For those who realised what was going on, the 1997 release of Bushido Blade was a scary time. This was a fork in the road for fighting games. This title was taking a stand against everything we knew, and with luck it could have torn a rift in the entire genre. We watched Bushido Blade leap forward, beginning its attack. A bird took flight from a tree. The breeze stilled as we held our breath. All was silence.
Over the next year we watched Bushido Blade fail to muster the attention it should have - we saw the game drop its sword, fall to its knees, and cough out a crap sequel. That was that. All of Bushido Blade's training and secret techniques would be lost forever to the games industry.
And that hurt. Lord, it still hurts to this day. Every Tekken and Virtua Fighter brings a little soul-sting of what could have been. If one of your flatmates comes home to see you playing the new Soul Calibur and you notice the faintest hint of a tear forming in his eye, you know you're looking at a Bushido Blade fan.
Let me tell you what could have been.
Bushido Blade was a 'realistic' 3D weapon-based fighting game for the PSX with no health bars, and it's an idea realised with such confidence and ability that even today it's almost impossible to play Bushido Blade with a friend and not wonder how on earth health bars and combos became ubiquitous in fighting games and beat-'em-ups. Again, going back to Bushido Blade today what's also confusing is how developer LightWeight Co. managed to produce this and then follow it with as many as nine individual pieces of trash.
Bushido Blade works like this: If somebody scores a glancing blow on you, you're slowed. If somebody hits your arm, you fight on one-handed. If somebody hits your leg, you go down to one knee. If somebody hits you hard, anywhere at all, there is a horrible crunch or spurt of blood and you die.
You know, as if someone hits you very hard with a deadly weapon or something
So, you know how tense a fighting game gets when both of you only have a scrap of health left? That's Bushido Blade all the time!
And yeah, it's possible for any match to be over in three seconds, but that's less common and funnier than you'd expect. The characters in the game act with a distinctly human speed, and while most fighting games tend to funnel their complexity into aggression, Bushido Blade's depth all lies in dodging, staggering and blocking. This produces a game that's as much about waiting and cunning as it is about attacking, where knowing when to counterattack is as much about getting inside your opponent's head as reading his animations.
Advocates of more traditional fighting games might claim that's true of their chosen series, but it's just not. Those games all bear the millstone of being built for an arcade machine first and a home console second, and so they need to provide an instant thrill that lasts for at least 90 seconds. When a round of Bushido Blade starts the instinctive response is not to start spazzing about like a child riding the sugar high of a lifetime and go pummel your money's worth out of your opponent. The instinctive response from your very first match is to watch, and wait. Change your stance. Shuffle forward.
Your opponent drops down, maybe into a run, and you leap backwards. But it wasn't a run, and he was just psyching you out. So you send a taunt his way, then prove you're not scared by making your character sit his ass down on the ground.
Fundamentally, Bushido Blade was a fighting game which tried to remember why fighting was awesome in the first place. Instead of abstracting it with weirdly boring features like super-combos, or air juggling, or special abilities, or cancelling, Bushido Blade chose to simulate what was already beautiful about fighting. Unbearable tension. Moments of stillness, to exaggerate moments of action. Making a mockery of death by blocking a killing blow, and another, and another. Trying to lock your opponent into the weakness of his chosen weapon. The dilemma of whether to fight dirty, and throw handfuls of sand at your opponent. The chance to mess with the other guy, the chance to keep your cool, and the chance to run away.
God, that's another thing. Even the big arena fighting game of this generation, Ultimate Ninja Storm, doesn't come close to matching Bushido Blade's levels. These were huge areas where being backed up against a wall or knocked down a tier was just the start. In any match you were free to enforce a change of scene by running off into a nearby forest, say, where each missed sword-swipe would send enormous poles of bamboo tumbling to the ground. It was what kept those rare, epic five-minute duels interesting.
I remember one match where my friend and I traded cautious blows in six or seven different locales across three loading zones, until we ended up at the top of a ridge. It was there that we each went for a heavy attack and bounced off one another's weapons, sending us both tumbling off the ledge and into the mud fifteen feet below.
But neither of us stood back up. We just lay there, faces down. We waited for three seconds. Five seconds. We were so close our legs were touching. 10 seconds, with no movement, and no button presses. An eternity. I couldn't stand it anymore. In a heartbeat and in one movement my character scrambled to his feet and swung his hammer back down towards my opponent's prostrate form. In that instant the other man darted up towards me in an even quicker motion, and dug his sword into my chest. I watched the blood erupt from my muddied, broken character as he went stumbling backwards into the mud, his hammer falling harmlessly to one side.
Pretty sure it's one of the single coolest things I've ever seen a videogame do.
I bet they're having fun in the detestable alternate universe where Bushido Blade took off. I bet they're playing all kinds of fighting games with no health bars, which manage to look cool without the benefit of special moves choked with ethereal pyrotechnics or astonishingly detailed sprites. I bet they have at least a couple of fighting games each generation which make sense.
In closing, let me point out that I love Street Fighter IV as much as the next man. Which is to say I love it enough to decide to get good at it, find out that performing the cancels on a d-pad is like closing a hardback book on your testicles, look into buying an arcade stick, find out they're kind of expensive, and give up.
I guess I love Bushido Blade a little bit more than the next man. But you know what? I'm really okay with that. This game deserves a little bit more than what it got.