The King of Iron Fist is dead, long live The King of Iron Fist. Tekken 5 has brought 3D fighting back to the top of the agenda on PS2, and we have the exclusive low down on how Namco hauled its hottest property back from the brink.
In a straightforward Q&A, Tekken 5 Game Director Katsuhiro Harada agreed to give Namco's side of the story. Katsuhiro has been director for the series since the arcade version of Tekken 3. He has played an important role in shaping the series, in particular ensuring that the character roster is kept sexy but succinct, but also looking for ways to revitalise a successful formula.
We also tracked down World Tekken Champ Ryan Hart for some very valuable feedback as to why Tekken 5 has been so gratefully received. His opinion is representative of the thousands of players that compete at tournament level on not only Tekken, but all the top ranking fight games including Virtua Fighter 4 Evo, Soul Calibur II, and Street Fighter III: Third Strike.
Nobody, least of all Namco, denies Tekken 4 was a let down. In fact this flagship PlayStation title almost sprung a leak for an entire genre - the popular face of fighting losing momentum, relegated to also-ran alongside a new breed of blockbusters.
Namco not only went back to the drawing board with Tekken 5, it had to go back to its fans for clues on the future of Tekken. As if to parallel the crazy goings on in the Tekken saga, time travel was the only solution. Somewhere along the line Namco lost the essence of Tekken 3/Tekken Tag Tournament - recapturing the past was crucial to the future.
Well, mission accomplished it would seem.
Celebrations must've erupted throughout the team behind Tekken 5. The game engine completely rebuilt to incorporate the crucial best of Tekken: 30 fighters firing on all cylinders, enveloped by silly-detailed stages and music that heads straight for your brain's battle cortex.
Katsuhiro Harada, Tekken 5 Game Director, Namco, speaks.
Eurogamer: Having considered the success of Tekken 4, and by looking at the competition within the same market, what did Namco set out to achieve with Tekken 5? For example does Namco hope to offer 'the best' 3D fighting game, or simply a 'different' approach to the genre?
Katsuhiro Harada: Since this title marks the 10th anniversary of the series, we wanted to make the best Tekken possible. We took the elements that were most popular from past instalments and further refined them. We made the action even more dramatic and over-the-top while keeping every element in line with the Tekken universe.
Of course we would like to be the number one 3D fighting game but our main motivation has always been to create something far superior to past efforts while also trying to implement features that are most desired by our fans.
Eurogamer: Of the most prominent comments raised by users of Tekken 4, positive and negative, did any of them strongly influence the direction of Tekken 5? How seriously does Namco take user feedback, and how soon into Tekken 5's development did Namco allow playtesting to begin?
Katsuhiro Harada: Player comments affect development a great deal. We have evaluated so many that it is quite difficult to name just one.
Players' requests and comments are the most important factors we take into consideration and we spend a lot of time discussing the merits and demerits of input gained from our fans. Game development that isn't based on fulfilling the needs of fans is out of the question.
However, this itself is our most difficult obstacle. User input itself is quite diverse and player requests more often than not contradict each other. Each person has their own opinion about which direction the game should take and these views are often conflicting. Tekken has fans around the world and needs of fans differs greatly from country to country.
We try to listen to all of our fans equally when developing a game but it is quite difficult to please them all.
Eurogamer: Regarding the gameplay system, it seems Tekken 5 has more in common with Tekken 3 than Tekken 4. Please could you explain how and why the control system has changed again for Tekken 5? Would you agree with comments that the series has taken a step back in order to move forward?
Katsuhiro Harada: We didn't return to any past games in the series. We took the best from each and further evolved those elements for Tekken 5. We tried a lot of new ideas for Tekken 4, trying to incorporate many requests from fans. The knowledge that we gained from those efforts was applied to Tekken 5.
We don't try to return to the roots of the series. However, if we feel aspect or element is right for the game we are creating we are not necessarily concerned with whether the concept is new or old.
When introducing new characters, is part of the consideration to have one for the 'expert' players, one for 'novice' player and another for 'intermediate'? Also, there are only three new characters - and old favourites such as Devil Kazuya/Angel and Gun-Jack etc are missing. Would you agree that 'less is more'?
We don't really focus specifically on making characters for novice, intermediate, or advanced players. We do, however, try to make some characters easier to use for novice players.
We never intended to decrease the number of characters in Tekken 5. In the evolvement of characters some similar characters were combined into one. For instance, elements of both Jack and Gun-Jack were incorporated to make Jack-5.
Eurogamer: Technically speaking, how close is the PS2 version to the original arcade - polygon counts, texture detail and so on? And in terms of gameplay was it necessary to change some aspects for PS2?
Katsuhiro Harada: There is hardly any difference between the two versions. However, the processing speed of the arcade board is greater than the PS2 so it took a lot of effort to refine the graphics engine.
There are no elements of gameplay that were changed for the PS2 version.
Eurogamer: Tekken 5 is loaded with extra modes - the three early Tekken games, Starblade, plus Devil Within. Was there a worry that the arcade game was not reason enough to by the PS2 version? If Namco had known that Tekken 5 would be such a huge success in the arcades, would 'Devil Within' still have been necessary?
Katsuhiro Harada: It's not whether there is enough content or not. Each person has their own way of enjoying a game. Some people really enjoy playing against friends while others enjoy playing alone. We wanted everyone to enjoy this game so we added a variety of bonus games and content. Even if we knew it would succeed with the arcade version alone we still would have added this content.
Eurogamer: Regarding Tekken-Net in the arcade version of Tekken 5. How important has this been in the popularity of the game, and in what ways? Also, given the popularity of Tekken-Net, can Namco announce whether the next consumer version of Tekken will be online?
Katsuhiro Harada: We believe that it had a great impact in Japan. Other games are incorporating online elements because it adds a lot of enjoyment to a product. It definitely was a very important factor in the success of Tekken 5. We also believe that, as a result of the online element, the needs and expectations of fans have grown even more. It will definitely affect the development direction of future projects.
I can't divulge anything about possible sequels or any other projects but online is one feature that presents all sorts of possibilities. We are quite interested in what our fans expect and what they would like to see regarding online content.
A conversation with Ryan Hart, reigning world Tekken 5 champion.
As mentioned earlier, Ryan plays Tekken and Virtua Fighter competitively in all the major tournaments. He's the best player in the world at Tekken, and has come close to trophies on VF.
While attending events such as 'Evolution' in the US, Ryan rubs shoulders with the top players of every fighting game. We're telling you this because he cites Tekken 5 as, "definitely one of the best fighting games ever made."
Ryan won't be drawn into the VF versus Tekken argument. Clearly this is rather pointless from his perspective. However he doesn't mind explaining the overall appeal of Tekken in itself.
"Other top 3d fighting games stretch the boundaries and sets standards each in their own way - Tekken offers a large variety of characters - there are more styles of martial arts so it's interesting from that perspective. Characters like Alex and Kuma are something you don't see in other games. You'd need to speak to people who don't already play Tekken to see if this makes the game more attractive to them, but I think they make it more entertaining.""
Something you have to appreciate about the crowd of tournament players is that, although they have their favourites, they will always put time into games that are the current Big Thing. "Realistically, I'm practicing Tekken a lot because at the moment Tekken is simply the most popular game," Ryan confesses, "it's the latest after all and you have to go where the players are - Tekken 5 has come out at a time where there isn't much else."
But what, In Ryan's view, has Namco done to make Tekken 5 top of the playlist once more? "I think Tekken 5 owes its success to playing more to Tekken Tag, which was more popular than Tekken 4," says Ryan, "a lot of players are really happy to see more similarities there. In Tekken 4 there weren't enough defensive techniques - useful things to get out of trouble - you could get locked down a lot easier on that one. If you were up against lots of strong moves in succession, you didn't have many options to do something about it. The back-step and side-walking are back to being good now."
We asked Ryan to elaborate more on Tekken specifics, the things that make it strong as a game in its own right: “In Tekken the four buttons are Left Punch, Right Punch, Left Kick, Right Kick, these correspond the four main limbs of the body. This is most realistic and appeals to users in that way”.
"You can really pressure your opponent, which is good. You can pressure in other games too, but the way to pressure is different – the top 3D games are are all good in their own ways.
"Tekken is a very technical game, and you have to second-guess what your opponent is going to do. To learn one character in Tekken takes forever. Seriously. It's just like sport."
Well, if it took a guy like Ryan 'forever' to learn just one character before, what does it mean now that Tekken 5 has been released?
Ryan explains: "In Tekken 5 Namco has given all the characters more moves, which means you see a wider variety of strategies among players. Everyone has so many moves that you can really add to your own game. Just like in a real sport: if I enter a tournament, and if I don't practice, I'll lose."
Ryan had one last insight that made us appreciate the depth and versatility of Tekken in general, but more so with Tekken 5. It mirrors one of Mr Harada's comments regarding feedback from different countries: "You have to work out your strategies beforehand to stand a chance. People from other countries even play in their own style. They might not realise this, but they do. When I visit America, I notice how differently the approach to the game compared to guys I play against in the UK."
We'd like to thank Mr Harada at Namco, and Ryan for their valuable time.