I must confess that the review you are about to read concerns one of my favourite games of recent times, so you will have to bear with an excessive volume of superlatives. That being said, Eternal Fighter Zero deserves all the superlatives that I can muster; it’s simply that good.
Doujin games always have it in the details, whether in parodies or gameplay mechanics. Indeed, it is the hardcore fanboy’s eye for details that often makes doujin games feel so complete; the people who make these games are making the game that they want to play. I imagine that the people powering these projects are nothing short of uber-geeks, gamers and artists who work consumed with the vision of their idolatry. For this we must thank them.
Out of the ever-colorful doujin game scene came Eternal Fighter Zero (EFZ), surely the gold standard for doujin fighting games today. The project had been worked on for a few years, with regular releases of trial versions that became more polished with each revision. When New Year’s of 2001 rolled around and version 1.00 of EFZ was released, I eagerly installed and started up my copy.
When I saw that it failed to consume my remaining 1GB of hard disk space and did not crash on startup due to my ATI video card, I was gripped.
Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.
Anyway, I was once again met with the same, somewhat bland title menus. Then, I selected “Vs. CPU”… only instead of being greeted with the silence found in the demos, a thumping, energetic song blasted out of my speakers.
I was excited, truly excited. Considering that these days it seems that Viagra might be required to get me excited over a game, that EFZ managed to do that alone deserves commendation.
But it only got better. The wonderful special effects, loving sprite work, and nicely covered songs from the source games grabbed me instantly. And in a remarkable turn that truly shows the connection with the community, the loading screens are all made by various fans and other doujin groups, some are even plugs for other projects! Many of the illustrations are very well done, but what stands out as a true display of this game’s incredible heart is the inclusion of merely so-so drawings; artwork that is nevertheless done by the fans. This unique touch combined with the already excellent visuals in-game speaks volumes about the care and dedication that went into EFZ.
We need some pyro…
I could just say that this game looks great and move on. Instead, I will gush further.
EFZ looks great. The special effects used in the game seem largely prerendered, but the amount of detail and animation in them is exquisite. One needs only to witness the intricacy of the blue explosion produced when Mio throws a card at the ground to see the incredible quality of their work: easily on level with the likes of Capcom vs SNK 2, and in position for positive comparison with the Guilty Gear games. But EFZ isn’t merely a special effects powerhouse; it’s a showcase of sprite work. The character sprites are much larger, more detailed and more colorful as well as being less pixelicious than those of the famed Queen of Heart games, though perhaps not bearing quite as much detail in their animation compared to Melty Blood. That’s not to say that the animation is poor, as it’s still extremely fluid. The sprites are very well drawn, full of life and motion, and watching the girls do comically modified versions of familiar moves from other fighting games, or lampooning other games or anime adds to their lighthearted quality. The backgrounds are quite decent, with Ayu’s standing out as one of the best crafted due to its use of perspective; it’s drawn so that it converges as you go up it, giving the impression of incredible height.
Alright, enough gushing about how it looks; how does it play? The answer is, thankfully, as good as it looks. EFZ, like many other doujin fighting games, features gameplay that borrows generously from previous fighting games, particularly the Guilty Gear series. Is this just a tribute to all those fighting games (or perhaps a tribute the long and sometimes sordid history of fighting games ripping each other off…), or a lack of creativity? I’m guessing the former, since this is a game that is after all, made by fans, albeit very talented ones. In EFZ you have your double jumps, air dashes, running attacks, chain combos, Just Defends, air blocks, etc. The unique system lies in the separation of the super/tension/etc gauges into “Reinforce” and “Eterny SP” meters. The “Eterny SP” is just your standard Capcom 3-level super meter. The “Reinforce” meter is a whole different animal; like tension meter and super meter all at once. I won’t go into detail about how it fills, but suffice to say the Reinforce meter is used exclusively for powered-up versions of special moves and for Roman Cancelling a la Guilty Gear.
Heck with it all, I’ll explain the Reinforce meter. The Reinforce meter begins empty, and slowly ticks up with a blue bar, which, once full, empties and starts filling up with a red bar. Nothing can hasten the rate at which the red bar fills the meter, but getting hit will temporarily halt its progress. While it is red, performing most special moves with the Hard attack button will reset the meter and pop out a powered up version of the special move; a “Reinforced” version, if you will. Emptying the red meter will cause it to begin filling up from the beginning with a blue bar. If you let the red bar fill all the way to the top, the meter stays full with a stable, flashing blue bar: performing Reinforced moves now drain only a part of the flashing blue bar, but getting hit will drain some of it as well. Once it empties, it will begin filling up from zero with a blue bar. On top of all that, Roman Cancels can be performed with largely the same rules as in Guilty Gear, but doing so will completely empty the bar, whether it is flashing blue or red. Some may complain that in EFZ, Roman Cancels give an almost inordinate amount of time to perform the next move since the Roman Cancel freezes time momentarily. On the other hand, Roman Cancels require a large amount of meter (potentially taking a full flashing blue Reinforce meter), so the benefit for performing one deserves to be great. The separation of super meter from Reinforce meter also allows you to do nice looking combos involving a mix of supers and Reinforced moves; even supers into supers if you can! Also, since the rate at which it fills is time-based, it makes it very difficult to create overpowering combos involving multiple Roman Cancels… difficult, but not impossible, and that’s how it should be.
There are also some clever design choices in some of the game mechanics. For instance, when a player is launched or otherwise hit in mid air, a bar appears beneath the sprite indicating the victim’s juggleable state; once it ticks down to nothing, the player can no longer be juggled. Perhaps in order to preserve some amount of mystique in the juggle system, there are still occasions when a player can be juggled even though the bar does not appear… There is no guard crushing per say, instead EFZ uses a GGXX-styled system where excessive blocking will give the attack a damage bonus, indicated by a meter that appears beneath the defending player. However, players cannot be killed by block damage; no cheesy chip finishes, no matter the emphasis on offence. Also, rounds in EFZ have no timer, thus all matches are to the death: no victories by running the clock here.
The characters of the game are a nicely varied bunch. From Mio, who has two completely different sets of normal/special/super attacks depending on what mode she is in, to the erratic drunken master Nayuki, you’ll never feel bored with the cast of EFZ. The characters spoof fighting games, various anime/manga, pay tribute to their own source material, and through all the insanity manage to convey a solid feel as fighting game characters with variety. Unlike more recent Capcom fighters featuring 4 or more shotokans all possessing fireball/dragon punch/hurricane kick (Ryu, Ken, Dan, Akuma…), no two characters in EFZ are that much alike.
Some players are bound to balk at the presence of only 3 attack buttons (excluding the 4th special button that not all characters use). I’m guessing that this was a practical measure on the development side rather than a tribute to the original schoolgirl fighter Asuka 120%. After all, each additional attack requires unique animation for every character as well as gameplay balancing, and for an indie project that is no small task. Nevertheless, the game never feels incomplete with only these 3 attack buttons as no normal attack for any character is useless. And while you may think that the game ought to be a largely familiar experience considering the derivative nature of much of the game mechanics and character moves, the solid implementation of the particular systems selected combined with the fascinating, often hilarious cast proves otherwise. This game is, for lack of a better term, fun.
Although EFZ lacks network/internet play, it does allow for match recording (and therefore combo/technique recording) and also makes use of that most wonderful/hated feature that PCs and hard drives allow: patching. The creators of EFZ have maintained close contact with the fan community, and release patches adding balancing tweaks, new moves, AI improvements, sometimes even new characters and game mechanics. We’ll probably never see Capcom release a patch for CvS 2 Live that will give players incentive to get their hands off the Fierce punch and Roundhouse kick buttons, but if the EFZ team finds something that needs fixing, it’ll be fixed. And since they love to add yet more tributes to other games with each patch, and are loathe to hurt their game, I’ve yet to see a patch that has been anything but enormously positive. Let me just say that in the latest patch, the boss gains a super that can only adequately be described with these two words: Radiant Sword. I think that says enough.
Oh wait, I have to add minuses. On the extreme side of patching, EFZ Blue Sky Edition, (BSE; no, not Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy!) which adds in the three girls from the dating sim AIR showed the dark side of patching: though the developers announced that the release was still quite beta, some characters were so incomplete they even lacked some basic normal attacks! But a few patch versions later, the three are quite complete, with one of them possessing a dazzling array of spells drawn from Ragnarok Online.
A true eternal does exist here…
And so here we are today, with the most complete version of EFZ yet, boasting 13 (16 if you have BSE) exquisitely crafted, very balanced playable characters (and one non-playable boss). The latest patch was just released on April 20, so you can be sure that developer support for this game isn’t fading in the least. Even though the genre of 2D fighting is extremely niche these days, doujin games like EFZ are affirmations to those that still believe there will be life left in the genre after all the commercial companies abandon it. EFZ is more than simply an achievement; it is a triumph.
Graphics: 9/10 – somewhat dull menus, a questionable design change for the player select screen in BSE, and some static backgrounds detract from the memorable sprites and special effects.
Audio: 9/10 – the game lacks voices, but the sound effects and music are perfect.
Gameplay: 9.5/10 – this game has plenty of depth and complexity for the hardcore, while providing a fast-paced, rush-oriented style of play. Fun moves and varied and ever more balanced characters are a huge plus.
Replay: 9/10 – there isn’t much in the way of special single player gameplay modes, but it has the replay characteristic of a good fighting game: infinite if you have competition… and there’s always more tricks to learn and discover. The recordable replays only add more.
Accessibility: 8.5/10 – Great graphics and 3 buttons make this a much more appealing package to the non-hardcore. The casual player may have trouble coming to grips with some of the game systems, but they’re not required in order to have fun. Low system requirements and solid compatibility with common hardware (works fine with ATI Rage Pro and GeForce2MX; that’s most of the legacy market…) and non-Japanese windows are a major plus. Nevertheless, it IS still a 2D fighting game.
Pros: Almost everything. Also doesn’t demand 800+MB of hard disk space and a new computer to run.
Cons: No voices unless you download voice packs (which are done by other fans, and aren’t great at the moment), and Blue Sky Edition must be bought for the full experience.
Fan-made voice packs for a fan-made game. That’s uber-fandom, one fandom above another.