Guilty Gear X2 #Reload

Despite the common stereotypes (and sometimes reality) of gamers hiding out alone in windowless basements to enjoy their hobby, video games have often been as much of a social endeavor as any other activity. Specifically, there was a period of time when any “serious” gamer actually had to go to a very public arena to experience the latest and greatest. That’s right, I’m talking about the glory days of the arcade.

When home systems caught up to, and then surpassed, the technology of arcade machines, video arcades largely disappeared. Sure, you can still find one tucked away here or there, and you might even drag yourself down to one to stir a few warm memories. And when you do go, you’ll find that they’re an entirely alien place now, dominated by strange, quirky machines designed solely to stand out as unique from anything available on a home console. It takes a fair amount of digging through fake life-sized jet skis and fire hose emulators to find anything resembling the old simple control stick with a few buttons on the side.

The king of these arcade consoles was the ubiquitous 2D fighter. This is exactly where Guilty Gear X2 #Reload comes in. Everything about it hearkens back to the days where we crowded around a screen while our quarters stood in line for us. Even though some elements are technically up to 21st century standards, they are so stylistically connected to the arcade age that it’s difficult to notice at first. The graphics, for instance, struck me as prosaic until I looked closer and noticed that they are actually quite modern; I was simply expecting the mid-90’s sprites they so closely resemble.

What is perhaps Reload‘s biggest failing arises from the same convention. Arcade games, based on a pay-per-play basis, are often designed to be difficult, esoteric, and entirely unforgiving to novices. This eats up quarters, providing the economic stimulus to actually build an arcade in the first place. Developers of home games, on the other hand, already have all of the money they’re going to get from you by the time you pop the disc in your console. As such, they often provide tutorials and starter missions to ease you into the experience.

Reload, on the other hand, provides none of this. Nothing in the software or in the manual will help you, in any way, become good at this game. Nor is it intuitive and easy to pick up as some modern fighters such as Soul Calibur II. Even something as simple as getting into close combat range takes a bit of practice to achieve, because of the slow movement speeds. No, if you were to play this game in isolation, the only way to master it would be through a long, slow process of beating your head against a proverbial wall. The arcade experience mitigated this factor with social elements — other players who could offer (or ask) advice and share a common pool of trial-and-error experience. Fortunately, the developers recognize the importance of this social process.

Arc System Works is smart enough to know that getting us out the door and down to an arcade for something as simple as a 2D fighter is a doomed effort in recent years. Those days are long past. So, they have shifted the meeting space from your local mall or shopping center into the same place so much public common ground has moved recently: the Internet. With Xbox Live support, you’ll find plenty of eager opponents. Some of them will even be nice enough to explain how they put together the combos and special moves that destroyed you in a previous game. Yes, some of them will be jerks, but before you go bemoaning the dehumanizing effect of technology, remember that this is the price of human interaction anywhere, including at an arcade.

As a final note, the fantastic range of characters in Reload deserves a special mention. All the surrealist reading in the world couldn’t have prepared me for the moment a dolphin walked on screen to hand my character, a girl decked out in pirate gear, an anchor to smash my opponent with. From a heavy metal witch to what appears to be a psychotic physician, the cast here is nothing if not unique.