Editor’s note: Join us over the next two weeks as we look back at the most outstanding and influential games of 1996.
The unassuming grey box known as the PlayStation was little over a year old (in North America and Europe, at least) when Tekken 2 released to rave reviews at the back end of 1996.
Praised for its brilliant mechanics, diverse roster of characters and sheer originality, it quickly became a standard bearer for Sony’s nascent console, more than holding its own against the likes of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Soulcalibur.
So, as part of Goomba Stomp’s ‘1996 Redux’ celebration, we decided to take this opportunity to commemorate this absolute classic of the fighting game genre.
Expanding on the 1995 original whilst retaining the unique charm that has come to characterize the franchise in subsequent years, Tekken 2’s most distinguishing feature had to be its robust combat mechanics and liquid smooth gameplay.
With an absence of ranged attacks (apart from Devil/Angel eye laser techniques), the introduction of counter-throws and a set of expansive arenas in which to do battle, Tekken 2’s combat was arguably more strategic than most fighting games of the period. Rarely did contests devolve into a button-bashing slug fest or long-range war of attrition; spamming special moves such as Ryu’s hadouken or Sub-Zero’s freeze blast simply wasn’t an option.
Instead, players had to rely on each fighter’s dazzling array of combos and their own wits to achieve victory. However, despite the sheer number of combinations available, Namco made sure to make the game accessible to amateurs by including plenty of basic sequences of 2 or 3 button presses in every move set. That’s not to say it lacked the kind of complicated, finger-breaking chains only the most dedicated and dextrous individuals could hope to master. No, there was a decent supply of 10-hit combos too.
And this level of balance was exemplified by the characters themselves. With the possible exception of Marshall Law and the aforementioned Devil/Angel, there was very little to split the combatants in terms of difficulty, either to use, or overcome. For example, mechanical behemoth Jack made up for his lack of speed with raw, unadulterated power, while physically smaller fighters such as Jun Kazama and Lei Wulong’s superior agility enabled them to compete with their more massive foes. Yet, despite these wildly different styles, the animations were of such a high quality that, regardless of size, each character was able to transition between combinations with a fluency that’s pleasing to watch even now.
Importantly, there were a number of ways to enjoy these impressive mechanics. Once a player had familiarized themselves with the fundamentals of combat in the game’s innovative practice mode, there were, essentially two exciting options available.
First and foremost, there was Tekken 2’s surprisingly deep arcade mode known as ‘The King of Iron Fist Tournament’. Featuring 10 increasingly tricky, if rarely frustrating, stages and a character-specific sub-boss on level 8, the highlight of each campaign was the gloriously absurd ending cinematic that, though brief (only 30 seconds or so on average), encapsulated the bombastic storytelling and inimitable sense of humor the series is known for.
Enjoyable as arcade mode was, however, it was difficult to look past the one-on-one multiplayer vs mode. After all, nothing beats sitting on the living room sofa with a friend or sibling and knocking seven digital bells out of one another.
Meanwhile, in stark contrast to last year’s Street Fighter V, which suffered from a distinct lack of content upon launch, Namco didn’t skimp on Tekken 2’s character roster either.
From thinly veiled simulacrums of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, to a grizzly bear turned bodyguard, from a boxing Kangaroo/Raptor to a cybernetically enhanced samurai, Tekken 2 features one of the most eclectic collections of fighters in the history of the genre.
And this diversity wasn’t just skin deep. In fact, it was the distinctive personalities Namco worked so hard to cultivate as much as any superficial differences that helped them stand out as an ensemble. Take lion-mask wearing luchador, King. His array of suplexes and other equally recognizable wrestling maneuvers separate him from the pack in terms of fighting style, while his post-arcade-victory cut-scene shows that, under his intimidating exterior, he’s a sentimental, caring man.
Interestingly, over half the roster are initially inaccessible, only becoming available for selection once the player completes arcade mode using a specific character; so, Nina unlocks Anna, King unlocks Armour King, etc. It’s an extremely effective piece of game design that compels the player to keep returning to the arcade mode again and again if they wish to experience everything Tekken 2 has to offer. Indeed, some of my earliest gaming memories revolve around 7-year-old me trying desperately to acquire every single fighter and witness the conclusion of their individual stories with my own eyes.
Visually, at a time when 2D fighting games were still the norm, Tekken 2 was immediately recognizable thanks to its polygonal, three-dimensional character models and detailed pre-rendered backgrounds.
Unlike Mortal Kombat, which was guilty of using simple palette swaps to differentiate between some of its characters rather than creating entirely new assets, Tekken 2’s avatars are noticeably different in look and build. With a pair of unique outfits that, as well as suiting their personas, distinguish them from every other fighter: whereas Mortal Kombat newbies would be forgiven for confusing Sub-Zero and Reptile, it’d be difficult to make the same mistake with King and Armour King.
There was also a conspicuous height and weight difference between bulkier, physically imposing combatants like Jack or Heihachi, and slender, athletic individuals such as Michelle or Lei. It might not have been the only title to provide this sense of scale, but it was one of the most effective at doing so.
Perhaps not as dynamic as contemporary Street Fighter titles, or even as atmospheric as mid-90’s Mortal Kombat, Tekken 2’s various stages were still charming in their own right, thanks in no small part to the advanced light sourcing technology that, at the time of release, drew praise from GameSpot and other globally-recognized publications. ‘Hong Kong Rooftop’, ‘Eternal Darkness’ and ‘Kyoto at Sunset’ each stand out, though all 20+ levels are worthy of comment.
It goes without saying Tekken 2 couldn’t withstand comparison to modern titles from a graphical perspective, but considering it’s now 3 console generations old – if it was a human being, it could legally buy alcohol – it doesn’t look half bad.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is timeless. Clocking in at 1:45:00, it contains a plethora of dance anthems like ‘The Place 1997’ that are certain to resonate with 20-something players like myself who look back on the ’90s with fondness. However, some of the most memorable tracks fall outside of this late-millennial milieu; the solemn, brooding tones of ‘Be in the Mirror’ and the upbeat timbre of ‘More Healthy’ in particular spring to mind. Excitingly, anyone who owns Tekken 7 can listen to the majority of the soundtrack via the in-game jukebox. Otherwise, there’s always YouTube.
Improving on the original in basically every way, the biggest testament to the brilliance of Tekken 2 is the similarities it bears to the most recent iterations of the franchise.
It may lack the ‘Rage Arts’, fully three-dimensional stages and environmental hazards that are now commonplace in fighting games, but the heart and soul of Tekken has remained the same ever since: the delightfully convoluted and melodramatic stories, exceptional characters and expertly crafted combat mechanics.
Proof positive that the quality of Tekken 2 and its importance to the genre cannot be underestimated.