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Retro Friday #9: Star Gladiator

7 min

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Retro Friday #9: Star Gladiator
Forgotten fighting game from the director of Devil Mary Cry and Dragon's Dogma.

Great news, we have once again made it to Friday in one piece. The bad news is that last week I had absolutely no time for another Retro Friday article, and I don't exactly have a plan for making up for it other than not missing out on it this week, sorry!

Hopefully the choice of game can somewhat redeem me this week, as we take a look at one of the Capcom's lesser known fighting games - Star Gladiator. Even among the cult followers and hardcore fighting game fans, Plasma Sword is usually far more well known than its predecessors, maybe we could remedy this today by talking about this game.

If you watch the game's intro, you will hear a very specific sound effect that alludes to the origins of this game. On a Bit Transmission podcast, Seth Killian stated this was originally supposed to be a Star Wars fighting games.

It's a massive shame that we don't have some development documents that would confirm it in greater detail, but it's not exactly hidden when you look at this game. I mean, look at "Gamof Gohgry" from this game, you can't tell me it's not just straight up a legally distinct Wookiee.

Comparing the other characters would be a bit of a stretch, but there is still some overlap in the visual language of a plucky hero with a light sa- uh, plasma sword, going up against a big dark evilman in a cybernetic suit of armor.

This spills out into stages as well. I doubt that all of them were made with Star Wars in mind and then quickly overhauled, but some really feel like you're battling in the middle of a space battle from one of the movies, or planting your boots on the soil of Endor.

There are even some crossovers in the story. This game might be light on actual storytelling, but their manuals and official website have provided us with some decent character profiles and a story premise that sounds an awful lot like something about a new Sith Lord creating the new order.

That's nice and all, but everything I just told you is a surface level similarity. You know, aesthetics, story, characters, etc. But there's something interesting going on with the gameplay as well.

Soul Edge came out in December 1995, Star Gladiator came out in July 1996. Even with the shorter development time that games had back then, I'm aware that this could be a massive stretch, but Star Guardian really feels like Capcom making their own Soul Calibur, the same way SNK's Art of Fighting 3 felt like 2D Tekken.

The control scheme is probably the biggest giveaway. Capcom games typically have a 6 button layout, with 3 kicks and 3 punches of various strengths. Star Gladiator instead uses the exact same layout as Soul Edge. Horizontal strike, vertical strike, kick, and guard, an exact match.

Then there's less striking similarities, like the ring outs which were already done in Virtua Fighter, or the fact that everyone uses weapons, which is not a rare thing in general. However, fighting ghost version of the final boss if you play well enough did remind me of fighting Inferno as the "real" boss after beating Cervantes.

One similarity I'd love to see, though, is the incredibly fluid movement that we all come to expect from SoulCalibur. Star Gladiator feels more like 3D Mortal Kombat games in that regard. You have to come to a complete stop if you wish to actually engage with the 3D mechanics outside of your get-up options.

In general, bringing Art of Fighting 3 here feels appropriate because there's a strong sense of chunkiness stemming from the fact that many of the mechanics feel like an attempt to marry Capcom's classic design with a system that the developers weren't entirely familiar with.

Moment to moment action doesn't feel that bad, but when you go into the "strings" or special moves, there's a distinct dissonance, and the implementation of sidesteps makes it feel like a 2D game 99% of the time.

It would become a more coherent offering in the sequel, but the original definitely comes off as a game that didn't quite know what it wanted to be.

That said, Star Gladiator still has that brilliance and detail that we expect from Capcom fighting games in the mid to late 90s. Despite being a relatively early 3D title, the game looks amazing, and having Akiman on the team as an art director and character designer certainly helped.

Everyone in this game looks fantastic and unique in their own way. The great use of color and composition makes even a basic character like Hayato look striking, and the other characters only get better. I love how Bilsteins armor looks like a sci-fi suit of samurai armor, and while his massive sword clashes with this concept, it still fits him exceptionally well.

My personal favorite, however, is Saturn Dyer, a constantly grinning green-man. It's such an immensely eccentric design, and I would understand anyone who calls it ugly, but I absolutely adore how weird and off-beat he is. There's a certain level of charm to such an oddball design.

There are plenty of other surprises on the roster, like a scientist who turned himself into a velociraptor, or an actual future birdman, so I'm sure everyone will be able to find their own favorite weirdo.

The rest of the presentation honestly doesn't lag behind. Even though characters are fairly detailed, they didn't skimp out on the stages either, which I personally would expect as a Tekken player. From Tekken 1 to 3 we never had anything resembling a 3D stage, even Soul Edge was fairly basic in this regard, but you can't say that about Star Gladiator.

There's lots of details in the background, from aforementioned spaceships to floating crates or constantly present debris with layers of parallaxing backgrounds.

Thank you very much to anyone who reads this far or tunes in to these articles. While I have fun just talking about these games, it feels especially good to know that I possibly shared this fun with someone else, see you next week!

As per tradition, my favorite track from the OST:

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