Follow me on this one. Everyone in beat-'em-ups hates each other, right? If they're not the brother of another one who's chosen a path of the Dark Side, then they're a pupil gone off the rails and forever chased by their good and frustrating teacher. They've murdered each other's sisters, cheated on their wives and maybe, just maybe, stolen each other's winning lottery tickets. These are all good reasons to kick each others duodenums out, and on this level bat-'em-ups make sense.
But hang on a minute. These fights aren't swift, impromptu brawls fuelled by alcohol, macho task, and years of embittered hatred. They're organised, three round matches which involve at least one, and usually both combatants flying half way round the world to meet at a set place ina foreign country to fight each other.
It's Jeux Sans Frontiers, only without Eddy Waring and with the risk of serious injury elevated to an art form, and would take a massive amount of good will and cooperation for both fighters to book the tie off wor, buy their tickets and turn up at the same place at the same time. Hardly the actions of two individuals who have worn to beat each other into a bloody pulp, are they?
So that's the entire concept of story lines discredited and rubbished then. I don't care whether the Sorcerer didn't get enough attention from his mother as a boy, or if Liu Kang is the love child of Marilyn Monroe and Bruce Lee, and to be honest, until I played Shadow Fighter, I didn't really care if beat-'em-ups existed at all.
I'd always thought that they were limited exercises in reactions and button pushing, and pretty dull. I also thought (mainly because it's true) that most beat-'em-ups on the Amiga weren't as good as beat-'em-ups on other formats.
Times have changed though. Shadow Fighter's a great game by any standards, and everyone in the office (apart from Sue, who's far too busy to bother with games these days) has been playing it continuously since we got it. We've got the thumb blisters to prove it.
It's great because Domenico and the two Fabios (three Milanese kids who, according to the Gremlin legend, simply sent the game in practically finished) have taken a look at the world around them and taken note.
Although I've only ever played it about twice, Super Street Fighter 2 in the arcades (apparently) the world's greatest beat-'em-up, combining short-term playability flawlessly with long-term appeal, and consequently sucking change out of pockets across the world faster and with greater ease than a giant vacuum mounted to a spy satellite in geosynchronous orbit.
If you've ever needed a blueprint for a perfect game, then it's out there in most arcades. It's consequently a bit baffling to see "combat simulations" such as that CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY Rise Of The Robots, which fail to take into account any of the lessons learned by other games, and are consequently about as playable as underwater tennis.
Shadow Fighter steals shamelessly from here, there and everywhere, snipping all the best bits from everywhere and squashing them all into one. There's a scary butch bloke who looks and moves a bit like Blanka, a scary thin bloke who's clearly a non-rubbery Dhalsim, and even a cute girl with lethal hair, not entirely unlike a character from the disappointing Elfmania.
Oh sure, once you've mastered the fireballs
Then it grabs a few bits from Super Street Fighter 2 X and Mortal Kombat - whoever gets the first hit in gets a point bonus, and if you manage to land three different blows in succession, you get an "excellent" rating and momentarily stun your opponent, allowing you to get a few more punches in. These are admittedly small things, but they add considerably to the game and also break up all that tedious punching and kicking stuff.
With loads of locations and masses of characters to play, Shadow Fighter's good for at least a week of novelty value, with you and a friend trying out all the possible combinations of characters and locations.
Thankfully though, once you've lost the initial buzz of playing such a great-looking game (for even on the humble and increasingly neglected A500, you've got mock Mode 7 floors, parallaxing backgrounds and more colours on screen than are supposed to be possible) there;s still loads to see and do.
The control system's excellent, and makes us think that the programmers actually love beat-'em-ups, and didn't just simply try to cash in on the craze. We've not gone to the bother of counting them, but most character have over 20 easily-accessible moves, and that's with a bog-standard one-button joystick.
All the punches and kicks are dealt with using standard directions or directions-plus-fire, and the special moves tend to use simple swirls of the D-pad with a fire at the right moment rather than the fiddly UP, DOWN, RIGHT combos of MK2.
Forever chased by their good and trusting teacher
Different moves work at slightly different distances, so rather than having close attacks and missile/fireball distant attacks, there's a number of grades in between. Fat Kraut Cop for instance, can perform all his punch attacks holding a truncheon, thus extending his reach, so his ranges of attack are punching, swinging a truncheon, kicking, jump kicking and using his gun.
I'm not into beat-'em-ups enough to know if other games have this kind of flexibility, but it's the first time I've seen it on an Amiga.
The characters have, well, character. Oh sure, there's a couple of fairly forgettable ones such as Boxing Gloves Fella and Beardy Bloke, but even they're quite fun to use once you get into them. Cute Tiger Girl's the one we'd all fancy if she were real, and even though she's a bit weak and puny, especially against Stout Blond Lass, the fact that she shouts "Judith!" and rolls around with her opponent more than makes up for it.
They're already planning a data disk with eight new characters (To be designed by YOU, the readers of AP. See page 69 - Ed), but these will keep you happy for ages, simply because they're NOT all evenly matched.
Oh sure, once you've mastered fireballs and burning kicks, 14 Year Old Boy proves to be rock hard, but in a stand up fist fight against the adults, he WILL get a righteous kicking.
There's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief necessary to fully enjoy the game. Why does Cute Tiger Girl's hair inflict as much damage as a punch? How come Fat Kraut Cop can carry a gun into the compo, and how come Hat Geezer's sword doesn't cleave some of the thinner contestants in two? Where does Basketball Player keep his basketball? And where does Obvious T1000 Rip-Off go when he turns into a blob of liquid and vanishes up his opponent's trouser leg? Who knows and who cares? It's all jolly good fun.
If you can fault the game on anything, it's the one-player game, but then again, what kind of friendlies saddo buys beat-'em-ups to play them on their own? The computer player annoyingly accesses the special moves all the time, and on the easier levels it's possible to "Do a Rise Of The Robots" and get half way through the game using just two or three of the moves all the time, which is plainly silly and self defeating.
They really have thought of everything. Yes, it's hard disk installable (well, the A1200 version will be), yes it supports a second disk drive (which is just as well, as there's often a lot of disk swapping if you're playing against a friend. If you're playing a tournament against the computer the disks go in one at a time and stay there until you've beaten all the fighter's stored on them) and yes, you can replay a match with the same characters without going back to the menu screen, something that Mortal Kombat 2 won't do.
The sound's fun, with heavy crunching blows and people shouting "Judith!" all the time, the graphics are superbly animated and everything zips along at a sizzling pace. It's a superb game, and when the CD32 version emerges, eliminating all that tiresome disk swapping it'll rank alongside Guardian (the game of champions) as a powerful reason to buy one.
Ignore the hype, pour scorn on MK2's bland set of characters and limited moves, and buy the best beat-'em-up on the Amiga.