For the past few years we have seen a resurgence in versus fighting games. Ever since Capcom has released Street Fighter IV with a 2.5 dimensional plain, a ton of older series have gone through revivals, from Mortal Kombat to Killer Instinct, on modern consoles. The interest in 2.5D fighters again has also sparked the creativity of the small-time developers as well. Games like Skullgirls for example represent old-school style fighting games being revitalized once more. Other, more popular games such as Atlus’s Persona Series have dipped their toes into the waters with Persona 4 Arena.
While the versus fighter craze gains steam once again, I figured it would be appropriate to talk about one of the more hardcore fighting games ever made. So hardcore, in fact, it was ahead of its time. So much so that these innovations became a detriment that led to the possible franchise’s demise. That game is Weaponlord for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.
The first fighting game developed exclusively for consoles, Weaponlord was the brainchild of James Goddard and Dave Winstead, both former employees of Capcom who went into business together with the company Visual Concepts, now known as 2K Sports. Goddard and Winstead both had experience in the fighting genre, with Goddard being a lead designer for Super Street Fighter II, while Winstead worked on Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Believing they could cater to the more competitive crowd of fighting fanatics, the duo decided to create a fighting video game that would be well received on the tournament circuit, even having ambitions of taking Weaponlord online.
Both Goddard and Winstead would achieve their vision back in 1995, when Weaponlord was one of the first fighting games to go online. Online connectivity in the mid 1990's was done with a service called XBAND. XBAND was the U.S equivalent to modern online gaming, using a dial-up connection that literally plugs right into the wall with the aid of your phone line. To do this, you needed a special modem that connected into your system, then placing compatible games on top, allowing you to play them online. The XBAND provided not only internet connection for a fee (with Blockbuster video stores renting out modems for fairly cheap price plans) but also gave you daily updates through a built-in mail service.
Sadly, due to the dial-up, the latency online was horrific. Some games were noted for being unplayable due to lag, and since only sport games and versus fighters populated the service, the choices given to players were limited at best. Weaponlord was the only game to give XBAND any promotion, providing the logo on official boxart, so the service, despite boasting a supposed 700,000 subscriber base, died out after two years of service.
Weaponlord was a unique case in its relationship with XBAND. Goddard and Winstead felt so strongly that online connectivity would be the future of game playing they took a risk in the design of their project as well: optimization. According to Goddard in an interview with Gamespot, "Knowing we were going to have a quarter-second lag from New York to California, we realized we couldn't have any startup frames on our thrust blocks," Goddard stated. "We also added cross-up protection by designing a rising thrust block that would counter those attacks easily."
This is just the first of many innovations that Weaponlord would contain. Unlike other games in the genre, Weaponlord was also about the use of weapons in combat, a novel idea the time. Each character would use a specific weapon in to fight each other, becoming the first major weapon-based fighting game in history. Weaponlord also had a complex blocking system, using thrust-blocking for aggressive attacks and combinations, combined with a deflect system that allowed for counter attacks and combos to be executed when deflecting incoming blows. These mechanics would later be used by Street Fighter III as the famous parry system, and a deflect system would be precursor to impact hits in Soul Edge and later, Soul Calibur.
In fact, the Soul Calibur series took many cues from Weaponlord, in particular the combo and counterattack system and the heavy emphasis on weapon-styled attacks. Namco Bandai is also the current owners of the Weaponlord brand, so in some respects the Soul series can be seen as the spiritual successor to Weaponlord, which was in development long before Soul Edge hit arcades in 1995.
The game itself is pretty straight forward as fighters go. The cool, hand-drawn sprites were inspirited by the works of Frank Frazetta, giving a Conan-esque feel to the game with gritty, sword and sandal aesthetics being the primary theme. The character sprites were enlarged to show the intricate details of the character designs and the weapons striking each other on screen. The large sprites however took up most of the memory used in Weaponlord, leading to limitations on the number of playable characters in the game. Goddard and Winstead compensated for the small roster by giving each fighter a plethora of moves. "It was a technical feat to jump from 90 pixels tall to 120 pixels tall--and still run at 60 frames per second!" recalled Goddard, "Later on we realized at 24 megabits we were maxed out on space; we just couldn't add any more characters. That's why our dudes have a ton of moves, to make up for the fact there are only seven characters."
Controls do take time to get used to, as combinations utilize almost every button on the controller to execute properly. Much care was put into the combat of Weaponlord. The game only had two programmers on staff, Steven Chang, and Aki Rimpilainen; The Genesis version of Weaponlord runs faster than the Super Nintendo version, mostly due to scaling down the work of Rimpilainen. The SNES version, however, was able to retain higher graphical prowess and better sound quality, at the cost of some minor lag in the game. Regardless, it was imperative that the fighting itself was the core of Weaponlord. "It had to be just right." recalled Chang. "If you were off a pixel, it could be the difference between being balanced or broken."
Overall the game is playable, despite the lack of content you expect in a versus fighter. The deep countering system and complex controls hold up to this day, leading Weaponlord to endure a cult following since its release in October 1995. For the diehards who are willing to learn the intricacies of the combo system, the goals set forth by Goddard and Winstead have been achieved.
Sadly, the world was simply not ready for Weaponlord. Released late in the console life of the Super Nintendo and the Genesis, coupled with a relatively short development window, Weaponlord never achieved the success of other fighters like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter II. The timing was also an issue, as the same year Weaponlord was released, fighting games were taking the plunge into the world of 3-D. The same year of Weaponlord's release saw arcade hits Tekken 2 and Soul Edge, along with titles such as Battle Arena Toshinden for the newly released Playsation system. While most hardcore players were still in arcades air juggling opponents, Weaponlord, being console exclusive, sat at home, waiting for its chance at glory.
In 2014, there is still hope for the title. Goddard, who has recently worked on Killer Instinct for the Xbox One, has expressed interest in reviving Weaponlord for the current generation. With the renaissance of fighting games currently underway, the chances of seeing Weaponlord again have begun the rumor mill for a sequel. With the advent of Kickstarter campaigns and small-time developers gaining popularity in the industry, it is possible that Goddard can get his wish, and the title will see a sequel ten years in the making. Until then, the blood-red sun still hangs in the air on Weaponlord, a game worthy of playing to this very day.
I hope you enjoyed the latest write up. Please, leave comments below as we continue to go through games you never heard of.