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Port of the Neo*Geo fighting game--known as "Garou: Mark of the Wolves"--which was something of a continuation of the "Fatal Fury / Garou Densetsu" series (see entry 1137 and entry 1160, in which a motley assortment of gangsters and street punks fight it out in the colorful slum of "South Town," which seems to be based on a borough in New York City, or at least how they're seen in films, etc.
MotW is something of an artistic high point for SNK; coming out several years after Capcom's hyper-animated Street Fighter III--see entry 439--SNK really pushed their old Neo*Geo hardware to crank out smoother animation than it ever had before. While it can't match the more advanced Capcom hardware in terms of color depth and framerate, MotW's visuals have a pleasing flowing quality and liveliness, at least relative to previous SNK fighting games such as King of Fighters or Fatal Fury. While their color palette is still limited, the artists work around this limitation by using a semi-anime style that allows for thin bands of shading between flat cel-art-like areas, with pretty good results.
But it's the aesthetics as a whole that make Garou stand out; the art, animation, character designs, and and jazzy soundtrack all come together to bring the people and environment of South Town alive in a warm, vibrant way rarely achieved in fighting games. As the spunky combatants spar in the foregrounds, bustling street scenes in the backgrounds show bystanders, residents, motorists, animals, traffic, and many more details of contemporary urban life, all rendered in an endearing semi-cartoon style. Each character has their own stage, and many of these change appearance--time of day, usually--in each succeeding round of a match.
The game's playable characters are a colorful bunch too. Terry Bogard--veteran of Fatal Fury and King of Fighters--is here, but with (finally) a completely redrawn look; and after him, the other characters (I think?) are all originals; there aren't that many--a dozen or so--but they come in a wide variety: an Iori-like goth nutcase, a brash military dude and his adopted son, a pirate queen (!), two Tae Kwon Do brothers (okay not as much variety there, but hey one has fire effects on his kicks while the other has lightning! :|), a cutesy Japanese nature girl, a burly wilderness karate master, Khushnood Butt (known in the Japanese version by the less interesting name of Marco Rodriguez), a ninja street kid, and etc.
While a few of them have annoying voices, personalities, or move sets (the game's poster boy Rock Howard, for instance, has some creatively convoluted moves that I just can't get to liking thoroughly), the game's Story Mode gives each of them thorough treatment with often hilariously individual win quotes, and then unique dialogues with the bosses at the end, plus a closing slideshow sequence wrapping up their story; for a fighting game, particularly an arcade fighting game from this era, the story aspect is handled really well, and it's a lot of fun just playing through the story mode for each character to see what they have to say to the other characters. The final boss isn't the worst SNK has created, but he can be frustrating; the charity "continue service" will help out quite a bit though, if you can swallow your pride.
Beating story mode with a character will unlock some art (mostly from their end sequence; these are by the Japanese illustrator Tonko, and quite nice) in the port's gallery mode, but to get to the last boss, you have to have a certain minimum average performance rating (you get a rating after each fight, like C, B, A, AA, AAA, S, SS, SSS); otherwise you just fight the sub-boss, then the game ends, and you don't get anything unlocked. Bleh! So if you're like me you just wimp out and set the difficulty to the lowest setting...so what's the point of the restriction anyway? Oh well. You can also get all endings pretty rapidly by exploiting the stage save that the game offers you at the end of the game, or when you continue: restart story mode, pick a different character, accept when asked if you want to load the stage data, and bang, you're at the end boss with another character, one win away from unlocking their ending. Huh.
It's good that story mode is compelling because there isn't a whole lot else to do in the port. The other fighting mode, Survival, is all right, but not my favorite: it isn't endless (apparently--I think maybe you just fight everyone once? haven't managed to get that far yet arr), saves some data afterwards but doesn't display your achievements anywhere I can see, which takes a lot of the I-can-get-one-more-win-with-him compulsion out of it, and, instead of giving you a little health back between bouts, gives you nothing back, forcing you to rely solely on health powerup items dropped apparently randomly from the opponent when you hit them. There are also health powerdowns, power up/downs, and time up/downs; your opponent can also pick these up if he happens to step on them before you do. Sounds interesting but in practice it's uneven and a bit too random.
The game supports the DC's VGA output, but that's one of the few things--aside from preserving the graphics and gameplay, which it has done excellently--that the port has done well. Saving/loading is not automatic anywhere in the game, and booting up, starting story mode, going into gallery mode, etc all require you to confirm/deny your way through the same really ugly load request screen every single time. There is no option for viewing high scores; if you wait through the intro sequence you can see one screen of them for a few seconds, but that's it I guess. The obligatory Practice mode does not have the voyeuristic AI-vs-AI "Watch" mode that some of SNK's later ports would. There are no in-game move lists.
The US version of the game has an annoying problem when playing the game with the Arranged sound track, the default option, selected (most modern Neo*Geo ports have offered the option of playing the game with the original, low-detail cartridge-based music, or fully orchestrated "arranged" versions of it): the DC's disc drive will whir and whine very loudly throughout every match. I don't know if it's streaming the music off the GD-ROM or what, but it's aggravating. Switching to the original soundtrack prevents this from happening, but the music isn't quite as rich. The disk access thing cropped up in the US localization somehow; the earlier Japanese release doesn't have the problem.
Say, maybe I should go over gameplay a bit. Thankfully, MotW ditches the "sway-line" system of the older Fatal Fury games, where you could hop in and out of the screen to fight along two separate planes, and mostly follows the conventions of a standard 2D fighter such as SNK's flagship series, King of Fighters (see entry 1283). Fighting in MotW is much more deliberate than KOF, however: moves in MotW tend to be much more flowing than KOF's quick hits, often containing multiple strikes within a single attack; this can result in an amazing-looking sequence of fluid attacks, but if you miss, you're really wide-open for a counter-attack. You can't roll in and out of melee range as you can in KOF, so you have to worry more about setting up position relative to your opponent.
Just about each character has two super moves, all activated with the same two stick/button combinations, which is nice and handy (especially due to the lack of in-game move lists). As you fight, a power meter charges, first going up to S, then P: on S, you can do a weak super, and on P, you can do a stronger version of the super. Supers do a *lot* of damage in this game if all their hits connect, and will really swing a match around.
Matches can be strongly affected by several other gameplay systems more or less unique to MotW. The "T.O.P." system (dunno what that stands for :p) has you assign a section of your health bar as a TOP area at character selection time: either the beginning, middle, or end of the bar, and then (I think this wasn't in the arcade version?) a smaller or larger section (by pressing up or down on the stick--smaller sections make the power boost from TOP correspondingly greater, but it probably won't last as long because it's active during a smaller section of your health progress). During a match, while the end of your health bar is inside the TOP area you assigned, your character flashes, and your attacks do a lot more damage. It really is noticeable; when I fight an AI who has their TOP at the beginning of their health bar, so that it activates as soon as the match starts, they will will batter me around but good; I on the other hand like to set mine to activate when I'm on my last 3rd of health, and that way I get some pretty good come-from-behind victories.
Then there's "Just Defend," which means that when you block just before an attack connects, you take no "tick" damage, and you get some health back; it's small but it adds up, and "Just Defend" can even let you defend against attacks that would otherwise be unblockable. I'm not really good enough (yet? hah) to do "Just Defend" on purpose, but even so I get it not too infrequently just in the course of normal blocking during a match; so, I can see how someone who had the knack of doing it well could be pretty near invulnerable to a scrub like me...not sure how well I like that!
There's also some sort of feint mechanic (the two Punch buttons plus forward or down) that lets you chain attacks together that ordinarily couldn't be chained; that's way outside my comfort zone, but I can say that chains, as with the rest of combat in this game, are normally quite deliberate, and if you're just whacking away at different attacks willy-nilly, your first impression of the game may be that it is sluggish and unresponsive, because it's only when you do things in particular orders that the game really lets the animations flow. As I said earlier, this can yield really satisfying, amazing results, but only if you know what you're doing (or get lucky); the down side for the casual player is that you *will* feel clumsy more often than in other fighting games, and you'll have to endure a number of characters--like Rock--whose special moves will feel worthless unless activated at very precise places and times.
It's an interesting mix, because while on the one hand the flowing animation, massive hit effects (a bit too massive for my tastes, and the Neo*Geo didn't have the hardware to make them transparent or even all that colorful, so they haven't really aged well), colorful characters, and identical super-move activation combinations will attract new players to the game, the strict timing and often complicated set-up of the moves may very well turn them off.
I'm sort of in-between, both attracted and repelled. Most of all I like the visual and character style the game has, and will probably play through each character's story mode again (oh yeah, some great examples of SNKgrish in the text here, too :D); I don't see myself sticking around to fool with the game much after that, though, although I might have if Survival mode tracked your scores.
|Noticed a couple tidbits paging through the manual:|
- There's a "Breaking" technique whereby each character can cancel a specific special move by pressing light punch + light kick (the game has two punch buttons and two kick buttons, like King of Fighters)
- The exact damage multipliers of the TOP gauge per length are: long (default) 1.25, medium 1.5, small 1.75
|Story mode was much more fun than I anticipated/remembered, just due to all the crazy things the characters say. The rival, sub-boss (Grant), and boss (Kain) conversations are custom per character, for the most part, and a character's win quotes are customized per opponent character; Mark of the Wolves may do a better job than any other fighting game at bringing the personalities of the characters to life.|
Also, the smoothness of the gameplay really started to grow on me; once you get used to a character, putting them though their paces can be like butter, and I liked playing more of them than I thought I would.