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The Latest in Fighters: Whip-Wielders Are Out; Lightning-Fast Action Is In

June 12, 1997|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not all fighters are created equal.

That simple truth of the video game world becomes self-evident playing a handful of recent titles: Tobal No. 1 for Sony PlayStation, Killer Instinct Gold for Nintendo 64 and Virtual On and Battle Arena Toshinden Ultimate Revenge Attack for Sega Saturn.

Taken together, this batch of next-gen fighters highlights the genre's broad spectrum--from wrist-numbing rehashes to innovative delights that push the boundaries of the traditional kick, punch and roll. While it's certainly refreshing to see game designers pushing the envelope, most are stuck squarely back in the early 1990s, serving up 16-bit style games with a few graphic garnishes.

From predictability to downright sloppiness, the majority of fighters available today don't live up to the promises of 32- and 64-bit systems. Gamers deserve better than a bunch of whip-wielding women in leather corsets and buffed-out bozos.

The latest installment of the Battle Arena Toshinden series, for instance, splashes a few new backgrounds across the screen, adds a couple of new characters and slaps on some new opening animation. Everything else about this Toshinden, though, is pretty old.

As one of the first titles on PlayStation, the original Toshinden set the early standard for 32-bit play with rotating backgrounds and smooth animation--even if the fighting wasn't as technical as it should have been. But the standard has been raised time and again by newer titles.

A few lingering shots of Sofia's rendered polygon buns aren't nearly enough to bring this Toshinden up to snuff. It's time to give the franchise a rest or take it in for some major retooling.

For inspiration, it need look no further than Virtual On, which demonstrates how minor variations on a theme can make all the difference. Players suit up in battle armor and duke it out in a three-dimensional ring.

That may sound familiar, but rather than just punch each other senseless, players dash in and out and up and down to blast opponents with an ever-growing arsenal. Play is lightning-fast, relentless and technical--precisely the kind of action that make fighters so appealing.

Not nearly as fast, but just as fun, Tobal No. 1 adds a role-playing aspect to some of the tastiest fighting around. Developed by Squaresoft--makers of the Final Fantasy RPG series--Tobal offers two modes of play: tournament or quest.

Tournament provides standard fighting with some nice variations, such as the ability to refine throws in close matches. But the truly cool part of Tobal is the quest mode. As one might expect, it delivers all of the RPG strategy Square is famous for. Players wander corridors teeming with baddies in search of the energy source Molmoran.

Unlike traditional RPG fight sequences, players have plenty of control over their characters. And the mazes get so tough that it's easy to believe the designers' boasts that no one has made it to the end. Tobal delivers a nice mix for folks who like to think before punching.

For those who still insist on a good old-fashioned duke-fest, Killer Instinct Gold fits the bill. Although not much changed from the 16-bit incarnation on Super Nintendo, this 64-bit version is as close to the arcade experience as it gets at home: big characters, instant responses and plenty of special moves.

With games like this out there, don't get sucker-punched.

Staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every other 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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