Hands-on: Soul Fighter

Today we got our hands on a secret US Dreamcast launch game, and we were surprised that it remained secret at all.

Videogames.com sat down with upstart Piggyback Entertainment to check out the first Dreamcast game it's publishing, for which it's currently seeking a publisher in the States. We were in no way prepared for what we saw, though.

Soul Fighter is being developed by Toka, a company best known for its development on games like Legend for the Super Nintendo and Burning Road for the PlayStation. Fans of such past side-scrolling adventure beat-em-ups such as Golden Axe (arcade, Genesis, and Saturn) and Double Dragon (arcade and NES), the Toka team (composed of 15 members) set out to bring the feel of these classics into the next generation of gaming.

Soul Fighter is being developed using 3dfx's Glide 2.5 API with a focus on hardware similar to the kind Midway uses for San Francisco Rush, NFL Blitz, and NBA Showtime. It has also signed on with the Arcade PC initiative to help build games for both the arcade and the PC. Piggyback has already been working with a Japanese publisher to help transform the game into an arcade unit. Since the game is already running on the Dreamcast, we asked if the arcade version would be Naomi based. Unfortunately, Piggyback could not release that information yet. Piggyback also mentioned that the game could see a future on the PlayStation 2 as well.

The company says that its experience with Glide has made porting Soul Fighter to the PC and Dreamcast a simpler process (although the Dreamcast isn't able to run 3DFX's Glide). This knowledge has allowed the developer to port the game to the Dreamcast in less than three weeks.

As a huge Golden Axe fan (I own the arcade unit), I was in awe when the Soul Fighter game began. This is - in virtually every respect - exactly what fantasy-action arcade gamers having been aching for. The artwork looks like something out of a Capcom game - except in high-resolution 3D. Piggyback hired artists in Japan to work with the team to give it a very Japanese style, and it definitely shows. The graphics move at a constant 60fps, and all the characters use skins to cover over polygonal characters so you don't see any spaces between body parts. While the version we saw wasn't yet MIP-mapping enabled (which helps improve the image quality of 3D objects with different textures at different distances), everything from the real-time shadows to some fancy lighting effects looked great. The game's producer claims that even the story will be top-notch - Piggyback even hired a crew of professional storytellers to pen the Soul Fighter tale.

Similar to the Golden Axe series, you'll have a choice of three characters to make your way through the multiple paths in the game: a male warrior, a female spy, and a mysterious wizard. Each will have special techniques. Your mission is to save the souls of possessed creatures - when you kill them, their souls are released, and a meter in the lower left corner of your screen counts the souls you've saved. As you progress through the six levels, you'll come across chests that can be either thrown at enemies or opened for the all-important power-ups (such as the classic chicken meat for a health boost).

Soul Fighter has been in development for almost a year now, and it is currently in its final stages of development. According to Piggyback, the only things needed to be completed on the Dreamcast version are MIP-mapping, the music, the addition of voice-overs, background animations (such as birds flying by), and some gameplay tweaking. The game needs to be ready by the end of July to make the Dreamcast launch date, so the developers are using the next six weeks to perfect their game. It was even hinted that Toka may be adding an extra bonus level if there's time.

Piggyback claims that by playing through with each character, Soul Fighter will offer a minimum of 13 hours of gameplay. After playing the game for a short time today, Soul Fighter has the potential to become the first sleeper hit for the Dreamcast.

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