There are few places you’ll see a crowd go wild watching a video game character open a door. But that’s exactly what happens when King_Rasta pulls off a clutch mix-up in the final round of the Guilty Gear Xrd tournament. I’m in the front row, in the back of a small bar in the centre of London. Draping himself with a cloth, King_Rasta’s character disappears by opening a door through space, then reappears while simultaneously KO-ing his opponent.
The tension is palpable. Most of the crowd, many of whom are players themselves, balance on the edge of their seats. King_Rasta, representing Austria, is facing off against Jackal, from France. Jackal’s fought his way back from the loser’s bracket after being knocked down there by King_Rasta himself in an earlier match-up. There’s a lot to prove, and these are two players who have clashed time and time again: they might hail from different countries, but the London streets have played host to countless bouts between them.
A lot of the faces in the crowd are familiar, too, travelling from across Europe (and sometimes beyond) to meet face-to-face at events that support the games they play. Here they catch up with old friends, and play the games they love together. The Guilty Gear games aren’t massive releases – not the Mortal Kombats or the Street Fighters of this world. But they’re no less challenging to play, no less technical to master, and no less exhilarating when get a group of the best players together in a room ready for a massive ruck. Arc System Works’ titles are EVO mainstays for a reason.
Usually fighting tournament prize pools are token, because most tournaments are organised by fans without official backing. But this battle between King_Rasta and Jackal is different. The unprecedented prize has been provided by Arc System Works itself. The winner gets an all-expenses-paid trip to Tokyo to take part in the Arc Revolution Cup, which is the tournament, where an official champion will be crowned.
King_Rasta's door trick has put him in a great position. The two players continue to duke it out, with Jackal on the back foot. King_Rasta needs one more round. His character, Faust, is a Doctor who wears a bag on his head and wields a body-length scalpel. Faust can also throw out random items from his jacket, making his moves difficult to predict for player and opponent alike. A hammer launches out, and hits Jackal hard. Next, a bomb.
But this one goes wrong. King_Rasta accidentally blows himself up, and Jackal takes advantage. His character, Millia Rage, leaps forward, using her hair as a whip to pound the good doctor into submission. Just when it seems like Jackal will even things up, King_Rasta suddenly enters a state of pure reflex. Faust climbs on his scalpel like a pogo stick and twists and turns around Millia. She’s unable to block a single hit, caught in a vortex. Finally, almost tauntingly, he delivers the finishing blow with a wound-up whack of a baseball bat. Home run! The crowd’s screams completely drown my phone recording – but then, I’m screaming with them.
To play at the level of the fighters on stage takes countless hours of practice. But the reality is that, once they land in Japan, they’ll be lucky to make it past the first few rounds (the series is much more popular in its home territory). King_Rasta will in fact be knocked out of the competition in match number one. But why is Guilty Gear so hard to follow even for the pros?
Series creator Daisuke Ishiwatari has described the graphical style as 'anime in motion.' Games like Guilty Gear are known for their flashy style and busy animations. Characters zip from one end of the screen to another, dash through the air, and follow-up in the sky with super-long combos. Only the deftest of players will know how to respond and break out of those combos. One mistimed block can see your whole health bar careening down to zero.
Guilty Gear is a four-button fighting game. The four basic moves are, in essence, simple to understand. There’s a punch, a kick, a slash, and a hard slash. According to Ishiwatari, the goal of this is to make each move feel like it progresses in strength. The game uses a gatling system for move inputs; it means that, unlike in Street Fighter where you wait for a hit to connect then move onto the next one, in Guilty Gear you mash through them fairly quickly. It’s fast-paced from the core.
Advanced techniques then revolve around making use of the 'roman cancel', where you can trade meter to reset your character out of a combo and instantly start a new one. Mix in Dust, a special launcher strike, alongside chaotic special moves, and the best players can string together a devastating trap of moves in the time it takes mortals like us to blink. Every clash can become decisive. Combined with the speed of movement and hard-to-predict special moves, even the neutral game (poking and prodding for openings) can be electric to watch.
That can make Guilty Gear hard to pick up, and hard to follow for newcomers. But it’s also what makes Guilty Gear exhilarating. This game is do or die. It’s heaven or hell (which flashes on screen at the start of a match, before declaring in an extremely metal way “let’s rock”). A match can end as quickly as it begins. It’s the sort of rush that slower-paced fighting games simply cannot deliver.
To celebrate 30 years of Arc System Works as a publisher and developer the studio has recently released Guilty Gear 20th Anniversary Edition on Switch, which includes remasters of both the original Guilty Gear (1998) and Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R (2012). Both are still be some of the best 2D fighting games to date and, thanks to their fluidity and speed, remain immensely playable.
The original game was a labour of love for Ishiwatari. The word 'auteur' is bandied around a lot in video games, and the humble Ishiwatari would be the first to point to the hardworking teams who have worked alongside him since 1998. But being the Renaissance man he is, Ishiwatari’s DNA is woven throughout the series from that first passion project, for which he wrote dozens of pitch pages while trying to convince his boss that a new style of fighting game was viable. He wanted a fighting game that mimicked the trends of late 90s anime and manga – high-octane and with a devil-may-care attitude. Grittier. More influence was taken from the type of action seen in Bastard!! and Dragon Ball than video games.
Ishiwatari did the lion's share of concepting and shaping this tone. In addition to coming up with the intricate fighting mechanics, he also composed a lot of the rocking soundtrack himself, and drew the gorgeous character designs. He even lent his vocal talents.
While Xrd has undoubtedly refined Guilty Gear to the nth degree, there’s still so much you can see in these early releases that helped forge the alternative paths to what fighting games could be outside of the mainstream. Even back then it was about building up those progressive combos – revving them up like a bike – and then pulling hard on the brakes with cancels to string out these long combos that almost look like sleight of hand. XX then nailed those down even further by translating the charge cancels and launchers of that original into their own certified moves: the roman cancels and dusts. The rest, as they say, is history.
You’d be right in thinking, glancing at tournament masters fighting one another, that the biggest change in the modern era is the switch to 3D. The gorgeous anime style renderings are perhaps the best expression of those types of visuals in three dimensions. But look a little closer and there’s something much more revolutionary hiding in Xrd: accessibility. The game’s clear tutorials easily explain how the game works one point at a time, setting up unique challenges against MOBA-like minions to make sure you grasp the basics; and the game’s stylish mode strips back the more technical button inputs and allows you to string together auto-combos and more easily output special moves. Even so, playing with that setting on remains just as hectic and dazzling to watch. But slowly, you can start to see how the game is helping you fit those puzzle pieces together.
Guilt Gear always has been and still is magic to watch. All stylish mode does is help make those ingredients a little clearer. A pro will still mop the floor with you. But learning how a magic trick is done doesn’t make you appreciate the artistry any less. Let those helping hands wash over you in Xrd, and then boot up the 20th Anniversary Collection. Suddenly, you can start to see those pieces even back then. Those bits of the puzzle have been there from the beginning.
Watching Guilty Gear in the hands of those who know what they’re doing is flashy, fast, hypnotic. It always will be. But it doesn’t have to be a complete mystery. Taking a look back at the treasures of the past makes it clear that everyone deserves the tools to appreciate the dynamism of this electric fighting series that’s been sizzling on the scene since the 90s. Thankfully Guilty Gear is more accessible and easy to get hold of than ever, and it's always been brilliant. Who knows, perhaps you’ll be taking on Japan next.