Videogaming has plenty of fighting masters. Ryu. Terry Bogard. Heihachi Mishima. A thong-wearing jellyfish man called Rotundo. Yeah, sure, why not.
This is Fighting Masters, a 1991 Megadrive / Genesis title developed by Almanic and published by Treco. It's a one-on-one fighting game - the title may make that fact seem obvious, but then again Serious Sam is anything but so we shouldn't judge a game by its name alone. Fighting Masters is a game where masters of fighting fight for mastery of the galaxy, because even in the farthest reaches of the universe the desire to see two people hit each other is as strong as it is on Earth.
The galaxy has problems; problems of the world-destroying supernova kind, but luckily a race of advanced aliens called the Primaries has it within their power to save a planet from destruction. Unfortunately, there are twelve worlds in the supernova death-zone, so the Primaries make each planet select a champion who will fight against the other eleven champions to decide which world is spared. Of course, the intro text clearly states that the Primaries are "omnipotent" and could presumably save all the planets if they wanted, but when are they gonna get another opportunity to pit these alien races against each other in a brutal contest where the stakes could not be higher? I bet it gets pretty boring, being omnipotent. They've got keep things interesting somehow.
That's if you're playing the US version, at least. The Japanese release has an entirely different plot, where the character you select is the last un-brainwashed (or "deinwashed," as it's spelled in the text-crawl) champion of the twelve planets, on a mission to defeat the evil Lord Valgasu before he enslaves the entire galaxy. May The Justice Be With You, indeed.
So, you're either a lone hero on a quest to save the galaxy, or you're a hapless puppet dancing (and punching) for the twisted amusement of a race of all-powerful space-bastards. I prefer the "fight for your planet's survival" storyline, because it promotes a much greater level of emotional involvement in the game. Just think, when you win a fight you haven't simply beaten your opponent to a bloody pulp - you've condemned their entire species to horrifying fiery death. And they say videogames never tackle the big themes.
Whichever premise you pick, Fighting Masters looks like a pretty typical early-90s, post-Street Fighter II (although only by a few months in this case) fighting game, and in some regards that's exactly what it is. The first character to have their health bar depleted loses, there's a variety of characters with different moves and an unplayable boss character waiting at the end. This thing is, that's really all that Fighting Masters does have in common with the style of 2D fighting game that rose to prominence after SF2 blazed its hadoken-laced trail across the gaming landscape. This game looks familiar, but it sure doesn't play familiar.
I'll get to the gameplay in good time, though. First, I have to introduce you to the cast of playable fighters, because I'm sure you're all desperate to find out if I made Rotundo up (no, I did not.) They're a freakish bunch of interstellar misfits, strange, inhuman lifeforms that will cause you to question the very workings of evolution itself. Except the first one, that's just some guy in his pants.
This is Dirk. I suppose he's the main character, because he's terribly generic and he appears first on the character select screen, which is all it takes to be the main character of a nineties fighting game. He's a wrestler, he looks like Ax Battler from Golden Axe and in a game full of aliens he's disappointingly human-looking. He's obviously not an actual human, because his bio claims that he's fifty-seven feet tall, but aside from his height he may as well be an accountant or something.
It gets worse, though - in the Japanese version, Dirk is called Larry. Larry. My apologies to any Larrys out there, but Larry isn't a name for Flash-Gordon-a-like space wrestlers. It's a name for plumbers, or bad cabaret singers, or seedy old men in leisure suits.
Things are looking up with the second character, an Arabian / Hindu elephant warrior called Mastodon. He can slap people with his trunk, especially if they laugh at his pointy shoes. He looks a little strange, you know, even for an elephant man, and eventually I figured out why: he's got small feet but huge hands. Still, you know what they say about an elephant man with small feet, don't you? He'll kick your head in, that's what.
Back to the realms of the mundane with Morin, the Amazon who fights with a pair of tonfas that double as giant glow-sticks for those between-bout raves. It's almost comforting to see that even across the unimaginable vastness of space, women are still heading into battle wearing the unmatched protection that only a metal bikini can provide.
Equus is a 1973 play by Peter Shaffer about a man who likes horses more than is healthy or proper. You might remember it as "that play where the kid from Harry Potter got stark bollock naked." The play has no bearing on Equus' name, but he's auditioning for the role of the main horse and he asked me to mention it. I wasn't going to argue with him - there's something rather unnerving about a horse wearing boxing gloves. It's like a chimp with a knife, or that kid in the clown mask who stands in the park at twilight and silently stares into the adventure playground. I think Equus is my least favourite character purely because he unsettles me, but at least he's more alien than Dirk and Morin.
This is Grinder. Grinder is cool, Grinder is special, Grinder gets an animated picture because he has the sensual grace of a young Prince and he fights like a xenomorph that chest-burst its way out of a breakdancer. Grinder always looks like he's having fun during his fights, although whether that's down to his simple love of movement, exercise and rhythm or his insatiable lust for carnage and death, we'll never know.
Goldrock hails from a world where life evolved from the heads of Egyptian statues, but he doesn't let his stubby limbs get him down. Why, he's positively serene!
He's very... expressive, for a boulder.
Phoenix isn't a phoenix, which is a shame because the ability to come back to life when killed would be pretty handy in a game that can be as unforgiving as Fighting Masters. He can at least fly, a bonus in a game where the other characters don't have much defence against an aerial assault, and if you can resist the charms of Grinder and the smugness of Goldrock then a) you're a stronger person than I and b) Phoenix is a pretty good choice to play as.
At first I though Zygrunt was a beetle, and he does have a set of wings hidden under his carapace, but on closer inspection I'd have to say he's a lobster. A flying lobster, no doubt, but those pincers and his segmented tail give him away as a sea-creature. I wonder if his species does live in the water? If they do, there'll be a point during the supernova where the oceans boil and for a brief moment Zygrunt's homeworld will be transformed into the largest seafood buffet in the cosmos.
Rotundo, the jellyfish man. I mentioned him before, but I can see how it might be difficult to imagine what a cross between a portly gentleman and a deep-sea jelly would look like, so here's another picture.
He seems a cheerful sort, especially when he's carrying around bikini-clad young women. Rotundo is an odd one - his facial expression seems to say "hey, I'm a slightly goofy yet lovable guy," and if this was a teen comedy then Rotundo would be the hapless stoner. Then I see that belted thong he's wearing, and suddenly Rotundo doesn't seem like so much fun. Just imagine what that thing smells like.
Xenon is a dragon, and there's not really much I can add to that. He can breathe fire, but he's a dragon, so you probably figured that out. It's not even particularly useful fire, either, too slow to prevent someone like Dirk from jumping over it and kicking Xenon in his scaly head.
Holy flytrap, you've been out too long in the midday sun... and this has caused you to mutate into a sentient, walking plant creature. Dio has risen from the soil to defeat the filthy animals, as well as to compete with Grinder for my affections as Fighting Masters' best character. In terms of playability, Dio just about edges it, because he uses the fact that he's ninety-five percent mouth to his advantage by chewing anyone he can get his tendrils on. You might think that move would be less than effective against Goldrock, but no: Dio will merrily chomp his way through anything put in front of him. He's a trouper like that.
Finally there's Uppercut, the boxing cyclops. That name seems a little on-the-nose for a boxer, don't you think? Maybe that's how all the sportspeople on his planet are named - there's Shoot the footballer, and Backhand the tennis player, and Sit in a Chair for Twenty Minutes at a Time the snooker player. Also, a cyclops with boxing gloves? Not nearly as menacing as a horse dressed the same way. Maybe I just don't like horses. Pippa Funnell: Stable Adventure provides some evidence to corroborate this theory.
Once you've chosen a character from this list of bizarre aliens, ambulatory plants and men in swimming trunks, you can get on with the actual fighting. As I mentioned, the set-up looks immediately familiar from any number of one-on-one fighting games, but as soon as the game begins you'll realise that things work differently in the Fighting Masters universe.
For starters, the whole game is controlled using only the d-pad and just two buttons - one for jump and one to attack. You have a standing attack, a crouching attack and two or three jumping moves, and it all feels terribly limited: there's no room for combos here when the only move you have with, for example, Dirk is a standing kick, a jumping kick and, you guessed it, a crouching kick. But what the hey, let's get stuck in and use our miniscule pool of techniques to bust up our opponent.
A nice idea... but it doesn't work. Hitting your opponent with a basic attack does no damage. Or rather, it does no damage most of the time, but every once in a while it will, with the chances of this happening being based on some arcane calculation that you, as the player, are not privy to.
No, the purpose of the attacks is to stun the other fighter. Hit them with a punch or a kick and they'll be momentarily paralysed, which is your cue to get up close, grab 'em and throw 'em.
Throws are the only consistent way to cause damage - you can tell when you've hurt someone, because they flash gold and make a sound like a garbage disposal trying to cope with a live cow. It's not as simple as performing a throw that causes a set amount of damage, either - characters suffer multiple blows and therefore extra damage if you throw them into the walls at the edge of the stage.
When you first play Fighting Masters, this system will undoubtedly feel very strange, so here's a different way to think about it - Fighting Masters is a wrestling game pretending to be a Street Fighter II clone. Grappling techniques are the only way to win, and the core element of the gameplay is using your standard attacks to create an opening that'll allow you to grab your opponent and slam them face-first into the nearest wall.
It's almost cruel, really - you go into the game expecting another average nineties fighting game, but if you try playing it with that mindset you'll be beaten very quickly indeed.
For instance, there is no point trying to press the advantage in Fighting Masters. In most fighting games, keeping your opponent off-balance and following up a successful attack with another to put them under pressure is a major part of the gameplay. That doesn't happen here. When you do manage to throw someone, the best follow-up strategy is to get as far away from them as possible, because if you're standing near them when they get up they will grab you every single time. You simply can't corner people, because they'll either instantly have their hands / hooves / trunks on you the millisecond they get up or they'll be able to get in an attack and stun you, leaving you completely open to being thrown. The only strategy here is patience, learning the distances the characters can move and trying to bait them into jumping into your fist so that you can throw them again.
The gameplay mechanics have the knock-on effect of making all the characters almost identical. Everyone has the same set of basic moves that really only differ in animation, and everyone has a few throws they can perform, generally one that holds the other fighting in place whilst damaging them, (like Dio's bite,) one that throws them vertically (like Dirk's half-hearted piledriver pictured above) and one that throws them horizontally.
Some characters do have the odd extra move - Rotundo can roll into a ball when he's jumping, Phoenix can grab in the air, that kind of thing - but on the whole the characters are boringly interchangeable. The only real measure of how "good" a character is is how far they can throw people to reap the extra damage gained from hitting them into the walls. Dirk, for example, has such a puny horizontal throw that he has to be standing right up against the wall to get multiple hits, and that alone makes him probably the worst character in the game. The fact that he looks like a "Barbarian Action" Ken doll doesn't help, either.
So, Fighting Masters is different, but does that make it any good? Yes and no. It's certainly not as bad as the reviews I've seen around the internet make it sound, but it's definitely not some obscure gem just waiting to be rediscovered and placed amongst the greats of the fighting genre, either. On the positive side, it's a fairly unique title with a combat system that's different enough to cause at least a flutter of interest, the controls are solid, there are plenty of characters to choose from and the patient nature of the fighting can lead to some tense, knife-edge matches. On the other hand, the characters are all very similar, the movesets are shallower than a puddle in the Sahara, the difficulty is all over the place and the fact that there's really only one way to win rather limits the game's long-term appeal.
One thing I will admit to enjoying is the characters themselves. They're well animated, they look different even if they do all fight the same, and there's a real charm to some of them, particularly Dio and his scuttling movements, Grinder's razor-fingered-cybernetic-ballet-dancer aesthetic and Goldrock's facial expressions.
I also like Dirk's pose after he gets hit, purely because it's camp as all get-out.
Speaking of Dirk, when I started playing Fighting Masters I chose him, unaware of the fact that he's not very good. Yet somehow, I managed to reach the final boss with him.
It's the evil Lord Valgasu himself, looking like a cross between a Dragonball Z character and golem formed from unripe bananas. I can't help but feel that he's got a big home-court advantage here, given that we're fighting on the moon and Dirk is only wearing a bathing suit. Valgasu's gimmick is that he's big, much bigger than even the humanoid elephant, and that means he has a much bigger reach that you. He exploits this advantage to the fullest, and the only way I managed to last longer than ten seconds was to jump around and perform constant drop-kicks, a move that really did prove to be Dirk's saving grace. After a few narrow misses and a couple of flying powerbombs, Valgasu was defeated and Dirk's race of strong, blonde, Aryan men was safely evacuated from the vicinity of the supernova.
It feels a little churlish to celebrate what is essentially the biggest "fuck you, got mine" in gaming history, but the fact that the end credits are enlivened by a chorus line of high-kicking Grinders meant I could consign the other eleven planets to their inevitable fate with a smile on my face. Still, it's pretty disappointing that this is the whole ending - not even a nice portrait of the character you used, just the Grinders dancing away as their homeworld burns.
Like the time I sent a scorpion and a grizzly bear through my matter transporter at the same time, Fighting Masters is an interesting experiment that didn't really work out. It's not a bad game, and there's even the core of something much better tucked away in here - with a few tweaks, more polished presentation, greater emphasis on character diversity and a few special moves, this could have been a top-notch fighting game. As it stands, I'm sure it's a game that'll have many detractors but also a few people who will defend to vigorously to anyone who will listen. If nothing else, it's worth playing to see Goldrock's expressions...
...but just don't think too hard about what happened to Goldrock to make him pull that particular face.