'Might Have Been' - Ehrgeiz
[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Squaresoft and Dream Factory's Ehrgeiz, released for the arcade in 1998 and the PlayStation in 1999.]
It all started so well for Dream Factory. Even the developer’s existence made waves, as it was big news back in 1996 when some talented designers left Sega and Namco to make a fighting game for Squaresoft, and it was bigger news still when that game, Tobal No. 1, hit the PlayStation with a demo of what was then Japan’s most-wanted game: Final Fantasy VII. And there Dream Factory’s problems started.
While Tobal No. 1 has a number of ideas that are still unique today, it’s always been a plodding, straightforward game, and the Final Fantasy VII demo overshadowed it terribly in both Japan and the U.S. Tobal No. 2 went solo a year later and improved everything about the original, but translation problems and the first Tobal’s low profile kept it from coming to North America, and only importers would acclaim it, perhaps to an undeserved degree. The next year, Dream Factory abandoned Tobal entirely and tried a different sort of fighting game.
God bless Square's reckless funding
Ehrgeiz was indeed different, even in its earliest stages. Tobal had been released by Squaresoft, Ehrgeiz was published through a Namco-Square partnership. Tobal was built for the PlayStation, Ehrgeiz went to arcades first. Tobal had goofy characters designed by Dragon Quest and Dragon Ball’s Akira Toriyama, while Ehrgeiz had a more angular assortment of fighters drawn by Final Fantasy VII’s Tetsuya Nomura, back when polygon limitations kept him from putting belts on everything.
Apparently Nomura’s take on the Tekken games, the cast of Ehrgeiz includes a Japanese wrestler with a Moe Howard haircut, a Korean film star with a rocket launcher in his leg, a cyborg ninja, a surprisingly well-groomed girl raised by wolves, and other characters boring enough to join Virtua Fighter. The only interesting fighters are the ones that pay tribute to classic manga: Ken “Godhand” Mishima borrows his hidden arm-gun from the hero of Buichi Terasawa’s Cobra, while Yoko’s an Interpol version of the yoyo-wielding schoolgirl detective from Shinji Wada’s Sukeban Deka.
As a limited, short-lived release in arcades, Ehrgeiz got attention only on account of two hidden characters: Cloud Strife and Tifa Lockhart from Final Fantasy VII, which could do no wrong in 1998. Dream Factory, apparently realizing that the game should’ve been a Final Fantasy fighter all along, made sure that the PlayStation port of Ehrgeiz tripled its FFVII roster, adding ninja girl Yuffie Kisaragi, morose gunman Vincent Valentine, soon-to-be-iconic villain Sephiroth, and future Crisis Core mainstay Zack. And so Ehrgeiz’s PlayStation debut was noticed by two camps: the relentless Final Fantasy contingent and fighting fans stung over Tobal 2 staying in Japan.
The lack of Cid is a crime against taste
No one got what they wanted. Of course, those buying the game to play Final Fantasy VII Fighting All-Stars found a selection of six beloved characters (seven, if you count Django’s alternate color as Red XIII), but it’s fan service at its most superficial. While the characters look sharper than they did in their native game, the FFVII lineup doesn’t get much in the way of personality: like the rest of Ehrgeiz’s cast, they don’t have dialogue, win quotes, or even relevant endings. Nowadays, even mediocre Final Fantasy VII spin-offs sell, but it wasn't quite the same in 1999.
Tobal fans, meanwhile, were put off by the game’s reckless disregard for convention. Tobal 2 stands as a complex, methodical fighter, but Ehrgeiz broke free of all that. In it, players can circle each other in close quarters by holding down a button, or, upon releasing it, dash around the fighting arena, jumping from tier to tier while shooting fireballs, missiles or spiked yo-yos. Matches are chaotic, near-random melees, with fighters rolling, dodging, countering, leaping, flip-kicking, and throwing three different levels of punches or kicks.
It’s simply too much for any balanced fighting game to handle, and Ehrgeiz doesn’t even offer that pretense. The complex fighting mechanics are often outdone by a strategy of rushing around and pelting an opponent with jump attacks, and if you try to play it slow and strategic, you’ll find that blocking and countering blows comes far more easier to the computer-controlled characters than you. As if to even things out, the AI is rock-stupid in other respects, and it’s entirely possible to win by using the same attack over and over. I suggest Cloud’s low-level kicks.
Welcome to the Power Stone War
With Ehrgeiz, Dream Factory was caught between worlds. It’s far too loose to be competitive, but it’s not quite a success as a free-roaming 3-D fighter. Games like Capcom’s Power Stone and Koei’s Destrega later polished up the ideas that Ehrgeiz tested, leaving Dream Factory’s effort too confined and sparse. Even its most interesting ideas are underused; the highlight may be the game’s final battle, a bizarre fight that actually rolls the game credits while you’re required to break a box, grab a sword, and then slay the monstrosity that’s attacking you. Ehrgeiz is just an unpainted prototype of better things to come.
Still, there’s something strangely fun about the whole mess. Few fighters offer the sheer weight of options that Ehrgeiz has during a battle, where you’re free to attempt either a short-range, Tobal-like fight or a crazed, running battle that takes up the whole screen. It’s enjoyable, shallow stuff, like an unpredictable street brawl in comparison to the measured sparring of just about every proper 3-D fighter ever made.
Instead of re-working Ehrgeiz’s main attraction for the PlayStation port, Dream Factory crammed it with extras. Most of the mini-games, including a mundane race and seafront obstacle course, are half-finished and useful only in showing how a Squaresoft-made version of Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball might have turned out. The only interesting diversions are a rip-off of the classic tile-matching Lights Out puzzle game and an elaborate dungeon-hack subgame that is, in all fairness, impressive for a mere bonus.
If Ehrgeiz had potential, Dream Factory never had the chance to see it through. Their next project, The Bouncer, was a vapid, widely panned PlayStation 2 near-launch title, and a bit of an embarrassment for Square. Perhaps that was why Dream Factory turned to other publishers after that, making Crimson Tears for Capcom, two UFC fighters for Crave, and, most recently, a game based on the anime Fighting Beauty Wulong. A few DF members split off in 2003, formed Dream Publishing, and made the all-fronts Xbox disaster Kakuto Chojin, which was recalled for its controversial use of Muslim chants. And that’s the most recognition Dream Factory’s seen in the last five years.
Ehrgeiz, however, seems to have fared a little better. Its throwaway Final Fantasy loans have made it slightly collectible among shorter-run PlayStation games, and while a lot of fighting fans regard it as the malformed, chained-in-the-basement cousin of the allegedly majesticTobal 2, Ehrgeiz has its moments for those who don’t take their games quite as seriously. It’s an experiment: half-fun, half-flawed, and all a suggestion that Dream Factory was a little too far ahead of the times.
[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]