In the grand pantheon of fighting games there are few names as storied as that of Tekken. It’s a series that I discovered quite young. I can just about remember long nights spent at my brother’s house playing Tekken 3 – well, I say playing, but more like button-mashing, as is tradition for any unskilled player of fighting games. As a slightly older teen I remember whiling away hours on the huge internal crossover title Tekken Tag Tournament, and the sheer mindblowing wonder that I felt with Tekken 5. As I sit and type this review I have Tekken 7 waiting for me on my PS4, but I’ve not yet been able to bring myself around to playing it. That’s sort of the curse, as it were, of keeping up this blog for so long; sometimes now when I pick up the odd game in a franchise here and there but I have the ability to play and capture footage of earlier entries I find it hard not to go back as far as I can and chart the development of the franchise. With that in mind then I rolled back the years all the way to the first game, one I’d never played other than a brief dalliance with the packaged-in version on one of the other Tekken releases.
Released Mar 1995 | Developed / Published: Namco
Genre: Fighting | HLTB: 2 hours
Of course, the thing with going back to the PS1 to play a fighting game after growing up with the later entries in the series is the risk of finding it essentially unplayable due to decades of innovation and refinement. To put it bluntly, this is definitely the case with the original Tekken; I plan to say some quite nice things about it but make no mistake, this is not a game I’d especially recommend going back to. Unless you’ve time-locked yourself in a mid-nineties whirlpool, you’ll almost certainly have played stuff that feels better to play than a fighting game from 1995, and going back to this definitely feels a bit wonky.
Still, it’s easy to see why Tekken resonated so strongly with audiences and critics alike at the time. For a game to be ported from the arcades to a home console so cleanly and with additional content must have been fairly incredible in the nineties. This goes doubly so for a game released comparatively early in the PS1’s life cycle, and presumably stood as a proof of concept for the entire art of porting arcade fighters onto consoles.
Part of what made Tekken unique was its control style, which mapped each of the PS1’s face buttons to a different limb; so, rather than the usual combinations of light, medium, and heavy attacks, instead Tekken players control the left and right arms and legs with their respective buttons. In theory this enables players to work out combos that they see opponents use by following the string of attacks playing out in front of them. Feel free to take a moment and consider trying to do that; if it sounds insane to you then good, because it is. It’s also one of those wonderful older games that doesn’t include a move list built into the game so I do hope you’ve either got access to a manual to take a gander at each characters’ moves or you’re happy finding a guide online. As is always the case when this happens, that means that the experience of playing Tekken now can very quickly devolve into either having to pause constantly in order to check a gamefaqs article or incessant button mashing.
If you do manage to work some combos out though Tekken can get fairly frantic and technical. The inputs for combo attacks can be a bit finicky, and naturally some more specialised attacks require d-pad or fightstick movements as well as the correct attack button to trigger. Tekken features a very simple guard system, which means it’s also very effective; if a character is stationary or moving backwards they will automatically guard attacks at body level, while unmoving crouching characters block low attacks. As such, players are required to be dynamic with their attacks, pressing their advantage as much as possible. That said, if you get good at guarding there can be a lot of value in learning how to effectively turtle as running the timer down while you have more health than your opponent was genuinely a way to win that occurred more than I would have expected during my playthrough.
When you’re standing on the ground Tekken can be really fun but I have to say, the other aspects of its game felt pretty choppy. Aerial combos are possible if you get the timing right on the inputs but if you don’t for some reason your characters can abandon gravity and fling themselves impossibly high into the air, well out of potential connecting range. Who knows, maybe it’s a defence mechanism, and it certainly is worth a chuckle the first time you see serious fighters like Kazuya or Paul Phoenix launch like a rocket into the aether. Problem is, eventually you land and then you’re a perfect target for a retaliatory attack.
You’re also slightly screwed once you find yourself knocked down from an enemy attack. There’s some capacity for recovery attacks of a sort – I’m pretty sure at some points I managed to get a low kick off on the way back up from a prone position – but it felt really unreliable. Progressing through the arcade mode increases the competency and aggressiveness of the AI as well, so I often found that once I was struck down I was just as likely to find myself locked in an inescapable juggle, and I’m sure that I don’t need to describe precisely why that’s a deeply frustrating experience.
The arcade mode is more or less the beginning and the end of single player content in Tekken. That sounds like a criticism and were this a more modern game it absolutely would be, but in this case it behoves us to be lenient. For a start, the arcade mode is a reasonable challenge due to the AI’s increasing abilities as you progress, making some fights worth practising and tackling over and over again. There’s also a degree of differentiation; obviously each character fights the entire starting roster in a randomly determined order, but there’s actually a little more to it than that. Fighting the roster would be 7 fights, but the arcade mode is 9 fights long. The finale is always the main villain, Heihachi Mishima, but the 8th fight is a fight against your chosen character’s rival, and that’s a different character for each fighter. For example, Kazuya’s rival is Lee Chaolan, his adoptive brother. Some rivals make sense in this way – the robotic fighter Jack fights his prototype version P-Jack, or the jaguar-headed wrestler King takes on his ring-side adversary Armor King – although others are a little harder to parse. I’m not sure why Michelle, for example, is rivalled against the ninja Kunimitsu, especially when Yoshimitsu would surely make more sense, but there you go.
You might have gathered from those descriptions that the characters in Tekken are fairly creative. Obviously there’s a few fairly standard ones; Kazuya, for example, is the equivalent to Street Fighter’s Ryu, being the typical martial artist chap, and his movelist reflects that, with lots of straightforward attacks. Others use more esoteric martial arts, like Marshall Law, a Bruce Lee expy who fights with a weird variety of kicks, flips, and Lee’s trademark wa-taw sounds, or Paul Phoenix, Kazuya’s one-time rival who wears red (hmm I see you Ken) but who uses a more heavy-handed and direct combat style. On the other end of the spectrum though are fighters like Yoshimitsu, an armoured sword-wielding ninja-esque nutter who has a bevy of unorthodox moves that can either leave him stunned or send him hurtling around his opponent in a swirling, whirling dervish of pain.
Exclusive to the PS1 release of Tekken are playable versions of the unique bosses from each character’s arcade mode as well as the final boss, Heihachi. These new characters include some of the odder fighters, such as Kunimitsu, a fox-masked ninja, and Kuma, a literal bear. However, it’s a bit of a shame that the majority of them are basically just palette swaps of the original roster, and none of them have any kind of arcade endings so you’re kind of just playing for the fun of it.
Whereas what you ought to be playing for is the story. I know it’s a controversial take (or certainly it used to be) that you can or should play fighting games for any kind of plot content but I’m a big lover of fighting games with stories. In fact, I’m sure I’ve commented on this very blog before that a dearth of single-player content is, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest black mark a fighting game can accrue, and in particular it irks me when they don’t have even a token effort at giving me some narrative. It would, I think, have been quite easy for Tekken to eschew a plot; indeed, despite (or perhaps because of) its age, actual gameplay content is startlingly thin on the ground. You’ve got a dedicated local multiplayer mode, naturally, and then the arcade ladder for friendless losers like me. Beating the arcade mode for each of the starting characters grants you a snippet of story, a morsel of writing, most of which is quite goofy and all presented in beautifully hideous mid 90s FMV form.
The thing is, I think from the outside if you look at Tekken and all you see are the normal human fighters like Nina or Michelle then I think you’d assume that this is a serious game. You couldn’t be more wrong. It’s one of my favourite things about Tekken as a series, namely that its plot is utterly bonkers but it’s all played completely straight, like the silliest fighting-themed soap opera. The entire plot kicks off with a stellar example of awful parenting as Heihachi puts his son Kazuya through a gruelling fight and, when he fails, Heihachi judges him incapable of leading their global ultracorp, the Mishima Zaibatsu. Because Heihachi is a rational person and a great dad he responds in a very normal way: by chucking his son off a cliff. Oh, and Kazuya at this point is literally a child. It’s ok though because Kazuya communes with a demonic spirit called Devil, activating his dormant Devil Gene, and he survives the fall, slinking away to fight another day.
Years later Heihachi has called a grand fighting competition called the King of Iron Fist Tournament in order to lure Kazuya to him and finish him off once and for all. Kazuya has spent the years training and honing his skills with a near-perfect fight record (his only blemish being a draw against fellow competitor Paul Phoenix) and naturally he takes the bait, jumping at the chance to throw down against his dear old dad. Obviously a tournament of this magnitude attracts a bunch of other fighters, and in a glorious twist of fate and design basically all of them are in some way connected to one another (see, it’s a soap opera) – Nina’s an assassin sent to kill Heihachi, Paul joins as a rival to Kazuya, Kuma is Heihachi’s pet bear (!), and Lee is the son Heihachi adopted just to annoy Kazuya. It’s all here, from insane family drama to convoluted underdog plots that go nowhere because Tekken primarily cares about the Mishima family and their ludicrous parenting strategies.
Tekken winds up a weird one to recommend, especially to a modern audience. I said up at the top that I can’t, and that remains true. It feels janky, slightly sluggish in action, and it’s all too easy to get locked in a constant battering and lose due to the lack of response options you have from the ground. The inputs are tricky to pull off (or at the very least non-responsive) and the lack of reason to play the bonus characters is a bit of a sore spot for me. Beneath that is definitely an intriguing little slice of history, but sometimes that’s really the place for older games: Tekken is another one of those digital museum pieces, around to play if you want to dig into the distant past of fighting games, but not something to actively seek out if you want a fun time.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE.
A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.