This review originally appeared in E58, May 1998.
It the dawn of the 32bit console age there were few reasons more compelling to buy a new machine than Sega’s Virtua Fighter and Namco’s riposte – Tekken. After the long dominance of Capcom’s Street Fighter series on the Mega Drive and SNES, fighting game fans had the luxury of picking between two titles that not only utilised 3D technology, but were also of outstanding quality. Three years later the Saturn is all but deceased, and Virtua Fighter 3 may never see a home format release. Meanwhile, Namco’s beat ‘em up has now reached its third PlayStation incarnation, packed with additional gameplay features designed to augment the already unbeatable play experience.
By setting this new installment two decades after Tekken 2, Namco has given its designers the chance to start over with the characters, although some past favourites (or their similarly skilled children) have made an appearance. Thankfully, it elected not to tamper with the easily understood ‘one button, one limb’ control system.
While it was expected that Tekken 3 would be a significant step-on from the previous game in the series, quite how much the development team has achieved doesn’t become apparent until play commences. Though the game has been available as a coin-op title for some time, in that form only the wealthiest players will have discovered all of Tekken 3’s secrets. The videogames industry has misappropriated the term ‘arcade perfect’ too many times for it to have any real meaning, but Namco’s game comes very close to deserving that tag. Animation is not simply smooth but incredibly detailed, with motion capture used extensively to bring the fighters to life. Watching the Bruce Lee-replicant, Law bounce tensely around the arena, shifting his weight from foot to foot is a sight and joy to behold in itself. Other protagonists, including newcomers such as the breakdancing Eddy, have received an equal amount of attention to their movements.
The motion capture is aided and abetted by an increase in the number of polygons used to mould each fighter. Playing Tekken 2 back-to-back with 3 provides ample evidence of the advances made in the game’s graphics – without the assistance of a hardware add-on that had been mooted during the game’s gestation. Characters as depicted in the second iteration – ones that seemed, at the time, to represent the peak of the PlayStation’s abilities – seem blocky and lifeless in comparison to those in the third. Additional lighting effects are also employed throughout to spice up the action, although the chief beneficiary of these is Yoshimitsu, now equipped with a glowing sword.
Namco’s musicians have also been given ample opportunity to demonstrate their talents. Few titles stream such suitable tunes so seamlessly into the action, and even fewer can claim their music as bespoke.
A comparison of the two titles also reveals the progress made with Tekken’s AI routines. On harder difficulty settings in one-player mode, opponents will adapt to, predict and shrug off repeated use of a single move with alarming ease. Increasingly unpredictable opponents are clearly the way forward for fighting games, within reasonable limits: a real fighter would be unbeatable if he could predict his opponent’s next move.
The differences between the 22 characters that Edge has discovered are far more marked than in Tekken 2. Although many of the ‘new’ additions are simply developments of past favourites, a great deal of effort has clearly been expended by the developers to ensure that the balance between fighters’ skills is even. Each of the combatants is now a strong character is its own right, with only the aforementioned Eddy favouring a ‘press-all-the-buttons-and-see’ approach.
Those familiar with the Tekken’s patterns and moves will probably find this third interpretation less of a challenge than a player fresh to the fray. In order to offer its die-hard followers a fresh element, Namco has given both the initial selection of characters, and those that appear as ‘prizes’, a major overhaul. While familiar basic attacks maintain the same key combinations, others – most notably throws – have been made less accessible. As a result, even the most experienced fans will need to re-learn some of the movements, which is no bad thing. The simple hits that could be performed after opponents had been knocked down have also been purged; there are assaults that can be employed against prone foes, but these are now harder to access. A greater emphasis on juggles (where repeated strikes can keep adversaries airborne and defenceless) is also noticeable throughout the game, with new attacks included to assist their use.
Away from technical gameplay aspects, newcomers to the Tekken cult will find a game that remains one of the most accessible beat ‘em ups ever devised. Its extensive practice modes enable players to rehearse more complicated moves at their leisure, with the majority of each character’s attacks listed in an easily unfurled sub-menu. Additionally, Namco’s developers have included an all-encompassing selection of play modes, covering everything from standard ‘Arcade’, ‘Time Attack’, ‘Survival’ and ‘Versus’ settings to the more oblique ‘Team Battle’ and ‘Tekken Force’. This last option is a sub-game that requires the player to battle along a sideways scrolling play area, defeating hordes of shadowy foes, much like the seminal Double Dragon. As a bonus, completing a certain amount of the Arcade mode reveals an additional ‘Tekken Ball’ game, which is essentially volleyball crossed with karate – and very enjoyable.
With Metal Gear Solid on its way, Gran Turismo imminent in Europe, and now Tekken 3, 1998 looks set to be a golden year for the PlayStation. With Tekken 3, Namco has left its competitors an imposing target to beat; the new play modes, advances in AI and character design made in development are far more significant than those in the second iteration of the series. Edge’s only – slight – reservation is that those who have played Tekken 2 to the point of exhausting all enthusiasm for the game may not find this new version initially appealing. Those prodigal sons should persevere, as even a short sequence of bouts will bring the reward of instant addiction. Make no mistake, the master has returned.