Towards the mid-90's, the rise of 3D fighting games was rapidly reaching its zenith, with Sega's global juggernaut, Virtua Fighter, leading the charge with the success of Virtua Fighter 2, which improved in every area. The gameplay was faster, the controls sharper, and the ability to render detailed polygons was leaps and bounds over the original. While Tekken was honing its craft, Tecmo threw its hat into the proverbial arena with its own tournament fighter, inspired by Sega's flagship title.
While Tecmo saw strong success as a software developer in the 80's for home computers and the rebirth of game consoles with games like Ninja Gaiden and the Bomb Jack puzzle series, doing well domestically, their relevance in the United States had waned considerably and the company was in dire straits financially. Fighters were coming out of the woodwork, and every studio was attempting to capitalize on the rising popularity of the genre.
Dead or Alive was originally released in Japan arcades in 1996, with development by Team Ninja, Tecmo's subsidiary. The team was founded by the incomparable, uncanny, sunglasses-wearing director Tomonobu Itagaki. As mentioned, Itagaki loved Virtua Fighter, but wanted Dead or Alive to stand out from the other tournament fighter offerings that were growing at the time.
DOA would cleverly be marketed around its beautiful, curvy female lead characters, Kasumi, Lei Fang, and Tina Armstrong. The games was ported to the Sega Saturn in Japan in 1997, and would get a worldwide home release on the Saturn and PlayStation in 98, adding two more playable characters to the roster, Tina's father Bass Armstrong and Ayane, a kunoichi sent to kill her half-sister Kasumi for abandoning the Mugen Tenshin clan. So the advertising certainly captivated a field, but is Dead or Alive all style with no substance?
The fighting system in Dead or Alive places an emphasis on speed and explosiveness, contrast to the more technical Virtua Fighter series. Rather than having guard as a face button, DOA utilizes a "hold" button which gives you a chance to grab your opponent's attacking limb and can link parries together. This has led to what has been referred to as Dead or Alive's "rock-paper-scissors" combat, and it's been scrutinized over the years. The criticism being the incredibly generous window provided by the counter can reduce matches to fighters trading heavy blows with no consistency in flow or an emphasis on defense.
I'm actually going to defend this system. Sure, it may result in fights being incredibly arcadey, but a lesson can be taught about mashing buttons and just hoping something lands. On top of that, you can't just hope to rely on the counters to get the upper hand, or you'll get punished. There's a good chance that you'll lose half your life bar on a bad guess, but you're still wagering on nailing a high, medium, or low strike to capitalize on. The fights may not pack a ton of depth, but they're speedy, and the roster of characters play pretty unique with a great deal of flash. Now, the "Danger Zones", which causes critical arena damage if you hit the ground outside of the designated fighting area, I might take to task. Graphical and development limitations, maybe, and thankfully the closed-in arenas in later games were a more welcome addition.
Contrast to Tekken, Soul Edge, and the grit of Mortal Kombat's efforts to breach that 3D fighter market, Dead or Alive's graphics and design look pretty sleek, and it's one of the things I praise the most (not just for the pretty gals in the skimpy costumes). The character models boast a bright, soft color palette, and their animations are lightning quick, giving DOA a stylish anime feel to the presentation. The stages look good, showcasing some great lighting with the Sega Model-2, and while the arena backgrounds aren't rendered in 3D, altered to mapped 2D images, there's enough personality to stand out. The fighters do have a lot of clipping, pretty standard for 3D fighters around this time, and doesn't quite have the polish of Virtua Fighter 2's characters, the roster is still pretty memorable and their designs are awesome. With 11 playable characters, each with dynamic personalities (Zack is probably my favorite DOA character), they stand out. It'd also be tough to talk about visuals without addressing the bountiful amount of wobbling assets the development team stayed abreast on during development. Fatal Fury 2's Mai Shiranui may have started the bouncy breasts craze in fighters, but the Dead or Alive girls made it an international phenomenon. And HEY, speaking of dormant Tecmo intellectual properties, Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden came out of the video game dungeons to be a fairly prominent character in the DOA lore. How rad is THAT?
The first Dead or Alive holds up fairly decently as a game, and is more than solid for a first entry. Its presentation turned heads, and had good gameplay to boot. The home ports added a good handful of bonus costumes and characters, and as time passed, I feel there's more to the cast beyond eye candy. The first game may not have packed much of a story to properly flesh out everyone's personality and the series' lore, which would later dabble into elements of mysticism and science fiction, but the sequels would fill that in considerably.
In a lot of ways, I consider it a spiritual successor to the Virtua Fighter series when it comes to gameplay philosophy, which got blown by Tekken in popularity by 1999. If you're familiar with Sega's fighting franchise, you can certainly see the love letter Itagaki was writing to the combo system and juggling physics. With its over-the-top fighting, sex appeal, and underrated OST, Dead or Alive certainly left an impression on the medium, and there's a ton of charm in its first game.
There really is more to this franchise than meets the eye, and it's hard to sum up a lot of its nuances in a handful of paragraphs. For a more in-depth analysis on Dead or Alive's lore, gameplay, and characters, I highly recommend giving Awesmic's YouTube channel a look.
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