The 2-D "versus" genre hit its critical peak with the release of Street Fighter III back in 1997. Since then, I don't think another 2-D fighter has ever matched up to the aforementioned title in terms of complex game mechanics (parrying, anyone?) or pure technical prowess (the game's characters apparently have the most number of frames per animation ever featured in such a game). Even so, the success of Street Fighter II formula compels the market (it didn't help that SFIII was a commercial disappointment) and new 2-D fighters keep getting released, each one trying to outdo the other. Capcom's Marvel vs. Capcom series set the bar for the new age of 2-D fighting games featuring gorgeous hand drawn characters coupled with special effects laden battles and lightning fast gameplay. To capitalize on the success of this particular spin-off, relatively unknown developer Arc Systems released Guilty Gear in 1998—their own version of the mind-blowing 2-D fighter game.
In 2001 both SFIII and Marvel vs. Capcom were no more—but Guilty Gear still stood with a brand new dazzling entry in its franchise. Released on September 30, 2001 for the PS2; Guilty Gear X is a port of a Dreamcast title released year earlier. The game itself is actually a direct sequel to Guilty Gear for the PS1. But I guess the developers didn't want it to be a proper sequel, so they called it X to connote it as a spinoff or something like that. It was advertised as the most technically advanced 2-D fighter to hit the market. It follows the Marvel vs. Capcom formula of easy as pie chain combo strings and over-the-top super moves which usually cover most of the screen. I mean, that's not a bad thing, but it does mean that Guilty Gear X was far from the next evolution in 2-D fighting that some advocates were trying to make it out to be.
But despite Guilty Gear X's blatant unoriginality, there is something just appealing about how it tries so hard to be "cool". The charisma and energy the game exudes through its art design and stylish presentating is undisputably attractive. To put it simply…Guilty Gear X grows on you. Once you get past its uncanny game mechanics, you will begin to be hypnotized by the sheer mind-blowing beauty of the presentation.
As stated before, despite its misleading title, Guilty Gear X is a direct sequel to the Guilty Gear game on the PS1. Some time has passed since the climactic events of the first game (specifically the defeat of Justice, the super mutant). Reports of a new super-Gear (technologically advanced super soldiers) have arisen in the land of…??? Therefore all the Gears from around the neighborhood have banded together in a tournament to see who is the strongest and able to beat this new contestant. It's not much of a backstory, and sadly it kind of stays that way throughout the rest of the game. Taking from a cue from Marvel vs. Capcom 2, there are really no character stories to accompany the arcade mode. When a player beats the game with a particular character, he gets rewarded with a single illustrated frame of that character doing something that somehows ties into his/her story arc, but that's it. No dialogue between stages or at the end and no explanation as to who these characters are and what their individual motives for fighting are (actually that's in the instructions). To be fair, that's not really too different from what early PS2 fighting games like Tekken Tag Tournament were doing with their short, short nonsensical ending skits. However, given that we've seen the potential for detailed character interactions and beefy plot finales explored in games like Street Fighter Alpha 3, it's still kind of disappointing.
But the core of any fighting game is the action itself and this is where Guilty Gear X is really put to the test. Similar to SNK fighting games and the Tekken titles, there are only four attack buttons in Guilty Gear X: punch, kick, slash, and heavy slash. Punches are obviously the weakest, but they are a good setup for chain combos, and obviously heavy slashes do the most damage. The reason the last two attack buttons are "slashes" is because every character in Guilty Gear X has a weapon of some kind or another, whether it be a katana, a big steam powered firebrand, scythes, an oversized scalpel, metal knuckles, or even deadly hair! Like Marvel vs. Capcom, each character has a super meter, here known as a "tension" gauge. When the Tension gauge is ½ way full, the character can execute a devastating super attack that usually robs the enemy of at least 1/3rd of their health (preferably ½). The tension gauge can also be used for other purposes too, like executing counterattacks or canceling one attack into another.
Let's discuss combos. Like the Marvel vs. Capcom series before it, Guilty Gear X is very heavy on "create your own combo" chain combos. Light attacks like punches and kicks can easily be mixed into more substantial attacks like the slashes. The game also has the strangest air combo system I've ever seen in a versus-style game.Basically the player can "launch" the enemy into the air by pressing slash and hard slash simultaneously. If this launch moves connects, the enemy will go spinning off into the stratosphere and the player has to press "up" to send his character flying after. When he does pursue his opponent in the air, the background turns into a epilepsy inducing kaleidoscopic mixture of orange and white colors. Here the player can perform his air combat until he or the opponent, hit the ground again, wherein everything reverts back to normal.
I found it really bizarre. It's bad enough that the character has to perform a specific attack just to launch the character, but then we get a completely unnecessary change of scenery usually reserved for something more spectacular (like a super attack). In addition the air combos in this game are just SLOW. In the MvC games the player had to be fast when executing air combos because he had to keep juggling the opponent before he hit the ground. In this game, the opponent is literally SPINNING up and up and up and the player has all the time in the world to pursue them and whack at them with whatever he feels is appropriate. This doesn't mean air combos are easy though—by the contrary, because they're so slow, the player has to know exactly what buttons to press in quick succession in order to get them to flow into each other. Otherwise he'll start to execute a combo, mess up and the game won't be moving fast enough to let him make up for his goof (whereas in the MvC games you could usually just mash away at the buttons to stop the opponent from hitting the ground).
Finally there are the "instant kill" maneuvers. In the first game, this was an INCREDIBLY unbalanced system. Not only where the instant kills easy to pull off, and could be pulled off at any time, but also the player was REWARDED with a bonus for doing so every time he killed an enemy with an instant kill. . Thankfully such a system has been done away with here. Instant kills are still available and still a little easy to pull off, but their frequency has been toned down significantly. Now the player has to have a filled tension gauge bar to use them. But he can't use them immediately—first he has to activate his "instant kill" mode or something by pressing all 4 attack buttons simultaneously. Once his character begins to glow, all the player has to do is input a quick command the character will perform the instant kill attack. If it connects…the match is over. But if it doesn't, the player's "tension gauge" will be removed for the rest of the match and the player is completely deprived of super attacks for the rest of the fight. That seems like a pretty harsh punishment, but it's actually quite appropriate if you consider it. Why should anybody be rewarded for trying to end the match immediately?
Unfortunately Guilty Gear X is kind of shallow when it comes to the different kinds of modes the player can apply these techniques in. Aside from the aforementioned "Arcade" mode with the nonsensical closers, there's only the VERSUS, TRAINING and SURVIVAL mode. SURVIVAL mode is where the other half of the meat of the single player experience lies. Fortunately, Guilty Gear X has one of the most innovative SURVIVAL modes I've ever seen in a fighting game. Now a lot of fighting games have tried variations to the average SURVIVAL mode formula. Bushido Blade had that mode where generic opponents would pop out of sliding doors and be slain until the player would face a boss character. Dead or Alive 2 had a SURVIVAL mode where enemy after enemy would keep falling down into the arena until the player was overwhelmed. Guilty Gear X takes some of these ideas and uses it to create its own brand of survival mode where the player has a goal to reach at the end. In here, successfully damaging opponents increases the player's "survival mode level", which basically increases the difficulty of each successive opponent. Every 10 or 20 levels reached, the player will fight a boss character—usually just a pumped up version of one of the many characters in the roster. When the player reaches Level 100 and beats the final opponent, he completes SURVIVAL mode. Obviously this isn't an easy task and the AI puts up enough of a fight that even at Level 1, it can KO the player easily. But this is a good system, as its much more compelling to be receiving rewards for surviving instead of just fighting off wave after wave with no end in sight. If the Street Fighter series would adapt something like this, that would be great. Aside from SURVIVAL mode though, that's pretty much it with regards to single player options.
Another problem I have with Guilty Gear X is the inconsistent challenge presented by the AI. The original Guilty Gear had a set difficulty that could not be changed, and was notoriously challenging for it. Guilty Gear X finally implemented a proper difficulty setting, but…something must have gone wrong. Setting the game on "Beginner", the lowest setting, results in a retarded AI that's all but broken and is laughably easy to beat. But when the setting is moved up to "Easy", the AI becomes an absolute nightmare (especially on the later stages), easily finishing off my characters in my characters in little to no time flat. This is especially apparent in change in behavior of Dizzy. In "Beginner", she's just as lethargic as the rest of the opponents leading up to her, and is easily defeated by some button mashing. In "Easy", her attacks come fast and frequently, with her projectile weapons filling the stage making it very difficult to get near her. Her repertoire of "Super attacks" TRIPLES, and some, like her giant laser beam attack, can potentially reduce the player character's health to nothing in a flash. Given that there are about 5 more difficulty settings left on the counter, I don't even want to imagine what they could be like. It confounds me that the difference in challenge between "Beginner" and "Easy" is so vast—it's more like the distinction between "Beginner" and "Very Hard". It's almost like the testers forgot to check this before they let it out the door. It could be that the AI configuration from the original Guilty Gear were integrated into "Easy" mode and beyond (since the AI there was a ruthless opponent too) and "Beginner" was just implemented for this game. However maybe I'm reflecting too hard on the matter. Suffice to say, "Easy" ain't easy.
The cast of Guilty Gear X is composed of some of the craziest character designs you're likely to come across in a fighting game. Sol Badguy: Undoubtedly the protagonist of the franchise. His stats are completely balanced and he has some powerful looking special attacks to boot.
Ky Kiske: Where there is a devil, there must be an angel…or an authority figure. I originally thought Ky was the protagonist; but he's actually nowhere near Sol's reputation, who actually embodies the chaotic spirit of the franchise. Ky is balanced like Sol, but he seems to have a preference for long ranged attacks because of his oversized sword.
Jam: The resident "Chun-Li" ripoff is a cook who knows Kung Fu. Jam is actually a deadly fighter in the right hands—her forward thrusting kick attack comes out of nowhere and does incredible damage. Her "Ki Bubble" super attack is blatantly ripped from Chun-Li, but overall I find her more powerful than the aforementioned character.
Potemkin: The muscle of the cast. This guy is brutal with his fists and has no problem with range since his top torso practically envelops the whole screen. I still find his "Potemkin Buster" attack, though damaging and dramatic, to be a very sad response to Zangief's legendary pile driver move though.
Faust: A great concept…executed with one fundamental flaw. Faust is obviously the comedic character, like Dan. Thus, all his attacks tend to be focused on fooling the enemy and making jokes. The problem is that the outcome of most of these "joke" attacks is completely random (for example, Faust will blow himself up on occasion instead of the enemy), which really sabotages someone who's trying to use him competitively since the result of the attack can make the difference between life and death.
Chip Zanuff: The "Wolverine" hyper fast character who can tear the enemy to shreds in seconds. Undoubtedly he's one of the most priviledged characters simply by virtue of his speed—which makes sense in a game about lightning fast chain combos and the like. Suffice to say, he's pretty awesome and one of the best characters in the game.
Venom: Another awkward character who wields a pool stick. Most of his moves are medium speed projectile attacks with pool table balls. They do pitiful damage and move too slowly to catch the enemy off guard. His only really powerful attack is a sliding twirl with his pool stick that hits multiple times—the only problem is that you have to execute a shoryuken maneuver to perform it and it misses more often than not. His other attacks are too slow and just aren't able to compete with the strength of the other long range characters. Suffice to say, I didn't think terribly high of him.
Zato-1: This character was from the original game. He's a man possessed by a cthuhlian being which transforms him into an amorphous entity who can assume any shape he desires. Likewise most of his attacks are long range projectile moves where he sends out his shadow familiars to do the work. He reminds me a lot of Blackheart from MSHvsSF, but he's much faster and his moves combo into each other a lot easier. The fact that they cover tons of space is an extra boon.
Johnny: Besides Sol Badguy, this is the only other badass "I'm too good for you" rockstar character in the game. He carries a cane sword like Zatoichi, and his slashes cover the length of the screen. Unfortunately he's also pretty slow with his attacks, making him open most of the time.
May: A dwarf with a big anchor. Her attacks are utterly ridiculous (she summons dolphins out of thin air) and are way too fast and have too much priority. To boot she's the only character I'm aware of that can execute a super attack (summoning a giant pink whale) TWICE in a row and have it combo up. She could be excellent in the right hands, but I remember her with disdain because in the hands of the AI, she was a ruthless opponent. DOLPHINS will forever haunt my dreams…
Milia Rage: A female character who uses her hair as a weapon. I THINK she was in the original game, but I can't remember off-hand. Like Jam, she's ridiculously quick with her attacks. The only problem with her is that the power level of attacks is not that high.
Anji Mito: Another new character to the franchise—a Japanese fellow with twin fans. I…don't know what to make of this character. I mean, his design is utterly ridiculous (aren't most of these characters?), and his fan attacks, while effective, usually hit too many times and go out of the players control. In fact, his basic attacks with his fans are preferable to his special moves because they have a wider range of attack and usually do more damage.
Axl Low: Another returning character from the original game. A strange biker punk wielding twin scythes attached to each other by a long chain. He is completely long ranged focused with his attacks. His special attacks are designed to catch the enemy off-guard (usually aiming "low" for his opponent's legs).
Baiken: A female version of Tange Sazen. Baiken is almost completely melee focused and all her attacks are practically at an arm's length. To compensate for lack of long range attacks, she has a variety of defensive moves including the ability to block while dashing. When she gets in close she can tear the enemy apart with her katana.
Testament: A boss character from the original game—basically a handsome grim reaper with long black hair and a big ole scythe. Like Zato-1, Testament relies on a variety of familiars to do damage from long range. However when the enemy gets up close, he can tear them apart with his scythe. Still, once the enemy gets past his familiars and his long unwieldy scythe attacks, he's pretty much helpless.
Dizzy: This is the main boss character of Guilty Gear X—a schoolgirl possessed by an angel and a devil. Her attacks are almost completely long range focused and do obscene amounts of damage. Because of this however, she can't be used like a normal character and all her special moves require these very specific inputs. Likewise a player who has mastered her will dominate the playfield, but all the veterans who fail to master her will find her character to be quite a deceptive liability.
The back of the box states that the game features the best hand drawn animation ever seen in a fighting game. It may have been the most colorful animation ever seen in a 2-D fighting game up to that point, but SFIII still held the throne for having the highest # of frames per character. . This primitive status is especially evident in the opening cutscene, which is sort of an anime-style movie with VERY limited animation (in fact it looks like something that could have come out of an SNES game!). So there's no getting around it—Guilty Gear X was from a generation before. But that doesn't mean it's any way a bad looking PS2 game. Guilty Gear X is jammed full of illustrious hand drawn images, wacky character designs, and special effects extravaganza all rendered in a very high resolution format that takes complete advantage of the PS2's capabilities. The character models are large, extremely detailed, and very smooth around the edges in sharp contrast to their crusty predecessors from the first game. Unsurprisingly it would be THESE gorgeous character models that would be recycled ad nauseum throughout all future iterations of the franchise. Impact and particle effects are all rendered in colorful CGI and they look amazing, putting Marvel vs. Capcom 2's flashy extravaganzas to shame. This game may not be hi-tech, but it's definitely at the high end of the low-tech spectrum.
On the audio side of things, the folks at Sammy have definitely done their job…and not much more. The sound effects, such as the impact blows and things, are a bit muffled but are actually hardly noticeable among all the other chaos going on. But they do sound good when you can hear them—from the clashing of giant steel weapons to the slicing of flesh, the sensation is passed along of fast and brutal combat (with a decidedly cartoonish twist). Like any good Japanese fighting game, all the characters speak in Japanese…including the foreign characters. Many fans of the series have claimed that the soundtrack is one of the main highlights of each game, featuring groovy heavy metal influenced 80's rock ballads and the like. It's like pumped up variations of Capcom's heavy metal influenced soundtracks from years past. Likewise it really works with the setting and chaos of the action. The only setback is that since it's so strong on the heavy metal motifs, many of the tunes become indistinguishable from one another.
I've always had a love/hate relationship with the Guilty Gear franchise since I was first introduced to it, and that tradition continues with this most recent completion of Guilty Gear X. Merciless AI, action that is just flashy and fast-paced for its own good, overly stylized art design and button mashy combat, I always feel a little bit hollow after each session. But it's those exact same elements that keep me hooked to the series, looking for more. Guilty Gear X is like a huge bag of candy. Sure those first few pieces are great, but the more you eat in a single sitting, the sicker you get. It's better and worse in some ways than its predecessor. Its gameplay mechanics have been certainly refined, but I hate how the single player modes have been stripped to the bone of substance (no story, etc.). But overall, as a fighting game, it ROCKS…in short bursts.