Fighting games are the genre that got me into video games. Though I don’t get to play them all too often these days, I grew up with them. I cut my teeth with games like Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, Primal Rage, Clayfighter, Brutal: Paws of Fury, Eternal Champions, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighter, and heck even Punch-Out! This was heavily influenced by my brothers, who both played games and who both enjoyed fighters. Maybe because you could play simultaneously and that meant at least two of us could play at once, so the fighting genre by default was the winner?
If I really had to put my finger on it though, I’d bet money my liking of fighters came from one of my brothers taking time to teach me how to play. He told me about combos. He shared with me his GamePro’s and schoolyard notes on how to do special moves and fatalities. He even physically showed me how to use the Super NES Advantage controller, and the intricacies of Killer Instinct’s combo system. Seeing him play with his friends, understanding the knowledge it took to adapt to your opponent and defeat their strategies, and respecting the art of the fight all made me want to keep playing. Here was something unlike Super Mario World or Final Fantasy that I honestly did just suck at. I needed to play to get better, to understand and gain skill. All the while my brother and friend getting better and more skilled with me, creating even more tension and rivalry. It was awesome, and everything that video games and the fighting game community at large hold dear.
That is all to say I think I have some knowledge with fighting games. So take this at full value when I say the original Dynasty Warriors on the Playstation has some severe issues I could not get past.
If you’re thinking of the giant action Musou style combat games the Dynasty Warriors series is known for, and wondering why I’m talking about a fighting game, you’re probably not alone. The very first Dynasty Warriors was a 1-on-1 weapons based 3D fighting game. It wasn’t until the sequel released on the PS2 a couple years later the series fell into it’s niche genre it has been in for the previous 2 1/2 decades.
Being a 3D fighting game on the PS1, it’s very difficult not comparing it to the likes of Tekken, especially Tekken 3, which released less than a year after this one (even closer looking at Japanese Arcade release windows). Both games feature a large arena and polygonal characters. Both games have unique characters with differing fighting styles and speeds. Both games even have combos, throws, run/dash mechanics, side stepping, pokes, recoveries, and more. But while Tekken does these beautifully, smoothly, and easily, Dynasty Warriors makes everything a chore.
No matter your character (which are still the characters from the Musou games) you’ll be moving slow. Nudging forward and backward feels archaic, especially compared to today’s fighters. Jumping and side stepping doesn’t feel fluid or natural at all. Performing combos with the limited buttons available should be simple, but things just don’t link together all too well. Combine all that with an overly aggressive CPU and the game becomes a challenge from the get-go.
I also need to mention the weapons. Every character has a specific weapon they use as part of their kit, if you will. You’ve got things like staves, knuckles, swords, etc. To ride the comparison train again, let’s look at Soul Blade (Soul Edge on home consoles), which released over a year before this game. In Soul Edge and Dynasty Warriors certain characters are faster or slower than others, and their weapons adjust for this change. However, Dynasty Warriors doesn’t seem to compromise speed and range with raw damage output. Faster characters (and excuse me, I don’t know names of folks) can get in close and quick and deal significant damage, while slower enemies do just the same amount of damage, but struggle to keep in range. Contrast that with combatants in Soul Edge you can see the differences: getting in close to someone with range like Kilik is tough, but Kilik’s range is somewhat easy to avoid at distance, and his damage output is compensated appropriately. In short, it feels good. Dynasty Warriors does not feel good.
The most egregious offense, at least to me, is the game’s hit prioritization and hit boxes. I cannot tell you how frustrating it was to see my swipes literally go through body parts of opponents and not have them count as hits. We’re talking polearms going through entire legs and not connecting. I was thinking perhaps the opponent was sidestepping and avoiding that way (a totally viable technique in a 3D fighter like this), but they weren’t. And if they were, it needs to be better indicated, so we’re not lead to frustration.
While we’re here I’d like to also mention hit prioritization. I’m not well versed in terminology here, but I’m pretty certain in pixel fighters like Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike there is something called frame advantage or startup. Essentially, it’s a fighter’s punch being input by the user, and how long it might take to start the animation from when the button is pressed until the point it hits the opponent. In Dynasty Warriors there are clear advantages of some characters over others. Don’t get me wrong: I know this is a thing in all fighting game matchups. But it’s hard to not feel like some characters are flat out better than others. This lead to many, many moments where I felt like I should be connecting and hitting opponents, only for them to strike second but hit first. Not a fun experience.
So what does Dynasty Warriors have going for it? Well, it’s not a terrible fighting game. I am sure there are folks out there that grew up with this game and loved it, and I could see it. Maybe if they never had another fighting game to know what they were missing, and only played two player multiplayer, then yeah, good game. The game also looks quite impressive: bright colors, a lot of variety in characters and animations, and some neat stages. Oh, and the game has a super impressive soundtrack. Like, I was shocked how solid it was impressive. Definitely worth checking out. Outside of all that though, and especially in hindsight some 20 years later, there really isn’t any reason to play Dynasty Warriors. Many games do what it does, but better.
A quirky fighting game entry in an action heavy franchise might sound like a fun diversion, and that’s all this game really is: a fun diversion from something better.