I have something of a slightly shameful gaming secret that needs bringing out into the open: I have a huge (and mostly undeserved) soft spot for Takara’s 3D fighting game series, [Battle Arena] Toshinden. The original was one of my first Playstation purchases (I’m sure many other early adopters can say the same thing), and in that crucial launch window it was the proof gaming needed that 3D graphics backed up by redbook audio really was the future after so many false starts (remember the CDi? CD32? 3DO? Jaguar? and all those other “in-between” consoles?). Toshinden may not have been fit to stand in the shadow of (the arcade version of) its direct competitor at the time – Virtua Fighter – but in perhaps the most perfect demonstration of the importance of good timing ever, at home Toshinden would always be the very best version of a hot new game (Textures! Fingers!) simply because no other existed, whereas Saturn Virtua Fighter could, at best, look like an imperfect port of a soon to be outdated game.
It’s fair to say that by today’s standards the original Toshinden’s a little short on… OK let’s not pretend otherwise – quality – but there’s a certain sincerity to its efforts, the translucent details and 3D arenas boasting specific polygonal details in an era where most would show an endless flat wasteland were genuinely impressive for the time and for many it would be their first real brush with next-generation gaming. To witness that raw power in your own living room then realise this was running on the cheaper of the two new wave of home consoles was nothing short of mind-blowing. Not too long after that came Toshinden 2 (and unlike the first, this one debuted in arcades): It was definitely better but still not, y’know, good, and then in 1996 – and only in Japan – this bizarre excuse for a game, Nitoshinden.
That’s right, in the same year every Playstation owner on the planet was busy getting to grips with Tekken 2, Takara decided to plop out this soggy reply to the burning question nobody ever asked: What if Toshinden was set in a school?
The colourful illustration on the packaging topped off with a bouncy font imply you’re in for some sort of wacky school-based rough-n-tumble with a slimmed-down and cute’d-up version of Toshinden 2’s cast – maybe it’ll have some daft Ehrgeiz-like minigames or give everyone comedy weapons, anything to add a casual slice of goofy fun to the action. It turns out the game’s more like Sonic The Fighters after being thoroughly scrubbed of all its charm. And depth. And any sort of vague hint of a decent game holding it all together. Oh no.
Now I couldn’t honestly claim that Nitoshiden is the worst game I’ve ever played, but it’s definitely the worst game I’ve ever played that felt like it was having a laugh at my expense before the title screen turned up.
The game opens with an FMV sequence showing real people dressed up as the game characters, as was briefly the fashion of the time. Look, real people! Real people in a game! There’s been some serious effort put into making this first impression look as good as possible; it’s all flashing steel, serious faces, and lots of deep shadows – great! Unfortunately that’s all undermined just a bit by the English title each character’s been given: “Princess of Slight Fever” (Ellis), “Melt Down Lover” (Sofia) and “Flying Lunch Boy” (Eiji) being my personal favourites. I have absolutely no idea what they were going for there, but at least they’re so wrong you wonder if you ever saw them at all instead of them being a sloppy typo or a simple mistake that should’ve been picked up before the video was given the all-clear. Anyway this all goes on for an industry-standard length of time introducing each character in turn doing twirly in-character motions and stoic poses… and then there’s a cheap screen-smash effect as the moody group silhouette is replaced by a cheap render of the cast’s new squished-down game form and the jolly balloon-writing title kicks in. Perhaps it’s meant to be a joke. Perhaps I’m supposed to be laughing at the sudden shift in tone. But – especially when considering the quality of the game you end up playing – it feels like the game’s shouting “HAHA SORRY DID YOU THINK YOU WERE ABOUT TO PLAY A DECENT GAME” while it slaps you around the face with a big wet fish. The most bizarre thing is this jarring video wasn’t a cost-cutting exercise, cleverly recycling previously unused footage from Toshinden 2’s similar live-action intro to quickly generate a bit of excitement without breaking the bank, this sequence was made specifically for Nitoshinden. Or to put it another way: They did this on purpose.
It’s all downhill from here, right down to the way everything’s organised on the main menu. The default mode is… the tutorial? I know. I suppose I’d better talk about that first, seeing as Takara themselves seemed to want that to be your first port of call.
It’s… uh… it’s basic, and sadly not in the good “teaching you the fundamentals” kind of way either. There’s not much to Nitoshinden anyway so I’m not sure why they felt the need to willingly expose their game’s innate shallowness in this way nor make it the thing you’re most likely to accidentally click on when booting the game, but here we are. There are four short videos on offer covering movement, attacking, basic techniques, and defense, all presented by Nitoshinden character Rika and her equally peppy voice actor, Rika (Ha! Very clever, Takara). You learn very little here that’s not already adequately described in the manual, which only goes to make its prominence even more baffling – this isn’t like Last Bronx‘s extended tutorial mode, using unique sprites, voice work, and going into so much depth it came on its own Japan-only Saturn disc. Why they bothered with this yet didn’t think to include a practise mode is beyond me.
Get to the parts you can play (the game features the usual story, vs com, and two player modes) and it only takes a couple of rounds before some noticeable corner-cutting rears its unwelcome head. Everyone has just one pose each for winning and losing, something that just shouldn’t happen in a game that’s trying to sell itself on being a sweet-n-squidgy spinoff of a reasonably popular (at the time) series. Games like this – like Virtua Fighter Kids and it’s goldfish-bowl version of Dural, like Pocket Fighter‘s oodles of nods to other Capcom games big and small – thrive on being personality-fuelled dollops of goofy fun: Nitoshinden however is a game decides to bung its cast in a school then doesn’t even bother giving them a school uniform to wear. In fact the school theme really is only apparent in the manual, the loading screens, a few backgrounds… OK two backgrounds, really (unless schools have started building packed concert arenas and elaborate churches for themselves since I last went) and in the ending cutscenes (these are sadly just a few static hand-drawn images – I was hoping for another ridiculous shift back to the realistic FMV style from the intro). You’d honestly struggle to pinpoint the theme just from looking at (or playing) the game.
Even the character models – something of a highlight in mainline Toshiden games – are physically ugly here. Big heads? Fine. I still miss “Big Head Mode” cheats. Big hands and feet? These have been proven useful time and time again – just look at any NGPC fighting game. The trouble these extremities are connected to each other by strangely spindly limbs attached to an equally emaciated torso, and it just looks wrong. They stretch and distort as you fight in an attempt at cartoon-like morphing and arena walls will wobble like jelly if you pause the game or win (presumably to show off the “quality” of Takara’s “HyperSolid” polygon-wielding abilities mentioned on the first page of the manual) – all effects that are probably very technically impressive if discussed between programmers – but they never come across as truly stylish to the person looking at them.
On the subject of questionable artistic decisions used in a cute game set in a school – why does Sofia’s ample chest wobble like a fighter applying for a guest slot on Dead or Alive? And why does Toshinden 2’s secret boss Vermilion (or “Verm”, when the character limit won’t allow for their full name) show up for a scrap after the credits roll (only for those able to clear the game without continuing) brandishing a gun? However you feel about the presence of black clad firearm-using men in fictional educational settings (and to be fair to Nitoshinden, Vermilion’s stage is about as non-school-y as they come) he just doesn’t fit the friendly beginner’s theme the game seems to be aiming for – and when so many other characters were left out (including the Ken to Eiji’s Ryu, Kayin) you have to wonder what on Earth made them think he was the best fighter to go for.
I haven’t said much about the fighting itself yet simply because there’s not much to say: Nitoshinden’s a pale imitation of its already feature-light self, and the few attacks you do have feel totally compartmentalised with no flow between them. Combos literally do not exist here – I can see that, and I can’t play fighting games for toffee. I can tolerate something that eschews conventional fisticuff polish in exchange for a bit of fun weirdness – Psychic Force is one example (as is the original Toshinden) – but this is far below that. I have Game Boy fighters – by Takara! – with a better sense of weight and rhythm than this. I’ve played Amiga fighters – those “two button joystick recommended but optional” jobs that make you swap floppies for ten minutes to fight for thirty seconds, with more depth than this. Nitoshinden is a title nobody asked for made by people who don’t know why they’re making this game.
The game never needed to be a must-have fighter that left everything else for dust; just a fun way to spend half an hour would have suited me, or if it had been as wonky as it is but bursting with charming details – if it had had silly unlockable costumes (there aren’t any) or daft minigames to pass the time with (none exist) I’d have been happy. It doesn’t even work as a tribute to itself – there are no humorous cameos from absent cast members, no background details to look out for – there’s nothing in here for fans of the series on any level, “real” fighting game fans will find the game to be an affront to everything they know, and newcomers hoping for an entry-level game to ease themselves into the genre will learn nothing about even the most basic aspects of 3D fighting from this game.
At least we only had to wait a year for Capcom’s Rival Schools to hit arcades and show the world the true potential of school-themed fighting, and the relative obscurity of Nitoshinden means anyone with fond memories of the first two games is unlikely to come across this drivel unless they deliberately seek it out.