded to in the title; gambling and cheating. In The Con, success is measured in money as well as victories. On the road to amassing the game's goal of $100,000, sometimes it's wiser to bet on the opponent and lose than it is to play straight and collect a tiny pot.
For example, starting a match strong meant that spectators bet on me. Putting up resistance but eventually throwing the match by taking heavy damage on purpose led to big rewards. Working the system in reverse led to heftier payoffs, too.
However, although I think the element of using spectators and trying to fool "the crowd" is an original one, in practice I think it fell short of what it could have been. The meter measuring whether or not the crowd was buying my performance is too harsh, and there were several times when legitimately trying to win led to failure, lost money, and injuries to my character because the game incorrectly thought I was faking. Using the "con" system is also difficult at higher levels due to the intensity of the fights, and I soon stopped trying to work it altogether in favor of surviving.
"Conning" aside, the game gets it right where it counts and is noteworthy by being so different—it won't ever be mistaken for a Street Fighter clone, that's for sure. The game's story mode is surprisingly lengthy and emphasizes building stats for what will eventually become a stable of three player-controlled fighters. It also helps that there's a robust character creation system in place, instilling a good feeling of ownership and pride in taking a character to the top. Everything from clothing to facial details can be manipulated, and it's possible to completely redesign the types of attacks and combos at-will. For players like me who enjoy small details and customization, The Con offers a lot.
Although there is a lot to like, it must be said that the technical side of the game needs some work. Not only does the control need to be a bit tighter as I mentioned earlier, The Con suffers from long load times that dilute the intensity of the experience. Loading between matches is chunkier than expired Jif, and just going into the shop or making changes to my character resulted in a lot of waiting around. Patience is definitely required at times, and a sequel should make reducing these gaps in gameplay a priority.
Despite the roughness and ever-present loadtimes, I can honestly say that The Con took me by surprise by being more interesting and engaging than I would have expected. As a fighting game fan, the freshness of its approach is very welcome and the fact that it's on the PSP is a huge plus—it's actually a legitimate reason to lug the shiny black brick around… and besides, any game that lets me create a plus-sized southern girl with leather chaps and diamond-studded brass knuckles is all right by me.