Until the other day, I hadn't been to Kanayama, properly that is, in a number of years. It was quite the nostalgia trip since after a quick stop with a snakey gaijin handler at a Freebell mansion for green gaijin and then a very spartan move in to my own tissue box sized apartment in Iwakura it was one of the first places I visited when I arrived in late March, 2002.
It was with great anticipation that I visited that hub of transport, art and debauchery for the second round of location tests for Arc System Works' Guilty Gear Xrd (to be released April 2014). The first thing I noticed on leaving Kanayama station was that although some hardcore gentrification had occurred around the creation of the Asunal shopping precinct (imagine one of those airport town shopping/outlet malls transplanted into the middle of an actual metropolis), the grit, squalor and sleaze, though somewhat anemic compared to its glory days, remained.
As I exited the station I was greeted with cold clouds, a very worn out homeless man and a chilling October morning breeze. Further up the road I noticed the queue was already forming. Sure, I made a few wrong turns in the station (it has been several years and many renovations) but I was still scheduled to arrive at 9:45. Within moments of taking my place in the line the number of people had doubled. Inside Kanayama Sega, lights, machines, recorded voices kicked into life and the snaking stream of previously murmuring otaku started to shuffle.
The doors opened at exactly two minutes after ten which suggests one of two things: either the tencho's watch is running late or he just wanted to create a sense of building tension in a distinctly understated yet polite Japanese fashion.
We poured inside in a mostly orderly fashion, game nerds such as myself split off and headed up to the 4th floor where the unveiling was to take place. The rest of the crowd (public holiday, lots of middle and high school kids) flooded into the rhythm games, purikura and UFO catcher prize machines.
Let me take you aside for a moment. Location tests in themselves are special events. They are a demonstration of a work in progress, usually by top or close-to-top-tier companies. They are exclusive previews of up and coming products a means to a marketing and bug-testing end. What made this event particularly special to me was that it was being held in Nagoya. These events usually pass over my humble city, after all, though not small and certainly a prosperous, rather large city, Nagoya has never had the executive prestige of Tokyo nor the rough and ready eccentricity of Osaka. Nagoya is a town built on textiles and automobiles, that's right this is the playground of Toyota.
Nevertheless, a loke-test in my town. Better believe I'd be there (family commitments, work notwithstanding).
As we snaked up the staircase we soon (this "we" is the crowd I was in) arrived at... well almost the entrance to where the test was happening. Three or four dudes deep, by stretching and straining (as in hurting) my neck it was possible to get a glimpse of the screen. Little by little, I got closer and then was instructed (along with the thirty or so people behind me) by the tencho to line up "over there". Sigh, right next to an explosively loud demo/commercial for online Virtua Fighter customisation...
The line moved far more quickly than I thought it would. It seemed that protocol had been decided. You lose, you go to the end of the line. Winner stays on, head-to-head action only. Talk about doki doki. Let's be honest here. Street Fighter has always been my main game. And I suck at it. The next closest title I am almost proficient at is Persona 4 Arena. Guilty Gear itself? It's just embarrassing. Nevertheless, I managed to learn a lot during my one win, one loss and long waiting period.
Let's get it right from the start, in this day of HD remakes (from Jojo's Bizarre Adventure to Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Street Fighter III Third Strike), imperfection and "that'll do" seem to be the overriding sentiments. So-called HD remixes can only do so much with existing code. Sprites and frames of animation can be re-drawn, semi-funcitonal netcode bolted on and menus redesigned but a proper fully functioning contemporary remake of an existing FG has yet to be fully realised. One look at Xrd and you will feel the same as I did: "Wow, someone finally did this right!"
At first glimpse this is clearly the new standard for anime/air dash fighters. It combines the (controversial to some players) prestige system of Guilty Gear with (not quite) the latest technology to produce a highly refined, immersive fighting game experience.
While these days anime/air dash (and similarly inspired) fighters are perhaps exceedingly common (from Aquapazza to Chaos Code, melty blood etc), none of them is as fully realised as Xrd.
The newest iteration of Guilty Gear will be a standard to which all others will have to equal or better as next generation technological standards developed for the new age. Using the Unreal 3D environment engine as its core, it features richly detailed anime style mapping in a style consistent with the series. The first thing you notice, whether playing or watching is the just how crisply, fluidly and prettily it runs.
What seals the deal though is actually playing the game. You are in control of protagonists in a game in which the barrier between anime as a genre of television and its execution within a playable environment has been removed. Character introduction, winning animations, special moves and over the top actions extend out of the action on screen and explode into Japanese anime fluidity, then return seamlessly to the action. The integration between media elements is superb. But this is not the whole story.
While P4U and Blazblue (especially the most recent version of the latter, Chronophantasma) have moved toward increased visual fluidity as it relates to control inputs, Xrd is clearly the result they have been aiming for over the last decade or more. When looking back at some of the earlier 60 fps games such as Third Strike or the older versions it is easy to see moments of jerkiness when the animated frames and system engine collide, causing cancellation in visual information in order to accurately execute player inputs. In the past aesthetics have almost always lost to pragmatics.
In order to have a certain move fully "active" by a certain time and the frames of animation required to accurately represent this action to the player, concessions must be made. This results in jerkiness and choppiness. While merely visual it does have the effect of distancing the player from the visual heart of the game.
But now, with the GG franchise license back in their hands and considerably more processing power under their belts, ArcSys are working hard on matching, balancing visual information with play information in ways previously impossible. The results are stunning.
Cannot wait for the next loke test in my backyard.