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Karen Datangel is a writer, blogger, social media addict, entertainment enthusiast, baseball/football fan (Go SF Giants and 49ers!), animal lover, nerdy and nostalgic fangirl, city wanderer, and a dreamer. Born, bred, and based in the Bay Area, Karen graduated with a degree in Journalism from San Francisco State University. Her resume includes contributions to and internships with Hollywood Life, CAAMFest (Formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival), Audrey Magazine, Bustle, Fandom, SheKnows, and POPSUGAR. She currently works on the Developer Marketing team at Salesforce. Follow her on Twitter @DatKaren.

Revisiting Battle Arena Toshinden

"I never give up!" Dirks-yielding dancer Ellis poses for a win in the original Battle Arena Toshinden game (screenshot credit: Game Art HQ [game-art-hq.com]).

“I never give up!” Dirks-yielding dancer Ellis poses for a win in the original Battle Arena Toshinden game (screenshot credit: Game Art HQ [game-art-hq.com]).

Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat were the household names in fighting games back in the 90s, but if you owned the original Sony PlayStation, chances are you got a glimpse of a new kind of beat-em-up—one in the third dimension. Battle Arena Toshinden was one of the titles included in select demo discs packaged with the console upon the time of release, and the full game was part of the first wave of games available for the PlayStation. Toshinden wasn’t exactly a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat knock-off. Sure, Toshinden’s main protagonist Eiji—an adventurer from Japan—and his White guy sidekick with fabulous hair Kayin are essentially Ryu and Ken with swords, but that’s about where the similarities end. Battle Arena Toshinden allowed fighting game enthusiasts to select, see, and control polygonal characters as opposed to those drawn and animated on a flat surface. Each character not only had their own distinctive look, backstory, and stage and theme music, but was also armed with its own unique weapon—including but not limited to whips, clubs, spears, and twin dirks. Fighting in 3D introduced sidestepping maneuvers to dodge attacks as the camera followed your character’s moves. But rotate them at the wrong spot, and your character could fall out of the ring and automatically lose the match, even if your life meter is higher than your opponent’s. That is how Toshinden slashed through other games of its kind and opened up a whole new take on the popular fighting game genre.

Unfortunately, Toshinden lacked staying power, overshadowed by the rise of the Tekken series—a 3D counterpart with more hand-to-hand combat. It still paved the way for that rival series at the time as well as served as the direct inspiration for SoulEdge/Soul Blade, Soul Calibur, and their succeeding titles, which also became immensely popular. Toshinden was no fluke though: It spawned three official sequels, spin-off games, and a two-episode original video anime (One I enjoy with guilty pleasure). It was also ported to a few different systems and enjoyed decent popularity in Japan, North America, and Europe.

These days, Toshinden enjoys its legacy through its nostalgia factor. Back in January, I wrote a post on my personal blog about the music of the original game. More than a few months later, I realized I could still play the old PlayStation discs on my PlayStation 3 as long as the discs were in NTSC-format, so there was no reason I couldn’t buy them for cheap on eBay. I grew up with the original Toshinden—in fact, it was the first game (Along with Twisted Metal) my dad bought for me and my siblings when we first got our PlayStation. By then, it was already part of PlayStation’s Greatest Hits string of titles. I did not own a copy of the second title but played it a few times at my cousins’ house. We didn’t have Toshinden 3 either, but it was one of our favorite games to rent over and over again back when video rental stores were still a thing. Toshinden 4 was only released in Japan, Europe, and Australia, so it was unknown to me.

So how did the first three Toshinden games fare with me over a decade since we got rid of our original PlayStation? I beat every arcade mode playing as my lady Sofia (In difficulty levels Easy/Normal, because I’m a wimp), so I’ve gotten a pretty good sense of things again, and yet some for the first time. Every character has their own epilogues in 2 and 3? What does it mean when my character’s meter is in Overdrive? How did we get from eight playable characters to a total of 30+?! All of the titles in the Toshinden series were top-notch in some aspects, as well as severely lacking in others. After playing through each game and exploring their modes, I’ve broken down each of them for you. Which game is king of the ring? Read on to find out!

*Reviews are for the North American PlayStation (PS1/PSX) releases.

Battle Arena Toshinden (1995)

Eiji and Mondo on the North American cover for ‘Battle Arena Toshinden’ on PlayStation (image source: Lukie Games [blog.lukiegames.com]).

The original Toshinden introduced eight selectable fighters, each armed with their own unique weapon. Arcade mode allowed the solo player to fight the other fighters in their designated arenas one-by-one, with their character in an alternate outfit and appearance as the last opponent. Once you’ve defeated everyone on the initial playable roster, your character would face off against Gaia, the villainous host of the tournament. His arena is a dizzying illusion, his armored appearance with appendages intimidates, and his special attacks are very damaging and frequent. If you opted to beat the game at a higher difficulty level and didn’t lose against any of your opponents, you would face off against the true final boss Sho, the older brother of Eiji. Gaia and Sho could be unlocked as selectable fighters by entering cheat codes. The first Toshinden also included a 1P Computer mode, where you could choose your own CPU opponent for a quick one-time match. The 3D gameplay allowed users to select from different camera angles—normal, a long view, sky view (If you have an easy time telling specks apart), and overhead. An additional self-controlled camera mode was available via cheat code. Once you’ve defeated the final boss, the controls and a demo for your character’s desperation move—a one-time super-powered attack you can use only when your life meter is at 10 percent–will be revealed.

Rungo and Kayin at Kayin’s arena in ‘Battle Arena Toshinden’ (screenshot credit: Game Art HQ [game-art-hq.com]).

PLUSES:
+ Even though it looks a little tacky nowadays, the polygonal character design was the best at its time. Not that it matters much, but the costumes were also a little more realistic—more versatile and more suited for fighting if it were something people do in real life. Really though, I’m really just talking about my girl Sofia. The cutout leotard and boots were more battle-appropriate than the dress, heels, and lace gloves she wears in 2 and definitely more damage-proof than the straps covering her girls in 3 (As you can tell, this really irks me).
+ Music is one of my favorite thing about video games and there’s a reason why the soundtrack to the original Toshinden deserved its own blog post from me. Sure, a part of it still sounds like it came from a Casio keyboard, but it provided adrenaline and ambiance to the fight, and as well as added definition to each character and their arena. Whether you were fighting the magician Fo and surrounded by the serene water of China, or—ahem—duking it out with the knight Duke in his majestic French castle, the immaculately-composed tracks were major ear candy and suited each fighter and their stage to a tee.
+ Unless you or your opponent truly sucked, the life meters felt sufficient and allowed for long gameplay.
+ The voice acting for each character was rich and not exaggerated. Additionally, although they all said their win quotes and some of their attack names in English, the actors did a good job in performing the accents to genuinely reflect the origins of each character (i.e. Eiji from Japan, Sofia from Russia, Duke from France, etc.). That seems rare with fighting games released in North America nowadays.

MINUSES:
– Eight characters to choose from (Plus two you’ll have to unlock) doesn’t feel like enough.
– The lack of a practice mode (A game option to fight a dummy opponent) or any other modes besides arcade, versus, and 1P computer didn’t give players much to be excited about. You beat the game, and that’s it. If you were a button-masher, the desperation attack reveal might’ve not mattered much. The later Street Fighter games and Tekken games had other options like Team Battle and Survival—this installment of Toshinden might have benefited from a little more variety.
– If your character lost and you chose to hit continue, you had to stick with the same character. Annoyed by the fact that Duke couldn’t use his legs and wanted to try beating your opponent with the more agile Ellis? Too bad—gotta pause, reset, and start arcade mode all over again!

Battle Arena Toshinden 2 (1996)

Gaia and Sofia on the North American ‘Battle Arena Toshinden 2’ cover for PlayStation (image source: MobyGames.com).

Toshinden’s sequel added a few new characters, more drama to its premise, and spawned different versions on different ports. In the version I’m reviewing, it turns out that Gaia is branded a traitor by a group known as the Secret Society, so its members organize a second tournament to bring him down along with the other fighters who participated in the last one. In turn, Gaia’s human form is revealed and can now be selected as one of the initial characters, and playing arcade mode will allow you to fight two new bosses at the end, Uranus and Master. Sho reappears again only as an unlockable character, as well as a slick and mysterious gun fighter named Vermillion. Each character you select has their own epilogue, which reveals a little bit more about their stories and motivations but is still nothing truly special. Though there is still no practice mode, a new “Full Battle” mode allows players to battle everyone on the expanded initial roster, while the original arcade mode only gives the players a handful of CPU opponents to play against. In addition to keeping the desperation moves, Toshinden 2 integrated an Overdrive meter that would allow players to execute powerful attacks earlier in the game. And if both you and your opponent are clumsy and ring out at the same time? Be the last one to fall–you’ll be declared the victor, so no draws in this situation.

Fo and Tracy at Fo’s arena in ‘Battle Arena Toshinden 2’ (screenshot credit: Giant Bomb [giantbomb.com]).

PLUSES:
+ I thought nothing could beat the soundtrack in the first Toshinden, but the soundtrack in the second Toshinden crushes it, even if only for the electrifying guitars in Eiji (Plus the mad sax), Sofia, Tracy, and Chao’s (Which apparently goes pretty well with LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem”)  themes, the more polished urgency in Kayin’s, and the spirited soulfulness of Gaia’s.
+ The introduction uses some good animation, although I question the use of cosplayers in it.
+ The Overdrive moves are fairly easy to execute on the controller and can cause good damage when executed at the right time—they’re largely hit-or-miss. Plus, it’s a welcome addition from the mostly vanilla gameplay of the first installment (However, Overdrive partially contributes to a bout’s shorter length in Toshinden 2).

MINUSES:
– The absolutely fantastic soundtrack goes to waste as each track starts over at the end of each round rather than continue through the same match with the same opponent. Why did they do it? To make you stare at victory animations that last too long and to make you listen to win quotes that you don’t understand unless you know Japanese, that’s why! It’s disruptive to each match and messes with the flow too. If you’re still fighting the same opponent, keep the musical line moving.
– The arenas are seemingly smaller than before. You have to dodge attacks more frequently and ring outs occur much more often.
– There is lengthy recovery time. If you get the wind knocked out of you, you can press all the buttons on the controller and still be down on the ground.

Battle Arena Toshinden 3 (1997)

Zola and Rungo on the North American cover of ‘Battle Arena Toshinden 3’ on PlayStation (image source: EMU Paradise [emuparadise.me]).

The final official installment of Toshinden in North America brought an array of dramatic new features. The most drastic change came in the form of the arenas: While Toshinden and Toshinden 2 prided itself in their perilous rings—ones where your character could knock themselves out of the game—the arenas in Toshinden 3 were enclosed, so there was no longer a chance of a bout ending too early. While it was a strange new direction for the franchise, it allowed for maximum gameplay for fighting game traditionalists yet still retained the 3D movement. The  fighters could also bounce off the walls and ceilings and use them to their abilities. To make up for limiting the use of Overdrive, players could utilize “soul bombs” in this installment, where your character is surrounded by or releases a powerful surge of energy to attack an opponent. It was also much easier for to execute combos.

The premise of Toshinden 3 involves a new evil known only as “The Organization,” where a new boss named Abel targets one of the new fighters to be reborn into a destructive god called Agon Teos and wreak catastrophe into the world. In order to accomplish this twisted mission, Abel sends his own fighters to face off against the fighters from the last tournament—along with four new ones—to learn and mimic their styles to ultimately defeat them. This completely shakes up the arcade mode in the game. By selecting one of the original playable characters, your opponents are not everyone else on the starting roster, but members of The Organization. You will then face off against Vermillion, the hidden gunfighting boss in the last Toshinden game. Defeating him will allow you to face off against your character’s sub-boss, which is an Organization member with the same fighting style as the character you’ve selected. If you defeat your sub-boss, you move on to face Sho and finally, Abel. When you finish the job, you unlock your character’s sub-boss to be playable on the roster. On the other hand, if you unlock all those sub-bosses and play arcade mode as one of them, you will face off against all the good guys. In place of Vermillion, you’ll fight Nagisa, the police detective working on the investigation of the Organization, and the game ends after you defeat Sho. There are a couple of other characters you can unlock when you complete the game on a higher difficulty level. In all, there are a whopping 32 characters you can choose from once all the sub-bosses and hidden characters are unlocked.

Judgement and Eiji at Eiji’s arena in ‘Battle Arena Toshinden 3’ (screenshot credit: Gaming On Sony [gamingonsony.com]).

PLUSES:
+ The huge character selection is awesome and the updated arcade mode gives you a reason to play as each character and to keep beating the game since you get rewarded by unlocking the sub-bosses.
+ The preset combo system gives a lot more depth to the fighting. The addition of the soul bombs is brilliant as well.
+ Finally, there is a Practice Mode along with Survival Mode! More ways to fight!
+ There is an option to change the speed of the game dramatically, which allows you to experience more fluid movement.
+ You can enjoy playing as long as you want. The life meters are fairly generous and you can’t fall out of the ring—simply win by launching all those newfound attacks (And of course, not getting beat up).

MINUSES:
– Toshinden 3 doesn’t have great graphics. The effects and art look amateur, flat, and fake. Even the on-screen text they use throughout looks awful.
– It’s not bad, but Toshinden 3 has a dull soundtrack, at least compared to the ones of its predecessors. However, it samples melodies from some of the themes in the first game, so it does pay some homage. The sound mixing tosses the background music under the bus.
– The English voice acting is cringe-worthy. Maybe the characters do say the same things in Japanese but hearing them in English makes some characters sound like airheads (i.e. Kayin’s surfer boy-sounding “Totally uncool!,” Sofia’s “Maybe you’re not as ugly as I thought!” to male opponents only). Luckily, for the first and only time, there’s an option to toggle between English and Japanese voices, although some characters’ voices were not recorded in English so you’ll still have some characters speaking in Japanese.
– For the plus in longer gameplay, it’s also a minus that the attacks aren’t as damaging, therefore it can be tougher to rid of your opponent.

THE VERDICT: Although the gameplay and features are basic and there are fewer characters to choose from, the original Toshinden is the one that has stood the test of time. All the technical aspects are at their very best and there’s still something magical and thrilling about fighting on a large platform and looking at and controlling the characters in 3D. The original is the one most fans of the series grew up with and were most amazed by at the time. The characters performing their special moves and yelling out attack names, seeing their opponents fall out, the music—I’ve come to find that a lot of fans remember and love these things the most about the original Toshinden and I can say that for myself. Years later, this is the game still most crisp, clear, and easily playable. While Toshinden 3 is disappointing in the tech departments, the unlockable characters, new modes, more ways to attack, and updated gameplay makes it an overall exciting and very enjoyable game. Unfortunately, while it’s still fun to some degree, there are not a lot of positive things to say about the middle child in the series, although it does boast the best soundtrack of the series by far. The non-Playstation versions—which featured different characters, different arenas, different modes, different features, and even different intros–may have been better bets, but I’ll never know.

RATINGS (On a 5-point scale):
Toshinden – 4/5
Toshinden 2 – 2.5/5
Toshinden 3 – 3/5

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2 Comments on “Revisiting Battle Arena Toshinden”

  1. Stephen King June 3, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

    So much love for this article! A classic game that I had almost forgotten about. Thank you for the trip down memory lane :)

    • Karen Datangel June 3, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

      Thanks Stephen! Glad I didn’t make you completely forget about it. ;)

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