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Tekken Series Retrospective

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Cestus
25 min

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Tekken Series Retrospective
With 25+ year history, it's worth to look back to see how Tekken became the biggest 3D fighting game in the world

The Beginning

When talking about the history of fighting games, you will often have to go back to 1991 and release the genre-defining title, Street Fighter 2. The sheer popularity and success of SF2 led to the game receiving several updated iterations and re-releases but most importantly, it led to the fighting game explosion in the industry. Many companies tried to capture the same success with their own take on the genre.

While many titles of that era were pretty similar to Street FighterSEGA had a radically new idea of bringing the genre to 3D with their powerful Model 1 arcade system board. Virtua Fighter’s release was a resounding success, selling dozens of thousands of arcade boards and eventually taking this experience to home consoles.

Unsurprisingly, Namco saw this development as an ample opportunity and accepted the massive challenge of creating their first 3D title. What was initially just experiments and attempts to understand new technology grew into a fully-fledged fighting game that marked the beginning of the influential and beloved franchise.

Tekken

Tekken's development was ambitious, to say the least; not only were they working with new technology, but they also had to create a distinct entry into the genre of fighting games that could rival the SEGA's title.

To ensure the game would succeed, Namco hired many industry veterans from other studios and assigned them to work on it. The process itself was far from ordinary. Typically, before the development starts, designers meticulously plan out the design document and have other people suggest any possible improvements to create the best possible product. 

However, Tekken was the exact opposite. It was a free forum of ideas where everything goes. If you have a cool concept for the game or think you could improve something, you can just do it. Don't like something? Delete it. This process made the production of Tekken extremely competitive, with a constant clash of ideas and people putting in extra time to make sure their work was too perfect to criticize. 

Naturally, it also led to a highly chaotic and inefficient production where some good ideas were cut, and the tuning team had to sleep in the office to make sure the game was up to industry standards. Even though such a troubled production sounds terrible, it allowed Tekken to stand out and become a fun, flashy game with a unique identity that would immediately capture people's attention. 

The animation was one of those flashy elements, boasting incredible attention to detail and smoothness. While the marketing heavily leaned on motion capture technology, we only have talented Namco developers to thank for it. Since the mocap technology was very basic at the time, they could only use it for reference, and all those fantastic animations had to be adjusted frame by frame to achieve perfection.

The arcade version launched with eight characters: a sword-wielding ninja, a luchador with a jaguar mask, a hulking android, and other distinct characters. This roster grew even larger in the home release, mostly adding palette swaps and clone characters who would gain unique movesets later in the series. Their distinctiveness didn't stop at their looks either. The majority of the fighters were also inspired by real-world martial arts and represented them quite well despite their limited movesets at the time.

What helped establish the unique cast further is that Tekken was one of the first fighting games to put real thought into the story. Usually, you'd just beat the arcade mode and see a few slides telling you about what characters did after the game. Tekken went a step above that with full animated cutscenes that included individual character endings and an intro.

When it comes to gameplay, Tekken introduced an incredibly intuitive control scheme that instantly became a hit with new players. Instead of the usual kick and punch buttons and having light, medium, and heavy distinctions, Tekken gave you four buttons corresponding to each limb. Combined with strings that could be pulled off without strict timings, it allowed even new players to pull off cool moves and explore the moveset without knowing complex inputs.

While the game balance was far from perfect and hardcore genre enthusiasts maintained a preference for Virtua Fighter, Tekken was nonetheless a massive success.

Tekken 2

Tekken 2 came out only a year after the original game and had a similarly free-form style of development, which famously allowed for the existence of Roger, the boxing kangaroo, as well Alex, his raptor pallet swap. In total, the game featured 25 characters. Even though many of them were just clones or palette swaps, this offered an astounding amount of variety to Tekken players.

Tekken 2 largely served as a bigger and better version of the original game. Some of the features that were cut from Tekken were now present in the sequel and players could enjoy various modes like Score Attack, Time Attack, Survival, Team Battle, and even Practice, which wasn’t a common feature at the time.

Perhaps the biggest changes to the gameplay include the early implementation of the sidestep. Instead of being able to freely move characters left and right, some of them had attacks with built-in sidesteps which could be used for evasion. The throw and okizeme systems also received a significant overhaul with the addition of chain throws, side throws, reversals, and ground rolls.

Tekken 3

Tekken 3 became a major milestone in the series, making a massive leap forward compared to its predecessors. Unlike the first two games, Tekken 3's development was more structured and calculated, focusing on specific parts of the game and the franchise's evolution instead of throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. To say that this approach paid off would be an understatement, as to this day, Tekken 3 remains one of the best-selling Tekken titles and one of the best fighting games ever made.

If you go back to the first two titles, they will likely feel alien and archaic, familiar in some ways but too different from what we're used to. Tekken 3, on the other hand, is instantly familiar. It is the game that introduced many staples of the franchise and became a foundation for future games to build up from. 

Most notably, the movement system was completely revamped. While Tekken 1 and 2 were essentially 2D games, Tekken 3 finally brought the franchise into the 3rd dimension with dedicated sidesteps. Backdash cancels also made their appearance alongside more realistic jumping arcs, significantly nerfing the options compared to previous titles. The general also saw many refinements with the addition of chickening reversals, quick get-up options, and a much-improved juggle system that allowed for creative combos and okizeme setups.

The sound and presentation have improved compared to older titles as well. Tekken 3 OST, to this day, is often mentioned as one of the best in the series, with high-energy electronic tracks inspired by the greatest producers of its era. Developed on new arcade hardware, the PS1 port of the game also pushed the console to its limit while still maintaining a smooth framerate. Even though the models are noticeably blocky, the game aged incredibly well thanks to the impeccable art style, timeless animations, and appealing character designs. 

Speaking of characters, Tekken 3 made a bold decision to introduce many entirely new characters. Some were younger replacements that looked virtually identical to their original counterparts, like Gun Jack, Julia, King II, or Kuma; however, many others were either significant reiterations of existing characters or entirely new. With the help of improved mocap technology, they also managed to create insanely high-quality animations for characters like Hwoarang, Eddy, Xiaoyu, and others, forever cementing Tekken in the hearts of martial art fans as a series that represents them better than anyone else.

Lastly, one of the considerable strengths of Tekken 3 was just how complete of a package it was. Like the previous title, it featured Time Attack, Survival, Team Battle, and Practice, but on top of that, they added Tekken Ball and Tekken Force.

The former is a fun little game of volleyball where you can defeat your opponent by either hitting the ball and launching it at your opponent or making the ball touch the ground on their side of the field. Meanwhile, the latter was an incredibly fleshed-out beat-em-up where you would fight through several levels and waves of Tekken Force fighters until reaching the boss of each stage. 

While Virtua Fighter was still extremely popular in the arcades, Tekken firmly cemented itself as the king of 3D fighters when it came to home consoles.

Tekken Tag Tournament

Tekken 3 has concluded the PS1 era of Tekken games, and Tekken Tag Tournament was a great transition to the next generation of consoles. Unlike previous titles, TTT was entirely non-canon and did not feature a fleshed-out story mode. Instead, players were shown short, in-engine scenes that were either humorous or would highlight character relations.

However, when it came to gameplay, there were many neat little interactions like unique win poses, tag throws, and the Rage system, which would activate quicker or slower depending on how much your tag team hates or likes each other; in some cases not activating at all.

Despite that, Tekken Tag Tournament still served as a heartfelt celebration of the franchise. All the characters you’ve played or seen in the previous three games were now in one game, fighting on many of the classic stages you’ve seen before. Tekken Tag offered an absurdly large roster of 39 characters for its time.

While it did feature many similar characters like Kuma/Panda, Jacks, Michelle/Julia, and others, it also started the trend of differentiating characters who used to be clones. On top of that, all the fighters from Tekken 1 and 2 were greatly expanded on, bringing them up to Tekken 3 standards.

 

While it’s easy to look at TTT and think that it’s just Tekken 3 with a Tag system, there’s actually an impressive amount of thoughtful changes, with some having a significant impact on the mechanics of future Tekken games. For example, the Netsu (or rage) system has its roots in this game and would be expanded in Tekken 6 onwards.

The premise of this system was that if one character sees their tag parter’s health deplete to a certain point, they will become angry and deal more damage. The game also extensively tuned hitboxes and the juggle system, making combos easier. Okizeme further improved by allowing characters to quick roll even if they fall face down, and low parries became universal instead of being exclusive to a few characters.

Following the success of prior releases, Tekken Tag Tournament performed similarly well, becoming the highest-grossing arcade game of 2000 in Japan and following that up with a successful home console release.

Tekken 4

After the relatively safe entry with Tekken Tag Tournament, the franchise went back to innovation and experimentation in a big way. While no game in the series can compare to the revolution that is Tekken 3, the fourth game comes close, taking risks and making bold choices in just about every way.

Starting with the presentation, Tekken 4 immediately sets itself apart from the others with a more grounded and gritty approach. While previous titles leaned into the supernatural elements and exotic stages, Tekken 4 made us fight in places like a parking garage, shopping mall, or streets of Shinjuku. The story mode strongly reflected this change and delved deeper into the character development than ever before, telling their personal, and often tragic stories. 

However, what many remember about Tekken 4 is its unorthodox gameplay changes. This game was the first introduction of walls, which would become a staple of the series moving forward. This decision was part of the incentive to make fights more dynamic and aggressive, as backing off would now put players in a very disadvantageous position.

Outside of walls, Tekken 4 stages prominently featured various gimmicks like breakable objects, impassable obstacles, and varying elevation. While interesting, these changes often negatively impacted gameplay and were restricted in competitive play.

The combat also underwent some profound changes. One of the generic throws was replaced with a position-changing shove to encourage more interactions with the environment and the walls. Combos were made much shorted and scaled much more.

The movement was much different from previous Tekken games. The backdash was incredibly weak, and sidesteps were replaced with side walking. Following the addition of walls, players could also perform a quick rise after the first hit in a wall combo. Unfortunately, due to some oversight, this allowed for the existence of practical infinite combos, as players could not quick-rise from a side splat.

The newcomer characters were by far the most restricted part of the game. Out of six, four were clones of Eddy, Mokujin, Xiaoyu, and Lee. The remaining two are Marduk and Steve. While Marduk is more or less a standard Tekken character with a focus on grappling, Steve was a truly unique addition to the game. As boxers don’t use kicks, he only used punch buttons for attacks, with 3 and 4 being used for various movement options and a singular stomp attack.

Unfortunately, due to its experimental nature and no lack of questionable decisions, Tekken 4 didn’t enjoy the same warm reception and success as its predecessors.

Tekken 5

While Tekken 4 sales weren’t terrible, the player response was generally poor. Because of this, Tekken 5 had a mission of going back to its roots and delivering the experience that fans expect. Instead of the dark tone, we once again had an over-the-top story mode with the demonic version of Jinpachi as the final boss. Comedic endings were also much more common and weren’t restricted to characters like Kuma.

While walls remained, the wall infinites and the weird stage gimmicks were now gone. Similarly, the movement was restored to its former glory and then improved further, making Tekken 5 a dynamic game with fluid combat and a sky-high skill ceiling. The combos remained on the shorter side but were much more rewarding than in Tekken 4.

While the balance of the original Tekken 5 had some questionable moments, Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection addressed many issues and became one of the most balanced iterations of Tekken, one that many competitors still love and would even put above Tekken 7. For less significant changes, this was the first Tekken that allowed us to customize the character.

Despite many conservative additions, Tekken 5 newcomers kept up the tradition of unique character choices in Tekken. While Asuka, Jack 5, Devil Jin, and Roger Jr. didn’t offer many surprises and were primarily based on existing characters, Feng Wei and Raven were highly original.

Carrying strong influence from Chinese martial arts movies, Feng Wei featured a beautifully animated moveset with attacks that feel like they come straight from Jet Li action movies. On the other hand, Raven has a strong resemblance to the superhero Blade, albeit his moveset with agile attacks and teleports makes Raven more of a ninja than a gun-wielding vampire hunter.

Overall, Tekken 5 was a triumphant return to form. Not only is it often mentioned as the best Tekken game of all time, but it’s also one of the few to replicate the success of the groundbreaking Tekken 3.

Tekken 6

Despite the resounding success of Tekken 5 after returning to the more traditional style of gameplay, developers didn’t stop experimenting and adding new ideas to the mix. 

One of the most notable changes in Tekken 6 is a dedicated story made. While individual character endings were still a thing, the game now had a full-on story mode, called Scenario Campaign, where story dialogues were broken up with Tekken Force-style gameplay and traveling between different stages. Despite the criticism of repetitive gameplay, this allowed them to focus more on the main storyline than ever before and continued in Tekken 7.

The gameplay additions were somewhat mild compared to previous entries but had a noticeable impact on the game. The rage system made its first appearance after being slightly changed. Since you don’t have a tag partner, it simply activates once your health reaches a certain threshold, allowing for explosive comebacks. Wall and floor breaks also made their first appearance in Tekken 6, becoming a staple mechanic that would be further explored in Tekken 7.

The only element that didn’t make it to the current iteration was the Bound mechanic, a combo extension tool similar to T7’s Screw/Tailspin except being usable at the wall. Unlike Tekken 4 and 5, 6 added quite a few new faces to the roster, all with their unique fighting styles and appearances.

Tekken 6 managed to find a lot of popularity in Korea and performed relatively well while receiving good reviews. However, it couldn’t match the monumental success of its predecessor.

Tekken Tag Tournament 2

Over ten years and three mainline games after the original Tag Tournament, Bandai Namco has decided to revisit the idea with Tekken Tag Tournament 2. Like its predecessor, the game is a massive celebration of the franchise that features every Tekken character you could think of.

Even though the launch roster was nothing to sneeze at, at the end of the game’s lifespan, it ballooned to 59 characters, making it one of the largest rosters in fighting game history. 

The fan service didn’t stop at that. Expanding on previously existing elements, Tag Tournament 2 featured an incredible amount of unique character interactions through their intros, win poses, lose poses, and special tag throws. Customization of characters reached new heights, giving players near-unlimited room for creativity.

Unlike the original game, TTT2 also had over an hour of unique character endings that would vary significantly in tone and animation style and would often feature humorous short stories based on character relations and Tekken lore.

As expected, the tag system underwent some serious improvements. On top of the process of tagging being smoother than ever, Tag Crash gave players a powerful defensive tool while Tag Assault brought an unparalleled amount of freedom and complexity to combos.

This mechanic allowed players to briefly call in their tag partner and execute a few attacks before jumping back, essentially allowing for both characters to combo the opponent at once.

Unfortunately, it’s this infinite potential and complexity that was the game’s downfall. While some diehard masters of Tekken could enjoy the nuance of the system, freedom of expression, and boundless skill ceiling, almost everyone else found it to be overwhelming.

If you’ve played Tekken, you know how hard it can be to play even one character, and now you had to learn two. Not only that, but every match also tasked you with knowing how to play against both of your opponent’s characters.

Even though Tag Tournament 2 had a healthy competitive scene and plenty of fans who cherish it to this day, it was a massive financial failure.

Tekken 7

Much like Tekken 5, T7 had a lot of pressure on it to compensate for the shortcoming of its predecessor and continue the Tekken legacy. Even though location tests happened as early as 2014, it wouldn’t be until 2017 that the game would release on home consoles and, for the first time, on PCs.

While Tekken 7 similarly went back to the roots, it didn’t shy away from introducing completely new mechanics and altering existing ones. The most significant changes were applied to the Rage mechanic. Instead of giving players a simple damage buff, it gave access to special moves called Rage Arts and Rage Drives.

The former are “super” type attacks that would go into a special cutscene on hit and have an armored property, while the latter are often enhanced versions of existing moves. Combine that with the slow-motion effect that applies when fighters are one hit away from KO, and you have some intense matches and an incredible viewing experience.

However, the most controversial addition to Tekken 7 isn’t even a general mechanic. It was the characters. More specifically, 2D characters. Akuma debuted in the base version of Tekken 7. People didn’t think much of him for the longest time until SuperAkouma, and strong Pakistan players showed just how powerful this character can be. 

For example, thanks to special canceling his moves, Akuma could convert a measly i10 punish into a devastating combo. Geese Howard and Eliza joined the cast as DLC characters following in his footsteps. While the latter is often overlooked, Geese rocked the competitive scene for the longest time and remained a top-tier character.

Love of them or hate them, it’s hard to deny that 2D characters are a remarkably unique addition to the game and were faithfully brought over with an insane amount of care and attention. Other Tekken 7 newcomers didn’t make as big of an impact until later into the game’s lifespan when Leroy and Fahkumram made their very polarizing debut.

Tekken 7 might not be the perfect game, and for some, it might not be the best Tekken game, but its fantastic success is undeniable. Tekken 7 is a game that brought the franchise back to the mainstream and elevated it further, with spectacular competition, a dedicated community, and years of support.

Seven years after its release in arcades and five years past its release on the home consoles, the game is still going strong and, according to Katsuhiro Harada, has sold over 8 million copies, putting it right there in the hall of fame with Tekken 3 and Tekken 5.

The Future

We may never know what the next Tekken game will look like, it could be the continuation of the Tekken Tag Tournament series, or perhaps it will be a bold experiment that changes the way we play the game or how we think about Tekken

Only one thing is certain. The franchise is in the hands of people who live and breathe Tekken, people who love this franchise and can be trusted to continue its legacy without any compromises.

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