Man, I love fighting games. The characters, the drama, the tension, the feeling of contempt slipping into your voice as you congratulate a friend on beating you even though all they did was mash the buttons. Just think of all the amazing rivalries fighting games have given us over the years: Ryu and Ken, Iori and Kyo, the whole of Tekken's Mishima clan, the most dysfunctional family never to appear on Jeremy Kyle. Oh, and don't forget the greatest rivalry of them all, the raging, never-ending contest of fists and spirits that takes place between two of the genre's colossi: Goku and Michael Jordan.
The secret truth behind Michael Jordan's bald head is revealed - without hair, no-one will know when he goes Super-Saiyan, giving him the element of surprise. Good thinking, Michael.
So obviously this is pirate game, because we're not lucky enough to live in a world where Goku and Michael Jordan get to beat the crap out of each other in an official, fully-licensed product. I can't tell you who developed it or what year it was first released (although 2000 seems like a good bet), but I can tell you it's for the Megadrive and it's called Top Fighter 2000 MK VIII!
There's Michael on the right, but who's that on the left? Is... is that Muhammad Ali? You know, I think that's Muhammad Ali.
Yep, that's definitely Muhammad Ali. Drawing a little moustache on him isn't going to fool me, mysterious bootleg developer.
This just gets better and better. Forget the new Smash Bros., this is the dream match that the world has been waiting to see. Cyclops somehow feels more out of place in this line-up than Michael Jordan, but I think that's thanks to him not being as cool as all these other characters rather than because of any lack of fighting pedigree.
You'll be shocked to learn that Top Fighter 2000 MK VIII isn't the most feature-packed fighting game out there, but it does have a standard "arcade" mode, two-player battles and an options screen, which is at least one more game mode than I was expecting. You don't want to hear about the tedious business of playable modes and options settings, though, do you? You want to meet the cast properly. Yeah, me too, so here they are.
There's basketball legend Michael Jordan, his name here misspelled "Joden" either through a laughable attempt to hide his identity or a simple translation error. Then there's Geese Howard from the Fatal Fury series, Street Fighter icon Ryu, Dragon Ball Z's spikey-haired martial arts doofus Goku, Kyo Kusanagi from The King of Fighters, Marvel Comics hero and no-one's favourite X-Man Cyclops, Muhammad Ali from, you know, real life and Ryo Sakazaki from SNK's Art of Fighting series and later spin-offs. A motley crew indeed, but not as eclectic as they first seem - thanks to Capcom's various crossover games, Ryu has already had a (legitimate) opportunity to beat up half the roster.
I think I'm going to go with Ali, because you don't get to be called the Greatest of All Time without being pretty good at beating people up.
That turned out to be a mistake, because before I could even start chanting "Ali, bomaye" Kyo repeatedly set me on fire. Yes, that's the "oh dear Jesus help me I'm wreathed in flames" sprite from Street Fighter II, and the more eagle-eyed amongst you - or at least the one who have played a lot of 2D fighters - will spot plenty of content that Top Fighter 2000 has taken from other games. Aside from the cast of characters, I mean.
Muhammad Ali may well have his own way to set people on fire in this game, but if he does I couldn't figure out how to do it and Kyo quickly made a mockery of my attempt to punch him into unconsciousness, so it's back to the drawing board. What I need is one of the most laughably overpowered fictional characters ever created, who only gets stronger every time some beats him up or, in this case, burns him alive. C'mon, Goku, let's go.
There's a sight to warm the heart - Goku vs. Geese. Sorry, Gees. Cyclops' name is also shortened to "Cycl," so maybe it's a space issue and longer names just wouldn't fit. That'd explain why Ryu, Kyo and Ryo were included, at any rate.
Top Fighter 2000 is a basic one-on-one fighting game, so basic that it only uses two buttons - one for punch and one for kick. Okay, so you can pause it with Start, too, but arguing about that one is just being pedantic. You jump around, kicking and punching whilst trying to avoid Geese's constant barrage of Reppukens, and one of Top Fighter's most glaring flaws becomes immediately apparent: there's a big delay between pressing the attack buttons and your character doing anything. That's almost to be expected, and laggy controls are one of the great staples of pirate games, but this one has the extra and thoroughly baffling twist that punches have much, much more input lag than kicks. At first I thought this might be because punches are more powerful than kicks and this delay was the game's way of balancing the moves, but obviously it was foolish of me to imagine that the developers gave even a moment's consideration to gameplay balance or feedback by which the player can gauge the power of their attacks. It's just not programmed properly, is all.
Thankfully the Top Fighter version of Geese isn't nearly the terrifying foe that he is in the Fatal Fury games, and I managed to dispatch him via a large number of jumping kicks. I think me and Goku's jumping kick are going to become very familiar with each other, especially if all my other opponents are as fond of projectiles as Geese is. Then I let Geese win a round to see if he'd say "I'll stain my hams... with you, Brad!", as he sometimes does, but unfortunately he didn't. There are some voice clips in this game, but it's mostly just attack names with no pre- or post-battle quips.
Next up: a battle that's been played out a million times in Mugen but never before on a home console as Goku takes on Ryu, the ultimate karateman in a genre packed with karatemen. He is to karate as Nichoas Cage is to overacting, and as such he's a good first character to use if you decide to give Top Fighter a try. All his famous special moves are available, and because he's the character around which so many fighters are based you should have some idea how to use him.
See? That's a Dragon Punch, that is. I'm surprised that the developers used Ryu's Street Fighter Alpha sprite set when there's a perfectly good Megadrive version of Street Fighter II that they could have cribbed from, but I think this version fits better with the cartoony graphical style. Something else I was surprised about in the fight against Ryu is the music. If you're old, old enough to have had an internet connection in a time before MP3s existed, you might have downloaded some MIDIs to listen to. MIDIs were often wonky, not-quite-right recreations of whatever music they were supposed to be, and that's what this stage's theme sounds like: a MIDI. Of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers theme. I think that's the design decision that caused me the most confusion in this game, which is saying something given the selection of playable characters. Go Go Shoryuken indeed.
Muhammad Ali may have been the greatest of all time in the real world, but that's because he never had to fight a super-powered flying warrior who is one of the last survivors of a doomed alien world. Unless you count that comic where he fought Superman, but as that's not on his official fight record I'm going to disallow it.
The problem with the Top Fighter version of Ali is that he's just not fast enough. You'd expect him to essentially be the Chun-Li of of the game, but sadly he's no quicker than any other fighter and his special moves - a big fiery punch and a short-range ground explosion - aren't much cop. I think he's based around King of Fighters character Heavy D, but I'm not familiar enough with KoF '94 to confirm that.
Goku vs. Ryo now, and in my personal opinion the Art of Fighting hero is probably the least interesting fighter of the bunch. He's not bad, but he lacks Robert Garcia's charm and dapper turtleneck sweater. On the plus side, I've figured out how to get Goku to throw a fireball! This has greatly expanded my offensive options - now I can jump-kick or I can throw energy blast, an increase of 100%! It only took four battles and a staggering amount of failed button combinations to learn that pressing down, down and then punch is how you throw a fireball.
Giant Stone George Washington is looking really smug back there. "I cannot tell a lie - I knew how to do all the special moves right away. The super moves, too. Haven't you even managed to figure those out?"
No I have not George, you condescending dick. I know that there are super moves, because I've seen the computer-controlled characters doing them, and I've seen the red bar under my health fill up as the fight progresses, and that's presumably the "super power," but after trying more combinations than the world's shittiest safecracker I remained unable to activate even a single super move. If you work out how to do them... don't tell me. It'll probably be something embarrassingly simple that I've overlooked.
Goku fights against his own clone, a scenario that was presumably played out in some episode of the Dragon Ball franchise. I suppose it'd be hard to tell, what with every character having the same face. From this encounter I learned that Goku can also do a somersault kick, which after some practise I'm going to hesitantly say is performed by inputting half-circle back and kick, and a combo of dashing kicks that I never even got close to pulling off.
As Top Fighter chugs along, I've come to the conclusion that it isn't very good. Once the novelty of the character roster has worn off - although it is a pretty great novelty, let's be honest - you're left with a fighter that's broken in all the ways that bootleg fighting games usually are. Horrendous lag, unfathomable hitboxes, jerky movements, they all feature heavily, and then there's the most specific issues with Top Fighter, like the fact you can't do anything while you're in a blocking position. On the plus side, I'd say the AI is better than you might expect. Your opponents can be a little too keen on projectiles sometimes, but they never come across as having the metal powers of either psychic gods or victims of human-gerbil brain transplants.
Of course, as soon as I praise the AI I have to fight Cyclops. He can shoot punch-lasers out of his face, and he really wants the player to know about it. I'll be happy if I never hear the phrase "OPTIC BLAST!" again.
I have to assume that Cyclops' choice of a yellow-and-brown costume here is intended to cash in on Wolverine's popularity. Of all the Marvel characters that have appeared in Capcom's crossover game, why did the developers pick Cyclops to appear in Top Fighter? It could have been Doctor Doom!
Cyclops is also pulling the Dreamworks face in his character portrait. Quick, someone make an animated movie of Top Fighter and cast Jerry Seinfeld as Cyclops.
It might not look like it from this screenshot, but my second fight again Kyo went much better than the first, probably because I had a projectile attack that I could pull of with some regularity. On the subject of the special moves, you remember how I said that the command for Goku's fireball was down, down, punch? Well, further experimentation revealed that it isn't. It's actually performed using the usual quarter-circle-forwards motion, it's just that the game's programming is so janky that it essential throws its hands up and says "yeah, sure, whatever" and lets you throw a fireball if you just keep tapping down and pressing punch. It's a good job, too, because doing it the "proper" way is far less reliable thanks to the game demanding that you pause for a moment between entering the d-pad motion and pressing punch. If, like me, you've played a decent amount of Street Fighter or any fighting game with a similar control system, you will find it nigh impossible to leave a pause in the command as your deeply-engrained reflexes kick in. This may explain why I couldn't do any super moves.
And now, the climactic battle. Come on and slam, and welcome to the final jam. Michael Jordan isn't a boss or anything, you fight the characters in a random order, but he's a suitable opponent for the last fight because he's probably the toughest fighter in the game. His cartwheel kick is particularly devastating, and his ability to instantly summon flaming basketballs from whatever alternate dimension he comes from is useful indeed. I wasn't sure about the Ali / Heavy D connection, but Jordan is definitely a reworked version of Lucky Glauber from King of Fighters. It wasn't difficult to puzzle that one out, the developers obviously weren't going to make a character from scratch and there aren't that many basketball-themed fighter game characters to steal. although I would have preferred it had Jordan been based on Magic Dunker from Fight Fever, because then I'd get to write the name "Magic Dunker" a few times and that is a very pleasing name to say. Maybe we can hope for a Top Fighter 2015 where Magic Dunker's sprite is used to replace Michael Jordan with Magic Johnson.
Jordan doesn't have any problem doing his super moves, but honestly I don't feel too bad about not having them in my arsenal because all the ones I came up against were extremely easy to avoid. Hell, my reliance on jumping kicks meant I was in the air 80% of the time anyway, so I dodged almost all of the projectile supers thanks to the law of averages. It would have been an even higher percentage if Goku could fly in this game like he can in Dragon Ball Z, but c'est la vie.
After all that struggle, mostly the struggle to get the controls to respond, this is the ending I'm treated to. You know what? I'm fine with that. I am best, better than all the rest. There a just a touch of (presumably unintentional) comedy to the brevity of it, as though the game is trying to quickly shoo you out of the door, yes, yes, you are best, now get out of here before my wife comes home.
I went back and had another quick run-through as Michael Jordan, and I can confirm that he is the best character. It's a combination of that cartwheel kick and his long legs, there's nowhere to hide when the gangly Jordan typhoon is filling most of the screen, especially when you're fighting on the narrow ramparts of the Great Wall of China. I think that's where this stage is supposed to be set, anyway. If only the developers had ripped off Blanka's stage to serve as Ali's home turf, I could be knee-deep in "Rumble in the Jungle" jokes by now.
Seeking a deeper challenge, I changed the difficulty to Hard. It seemed that the computer's attacks did slightly more damage, and as that's the laziest, cheapest way to make a fighting game harder I'm going to assume that's exactly the case. Also, it doesn't matter how much damage they do if they can't hit you. Because Geese lacks post-fight voice acting, I had to say "you cannot escape from dess" out loud myself. I can neither confirm nor deny whether I totally enjoyed doing so.
As a fighting game, Top Fighter 200 MK VIII leaves something to be desired - play it for a while and you'll be desiring controls and hit detection that work, mostly - but I still had fun messing about with it. I can't quite say that I've played worse officially released, non-bootleg fighting games, although I'm sure there are some out there, but if the issues with the horrible input lag were fixed it would almost reach the heady heights of "competent." One thing that prevents it from being totally unplayable is that it is at least fair, the half-assed game engine providing just as much hindrance to the computer as to the player.
A better way to enjoy the game is to treat it as a kind of digital safari, trying to spot which games the various components of Top Fighter were lifted from; a Fatal Fury background here, a Power Rangers theme there. I still can't quite get over that one. Anyway, all these words can be condensed into one single, defining fact, the fact that I started this article with - in this game, Goku can fight Michael Jordan. What else could you possibly need to know besides that?