new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Welcome to the Power Stone World!

Power Stone is coming, again, and I could hardly be more excited. Between the original and its inferior sequel, the series only managed to sell some three hundred thousand or so copies in America, and while critically celebrated, it is publicly considered forgettable. Admittedly, the game doesn’t seem to try very hard at winning people over, with its esoteric character design, unrealistic graphical style, and barebones presentation. Acknowledging its obscurity, Derek and I affectionately designated Power Stone, “a game that only developers play.” Yet the game’s influence is undeniable, with Power Stone clones donning numerous disguises over the years. It is a game that I myself have tried to replicate – twice – with tragically poor success. This incessant desire to recreate the tepidly received series is, I conclude, because of the game’s fundamentally basic yet undeniably compelling strength – its genre-defining gameplay promise. Power Stone is the second evolutionary step in fighting games. It is the fish that emerged from water onto land, leaving familiarity and comfort behind, and changing the course of history forever.

Allow me to wallow in nostalgia for a moment:

I imported my copy Power Stone. Being the Sega fanboy that I was, I had actually purchased a Japanese Dreamcast to get my hands on Virtua Fighter 3 as soon as possible. I didn’t know it then, but the Dreamcast would go on to become the greatest fighting game console ever, with Capcom’s tireless dedication to the prematurely terminal little white box (with some help from a little weapons-based fighting game, as well as some truly underrated games from Sega themselves). I still remember reading the back of the Power Stone jewel case, fascinated by its three green bullet points:

Nandemo dekiru – You can do anything.

Daredemo dekiru – Anyone can do it.

Henshinmo dekiru – You can even transform.

I guess it flows better in Japanese, but its effect on me was substantial, particularly the first line - you can do anything. This is a formidable boast, particularly from a fighting game. But the boast was somewhat justified, as Power Stone broke from the traditional fighting game structure in a very meaningful way. You see, despite the change from two dimensions to three (a change that for years was largely cosmetic), fighting games have always been about controlling space, and using that control directly to defeat your opponent – classic player versus player gameplay. Power Stone did allow dramatic situational advantage to be gained through controlling space. Items encased within treasure chests yielded upgrades in the form of various weapons. The player could use background items to facilitate his direct attacks: ceilings could be clung to and leapt from, poles could be uprooted, and chairs and tables could be picked up and thrown. And not only was the environment beneficial, it was also harmful; conveyor belts led the player into spiked hazards, pots crashed down overhead, inhibiting movement, and even the walls themselves could fall down around you. While you couldn't exactly do anything, you could sure do a helluva lot more than you ever could within the confines of what we consider fighting games.

The second bullet point - Anyone can do it - undoubtedly led to the game's lack of a meaningful following; in a lot of ways, Power Stone felt not only like anyone could do it, but that it had mostly already been done. Power Stone's traditional gameplay mechanics - the punching, kicking, throwing, and jumping, were largely perfunctory. There were some clever innovations in terms of defensive schemes (although in-close attack dodging was disappointingly exploitable) and environment negotiation (auto-navigational movement over small objects was practically defined in Power Stone), but these were subtle nuances that only manifested themselves through extended play. Power Stone, if judged on these factors, was nothing special. And make no mistake - it is on these elements that the game was largely judged by many game players - hardcore and otherwise.

It's only now, nearly seven years after first playing the game that I realize it is the 3rd bullet point that is the game's true strength, and it's most important feature. It is a feature that every single Power Stone clone overlooks, because what it produces has a difficult time existing within the worlds the clones recreate. Players are able to transform into more powerful versions of their characters upon collecting three gems randomly spawned throughout the level. In a wrestling game, it would be odd to have dramatic physical transformations through such artificial means (wait a minute...). But it's not the transformation itself that's key; Power Stone as a game is built around the impetus created by wanting, needing, to get those damn gems and the advantages that they represent. The gems facilitate a transition of power, the transformation, which then enables one player to exert a dramatic situational advantage over the other. You controlled space in Power Stone to get gems. You got gems to make yourself strong. You got strong to control space better.

You can even transform.

Power Stone's player versus player versus environment gameplay changed video games forever by connecting the dots that were always there, yet few people realized the significance at the time. Others have tried to replicate the successful formula contained within, but none have succeeded in creating something as universally powerful and effective as the original. So while I wait for the fates to align again (and don't count me out - I still plan on giving it a go again myself, one day), at least I can bask in the glory of the original, and best, one more time.

Thanks for reading.


  • At 4:17 PM, Blogger whiskeypail said…

    power stone 1 also include elements of player vs player vs environment...theyre just not as apparent.
    and why would you consider power stone to be better than super smash brothers melee?

  • At 10:49 AM, Blogger omar kendall said…

    My comments are entirely about the original Power Stone - I loathe Power Stone 2 primarily because the emphasis wasn't really the player using environmental opportunities to facilitate harm to his opponent. It was merely the environment offering challenges to each player largely independent of one another.

    I consider Power Stone superior to SSB:M for the same reason.


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