Last Bronx: Sega Saturn

Last Bronx: Sega Saturn
Last Bronx: Sega Saturn

Insert Disk collects Last Bronx for the Sega Saturn.

Today’s retro game review is Last Bronx for the Sega Saturn. This retro gaming classic by Sega’s AM3 department is a landmark weapons based fighting game. Developed as an alternative fighting game to the more mainstream fighting game such as the Virtua Fighter series it manages to stand out from the crowd. Its attention to real life Japanese locations, cultural trends and backdrop of the lost generation give it a unique place in fighting game history.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. Back in the 90’s Sega was dominating the arcades with its landmark Virtua Fighter series. Now known and loved across multiple platforms it’s instantly recognisable.

A game that you may not be so familiar with though its one of Sega’s follow up in house titles. Last Bronx. An altogether different take on the polygon fighting genre that really came of age in the 90’s. In the West the game went largely unloved upon release although has now gained a retrospective following. However, it was a smash hit in its home country of Japan from day 1.

Join me today as we discover what makes Last Bronx different and why it polarises player opinion to this day. It’s worth opening the Last Bronx story with a look at the state of the Sega Saturn in the mid-90’s.
Whilst the Sega Saturn is best known for its outstanding Japanese 2D sprite shooters such as Layer Section, Parodius and the Darius series the Saturn also put up a strong offering in the fighting game genre.
By 1996 the Sega Saturn was awash with fighting games and really had you covered no matter what type of fighting game you wanted.
There was a whole range of slick 2D sprite arcade offerings in the way of, King of Fighters and Fatal Fury. If you prefer a more accessible entry in to 2D fighters Capcom had you covered with game such as the Vampire Saviour series, numerous Street Fighter editions, X-Men, Marvel, Street-fighter/Marvel crossovers.

Then other studios such as Human delivered games such as Blazing Tornados and there was Dragon Ball Z for the anime crowd. Need a martial arts polygon fighter? The Saturn had you well covered there too. There was Virtua Fighter, Virtua Fighter remix, Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Fighter kids, Virtua Fighters Kids Java edition (no really, it’s a thing), Fighting Vipers, Fighters Megamix and Dead or Alive. Then there were the alternatives such as weapons based fighter Toshinden and boxing and wrestling simulators in the way of the K1 legends series. There were the pre-rendered fighters such as Battle Monsters, Ragnagard and of course Fist. Towards the end of 1996 the Japanese Sega Saturn was a very well stocked machine indeed. So how to stand out from the crowd. That’s where Last Bronx enters the ring.

Up to this point Sega fans were well covered for the 2D fighters in the way of the outstanding line-up of Capcom titles. In the polygon corner Virtua Fighter ruled the roost. What was missing was a decent weapons based fighter. Sure, games like Soulblade and Toshinden had already begun to make their mark but here in the West there was somewhat of a luke warm reception at the time. If you owned a Sega Saturn Virtua Fighter 2 was the hottest ticket in town. Plug in your HSS 104 fighting stick and enjoy this technical masterpiece of combos and counters. To this day Virtua Fighter 2 is still one of my go to games for a quick slice of beat’em up action. If you owned the original PlayStation no doubt you’ll have enjoyed the original Tekken line up. Offering a familiar arcade experience. Toshinden was perhaps the game that broke the mould in what we now refer to as weapons based fighter and a decent variation on the tried and tested martial arts formula.

Toshinden had two things going for it. The ability to sidestep earning it the somewhat contested title of first true 3D fighter on the system. Secondly, it had weapons. Yes, there was something in this formula. Personally I tend to find You tuber’s memories a little rose tinted when they review this game. Even at the time I found it a little jarring due to the frame rate, the move sets rather limited and various exploit bugs in some of the final editions. Regardless of my less than stellar memories of the game it did set precedence for the genre and subsequent editions of the game did improve the game.

Over at Sega’s AM2 team there was not really much of a response. Virtua Fighter 2 still dominated the arcade and Saturn player’s game libraries. The market was effectively full. Sega’s AM2 division were riding high with Fighters such as the Virtua Fighter Series as well as Fighting Vipers and Fighters Megamix. In comparison the AM3 division had little in the way of a fighting game legacy. Sure, Radmobile was excellent as well as the rest of their back catalogue such as Sega Rally but there was no stand out fighting game. That is outside of the 1996 release of Virtual On from AM3. Which depending on how purist your view of the game categorisation is would technically be classed as a mech based fighter with an emphasis on ranged weapons. Although this game certainly blurred the lined in its ability to also let you go one on one with melee weapons. So, it was somewhat of a surprise when AM3 took on AM2 at their own game by producing Last Bronx
Now, remember at the top of the episode I suggested how the game fared poorly outside of Japan but was received to critical acclaim within it. I’d like to open up the discussion to highlight why this game became a bit of a sleeper hit over time and passed a lot of us Westerners by when it was first released.

It all comes down to culture. In games such as Virtua Fighter we had been conditioned as gamers to the arcade experience and expectations of a fighting game. A fun and engaging back and forth of throws, blocks and combos. This is of course nothing like a real fight. Most fights in real life would be considerably shorter. In Last Bronx you’re going make your opponent feel the pain. If you hit a combo of hits with a pair of nunchucks, be rest assured the round will last only a matter of seconds. Last Bronx is very much a high stakes game of rock, paper, and scissors. Blocking at the right time is absolutely essential to avoid one button presses that can take large chunks out of your health bar. Similarly, if you can get an air combo going your opponent may not even have the chance to respond depending on the difficultly setting. Everything from a traditional fighter is here, it’s just made more intense.

Expect massive damage dealers.
Mid-air combos.
Technical blocks.
And stunning grapples.

So, you’re going to need to decide. Are you more of a casual player of someone than really has time to master the art of Last Bronx’s not prisoners held approach to gameplay? If you play this game for five minutes you’ll probably want to put it down and write it off as just another generic fighter. However, you’d be wrong to do so as it’s the journey to finding the games depth that gives this game meaning. Of course here in the West we weren’t told any of that and the game was just released as seen. The culture of weapons based fighters of this more tactical nature somehow got lost in translation as it exited Japan.

Outside of the game play style some of the cultural premise around Last Bronx was also lost in translation. You see, those stage locations. Many are based on or at least inspired by real life locations in Japan, primarily in Japan;

109 building
Scramble Crossing in Shibuya
Haneda Airport
Takeshiba Passenger Ship Terminal
Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge

Throw in to this other identifiable locations such as the Tokyo metro and it soon becomes evident that this game was made for a Japanese audience, at least initially. It’s this attention to realism that helped set Last Bronx apart from other games in similar genres. The cultural aspects of Last Bronx cut much deeper though. It’s been widely accepted that Last Bronx was very much an occasion where art imitated life. In this case “The Lost Decade”. For those that don’t know, throughout the 1980’s the Japanese economy was presented with serious challenges. This ultimately contributed and led to the recession of the early 90’s. Low employment, a weak currency and fewer prospects, particularly for the urban youth led to the “Lost Decade” generation. It’s clear to see this influence within Last Bronx. The game doesn’t portray a futuristic apocalypse by any means but it does have strong themes of a chaotic lifestyle for its protagonists, the decline of an older society and a certain change in cultural norms. This is reflected in the 90’s style of counter culture clothing and back stories of the characters. Each fighter is from a rival gang and represents different interests and elements of society.

Last Bronx does not hold back with its desire to give a gritty commentary on Japanese society shift in the 90’s. Ask yourself how many leading lesbian protagonists do you know in gaming? Possibly not many and we’re living in a society several decades after the release of Last Bronx. However, that’s exactly what we got in Last Bronx. We get Nagi who is a leader of an all-female gang and the game makes no concessions in telling her story. Well played to Sega for portraying characters with various sexual orientations in a way that made us focus on the character rather than using less subtle means of storytelling.

Once again though, many elements of Japans Lost Generation and counter culture empowerment just simply didn’t click with many Western audiences at the time. This is a game that not only did a lot of us not appreciate at the time, we didn’t even know why we didn’t fully appreciate it.
In terms of game play there is a lot to shout about here outside of the difficulty levels. For most there will be a level of familiarity in the arcade mode of working your way through the various rivals. Expect all of the common kick, punch, block, grapple and combo mechanics of a 90’s fighter. Just be prepared to use more tactics than usual though as a computer opponent can devastate you even on a default setting should you over reach or not block effectively.

You’ll notice that the game plays at 60fps which is a real treat as the action really is silky smooth. This is essential as it needs to be due to the timings of the blocking mechanics. In this respects this actually outclasses Virtua Fighter 2 on the system. Despite both games utilising the hi-res graphics mode of the Saturn, Virtua Fighter relies on an interlaced output method to achieve its 60 fps. Last Bronx can cope with a progressive output methods whilst simultaneously adding texture mapping. You’ll also see effects such as the weapon tracer and real-time shadow casting. Make no mistake, from a technical perspective Last Bronx really does hit the spot.
To boot the sound design is fantastic. Punches land with a satisfying sound and the original soundtrack is outstanding. Fights feel tense and the variation in weapon of your opponent will force you to learn more than a cheap combo here and there. As for the later stages expect to be savagely beaten down if you are new to the game. Red eye in particular will show you no mercy as he will continually beat you down, strut around and laugh at you. When you take him down you’ll feel that earned it.

Here in the UK and many other countries we simply received a rather standard release of the game with a single disc. In my opinion a release that was very much going through the motions in 1997 rather than the all out launch that it could have been. Rather than focussing on the cultural elements of the game and what made it stand out Sega dropped the ball a little in my opinion. First of all the cover of the official Sega Saturn Magazine with the tagline “You want to play dirty?” Followed by the inside article featuring Nagi and the phrase “Lock up your daughters”. So, ok. It’s perhaps not the most wildly sexist thing you’ll ever see in a games magazine but it is frustrating that Sega UK really missed a trick here by not understanding that they had something special. Instead emphasising the more controversial lesbian character to bring attention to the game. You then read the column and you really do get down to the shocking mind-set of the writer.

Here is an extract from the article.
With creations like Sakura in Street Fighter Alpha 2 we saw the advent of the schoolgirl knicker-flashing machine. And if you think you can’t top that, just get a load of Nagi Hojo from AM3’s Last Bronx. With her black plastic jacket, mid-riff exposing crop top and tattered tights, she looks just a bit on the er, dodgy side. But get this: Nagi is the first videogames homosexual, a lesbian no less (cue gags on the lines of “curing her” from the male readership). Good grief, I mean what were Sega thinking with this? Even at the time this would have been offensive. The article then continues with. “So… a mad man-hating leader lesbian dressed like a hooker! Where can those wacky Japanese go from here? We don’t know, but put it this way, we can’t wait to find out…”. The article reads like a sexist, cultural offensive bingo game.

Women… check
Japanese… check
Homosexuality… check

Why not add an upskirt picture of one of the women? I mean really, how little did Sega understand what made Last Bronx so ground-breaking in Japan? The message should have been… 60fps, unique combo system, real world locations, Japanese arcade hit. Instead we got this… I stand by my earlier comments. It’s culture that polarised this game.

Anyway, back to the Japanese release and some sanity. Japan received a rather decent double CD release of the game. As you open up the case you’ll realise that this is a very decent package indeed. The case is simply packed with paperwork and extras for you to enjoy. Warranty card, Registration card, Spine card, Promotional materials, a really decent manual explaining the stages, the characters, the combo systems and everything you could possibly want to know to get you started. It’s a really nice piece and even if you aren’t fluent in Japanese the button configuration explanations and diagrams still make this a useful document.
Then you get this little slice of arcade nostalgia. A move list wall chart. This is perhaps my favourite item in the package. The chart covers all of the fighters, their gang symbols, profile images and does a really good job of getting you excited to fire the game up. Its small inclusions such as these that give the game substance. This wasn’t just a run of the mill release in Japan. Sega really invested their time and took care to get this product right. In essence, they knew who their audience were and catered for them perfectly. And of course on the other side… Yes, it’s a poster. Always appreciated. But the fun doesn’t stop there. How about some glossy stickers to brighten up your day?

Of course we do then have to go back to the serious matter of the games disc themselves. Disc 1 contains the main meat of the action. Essentially a disc containing the arcade, Saturn and various vs. modes. Disc 2 is the special disc containing extended content, graphics and training tips. It’s all animated in a chibi style which is a rather cute decision to make considering the graphic nature of the main disc. In terms of the main disc you’ll find various difficulty setting to customise the game but it’s the Arcade and Saturn modes that will keep you entertained for the most part. The arcade mode is very much as you would expect. Following the flow and transitions of the arcade presentation. Saturn mode is virtually identical save for additional taunting in between certain stages to develop the story and also some rather well executed cut scenes.

I must say that I have a lot of fun with Last Bronx as a game. It is most definitely an alternative to other offerings on the system. It’s tactical and challenging but that leads to an intensity that simply isn’t there with other fighting games. I’ll have to admit that some of the cultural depth of the game passed me by in 1997 but revisiting this game now you realise how much the game had to offer and it’s no wonder it was a smash hit in Japan.
The worldwide release and I do single out the UK here particularly was just a terrible mistake and a mishandling of what is actually a game that needed less hype if anything rather than more. It’s clear that even at the time Last Bronx was a game that simply wasn’t understood by many international gamers and you can’t blame the audience for that. Marketed as a piece of cheap titillation in the West compared to Japans focus on deeper cultural meaning of the game, in hindsight its no surprise that Sega actually marketed themselves out of sales through their of mismanagement. Which is a shame because in a sea of generic martial arts fighters they really had something special here.

It’s a somewhat sophisticated fighting game which is both it’s saving grace and downfall for many. Do I enjoy Last Bronx? Absolutely. It’s filled with great character design, move sets, locations and has an outstanding soundtrack. As to whether I can recommend Last Bronx to everyone is harder to answer. If you’re after more of a casual arcade experience I think that you can do better with one of the more mainstream AM2 catalogue. However, if you don’t mind a bit of a challenge and an alternate afternoon of gameplay Last Bronx might just be the fighting game of depth that you’ve been looking for. It’s definitely a hidden gem for those that missed the 90’s Sega fighting craze.

Last Bronx may not be for everyone but is most definitely worth a play if you can track down a copy. Until next time, happy gaming.

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