Polygon Magic may not be the most famous developer you’ve ever heard of but the names of some of their better-known titles are probably hovering around the fringes of your gaming memory: They made psychic teen sad ’em up Galerians, Taito’s arcade/PlayStation fighting game Fighters’ Impact, and amongst other things were also responsible for the home port of Sega’s fantastic light gun game Ghost Squad (thank you for that, Polygon Magic!).
Their 2000 PlayStation exclusive Slap Happy Rhythm Busters is a fighting game wrapped up in a nineties-cool DJ/rhythm theme and given a distinctive faux cel shaded style, the shadows painted directly on to the textures rather than using real-time light sources (the pleasantly thick black outlines applied to each character do appear to be calculated on the fly). Eleven of these fabulously funky fighters are available by default, with a whopping additional ten unlocked either by completing arcade mode several times or clearing Beat Combos in DJ practise mode (more on that later) and then defeating a new challenger in arcade mode. The variety of playstyles on offer is surprisingly broad for such a niche title developed by a team without a consistent focus on the genre: There’s Trash, probably the first and only street cleaner to ever star in a fighting game. The shabbily-dressed Mercantile stands in the stage background while his dog does all the work. Vivian-Roxy are an inseparable team of two small girls equipped with knuckle dusters who constantly throw each other around and sit on each other’s shoulders. Holemon can only be described as The Keeper from The Evil Within well over a decade early. It should (and to a certain extent, does) feel refreshing, however this unpredictable line-up brings with it a new problem: Because everyone’s so very different, nobody outside of headphone-wearing DJ Ramon really feels like they fit in with the Rhythm-bustin’ theme. The cast aren’t designed to embody specific musical genres and weren’t even made to wear exaggerated takes on what was considered fashionable clubwear at the time, it’s just Cowgirl Lady vs Weird Purple Monster or Hey You Look Like A Guilty Gear Boss vs You Are Definitely Alpha-Era Chun Li In JNCO Jeans. It almost feels wrong to say something negative about such a chunky and vibrant cast, but once the initial rush of colour’s worn off you do start to miss the focus of similar titles that do a much better job of integrating their characters with their chosen theme.
Whoever you go with you’ll find yourself whacking everyone else using the four face buttons to deliver a flurry of light or hard punches and kicks (by default the shoulder buttons are mapped to certain double button activated actions), an absolute maximum of a mere four special moves, two Rave Attacks (gauge-depleting supers), and finally their too-easy-to-activate Beat Combo (press hard punch and kick together when the Beat gauge is full). If the latter connects it initiates a rhythm game style sequence where you must time your inputs to the on-screen prompts, and if you manage to get enough of those correct the sequence will end on an extra (albeit generic) animation. There is absolutely nothing your opponent can do to break out of this enforced combo’ing or to reduce the damage received, and as missing the first attack only depletes one of your easily-replenished three Beat gauges these ironically rhythm-disrupting breaks in the battle can happen far too often to be fun for anyone. Having said that there’s no doubt regular combat feels fast and bouncy, and while I wouldn’t go as far to call it fluid there is at least a definite sense of flow and movement (unlike, say, Nitoshinden) to your blows. It would also be fair to say that the brevity of the move lists and the universal simplicity of their execution (standard special attacks are always something like “down, down, kick” or “down, forwards, punch”) does at least mean it’s easy to pick up Rhythm Busters casually and flit around the character select menu without having to invest any time learning how a character plays in the game’s practise mode first.
…And it’s a damned good thing too seeing as practise mode is about as barebones as they come and doesn’t actually include a move list at all (or much of anything else either). The manual goes a long way to making up for that, listing every technique for every character – including the unlockable fighters – but there’s really no reason why a game released around the same time Street Fighter III: Third Strike and Dead or Alive 2 were taking up cabinet space in arcades and Tekken 3 would have been considered a relatively old PlayStation game couldn’t have included this feature within the game itself.
For a game with such a strong style, Slap Happy Rhythm Busters is strangely lacking in personality once you get past those impressive graphics: Characters have no pre-fight animations against friends or rivals (no pre-fight animations at all, actually), no win quotes, no continue screen “I can still fight!” graphics (no continue screen either), and once you’ve battled to the end of arcade mode you’ll zip straight to the credits without so much as a simple “Congratulations!” message along the way. These unexpected omissions of what had become by this point in gaming history fighting game staples only serve to make both your individual as well as your overall victories feel a bit, well, hollow. Of course it’d be ridiculous to suggest fighting games have to go to the extremes of Guilty Gear Xrd‘s hours upon hours of beautifully presented plot or Mortal Kombat‘s realm-hopping time travel to breathe life into their rosters, but it would’ve been nice just to know something as basic as if the character I’d just spent some time with was happy they’d won. Did they go home and be a family man? Are they now the strongest woman in the world? Did they raise the young son of their father’s killer as their own? Without any sort of commentary or acknowledgement of victory (beyond “YOU WON” splashed across the screen as your character performs the one and only victory pose they possess) there’s no real context, and that means – especially for people playing alone – there’s no real sense of accomplishment either.
The good news is this normally extraordinarily expensive game is readily available for basically peanuts via Japan’s PlayStation Store (for however long that’s going to last), so anyone with a PlayStation 3 or a Vita can buy themselves a digital copy to keep forever if the mood or curiosity compels them. For all my issues with Slap Happy Rhythm Busters – none of the mainstream fighting games and even a few of the more niche titles you already have to hand will have any reason to feel threatened by this one – I would still cautiously recommend it to anyone like myself who still views fighting games as something to clumsily dig out for an occasional bit of fun rather than a gruelling path to e-sports glory. I do miss games like this, titles like Gals Fighters, Bushido Blade, and Virtua Fighter Kids: Something a bit weird and in some cases maybe even a bit wonky, but with that there’s also a memorable sort of uniqueness that only comes from caring more about being exactly what it wants to be rather than caring whether exactly what it wants to be really works out or not.