Jinpachi burns the life from me for the twentieth time in a row, and my crumpled body writhes in agony once again. Continue? The game asks as if mocking my lame efforts. My eyes start to twitch, and I see a vision of that damnable flame emerging from the gaping, fanged mouth that smiles broader than a Cheshire cat on the slobbering oaf's stomach. I cannot side step, I cannot jump, and I cannot duck. The thing will hit me. It will take a third of my life away. It will kill me, and, once again, I will continue. I twist the ends of my PS2 Dual Shock until I hear a slight creak. I look down, and I have ripped my pad in two. That's twenty quid down the drain, all because of this bloody boss. Continue? I'll do more than that Jinpachi. I'll get my other pad and I'm gonna kick your ass.
Which is pretty much what Tekken 5 boils down to during the first few hours of play. As any Tekken stalwart knows, first thing you do when you get the latest version is unlock all the secret characters by finishing the story mode over and over again. Tekken 5 is no different. First comes Roger, the cute boxing gloved kangaroo, complete with Roger junior hunched in his pouch (which made me stop for half a second before delivering a crunching body blow right into poor juniors ribs). And thus follows the tedium that afflicts all beat-em-ups nowadays. Finish story mode, unlock character, reveal FMV ending for theatre mode etc etc. It grates after a while and is nigh on impossible when playing as a character way down in the usage list.
But soldiering on, Tekken 5 proves a sound, if uninspired return to form for a franchise that has always lent itself towards the mainstream compared to its more technical cousin Virtua Fighter and weapon based bosom-buddy Soul Calibur. The problem with Tekken 4 was that Namco slowed it down and tried to add some realism into the spectacular bone crunching impossibilities that fans had grown accustomed to. It didn't work. In fact, for many Tekken 3 obsessives (this writer included) disoriented by Tekken Tag (Tekken 3.1) and Tekken 4, Tekken 5 is the first of the franchise since the late 90s to warrant any interest.
Everything you know and love, still burning brightly in that gaming haze of a memory we all share, about Tekken returns. Bouts often last mere seconds as power play and air combos reduce life bars faster than Amazonian caterpillars strip trees of their leaves. Compared to the strategic to-ing and fro-ing of Virtua Fighter 4 Evo and the parrying of Soul Calibur, Tekken is a casual gamer's dream. But that also means the button bash affliction that plagued me in the mid-90s, when I would face newcomers in Westminster's Namco World arcade and lose to fresh faced gits who hammered the kicks as Eddy or Hwoarang, returns. My girlfriend has found a rather soul destroying knack for kicking my ass with new Wesley Snipes ninja rip-off Raven.
Oh yeah, Heihachi Mishima, my and many a Tekken vet's fav, is supposed to be dead according to the story (I use the word 'story' loosely - it verges on the insane, comical and downright cringe worthy as always in Tekken), but you can unlock him too. In fact, if one thing symbolises Namco's return to the roots of the series, to Tekken 3's fantastic zenith of beat 'em up 3-D action, it's the sheer number of characters to choose from. Almost everyone returns. If you're a lapsed Tekken fanatic, you'll love the number of question marks that stare out at you when choosing a character for the first time. And you'll also love the familiar options: story, arcade, time attack, practice and, the true player's mode of choice, survivor, all return.
So, let's cover the new stuff. There are three new characters: The aforementioned ninja Raven (#cough#Blade#cough#), psycho Chinese kenpo master Feng Wei and Asuka, another of those bloody Kazamas (they breed like rabbits), a hard boiled Japanese girly who definitely doesn't giggle. Of the three, Raven is worth exploring for some interesting stance changes and power-combo potential, Feng looks spectacular when he's kicking your ass but is a little light in the hands of a seasoned Tekken master, and Asuka pretty much replaces Jun from Tekken 2 and adds a little spice. If you already have one or two characters you were pretty useful with in previous versions, there's nothing new here to warrant learning another 10 air-combo variations.
So, if everything is in place as was the case with Tekken 3, what have they done better? For one, the game looks delicious. The level of character detail is really unprecedented in the current generation of beat 'em ups. Facial expressions, muscular textures, character movement and even individual hairs caress the screen with grace. Lighting effects are particularly impressive, with certain stages casting blood red or eerie hazy blue on the skin of your fighters as they battle for victory.
Speaking of levels, Namco have done away with the interactive multi-tired stages that annoyed so many Tekken 4 players. Instead, flat based levels with established walls provide the battleground. Jamming your opponent up against a wall can provide an excellent opportunity for heavy damage. There are some wonderfully nice but subtle aesthetic touches as well. Frosty breath emanates from the mouths of squared-up warriors in the glacier based, penguin populated Polar Paradise; slam your opponent to the ground in the futuristic Final Frontier, and the glass floor cracks under the pressure; smash your enemie's face in Dragon's Nest, and part of a stone statue crumbles to the floor; throw your opponent in Pirate's Cove and gold coins throw themselves up into the air in a fit of excitement; a heat distortion permeates in the Burning Temple; tall flowers provide a bewitching glaze overlooked by ruins in Moonlit Wilderness. In short, the background to the carnage is beautiful, and, during the first hour or so of play, genuinely takes your eye off of chicken reversals and onto naked poolside lovelies.
But enough of this artsy fartsy nonsense. Tekken is all about mastery, destruction and showing off. Beat 'em ups have always been, and always will be, about multiplayer glory. If you haven't got a friend or two to share the love, Tekken 5 will quickly lose its appeal. Namco have attempted to extend the single-player appeal by including an arcade mode that allows you to level up your character from beginner to Tekken Lord. You'll also earn money in this mode to be spent customising your character with added costumes and ever crazy accessories. Fancy a giant fan for hard-man grandpa Heihachi? Done. Fancy mushrooms growing out of Yoshimitsu's hat? Done. Fancy a skateboard tied to Xiaoyu's back? Done. Want to turn Law into a chef? Done (really! You can buy him a chef's hat, ladle and frying pan to wear). Is it worth the hours you'll have to put in to fill every character's wardrobe with crap? For some die-hards maybe, but not for the average Tekken 5 player.
But arcade mode reveals glimpses of what could have been. You can name your character whatever you want, and it appears underneath your life bar, and above your rank. A random name also appears in the same way when fighting computer controlled enemies in arcade mode, some of them quite clearly thought up by members of the development team to appear as if facing other Tekken gamers across the world. It's like they included everything you needed to play the game online except the online option itself.
But, alas, Sony, online and PS2 are three words that are rarely happy bedfellows. Not only is the current infrastructure not in place to provide stable one-on-one bouts in an online capacity on PS2, but Sony don't see the financial appeal in it just yet. So any lobbying Namco may have conducted leading up to release would have been politely rebuffed by Sony executives. In any case, Tekken 5 provides the gamer with a glimpse of the future of the beat-em-up. Tekken's transition to online play is an unstoppable, wonderfully exciting inevitability.
For now, enjoy the most explosive beat-em-up available on the PS2. I'm not going to mention the optional mode Devil Within (a third-person adventure based on the character of Jin that brings new meaning to the term 'repetitious gameplay'), which was quite obviously someone at Namco's sadistic idea of a joke. That's an aberration I can forgive, since I don't have to play the thing to unlock anything. But other oddities spoil the gamer. Included are complete versions of Tekken, Tekken 2 and Tekken 3, as well as Starblade, Namco's sci-fi shooter from 1991 that quite obviously influenced Nintendo's Starfox in a big way. These blessings satisfy the curious among you who wish to view the franchise's transition from polygonal 3D-fighting to fully fledged side stepping heaven, but you wouldn't play them when you have Tekken 5 to enjoy.
It really boils down to this: if you love Tekken, you'll love this. If you love Virtua Fighter, you probably won't love Tekken. If you've never played Tekken before, or never played a beat-em-up before, you'll love Tekken's instant gratification and spectacular ease with which combos can light up the arena. Just watch out for great-granddad Jinpachi - he can be a right grumpy git when he wants to be.