[5 January 2005]
Team Ninja’s recent repackaging of the first two installments in the Dead or Alive series demonstrates two very important points about games and gaming culture. The first is that nostalgia is often overwrought: some games age much better than others, and older is not always better. Secondly, it is possible for a decent game to develop from a horrible idea.
I’ve used these review spaces to comment on gamers’ loyalty to the past more than a few times. If there’s any doubt about how real this loyalty is, just take a look at this year’s contenders for top grosses and/or critical acclaim—virtually every single contender is a sequel or a remake. Dead or Alive: Ultimate falls squarely into both these categories, as it is made up of a revamped Dead or Alive (DOA) and its much more successful sequel, Dead or Alive 2 (DOA2).
DOA: Ultimate is generating a lot of buzz and quite a bit of talk for “Game of the Year” awards in action/fighting genres, but the truth is that all of this acclaim is really for half the package. Putting this version of DOA next to Team Ninja’s revamped DOA2 only serves to call attention to just how poor DOA really was. All nostalgia and glorification of the past aside, DOA comes out of that very awkward phase in console gaming where everything had to be 3D, even though that meant using rough polygon models instead of polished artwork. Even the games with superb play value (like Mario 64 and Panzer Dragoon) that came out of this era require a good deal of forgiveness when it comes to graphics. And the original DOA is not a game with superb play value.
The re-polished DOA2, on the other hand, doesn’t just hold up against today’s titles, it stands out among them. This goes far beyond graphics, as well—although it’s not my preferred fighting title, I’m forced to acknowledge that the mechanics are robust and balanced enough that choosing between DOA2, Soul Calibur II and Tekken 4 is akin to choosing between vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream.
So, despite any claims to “originality” or other nostalgia evoking qualities that the first DOA may have, the fact is that in this case older is simply not better. The leap in playability as well as presentation has DOA 2 outshining DOA astronomically. Nor has DOA really gotten any better with age—mediocre at the time of its release, reselling it now as modern makes it look absolutely abysmal.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the DOA series without talking about the “babes.” I’m not generally one to find myself shocked about the exploitation of women in videogames—when you consider the demographics of who purchases these games and how much they overlap with the demographics of who purchases, say, Maxim, it’s hard to be surprised. Rather, as a gamer (and putting aside my political views for the moment), what upsets me about this practice is the same thing that upsets me about games based on television, movie, and sports licenses. Put quite simply, developers tend to rest on these gimmicks instead of actual game fundamentals.
Which is why it’s no big shock that games like BMX XXX and The Guy Game are flops. When I read about a game like DOA, a fighting game with the hook that the majority of central characters are big breasted, scantily clad women, I pretty much expect it to be atrocious. What is surprising is that someone managed to revitalize and salvage the series and create a fun and engaging game in DOA 2. Rather than being an asset or attraction to DOA 2, I find myself saying that I enjoy the game in spite of them, much the same as Chronicles of Riddick: Butcher Bay is a good game despite its movie license.
All in all, it’s difficult to review this release in its entirety. At the cost of a single game, I suppose one could just pretend the original DOA wasn’t included. Purchasing a prettied-up version of DOA2 with Live capability isn’t a bad deal at this price. Or, save DOA for a late-night lark like you would the countless 8-bit unlockable games hidden in virtually every Nintendo release. Packaging them side-by-side, as equals, was, in my opinion, a mistake—claiming that the original DOA is really half of what’s included is a disservice to DOA2 and Team Ninja’s hard work on modernizing it.