So, another calendar year has come and gone, and as 2012 fades out I think it's time that I took a look back over the past twelve months here at VGJunk and commemorated some of the game that made running this website the fascinating experience that it is. It's time for the 2012 VGJunk Awards! Nobody gets any prizes, but that's okay because I'm going to make the categories up off the top of my head anyway. Hey, it's a Sunday evening, cut me some slack. Onwards!

Biggest Rip-Off of an Existing Franchise

Well, this was an easy decision - that'd be the first game I wrote about in 2012, Vic Tokai's NES platformer Magical Doropie / The Krion Conquest. To say that it draws inspiration from the Mega Man games does little to capture the sheer audacity of Vic Tokai's rampage of game design theft, and it's just a shame that the one thing they didn't take from the Mega Man games was the fun.
Runner-up: Master System Castlevania clone Master of Darkness, which gets a pass from me for being a decent game in its own right.

Nichiest Genre 

Super International Cricket was a strong contender for this title, as it is a sports title based on a sport that vast swathes of the planet could not care less about, but I think I have to award this title to business management/accidental animal neglect simulator Pippa Funnell: Stable Adventure.
True story: I was telling a friend about how poorly I fared as the owner of a virtual horse, and he said "you forgot to feed it, didn't you?" I wasn't exaggerating in the article for comedic purposes - I really am that dense.

Most Pointless

This award definitely belongs to Bethesda's NES version of Where's Waldo / Where's Wally. Yes, a NES version of Where's Waldo, where the charming, detailed illustrations featured in the beloved children's books are replaced by a jumbled pixel sludge that's so painful on the eyes you could use it to replace waterboarding as an interrogation method.

Most Cathartic Experience

ZX Spectrum title Soft & Cuddly terrified me as a child, so to return to it as an adult and discover that it is scary, but only scarily bad, was a nice piece of closure. Plus, I discovered that the man who created it was a loon, and I finally figured out what the picture on the back of the case was supposed to be (it's an astronaut mouse). And that song, oh my...

Most Baffling Use of a Licensed Character

The Incredible Hulk is known for three things - being green, getting angry and smashing things. He is not renowned for the use of his puzzle-solving abilities, but apparently Adventure International didn't think that was a problem and they built a graphic adventure around the Hulk's quest to find some orbs in Questprobe featuring The Hulk. You can't even smash things. The mind boggles.
Runner-up: Alien 3: The Gun and it's complete disregard for what actually happened in Alien 3.

Most Pleasant Surprise

It shouldn't have been a surprise - it was made by Treasure, after all - but I had some difficulty imagining a licensed game based on the McDonald's franchise would be anything other than utter dreck. Thankfully I was proven wrong, and McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure turned out to be a top-notch example of the 16-bit platform genre, with not even Ronald's leering clown face being enough to detract from the fun.

Most Disappointing

Well, that's easy - Dino Rex. Giant dinosaurs fighting each other should be The Best Thing, not a sluggish exercise in button-mashing with the worst collision detection I have ever seen in a videogame. The madness of the storyline alleviated my misery a little, but not nearly enough.

Best Character Name

Yeah, that guy. Honourable mentions: Rotundo from Fighting Masters, Bob, Boss of Punks from Crime City.

Worst Game on VGJunk This Year

I wrote about Rise of the Robots this year. Normally, that would be a shoe-in, number one with a bullet, a solid-gold lock for the "honour" of being the worst game I wrote about this year. But it isn't. I also wrote about *NSYNC: Get to the Show, a pitiful marketeer's fart of a game, a cynical attempt to drain money from the gullible that was not only the worst game I played for the site this year but the worst game I have ever played. I wonder if I can find anything to top it in 2013?

Best Game on VGJunk This Year

Knights of the Round has been a personal favourite for many years, Wild Guns is an excellent game that I have a new-found appreciation for and UFO Kamen Yakisoban is too bonkers to not love, but in the end it game down to two games. First there's Zombies Ate My Neighbours, one of the finest action games on the SNES and so full of charm and personality that playing it could warm the heart of even the stoniest of gamers. However, just pipping ZAMN to the top spot is OutRun, a true classic, a masterpiece of game design, a digital dream and an experience that always serves to reaffirm my love of videogaming. Congraulations, OutRun - you're the best.

My Personal Favourite Article of 2012

The one about Popstar Maker. I couldn't even tell you why.

And that's it for 2012 here at VGJunk! I'll be back sometime next week to carry on in 2013, continuing my neverending quest to write a bunch of nonsense about old videogames. Hope you enjoyed the last twelve months, and thank you as always for reading, commenting and sharing VGJunk across the internet. It's been fun!



Sisters are doin' it for themselves, and by "it" I mean forming gangs, terrorising the streets and generally engaging in just as much violence as their male counterparts. Dye your hair blonde, slip into the baggiest pair of trousers you can find and join me as I look at NEC's 1995 PC Engine CD gang-violence-and-interior-design-em-up Ane-san.

Ah, the simple elegance of calligraphy, the stark, powerful contrast between black and white. Don't worry; this restrained simplicity won't last for long.

During the intro, a scattered handful of photographs tell the story of some young girls who spent their schooldays being tormented by bullies. Oh, those terrible bullies, always dangling insects in their faces, or making them stand in an alleyway, or using powerful chemicals to mutate them into a half-human, half-plant monstrosities, their heads blossoming from the oversized rosebuds that now make up their torsos. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's what's going on in that bottom-right photograph.

I guess all this childhood abuse toughened these young ladies the hell up, because now they're delinquents, ruling their turf with a fist of iron or a metal of comparable hardness. Yet even through all this brutality, these young women have managed to retain their graceful femininity.

See? Fresh as a meadow of wild flowers, so they are. The one the middle looks like a Cabbage Patch doll trying to pass a kidney stone, but I wouldn't want to mess with any of them. Let's just hope they're as tough as this disturbing snapshot of impending death suggests.
Ane-san, as games about street gangs so often are, is a side-scrolling beat-em-up. Hooray! I love side-scrolling beat-em-ups, possibly because I fear innovation and change, or because I harbour deep-seated fantasies of taking revenge on the corrupt city. I hope it's the latter, because Ane-san does have a few features that you don't see in many other belt-scrolling brawlers, and we'll get to those in time.

The first thing you'll see in the game proper is the character / stage select screen. The three girls from the intro, looking far less menacing in their super-deformed incarnations than they did in the intro, wait patiently at the bottom of the screen for you to make your selection. I'll be going with Ai, the girl on the left who as far as I can tell is Ane-san's main character. In fact, I'm assuming she's the ane-san of the title - "ane-san" being a Japanese title meaning "big sister." In this context it mean something more like "an older girl you respect," like, say, the boss of your terrifying all-girl band of thugs. The male, "big bro" equivalent is aniki, as in Cho Aniki. Bear that in mind for later.
You also get to choose what stage you want to play, but because I'm so slavishly devoted to the preset patterns of these things I have no choice but to start with the first stage highlighted, the one on the top-left. Predictability! Look, judging by that icon I'm about to go into battle against an overweight, wall-eyed ballerina. I need all the comforting predictability I can find.

So, what did you notice about this scene first? Was it that Ai, with her hand thrust into her pocket and her cocky swagger, looks like a grade-A badass? Was it the enemy goons, who for some reason are dressed as British Gas technicians? Or was it the fact that nearly fifty percent of the screen is taken up by character portraits and dialogue boxes, leaving the actual action to be played out in pseudo-letterbox-o-vision? It was the latter in my case, and it's not really a design decision I can fully get behind but there's still enough room to clobber people so it's not all bad.

Did you know "Ai" is the Japanese word for love? Keep that in mind as she rips this poor young woman's hair out.
Ane-san, as I mentioned, is a beat-em-up, and it's definitely paddling in the shallow end of that particular pool of pugilistic action. Your moveset is basic - just one attack button, a jumping attack, a couple of grabs including the previously-demonstrated hair-pulling and a health-consuming special activated by pressing jump and attack together. At this point in VGJunk's lifespan I'd be surprised if it was any different, and if Ai thinks she can take on the world with a skillset that makes my own anaemic CV look positively robust then good luck to her.

After a short period of thug-punching, Ai reaches the game's first mid-boss. She's a perky "idoru"-style singer who glides around on rollerskates, attacks with expertly choreographed dance moves and sometimes calls in a chorus line of very enthusiastic young men who exist only to impress their idol by trampling her enemies to dust beneath their perfectly synchronised feet. They're good at it, too: I came into this fight with full health, but as you can see from the above screenshot after one hit I was perilously close to death by cabaret. Luckily the actual boss herself shows a commendable dedication to reality by being exactly as tough as you'd expect a rake-thin Japanese teenager to be, and one sustained bout of hair-pulling was enough to see her off.

The second half of the stage proceeds much as the first half did, although some of the boilersuits on display are pink now. Ai remains disdainful, as is her way. Just punch them when they get close, or grab their barnets if they get really close, and they will get really close because as far as their A.I. goes, that's all they know how to do. They just blindly wander towards your character and, if you're tapping the attack button, straight into your fists.

The end-of-stage boss herself isn't much more competent, and as she pirouettes across the screen it quickly becomes apparent that her "Chunky Ballerina" style of kung-fu is no match for Ai's "Disinterested Tough Guy" techniques, and the fight is quickly ended when the boss stands still for a moment and Ai can unleash one basic combo. That's all it takes to bring down this boss. One standard combo. Judging by her face she's been beaten up many times in the past, so there were some signs that this might not be the most difficult bout, but I still wasn't expecting the stage boss to have the same amount of health as any given boiler-suited thug.
Now that Ai has claimed a new slice of turf for her gang, it's time to return to her bedroom and rest up for the battles of tomorrow.

The bedroom serves as a between-mission hub area, with a few simple options available: you can save your game, listen to the music (although oddly there are some tracks missing,) play a minigame and go shopping. Yep, I said go shopping, and because you're playing as an all-girl street gang the stores you frequent carry an... unusual mix of merchandise.

Items seem to fall into two categories: ones that help you in battle, and ones that decorate your room, with items ranging from jackets and knives to wallpaper and posters of androgynous pop stars. It's like shady Asian market stall crossed with B&Q.
The problem with the shopping is that it's completely impenetrable if you don't read Japanese. The effects of one or two of the items can be puzzled out - the jackets seem to give you more health, knuckledusters presumably increase your attack power - but the majority of them are unfathomable even with trial and error. For example, here are some... magazines? Books?

I bought one, and I have no idea what they do. I didn't see them appear anywhere in my bedroom, and I didn't notice any changes in my fighting ability. At first I thought "surely they're not just there for you to spend money on with no practical benefit," but after a little longer spent pondering the strangeness of Ane-san I concluded that such a thing was not beyond the realms of possibility.
One thing I did notice is that the right-hand book seems to star Adon and Samson, musclebound paragons of manliness and mascots of the infamous Cho Aniki series of videogames. This little cameo doesn't surprise me in the slightest, because Ane-san seems to be doing everything it can to slot itself into that same kusoge niche that Cho Aniki occupies, although even more than Cho Aniki this game reminds me of the extra-bizarre SNES brawler Gourmet Sentai Bara Yarou. The art styles are very similar, for one thing. Oh, and Ane-san is also related to the Cho Aniki games by sharing the same composer, Koji Hayama. His soundtrack for Ane-san is probably my favourite thing about the game, a collection of tracks created as woozy, not-quite-right parodies of heartfelt ballads, reworked classical pieces and good old rock'n'roll, like this track which has the evocative if not entirely parsable title of "Very No."

While you're at home, you can also play a minigame that as far as I can tell offers no tangible rewards, unless you're into being traumatised by the demonic faces of some very angry young women.

All you do is rotate the joypad, causing your chosen girl to pull a series of increasingly disturbing faces. First one to reach the top of the chain and summon an expression that would make Satan himself rethink his status as mankind's ultimate adversary is declared the winner. What do you win? Nothing, that's what. Wrist sprains are not a reward.

Okay then, this is stage two. I hope you enjoyed stage one, because this stage and all the others that follow are essentially identical. There are a few minor differences: the backgrounds are different, and now I'm playing as Chika, the "small but fast" character of the three. And look, there's a new enemy type! It's someone on a moped trying to run me down. With the arrival of the Kamikaze Scooter Squad, I offer you my congratulations. You have now seen every standard enemy in the game. Yup, all you get outside the boss characters (which there are at least plenty of) are the jumpsuit thugs and the joyriders. This presents something of a flaw with the game, because the scooters are more akin to dangerous background objects than enemies, and the boilersuits are thicker than a triple-decker housebrick sandwich, with no skills beyond walking into your attacks. Once you've punched one standard gang member, you've punched them all, and Ane-san's gameplay was bland enough to start with.

The midboss is a kung-fu girl, as is this young lady, who serves as the stage's big boss. I'd guess she also serves as her gang's lookout, judging by her freakishly elongated neck. I was expecting more of a challenge than anything I had faced thus far, but the developers behind Ane-san decided that all street punks are created equal and so the boss can be defeated in mere seconds. In fact, if you manage to grab them and perform your hair-pulling move, they cannot escape from it. You just pull their hair until they die, which doesn't take long because everyone in this game has powerful attacks but the defence levels of a sickly fieldmouse. One combo can often be enough to kill you, but it's also enough to kill every enemies, up to and including the final boss. Your lack of health might be a problem if the enemies weren't so monumentally stupid, and once you've bought the item that shows you where the scooters are going to appear from then you're pretty much sorted for the entire game.

Then, as I was heading out to stage three, I noticed something unusual on the stage / character select screen. The girls I'd pummeled in stage one, Ruri the idol singer and Hirame the... well-proportioned ballerina, were now available for selection! This is one of Ane-san's more interesting features - when you defeat a boss and after you've completed another stage to give them time to recover from the thrashing you gave them, they're unlocked as playable characters. Sure, all the characters have identical movesets and not much (if any) variation in statistics, but it's a nice touch that I'm glad to see. However, as similar as all the characters are, some are definitely more useful than others.

For example, I started stage three as Makoto, a veritable behemoth of a woman with hair like a freshly-baked loaf of bread and the cockiness to fight with her hand in her pocket. She looks like a good choice, right? Might rules these mean city streets, and Makoto looks like she's got enough might to bench-press half of the Andes. However, once you try to use her you'll realise that she doesn't hit any harder than Ai or Chika, but she is much, much slower, slower than the enemies, and before I knew it I'd been overwhelmed because I was too ponderous to fight back efficiently and I had to switch to Ruri.

Ruri is here pictured fighting a swordswoman wearing a rather risqué blouse. I'm sure you could write a long and scholarly essay about how this confrontation between the spunky, commercialised icon of hyper-femininity and the sombre traditionalist reflects on the changing attitudes of women in mid-nineties Japan. You know, if you were a mad person.
I pulled her hair until she was defeated, by the way. It really is the most efficient way to beat the bosses.

Stage four is, as I'm sure you suspected, more of the same. This time I'm playing as kung-fu fighter Ryuko. She's definitely better than Makoto and Ruri, and she's currently sitting just behind Ai in the Official VGJunk Ane-san Character Rankings. As these ranking as based purely on the range and speed of a character's attacks, it is not an especially sought-after title.

One thing I do like about Ane-san is the graphics, or at least the art direction - they're hardly mind-blowing in technical terms, but the mood is appropriate and it's one I enjoy. The backgrounds are probably the best aspect, with a variety of detailed city environments like parks with drunken salarymen sleeping on benches, shipyards and underground car parks where gang members watch from the background, surrounding a jacked-up scooter as though it was the center of some strange two-stroke religion.

The boss characters are also pretty well designed, managing to look unique while still fitting in with the whole "girl gang" vibe. At the end of stage four they even mix things up a bit by making you fight two bosses at once! Sure, the bosses still die almost the second you start hitting them, but now there's two of 'em! If nothing else it means that for once the forceful hair removal strategy is not the best way to go about things, because it only hurts one of them at a time. Plus, I know kung fu. I'll use that instead, I think.
With that stage over, we've reached Ane-san's final stage. Yes, already. There are only five of them, and backgrounds and boss battles aside they're all the same so there's really only one of them, but it at least means that Ane-san doesn't have much chance to overstay its welcome.

Before I headed out to face my destiny, I gussied up my bedroom a bit. Well, who knows, I might be horribly murdered and I don't want the police busting into my house only to find I lacked the interior design skills commensurate with my position as Tokyo's toughest gang leader.
Then I fell asleep and dreamed about pastel whales flying through space.

Is this an important omen of things to come? I bloody hope so, this game could do with a bit of livening up and I think space-whales would be just the ticket.

For the final stage, I'll be using Sohshi the swordswoman, because she has a sword. It's a wooden sword, but that doesn't seem to matter - she can use it to poke people to death from nearly halfway across the screen, and that's all I ever wanted from my gang members. I have to say, it works out pretty well.

There's not much more to add at this point - there are no new enemies waiting to ambush me, no new moves to be unlocked even though I have a weapon now, just the same old hordes of the same old enemies who always seem to attack in groups of three. I mostly just wanted to point out that the "restaurant" in the background is clearly a McDonalds. Even in Japanese media, where they take a much more relaxed approach to potentially law-suit-y cameos, it's unusual to see a McDonald's that isn't at least modified a little bit. Not this one, though. That couldn't be any more obviously a McDonalds unless there were some bored teenagers sitting inside flicking chips at each other.

And here, after much poking of jumpsuits and pulling of hair, is the final boss. At least she's not your average gang member, and you mark my words - growing your hair into an afro and then sculpting it into a crude facsimile of a human brain is going to set the world of fashion ablaze in the near future. Probably literally, given the amount of hairspray it must take to maintain that 'do.
Of course, the final boss is an absolute piece of cake to defeat. The developers gave her the same "malnourished woodland creature" levels of health as all the other enemies, and she's not any smarter, either (her hair may have clued you in on that.) If you're the kind of person who looks for a challenge in your videogames, then Ane-san is not the title for you - between the braindead enemies, the characters with long reach and uninterruptible grab moves and the fact that you can save your game between stages, this might well be the easiest side-scrolling beat-em-up I've ever played.

Sohshi was low on health, so I decided to let her fall and have Ai defeat the final boss. Well, she is the leader after all. What will be her reward, now that she has crushed all her enemies? Will she rule the streets with an iron fist, or will she retire and live off the proceeds of her life of crime?

Oh my god, she's going to steal that church!

Wait, that's it? She... gets married? That's hardly the ending I was expecting, and it seems to run contrary to the (relatively) feminist themes of the game. The whole of Ane-san doesn't feature a single man until you get to the end, when Ai suddenly marries some guy who isn't even important enough to have eyes? I probably should have expected it: whenever you see a story about Japanese girl gangs, they almost always seem to feature bad-ass, take-no-shit women who don't need men, only for their strength to be ultimately undermined in some way. In most instances they either fall in love or, as is often the case in things like the "pinky violence" films of seventies Japanese cinema, they're subjected to fetishistic torture scenes. Obviously Ai getting married is nowhere near as bad as that, but still - couldn't she have done something more in keeping with the rest of the game's tone?
I'm choosing to read it this way: this wedding is some kind of scam. Just look at the groom's face, he's terrified! There's probably someone holding a gun to his back. He doesn't have his hands in his pockets, they've been bound underneath his coat. Ai is up to something, if you ask me.

There's a comedy moment as Hirame catches the bouquet. Cue the "wah wah whaaah" trombone noise, please. Naturally, now you're wondering what happens if you complete the game with Hirame...

She gets married, of course! It's a bit rich for me to talk about a person's appearance - glass houses and all that - but suddenly the groom's nervous expression seems much more fitting.

Ane-san, like a clutch of spider eggs coated in rich, dark chocolate, is more than palatable on the outside but the bulk of it will leave you wishing you hadn't bothered. It nearly fooled me into thinking it was a good game, but it isn't: it's a bad game, from all possible gameplay angles barring the inclusion of a few nice touches like the recruitable bosses. Personally, I love the aesthetics of it, I like the girl-gang setting and the commitment to not having any men involved (bar the ending) is a refreshing change of pace, especially given that the girls aren't sexualised at all apart from maybe Sohshi's cleavage-baring top. It also feels like there's more depth to the non-gameplay elements than I managed to uncover, even after multiple playthroughs. The final shot in the ending seems to change according to some criteria I couldn't figure out, and apparently the two bosses you fight at once are recruitable somehow, so there's definitely more to Ane-san than I've shown you here.

Would I recommend you play this game? Sure, if you're the kind of person who appreciates off-the-wall games with interesting settings and the kind of warped, campy charm of titles like Cho Aniki and Gourmet Sentai Bara Yarou. I certainly had fun with it. If you're looking for a game that's actually fun to play, however, I'd recommend that you give Ane-san a miss. Still, at least the soundtrack's good.



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.

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