Given how much I love videogames where freaks from around the world gather together to thump each other into unconsciousness, I don't seem to write about many fighting games. I think it's because I'm terrible at them, terrible at remembering combos and learning the mechanics, and I'd feel guilty if I wrote about, say, King of Fighters without ever really knowing how the game works. However, today I've found a slugfest so simplistic even my tiny mind can fathom it, so I'm going to write about it - It's Taito's 1993 arcade boxing title Prime Time Fighter, AKA Top Ranking Stars!
Oh you crazy silhouette title-screen boxing man, you can't punch the stars, they are too far away and I don't think this game has the intellectual depth for those to be metaphorical stars. I suppose you could argue that those stars are a representation of the move one of the character has where he punches a trail of stars at his opponent, but that seems a little on-the-nose to me.
Just in case you forgot what type of game Prime Time Fighter was, it wastes no time in reminding you that this is full-on, large-scale action that only the arcades could provide in the dim and distant year of 1993. Big fiery words, full-screen sprites of boxing gloves and men with towels draped over their heads, it's all here.
Even the ring announcer is at it, larger than life and somehow managing to look over-dressed even for a boxing announcer. I wonder what he's shouting? I know it's not "let's get ready to rumble," because Michael Buffer owns the trademark on that phrase and he's made hundreds of millions of dollar licensing it out over the years. My guess is that this guy's signature phrase is "let's get prepared to tussle!"
There are six contenders to choose from, and I'm going with Japanese in-fighter Shouichi Kanou. It seemed an appropriate choice: he's the most main-character-y, in that he's the most boring and the most Japanese. There's another, more important reason that I'm playing as him, but we'll get to that in a bit. For now, let's just pretend I'm playing as Shouichi because I'm a fan of his slicked-back mullet hairdo.
This is the next opponent? He's gotta be at least sixty years old, this is going to be a piece of piss.
Oh, he's my coach. Gotcha. Well, coach, who have you got lined up for my first match? Some hungry young kid desperate to fight his way out of the ghetto? A seasoned but ageing pro whose career is on the slide?
Huh. Aldebaran Nipper. His name is Aldebaran Nipper. I was hoping he was named after the place he was conceived because who wouldn't want to punch an alien, possibly including your own Will-Smith-in-Independence-Day wisecrack, but it turns out he's from Canada. That's distinctly less interesting. Also, his name is Aldebaran Nipper. I'm having trouble getting past that, so much so that I've only just noticed his facepaint and mohawk-rattail hairstyle. I guess we're not shooting for realistic boxing simulation territory in this one, huh Taito?
"In your eyes, I am complete, In your eyes," then they embrace, they kiss, there's not a dry eye in the house, it's beautiful.
So, Prime Time Fighter is boxing action given the arcade treatment, which means a simple, Street Fighter II inspired affair. Movement is limited to one plane and there are three attack buttons for light, medium and hard punches, with different combinations of button presses and joystick wrangling resulting in body blows and uppercuts. Holding down a button and moving away from your opponent makes you block and when you release you'll immediately perform the punch corresponding to whatever button you were holding to block - presumably this is so you can launch an instant counter-attack after being on the defensive, but I found it rarely worked out that way.
I've got no complaints so far - the control system is intuitive, the action is both fast and furious if a little rough around the edges and I'm impressed that these fighters' designations as in-fighter and out-boxer are actually reflected in the way they play. Aldebaran Nipper does indeed to try keep you at range with his slender, orang-utan arms, and Shouichi was a much more effective fighter once he got close enough to smell what brand of mullet salve Aldebaran uses to keep his hair in place.
I was so effective on the inside that Aldebaran stood little chance of survival when faced with my tactic of punching him in the stomach over and over again. Eventually I punched him in the stomach so hard he lost conciousness, I was treated to this flashy anime-style cutscene as my final blow landed and Shouichi Kanou's boxing career is off to a great start. Aldebaran Nipper returns to Canada, where even his famously pleasant and aggressiveness countrymen will mock him for both his name and his haircut.
My coach didn't even have to tell me to punch Bruce in the stomach over and over again. I figured that one out on my own. Bruce is much sterner test than Aldebaran, because he copes much better against an in-fighter and his punches are more damaging, particularly his special move. That's right, all the boxers in Prime Time Fighter have their own Street Fighter-style special attacks performed by inputting a fighting-game joystick command. Bruce has a ferocious uppercut that does big damage and is excellent at dissuading you from going near him, but Shouichi has a special move of his own.
This is the Stardust Upper, Shouichi's special move that's performed with a fireball motion and which looks totally fabulous. Shouichi shouts "staaardust!" every time he uses it, which is a lot. I think boxing has been hanging around in Las Vegas too long.
This is the real reason I chose to play as Shouichi - out of all the characters, his special move was a) easy to perform, b) fairly powerful and c) one of the few that I could actually figure out how to do. If you leave the game scrolling on the attract mode for a while it does show you a few commands, but it takes forever and seems to ignore certain characters entirely. It taught me how to do the Stardust Upper, though, and thus I'm playing as Shouichi. I'm going to need that special punch. Bruce Hasimikov didn't seem to like it, anyway - I managed to get him trapped in a corner and proceeded to feed him all the stardust he could eat. Next contender, please!
Tamshing Vaortao is next, and he is a toughness. I mean he's not the toughness, he's just a toughness, so I should have some chance of beating him.
Did I choose to play Prime Time Fighter just because of the charmingly loose localisation and bizarre character names? No, like I said, I enjoy games about punching people. All this insanity is just a bonus.
I can't tell you much about how Tamshing boxes, because he has eschewed the Queensberry Rules completely and just fights like the Muay Thai master that he is, repeatedly using his dashing special move where his fist becomes wreathed in spiritual energy that has taken the form of a day-glo pink dragon. Well, you would, wouldn't you?
Tamshing's downfall is that he also insists on using his other special move a lot. With this one, he jumps into the air (illegal in boxing) and tries to punch the top of your head (also illegal in boxing) while a green plasma dragon hugs his fist (totally legal in boxing, as far as I know). This is great for me, because while he's in the air Tamsing isn't attacking and can't defend himself.
You could say he walked right into that one. But he didn't. He jumped into it. The Stardust Upper saves the day one more and I can get back to boxing against, you know, boxers.
Hang on, he's not a boxer, he's a bullfighter! Does that mean he's going to be stabbing me with swords for the whole match? Because that doesn't seem fair. I hope he sticks to electrocuting me with his Lightning Hook, like a proper boxer.
Oh, sorry, it's the Lightning Fook. My mistake.
This is Michael Eldorado, American superstar, soap-opera name haver and someone who is not gracious in victory. He's knocked me down, probably with his Lightning Fook, but instead of retiring to his corner he's doing a little dance. What a prick.
While I'm lying on the canvas, a quick discussion of how Prime Time Fighter's knockdown system works. There are two bars at the top of the screen. The top-most bar is your health, and it's simple enough to understand - if your health bar is emptied, you're knocked out and you lose. The bar below that works a little differently. I suppose you'd call it a stamina bar, and it's split into three segments. Every time a segment is emptied you're knocked down and have to spin the joystick in order to get up again. Get knocked down three times in the same round and you lose, but all three segments come back if you survive a round and you get some health back when you're knocked down so "taking a knee" isn't always a bad idea.
It's an interesting system, and while I don't think you could argue that it adds a ton of strategy to the game it does at least make you pay attention a little more: for example, if your opponent's been down already you might want to focus on body blows to lower his stamina. Fights only last three rounds, so if you're losing on points by round three you might want to go for the big knock-out shot. That's what I did with Michael Eldorado, anyway.
After four wins and his coach admitting that he never believed in him - thanks, coach - Shouichi gets a shot at the championship belt. Only one man stands between Shouichi and the glory of being the best boxer in the world, weird super-powers subdivision. Right then, who stands between me and the belt?
Why, it's Storm Viper, Brazillian luchadore and footworking user. So he's a wrestler, then? Man, he's going to be in for a shock when I start punching him for real.
No, wait, Storm Viper seems to have things in hand. Shouichi's head is somewhere amidst that swirling vortex of painful colour, but things aren't as bad as they seem for out hero because for some reason Storm Viper - which isn't the name of a Mega Man X boss, I just checked - decided his extremely effective special move was too good to waste on the likes of me and so he just kept trying to jab me into submission. Turns out the Stardust Upper is more powerful and seems to have a better reach than Storm Viper's jab. Who would have thought it? Looks like I'll be claiming the belt now.
"Place a fork into meeeee!"
Shouichi celebrates his new World Champion status by bellowing at the crowd while he decides whether to buy three or four pet tigers with his new fortune.
Then Tamshing Vaortao shows up to challenge me to a rematch. No, it's fine, I just defeated the current champ about twenty seconds ago but I'm sure I've got more than enough left in the tank to take down Tamshing "The Leaping Loon" Vaortao. I'll spare you the footage from this rematch, but you know how I beat Tamshing last time? Yeah, I did that again.
Then this weirdo turns up, demanding that I fight him despite his face looking like it's just been run over by a cartoon tyre and hair like... well, you can see what his hair's like. Come on then, Shanao, let's see what you've got.
He's got a longer reach than me, for one thing. He's also more powerful, and faster, and mostly oblivious to my attacks. Yep, Taito must have forgotten they were Taito for a moment and began to think they were SNK, because Shanao is a bullshit boss in the grand tradition of SNK's Neo Geo fighting games, packed with the worst kind of infuriating dickery that arises when a boss isn't merely difficult but actively cheats. Shanao here sometimes likes to completely ignore your punches, for example. It's difficult to win a boxing match when the person you're punching isn't getting punched, and so I lost.
How dare you call me a fucking jackanaps, you candyfloss-headed bastard?! Right, that's it, we're having a rematch and this time I'm going to use savestates until I teach you a lesson.
Ha ha, not so tough now, are you? Man, it feels good to beat Shanao. Did I mention he kept whipping me with his hair? With his hair, like a little girl who has just realised that when her ponytail is wet it makes a surprisingly effective cudgel to whack her brother with. Just like humility and pre-fight press conferences that don't devolve into manufactured "controversy," there's no place for that in the sport of boxing.
Oh, come on, really? I know everyone wants a pop at the champ but this is getting ridiculous. I do like how Shouichi asked a question and then answered it himself in the very next sentence, though.
In what is honestly the final match, I swear, for real this time, Shouichi faces off against former champ Richard Hymer in a bout to decide once and for all who is the greatest boxer of all in the mythical free-weight division. For a moment, a brief and heartening moment, I thought this was going to be more of a fair fight than the last one - Hymer seems like a gentleman, and while his punches were powerful he wasn't blisteringly fast or anything.
Then he started using his special move, a technique that allows him to almost instantaneously sheathe himself in soul energy so you can't see what he's doing and then hit you with a blow so powerful that it knocks you down immediately if it connects. Even if you block it - a nigh-impossible task, given that you can't see it coming and Hymer can change the angle of his attack in an instant - it still does a considerable amount of damage. I though the fight against Shanao was infuriating, but Hymer is ten times as likely to cause a fatal, rage-induced embolism in anyone who opposes him.
He punches hard, he punches often, he likes to trap you in a corner and uses his special move repeatedly and worst of all he's almost entirely impossible to hit. I think the only time I ever landed a clean blow on him was with the occasional jab, which does negligible damage and merely left me open for him to hit me. You know I said I used savestates against Shanao? In this match, I had to save the game after every single punch to even stand a chance against him, and even then my only viable strategy was to hit each other at the same time and hope my punch did slightly more damage. With this method, saving the game every quarter of a second and praying I could connect, I inched toward victory. It took forty minutes, and afterwards I never wanted to play Prime Time Fighter again, but in the end I landed the finishing blow.
Yes, I will behave in the manner appropriate to a world boxing champion, just like wife-beater Floyd Mayweather, the various cocaine users throughout the sport and Mike Tyson.
In a move I totally wasn't expecting, it seems that Prime Time Fighter has a unique ending for each boxer. That seems like a wasted effort on Taito's part, considering no-one's ever going to get past Hymer to see them unless there's something deeply wrong with them. They could have saved the time and energy by just having the game fade to a screen that says "GET A LIFE".
Oh, right, Shouichi's ending. He retires from boxing because he has become so good at punching people that he will kill anyone who is on the receiving end of said punching. That's his excuse, anyway. I think he just wants to get out of the fight game. In a universe where people can electrify their gloves and summon soul-dragons, I think that's fair enough.
It's a real shame that Prime Time Fighter became engulfed in such a dense mire of absolute bullshit towards the end, because up until the bosses turned up I was was rather enjoying it. There's very little polish to the game, and even in the early stages it can be frustrating - punches sometimes don't seem to connect when they should and there's no indication of whether that's down to your opponent's defensive work or collision detection best described as "capricious", the other boxers can sometimes get stuck in loops of behaviour and there's no balance between the playable fighters. All that makes it sound terrible, but there's fun to be had here, with the fast-paced action and undeniably exciting atmosphere resulting in a game that's best when it's not being taken seriously.
In fact, my advice is simple - don't play against the computer. If you're going to play Prime Time Fighter, play it against a friend. Play it after a couple of beers. Just don't play it with dreams of becoming the undisputed champ clouding your mind, because it ain't gonna happen.