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VALLEY WEEKEND | VIDEO GAMES

Looking for Some Substance Amid All the Flash

Story lines and original ideas are too often secondary to slick packaging and groovy opening titles.

August 15, 1996|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My folks always taught me that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing well. I've tried to live by those words and sometimes I wish more video game designers would.

I don't mean to sound like a grumpy old man, but one of the privileges of having a column is the ability to rant. So here goes: I'm more than a little tired of playing what seems like a never-ending stream of sequels and knockoffs and plain old junk.

It seems as if companies can't move titles out the door fast enough. Story lines suffer. Original ideas are few and far between. Game play feels secondary to slick packaging and groovy opening titles.

Playing games like these makes me feel like a sucker. At least that's how I felt when I played Battle Arena Toshinden 2, a title that had the distinct misfortune of being the straw that broke the camel's back for me.

The original Toshinden was part of PlayStation's launch lineup and, more than any other game in that initial bunch, the fighter really made me warm up quickly to Sony's rig. It was smooth. It was beautiful. And it was loads of fun.

Lots of others felt that way, too, so a sequel was inevitable. But Toshinden 2--from Takara and Playmates Interactive--suffers from all the faults of a game rushed to market. Too much disk space was used for the cheesy opening movie, complete with lingering shots of sexy fighters Sofia and Ellis doing high kicks. Flashy graphics mask awkward control. All the fighters speak Japanese.

This last gripe is particularly annoying. Among the coolest elements of the original Toshinden were the little put-downs each fighter muttered after victories, such as Sofia's taunting, "Any time, anywhere." This time, though, everyone still speaks Japanese. Turkish Ellis. Russian Sofia. American Rungo. French Duke. None speaks their native tongue.

Go figure.

In the end, maybe I'm more sad than mad. I truly looked forward to playing Toshinden 2--as I do most games. But games live or die in the details. When details get overlooked in the name of arbitrary deadlines designed to bump profits, we all lose.

Faith Restored: The great thing about video games is that if you don't like the game you're playing, you can always fire up one you do and forget your cares. That's what I did after Toshinden.

Skeleton Warriors, also from Playmates Interactive, brings the side-scrolling adventure nicely to 32-bit machines. There's nothing original here about the story line--your basic bad prince-good prince struggle for the future of mankind. But, as I mentioned above, the details are what make a game.

And not a single one has been overlooked in Skeleton Warriors. The environments are hostile, but beautifully drawn in overlapping planes. Enemies are smart and tough to kill. Power-ups are not only useful, they're essential in some contests.

Side-scrollers are not generally at the top of my play list, but over the past few weeks I've found myself returning again and again to Skeleton Warriors. It takes full advantage of the power 32-bit rigs offer to deliver big characters that move smoothly and play that absolutely rages.

If this level of care and know-how went into more games, what a happy world it would be.

Staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every Thursday. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send letters to The Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Or send e-mail to Aaron.Curtiss@latimes.com.

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