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Picture the scene: it's the turn of the millennium and the biggest video game brawlers are beginning another term at Fight School. Swatty Streetfighter is still the teacher's pet; Tekken is busy beating up the new kids and Dead Or Alive is being its usual pervy self behind the bike sheds. And then there's the eccentric loner - and that would be DarkStalkers. None other than the quirky cousin of Streetfighter, it may not have garnered the same level of notoriety, but then, the real mavericks always were too cool for school.
The PSP's 2005 launch saw a remarkably unlikely return to centre stage for a series that had been largely dormant for six years. DarkStalkers Chronicle is moulded as an anthology of sorts, but unlike Capcom's slightly unconvincing (and highly frequent) revamps of Streetfighter II, this feels very complete. It pools together the content of all three instalments of the Saturn/PSOne 2D beat 'em ups and more besides, as well as all the intricacies that the connoisseurs love to pick through.
What's easy to forget in the time that's passed is, even with its retro leanings, The Chaos Tower was almost certainly the best portable beat 'em up ever released at the time. This was of course as much down to the sizable technological leap afforded it by the then cutting-edge PSP, but as easy as it was to be wowed by a handheld fighter with pin-sharp visual clarity and no watering-down of the control scheme, the game also has an impressive degree of staying power. For those unfamiliar with DarkStalkers' homage to gothic anime and all things odd, there's the opportunity to sample an ageing though superbly crafted brawler, complete with one of the most eclectic character line-ups you could ever wish to see.
It's not just the newcomers who'll find stuff to like here though; long-term fans will appreciate a couple of notable new features. Firstly, WiFi brings the series' portable debut to life as no Capcom beat 'em up is ever complete without multiplayer, and playing against a friend predictably doesn't disappoint. Just as significant is the all-new Chaos Tower mode. An early foray into the tower-climbing quest trope, it sees the player assembling a team of three fighters and aiming to win bouts in order to move up "floors" with a view to facing tougher opponents and attaining artwork stills as a mini-incentive along the way. Getting knocked out eliminates a player permanently, leading to some tricky moments as you'll periodically face powerful mid-bosses, thus it's important to rotate and protect fighters low on health. You'll spend longer on the Arcade mode, but it's a nice addition.
And of course, it plays very well in a familiar kind of way. Strictly speaking, it doesn't do anything the Street Fighter Alpha games don't, but whilst D-Pad control is so often a hindrance to such titles, here it's actually very sprightly, and with a characteristically generous selection of difficulty settings and playing styles, it is in the classic Capcom style, a game with as much depth as you could ask for. Learning to block and time simple attacks proves as rewarding as executing the flashier special moves, and the computer opponents (even the last boss, Jedah) rarely use cheap tactics.
Of course, you can't weigh up a fighting game's credentials without looking at its cast, and on show here is an array of characters so strange that it's difficult to know quite where to begin. Morrigan is certainly the most recognisable figure; all boobs, wings and green hair, she's a fan favourite and an ideal starting point for newcomers as her mix of agility, projectile attacks and uppercuts will seem pretty accessible. What's ultra-impressive is the almost-complete absence of palette swapping as a means of expanding the quota of playable characters; Morrigan and Lilith do share similar features, but employ very different combat techniques. The other twenty or so protagonists are unique however, and whilst they aren't as iconic as those the other big franchises have mustered, there are some fantastically creative figures to play as.
The most distinctive include Pyron; literally a fireball in the shape of a human, Felicia; the blue-haired cat-woman and Sasquatch who, as the name suggests, is a Big Foot. The most memorable among this motley bunch however is Baby Bonnie Hood. Mimicking the look of Little Red Riding Hood, she's a wickedly humorous, dark skit on the fabled children's character, designed to highlight evil as a universally human trait that isn't dependent on a specific type of appearance. Beneath her cute veneer is a psychotic murderer whose ending sequence, which sees a family of wolves huddled around a TV worriedly learning of her exploits as she lurks in the woods, is absolute genius.
It would in retrospect have been nice to have had a moves list accessible from the pause menu, as gamers with little or no exposure to the genre are likely going to struggle to begin with. This is further compounded by the odd bulkier character using the old charge move sets (holding a direction before quickly pressing the opposite and an attack button) and these are really tough to make effective without guidance - the Frankenstein-esque Victor thus plays like lumbering wrestler Zangief from Streetfighter II, and is horribly unsuited to non-joystick control. Still, whilst this may be attributed to one of the less desirable aspects of nineties gaming, one aspect that doesn't disappoint is the hugely comprehensive and very listenable soundtrack that, unsurprisingly, has a boppy, nineties arcade exuberance to it at times.
Presentation-wise the game was perfect for showing off its hardware. The imaginative characters are a far cry from the pixelated hand-me-downs that beleaguered handheld fans had for so long had to put up with, but it's the acid-trip backdrops that really make things fizz, and while many would go on to surpass The Chaos Tower's relatively simplistic PSOne-era animations and unrefined menus, few can match the vivacity of what is an absolute festival of colour and activity. One area where it lets itself down though is in the visual quality of the ending videos; rather than being remastered properly, they are downsized to look miniature on the screen and look pixelated and unclear, looking like they've been lifted second-hand from a VHS recording.
In the end it's nice that DarkStalkers got to have its moment in the sunshine, as in retrospect, the gaming world would be less well off without its quirky, original cast and old-fashioned but watertight gameplay. As a collection, it doesn't lack for content and the retention of all aspects that made the games great in their heyday is first class, and with the new Chaos Tower mode and WiFi multiplayer, fans are unlikely to be put out. It may be starting to look its age, but should the series remain eternally overlooked, its finely-tuned controls and well-balanced gameplay remain evergreen.
While it hasnt ever been one of the companys more famous or successful franchises, for some reason Capcom opted to open its PSP account not with an entry into one of its world-famous Resident Evil or Streetfighter franchises, but instead a Darkstalkers game, and one with a real mouthful of a title at that. Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower was one of the handheld consoles launch titles, and was its sole fighting game release upon launch, so naturally it was one of my first games for the machine.
For those of you, and lets face it there are a few, whove never heard of the Darkstalkers series, a brief explanation may be in order. In the peak of the Streetfighter craze, which saw countless companies try to best Capcoms iconic 2D fighter, Capcom themselves decided to branch out a little, and one of the results was a game called Vampire Saviour. When the game was released in the west, it was re-titled Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors. The game took the basic Streetfighter formula, a 2D fighting game where the Best-of-Two-Rounds principle applies and special moves are performed by either rolling the D-Pad in circular motions or charging a direction before quickly hitting the opposite in conjunction with one of 6 attack buttons(Light, Medium and Heavy Punch and Kicks respectively). To spice things up, the series implemented a Super-Move, but in a different way to how the Streetfighter games implemented such moves. While Super-Moves could still only be accessed after charging up a Meter to completion, done by landing attacks, instead of entering a special move-command, performing any of your regular Special Moves caused them to be Supercharged, in other words they inflicted more damage and got a cooler looking animation. Where the game really differed from the other fighters on the market was that its characters were rather unique. You see, instead of having a cast of martial artists, the game featured a slew of classic monsters who fought with their supernatural abilities. This meant you could duke it out between a vampire and the Frankenstein monster or see who is tougher out of a Kung Fu practitioner Werewolf and a Mummy.
Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors proved successful enough to warrant 2 sequels, Night Warriors: Darkstalkers Revenge and Darkstalkers 3. All of these saw ports to the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation, both of which introduced new characters and made alterations to the gameplay mechanics, most notably with regards to how Super Moves work, and the series took off enough to warrant 2 cartoon series, Japanese and American, before the franchise was cut-short by the decline in popularity of 2D fighters. However, Capcom didnt let the series die completely, with various characters, most notably the Succubus Morrigan, appearing in their various Vs. games, before the online title Vampire Saviour Chronicle was released as one of the final titles for the Sega Dreamcast in Japan. This made the fact Capcom decided to rejuvenate the all the more puzzling, if the game wasnt deemed sell-able a couple of years ago to Western Audiences, what has changed?
You see, Chaos Tower is essentially an improved version of the Dreamcast game. Instead of being a completely new entry into the Darkstalkers series, the game is more like a compilation of the 3 games, with all of the characters introduced in the series included, and the ability to play as them in the style of any of the 3 games in the series, even if they never appeared as playable characters in the earlier games. For example, you can select Jedah, a character introduced in Darkstalkers 3, and play as him in the style of the first game, where there are no real Super Moves, only improved versions of Specials.
The game has this healthy roster of 18 characters, spanning from the awesome Werewolf Talbain and Mummy Anakaris to the somewhat less inspiring monster hunter B.B. Hood and Bee-Woman Q-Bee, each character has a fairly unique playing style, with the exception of Morrigan, Lilith and Demitri, who all play similarly to Streetfighters Shotokan fighters.
As well as a healthy range of characters, the game also offers a wide range of modes. Theres your Arcade mode, which offers you 4 ways to play, based on the way the 3 original games played, as well as the newly crafted Darkstalkers 3[SP] mode. These modes dont affect the game all that drastically, mainly with regards to the Super Meter, although the [SP] mode also affects the way the games rounds are set-up, taking on a format similar to Rares Killer Instinct, where you are simply issued 2 Health Meters, and when one is depleted, you simply move on to your next one, regardless of your opponents energy.
The game also offers a Versus mode, which, while not exactly an online mode on par with the DC game, but the wireless compatibility means that you may be able to find other people to play. Possibly the games most unique mode is the Tower mode that it takes its title from.
In Tower mode, you select 3 characters, before choosing one before each fight and taking on a series of enemies, on occasion having to comply with various stipulations such as no jumping or special moves. The reason you select 3 characters is that damage is held over after matches finish, meaning you have to alternate between fights, to allow the characters energy to recover. When you win fights, you progress up the tower, but when all 3 characters lose, then its game over. Its almost a cross between a Survival mode and a campaign mode, and while its nothing spectacular, it is a fun alternative to arcade mode, and rounding things off is you basic training mode, and Chronicle, which is a gallery of all the artwork and Arcade mode endings that you can unlock by playing Tower and Arcade mode.
The aesthetics of the game are impressive. The sprites and backgrounds look crisp and clear on the smaller PSP screen than they do on a full-size TV, and the animation is, as far as I can tell, spot on, meaning that this may actually be the first graphically perfect Capcom 2D fighter ever to appear on a Sony games machine, and also the first to not subject the player to eons long loading times.
The sound keeps up a good level of quality, with voices, sound effects and the slightly creepy, slightly catchy music all sounding very clear coming out of the PSPs small speakers.
So, youve got a Capcom fighter with good graphics, sound and a healthy selection of modes. All in all its a good game right, 4/5 at least right? No. Now, Im not someone who will write a game off because its a 2D fighter, hell Im the opposite, and I do feel that s game, Chaos Tower should merit at least 4. However, as long as its on the PSP it never will. You see while the game uses the same 6-Attacks button layout, which all respond fine and is a piece of cake to get used to, while Sony were marketing their latest toy and making it look sexy, they seemingly forgot to put in any sort decent way to control games. Sonys D-Pads have always been bad, but this just highlights how completely and utterly useless the PSPs D-Pad is. While going in straight directions it works fine, trying to get the game to respond to diagonal commands is folly, which, naturally, in a game where D-Pad rolls dictate everything, ruins things a lot. While, after a while, it is possible to garner some semblance of control, making the game somewhat playable, its still crippling what was potentially a great game.
When all is said and done, I feel giving the game any less than 3 would be doing Capcom, who have created a good product, a disservice, anything higher may actually encourage people to buy it. Chaos Tower turned out to be a double disappointment for me, because I was really looking forward to it, only to have this potential enjoyment ruined, and the appeal of the PSP in general severely marred in my eyes. So while I feel Capcom are free of blame here, I wouldnt recommend the game to anyone. It will just disappoint you as to how a major international company can, on its 3rd attempt, actually seems to be getting worse at designing controllers.
Review also posted on Epinions.com