Watanabe Seisakujo, for those who do not know, is a doujinshi software group; they make video games which pay homage to other games and their characters... largely from the very Japanese genres of dating simulations and visual novels. What sets these guys apart from the hordes of other fan-software groups that exist is the amazing quality of their work, which rivals the best games from major companies like Capcom, Atlus, and SNK/Playmore. Therefore, when I first saw the flash movies which preceded the release of their coming game Glove on Fight, I immediately thought about how unique a fighting engine they must have in store for us, how interesting the look and feel will be of these deranged-looking-but-cute anime characters throwing fists, animals, cars, robots, and asteroids at each other. After falling in love with nearly every one of the group's releases since The Queen of Heart 98, I was anticipating a fighting game which would blow the socks off my feet and split my sides with its parody.
I got a boxing game.
A unique boxing game, a funny boxing game, a refined boxing game... but a boxing game nonetheless. There are plenty of super meter draining moves, but a mere handful of special attacks. There are traditional life bars, but merely emptying the opponent's life bar does not knock the fighter out. While you can parry and dodge, not a single character is capable of jumping. This game engine was so different from what I expected... and yet, so very good. So good, it's a shame that it just doesn't have the lasting power I expected out of the people that put Party's Breaker and The Queen of Heart 99 in our PCs.
The controls are simple and easy. A gives you a light attack, B a strong attack, and C a dodge. You can move or dash left and right and also use the joypad to change the type of punches A and B throw out. There are some fireball moves, some half circle moves, some down-down moves (all using the C button) which drain a super meter and unleash a super attack. And that's the game. Attack when the opponent is open to attacks, dodge or dash out of the way of incoming attacks, and that's it. You don't need to know combos, because there really aren't any of consequence. This game is ALL about timing. Timing your attacks. Timing your dodges.
And it's beautiful. It's so simple that a newcomer can easily get into a match and know what to do and possibly do well, yet it's not so simple that knowing the character's move selection isn't helpful. It's simplicity points the player directly at what exactly was the mistake made that led to defeat, taking away a large bit of the frustration factor the can invade the single-player fighting game. The simplicity helps every character feel balanced, manageable by players of all skill levels. Even with the simple control scheme, each character has a unique set of moves which wonderfully convey the personality of the character. The game play is among the most refined I've seen. It's not the deepest or flashiest or fastest... but is one gorgeously polished gem of a game engine to be found today...
It's unfortunate that it does not have the longevity of previous titles from Watanabe Seisakujo. The Queen of Heart 98 had 13 characters to choose from. The 1999 version sported an impressive 35 characters. Party's Break (QOH 2001) went back to a still solid 13 character lineup. Glove on Fight... has 8 characters, 5 of these initially selectable. While these are very well done characters, taken from a variety of sources, with well-thought and often fun attack repertoires, it's still only 8 characters. This state of affairs is affected even further that there is little to the concept of mastering individual characters in this game, thanks to the consitency of play between characters brought on by the simple game engine. Once you've beaten this game a few times, there is little more to wring out of the game play.
The graphics are extremely well done. The art can be a bit jarring to those who are not veterans of anime/manga, but the consistency of it all, propelled by fluid character animation and inspired design give this game some of the finest 2D ever. Even the most simple elements of the game, like the menu, which is blatantly taken from the Street Fighter III Dreamcast game, or the character-unique continue and game over screens, are lovingly rendered. From the slow shuffle of a herd of penguins to the white Toyota that crashes through the battle during a special move, this is truly fine work that raises Watanabe Seisakujo's already high standards of 2D art. The only thing I might possibly wish for is background animation, but with the lack of stage scrolling, it seems the omission of background animation may have been a very good decision.
The music is unlike any other game from the group... and that's a good thing. From techno to rap(!) to bubbly Japanese pop complete with bubbly Japanese female vocals(!!), Glove on Fight's soundtrack is not only varied, but also extremely well produced. Considering how far a departure this sound track is from their effort on Party's Breaker, which is decent if somewhat uninteresting, I am happy to hear how completely on the mark the entirety of the music is in this game. These tracks fit extremely well with the visuals, slightly jarring changes in musical approach providing a perfect complement to the slightly jarring graphics that flash on screen. The audio is equally solid, though not quite so daring. The sound effects of robots, cars, explosions, and fists smacking flesh are well done, but the game lacks voices to reinforce the personalities of these well-drawn characters.
After playing this game off and on for nearly two months, I still find myself turning to Queen of Heart 99 and Party's Breaker. Half of the reason for this is the greater depth of the fighting engine in these games. The other half is the sheer amount of characters these games provide. While the quality of Glove on Fight's game engine shines in the face of its simplicity and the technical components are simply excellent, the game's lack of characters seriously hampers the long-term enjoyment one will get from this title. Still, this is a beautiful game and if you can find it (Yahoo Auctions Japan is a good place to look) it is well worth getting from across the Pacific.