For today’s article, I’ve turned to the Sega Master System for a tale of cybernetically-enhanced warriors – and one chunky bloke with no shirt – who must fight to prove their strength. One of them might even accidentally save the world. It’s SIMS and Sega’s 1993 fighting game Masters of Combat!
Is it just me, or is that a very SNK-looking logo? I could definitely see that typeface appearing on a Neo Geo brawler. But this isn’t the Neo Geo, it’s the Master System, which might cause you to worry about this game’s quality. I think it’s fair to say that one-on-one fighting games for 8-bit consoles are not always entirely successful, to put it kindly. Sometimes it’s down to the consoles lacking the power to smoothly manipulate large, detailed sprites, sometimes it’s because they were released before Street Fighter II reinvented the genre, sometimes it’s because they’re bootleg hack-jobs starring Super Mario characters. Well, I’m happy to announce that Masters of Combat avoids most of those pitfalls and turns out to be a rather enjoyable game. I know, I was as surprised as you are. We’ll get into the gameplay later, but for now let’s set the scene.
I think “landed” is a very generous word to use in this context. “Fell screaming from the heavens and slammed into the Earth, burning and out of control” is more the vibe I’m getting from this artwork.
So, a UFO “lands” near Megalo City, but when people go to investigate no trace of it can be found. Fortunately, the city’s mayor has a plan to distract the populace from these events and maintain civic order.
The fact that this plan took a year to come into force shows that SIMS really understood the tangled bureaucracy of governmental process. This is why every city should have a Mike Haggar in charge. He would never have waited a year, he’d be straight up to the landing site with a plan in mind. Sure, his plan would be “take off his shirt and punch anyone who looks at him funny,” but the voting public loves politicians who take bold, decisive action.
That’s the set-up for the fighting tournament, then. A UFO may or may not have landed nearby, and a year later the mayor declares a round of public bloodsport. I’m sure these two events are in no way related.
Is it that he has no eyes? Probably not, that’s an unfortunate medical condition but it’s not “dreadful.” Whatever his secret is, I’m sure we’ll uncover it as we punch our way through the colourful cast of characters that Masters of Combat has to offer.
Here are those characters. There are only four to choose from, which isn’t many, but hopefully it’ll mean they all feel unique rather than being Ryu / Ken / Akuma / Evil Ryu / Violent Ken / Slightly Under The Weather Akuma / Ryu, But With A Hat types. Their names are, from left to right, Hayate, Gonzales, Highvoltman and Wingberger. None of them have eyes, either. Especially not Gonzales, who looks like a baker formed his eye-holes by pressing their thumbs into a head-shaped lump of fresh dough.
Let’s take a look at Hayate first, because he was on the left of the character select screen. He’s most certainly a ninja, and presumably a cyborg ninja because pretty much everything else in this game has a cyberpunk feel to it. He can throw energy shurikens, and that’s cyberpunk enough for me. Of the four characters, Hayate is the least interesting and the easiest to play as, cementing his role as the Ryu of the game. He seems to have more special moves than all the other characters, for starters: he can throw either one or two shurikens, he’s got a rising vertical elbow attack, a big swing with his katana and a couple of horizontal multi-hit rush attacks. All in all, Hayate seems like the complete package (and he’s fast, too,) so if you’re playing Masters of Combat for the first time he’s a good choice.
Next up is Gonzales, a rebel, a man who takes his own path in life, a man who saw that he’d be kicking robot men and thought “I’m still not going to put any shoes on.” Gonzales is obviously geared towards strength, for one can only get away with wearing purple trousers and matching wrist guards if they are truly powerful. As you might expect from his appearance, Gonzales has the feel of a professional wrestler to him, with body slams, a jumping drop-kick and a flying belly press that underlines his similarity to Karnov at his disposal. Gonzales’ big quirk is that most of his special moves have a delay at the beginning – for example, when you use his charging punch rush he beats his chest before attacking – so to use him effectively you’ve got to have a good knowledge of these various timings. A more technical character than Hayate, then, but also more interesting and fun to use.
I also absolutely love Gonzales’ crouching stance, because it looks like his body is collapsing into itself due to the powerful gravitational effects of his bulk.
Fighter number three, and probably my favourite of the bunch, is Highvoltman. Admittedly this is due in part to his excellent name, a name which prompted a lot of highly enjoyable speculation as to how he chose it. I can only assume that he chose the name “Voltman” at first to complement his electric powers, but then realised that “volt” alone did not convey the furious power of his electrified attacks and it needed a bit more oomph. Either that, or he gained his powers and his compulsive need to fight people after a terrible accident in which he drunkenly pissed on a high voltage cable on his way home from the pub.
Highvoltman doesn’t really fit into a neat fighting game character pigeonhole, and his attacks are a mix of various styles. He has a projectile attack, which comes out very quickly but is also not that powerful and more useful as an annoyance than anything else, but he’s also got a devastating electric punch with a very short range. Like I say, he’s a mixed bag.
Highvoltman has also mastered one of the all-time best fighting game moves I’ve ever seen, in the form of his jumping flip kick. You can see him performing it in the screenshot above. I know it looks like he’s been hit in mid air and is flying backwards but no, it’s supposed to look like that. When you perform the flip kick, Highvoltman leaps into the air with balletic grace, looking for all the world like someone who truly intends to do a flip kick… but then halfway through he stops rotating, contorts into the stance shown above and falls from the sky, landing flat on his back in a manner that seems like it should have a fifty-fifty chance of ending in quadriplegia. The first time I saw it I assumed I’d done something wrong, but no, that’s how the flip kick is actually intended to work. How remarkable. Obviously I used it almost exclusively after I figured this out.
Finally there’s Wingberger, a mechanical man with a welder’s mask for a face and the name of a preppy, upper-crust villain from a high school comedy. As you can see above, Wingberger’s main deal is that he’s got Dhalsim-style extending limbs… although they’re not quite as effective as those belonging to everyone’s favourite yoga master. They don’t stretch that far, and the smaller character sprites (and consequently the large playing area) mean that you’re not going to be kicking your opponent from the opposite corner of the battlefield. Still, they are very useful, especially when employed as a jumping kick.
Perhaps to counterbalance the advantages of having telescopic limbs, Wingberger has fewer special moves than the other characters. He’s got a couple of diving attacks, but best of all he has a mega-cannon that’s so powerful it knocks Wingberger over when he fires it. This makes it especially embarrassing when you fire your cannon and the other player easily blocks it before running over to you while you flop around on the floor like a freshly-landed halibut.
When it comes to playing Masters of Combat, you’ve got two modes: regular old versus battles, and the story / arcade mode. I’m going to run through the arcade mode now, because I will not be satisfied until I find out what the mayor’s evil plan is. I suspect it won’t be about voter fraud or financial mismanagement. I decided to play as Highvoltman, because his name is Highvoltman. My first battle was against, erm, Highvoltman. This means that Highvoltman’s pre-fight trash talk about fighting weak opponents transforms into what I believe the youngsters call a “self-own.”
Good lord, I love that flip kick.
Just by looking at Masters of Combat, you’ll get a good idea of the basic set-up. You hit each other until someone’s health bar runs out, it’s the best of three rounds, that kind of thing. If you’ve played any other fighting games, the same basic concepts apply here. Masters of Combat isn’t a combo-heavy game, so focussing on timing and reacting to mistakes made by the computer are important parts of your march towards victory. In this case, I capitalised on Highvoltman’s mistaken belief that I wouldn’t embarrass myself by repeatedly flopping around using the flip kick. I also used the throw a lot, which works in the usual “get close enough to feel the almost erotic sensation of your opponent’s hot breath on your neck and then press attack” manner. A few flip kicks, a few throws and the occasional projectile launched towards clone-Highvoltman’s face whenever he ran towards me – that was all I needed to seal victory.
“I’ll accept any fighter’s challenge, even if that fighter is me but painted green. Especially if it’s me painted green. There can be only one Highvoltman.”
Fight number two is against Wingberger, who continues the game’s theme of unconvincing pre-fight banter by seemly implying that he’s the worst.
While the basic structure of Masters of Combat is the same as most other one-on-one fighters, when it comes to the controls things get a bit different. The most obvious example of this is that Masters of Combat has one single button dedicated to attacking. That’s it. No light, medium and fierce attacks here: you’ve got a button to punch and kick, and you’ll punch or kick when you press it with the move determined by your character, their position and what direction you’re pressing on the d-pad at the time. For example, Wingberger’s extending kicks are unleashed by pressing the d-pad towards your opponent while you attack. This almost gives MoC’s controls the feel of a “classic” Commodore 64 (or other home computer) control scheme, although thankfully MoC controls far better than any C64 fighting game I’ve ever played.
“But the Master System pad has two buttons,” you might be thinking, “so what does the other one do?” Well, it’s jump, mostly. That’s right, unlike you Street Fighters or your King of Fighterses or what have you, up on the d-pad isn’t jump. I must admit, this took quite some getting used to, but it’s worth it because MoC also uses the jump button for other things. Hold up / up-left / up-right on the pad while you press jump and you’ll, you know, jump. However, left or right and “jump” will make your character dash either forwards or backwards, and down and “jump” will make them slide along the floor. This system is pretty great, and goes a long way to both making MoC’s combat faster and more unique. The dashes work well offensively and defensively, allowing you to scoot out of the way of incoming attacks and punish misses, as well as keeping the pace of the combat up when the widely-spaced combat area might otherwise promote few tactics beyond spamming projectiles.
After stage two, you get a Street Fighter II-inspired – rip-off, I mean – bonus round where you punch a forklift until it explodes. Why? Why the hell not. Maybe the accident that transformed Highvoltman into the warrior he is today happened while he was working a menial warehouse job and the bitterness has stayed with him.
Unlike the car-punching round in Street Fighter II, the forklift can be damaged simply by standing there and punching it. I didn’t do that. I used the flip kick, of course. Well, I wouldn’t want to get rusty during this enforced break.
Hayate’s up next. His stage is some kind of cyberpunk temple and it looks great, as does so much of MoC. The graphics are definitely one of the game’s strong points, with lots of colour and fun, fluid animation that’s detailed enough to give each character a feeling of individuality. There’s some sprite flicker, which is less good, and once or twice it got bad enough that I had trouble seeing projectiles heading towards me, but for the most part it’s not a problem and overall MoC is one of the most visually impressive games I can remember playing on the Master System.
And now, Gonzales hurls himself into the fray, hoping his considerable girth will be enough to overcome Highvoltman’s electric fists. It turns out his hopes were well-placed, because Gonzales proceeded to kick my ass multiple times while I struggled to land a blow on him. Every time I went near Gonzales, he grabbed me and performed an Atomic Drop of such ferocity that Highvoltman’s tailbone assumed a new name, left home, relocated up to his chest and started a new life as a rib. If I stayed away, all I could do was flick Highvoltman’s underpowered projectiles at Gonzales, which was akin to farting at a charging rhino.
At least I could get Highvoltman’s projectile attack to come out with some regularity, which is not true of all the moves in the game. While the special moves in MoC are executed in roughly the same manner as they are in most fighting games – a series of directional inputs followed by a button press – things work a little differently here thanks to the control scheme. Jumping is controlled by a button rather than with up on the d-pad, which frees up the top of the d-pad for use in special move inputs. For example, the command for Highvoltman’s high projectile is up-back, up-towards then attack. After years of Street Fighter and other similar series this took quite a lot of mental adjustment to get used to, both my brain and my fingers having decided that to throw a projectile I should do a “classic” fireball motion and to hell with what the game’s actual controls are. If it was just a case of learning new controller inputs it wouldn’t be so bad, but sadly even when you’re hitting the right combinations there’s no guarantee you’re going to get the result you want. MoC seems extremely fussy about what counts as a “correct” input and frequently – far more than the usual amount that comes from me being bad at videogames – moves just won’t come out when you want them to. The small roster of characters has a decent claim on this title, but I’m going to go ahead and say that the awkwardness of the special moves is the worst thing about Masters of Combat, a game that is otherwise very impressive.
Having eventually managed to beat Gonzales with a combination of jumping kicks and blind luck, the four playable fighters have all been defeated. But wait! They mayor has decided he’s going to get rowdy too. I guess he got caught up in all the excitement. Normally I’d say the mayor’s sudden desire for pugilism springs from the same source as the bloke in the pub who swears he could go a round against the world heavyweight champ despite being an overweight borderline diabetic, but let’s not forget that the mayor has a terrible secret.
The other thing that surprised the citizens was that the mayor burst into flames. He looks pretty happy about it, too. Happier than when he wasn’t on fire, even. That’s definitely not normal.
Surprise surprise, it turns out that the mayor was possessed by an alien. Presumably it’s the alien that landed a year ago, but we have no hard evidence of that. This could be a totally unconnected puppeteer of human flesh from beyond the stars.
The alien set up the fighting tournament so it could locate the strongest human body for it to inhabit. This plan has one large, obvious flaw: the strongest, toughest, most fightingest person is now standing right in front of you as you reveal your plan to steal their body. They're probably not going to acquiesce to that, are they? Think it through, you plum. This also implies that you think you’re stronger than the strongest human, Mr. Alien, which begs the question why do you want a strong human body? If you just wanted to blend in with human society you could pick any human body, and if all you care about is carnage then you might as well just be your natural alien self. The only explanation I can think of is that the alien has travelled across the galaxy to fulfil his one and only desire: to win an Olympic gold medal for weightlifting.
No eyes, elongated head, lived inside a human for a while: yep, I think we can safely say we’ve found another videogame alien inspired by H. R. Giger’s xenomorph.
The Alien looks a lot less like a xenomorph when you see it in full, though. This is mostly because of the wings. Xenomorphs don’t have wings, except in the Aliens toy line. The Aliens toy line also included a praying mantis-based xenomorph, and when you consider the impracticalities of getting a facehugger to attach to a praying mantis I think we can safely discount the toy line from the Aliens canon. They also don’t tuck themselves into a ball and roll at you like Sonic the Hedgehog, which is the boss’ favourite trick. It can even scuttle up the walls and roll from different heights, so get ready to duck if it looks like that’s going to happen.
As fighting game bosses go, The Alien offers an enjoyable level of challenge, a level that the bosses of other punch-em-ups can sometimes miss completely. The Alien’s a more dangerous foe than the other fighters, because it’s faster and more powerful, but it never sinks to “SNK boss” standards of frustrating bullshit. You can outfight The Alien, given enough practise. You’ll probably get beat the first few times, which could have been a problem because MoC only gives the player a small amount of continues – but because there are only four other fighters, it doesn’t take long to get back to the climactic battle.
Of course, the final battle is good because Masters of Combat is, on the whole, a very good game. Okay, so it’s a very good game for a one-on-one fighter on an 8-bit console, at least. Aside from the lack of characters and the occasionally stubborn special move inputs, there really aren’t many negatives. The presentation is good, with excellent graphics and a soundtrack that’s not quite as impressive but still never dips below “decent.” The action is fast and smooth, the dash mechanic keeps things fluid and gives MoC’s combat its own personality. There’s a character called Highvoltman. it’s a game with a lot to recommend it, then, and if it had been released before Street Fighter II (and had it been released in the US at all, which supposedly it wasn’t) it would probably be remembered as a minor classic. However, MoC couldn’t have come out before Street Fighter II, because it is based so heavily on Capcom’s classic, so I suppose that’s a moot point.
In the end, I defeated The Alien through the simple, practical method of learning his attacks and good old-fashioned practise, which is about the most satisfying way a fighting game can end. As Highvoltman looks out over the city he has saved – an ending that’s the same for every character, disappointingly – I’m left to reflect on a game I enjoyed more than I was expecting to. It’s not that impressive when compared to modern fighting games, or even fighting games of the same time period that ran on more powerful hardware, but Masters of Combat is a game I’m glad to have played. If nothing else, Highvoltman’s flip kick is going to stay with me for a long, long time.
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