"Play History. Make History." The marketing tagline for the 2018 release of the PlayStation Classic highlights an added attribute of the miniature console in the sense that all 20 games included may not actually be classic PSone games, yet even the less worthy inclusions provide gamers with a snapshot of playing through the history of Sony's first PlayStation.
Before we slice apart Tamsoft's Battle Arena Toshinden through hindsight as being an average weapons-based fighter, it's worth noting the historical significance as it was the first ever 3D one-on-one fighting game on PlayStation – since Battle Arena Toshinden's Japanese release in January 1995 was three months earlier than the PSone port of Tekken.
Anyone who can recall gathering around a Virtua Fighter arcade machine in late 1993 with mouths agape – recollecting that initially witnessing polygon 3D fighters and arenas was arguably even more unique than racers, since polygon graphics for racing games had more precedence in late 1980s titles like Hard Drivin' – so older gamers may also remember how Battle Arena Toshinden was heavily praised for its visuals in 1995. For example, the March 1995 review in Issue 18 of EDGE magazine scored the game eight out of ten and described it as "Toh Shin Den is simply gorgeous".
Yet, time has not been as kind to the graphics of most PSone launch games. This is exemplified through chunky textures and basic backgrounds, such as the blocky, brown drab hills and mounds for both the American miner Rungo Iron's desert and Eiji Shinjo's settings or Kayin the Celtic buccaneer's blurry night-time city. Within 25 minutes you will have beaten all eight starting fighters to face the final boss Gaia, against a surreal backdrop that swirls around in an eye watering vortex.
How much you appreciate the artistic design and charm in Battle Arena Toshinden's visuals as an early 1995 example of 32-bit graphics depends upon your ability to reminisce and forgive the fact that technically impressive 3D games at the dawn of the fifth generation simply may not have aged as appealingly, or might move less fluidly than high-standard 16-bit pixel-art titles.
Push Square's editor Sammy Barker described it succinctly in his detailed PS Classic hardware review by explaining, "In games like Battle Arena Toshinden, a launch title for the PlayStation – and not a very good one at that – you can almost slit your wrists on the jagged edges, as boxy character models float around pixelated arenas". Altering the game's Camera Action options reiterates Sammy's point, as the Overhead viewpoint is unplayable, and the Sky camera results in minuscule characters. Surprisingly, the Long angle is actually helpful for avoiding ring outs, although it showcases how bland and empty the space is between each arena and background.
The way in which you approach attacking and defending against a ring out is just one example of taking a strategic approach to the gameplay in Battle Arena Toshinden. The game's most innovative and enjoyable addition to the fighting genre is being able to circle your opponent by side-stepping using the shoulder buttons and triggers, especially since a counter-attack will cause more damage from behind.
Mixing up strategies of blocking, dodging to avoid attacks, throwing distant special moves and double-tap running to charge an opponent with a close-up assault is a fun way of maintaining variety in the gameplay mechanics, especially in a two-player fight. You will have to change your fighting style and alter combinations against a variety of combatants, for example Turkish circus performer Ellis is fast and agile, while Japanese mercenary Mondo has a long reach to impale you on his spear, and initial boss Gaia is fierce and powerful.
As is repeatedly the case with PSone games, the music by Yasuhiro Nakano, Makoto Mukai, and Fumio Tanabe in Battle Arena Toshinden has aged more gracefully than the graphics. The themes for Ellis, Russian agent Sofia, and the French nobleman Duke B. Rambert are merry, catchy, and get the toes tapping during each bout through the underworld. The tunes for elderly Chinese magician Fo Fai and Japanese warrior Mondo have an East Asian atmosphere, which fits well in a tournament of travelling fighters clashing weapons during the battle of the Immortals. The end credits track is elegant, understated and uplifting, too. Conversely, Gaia's theme marches you through the boss battle by building dramatic tension, as the solid and suitable soundtrack elevates your enjoyment of the game.
This review of Battle Arena Toshinden was prepared by playing an original PAL PSone disc, and many gamers who first experience it on the PS Classic will notice it feels stodgy, because its slow movement is exacerbated by the PS Classic's inclusion of the 50Hz PAL version. Japanese adventurer Eiji Shinjo is the equivalent of an all-rounder character like Ryu in Street Fighter, so regardless of regional video standards executing moves like Eiji's Hadouken-esque, quarter circle Comet Strike feels slightly awkward, but accessible to newcomers. Beating the game gives instructions for a more complicated Super Attack, which acts as a desperation move when your life-gauge turns red. However, further delving to discover the hidden boss through harder difficulties without continuing reveals beating Eiji's brother, Sho Shinjo, and unveils a cumbersome Secret Move, because the input timing is sluggish and unresponsive when performing Super Attacks.
It was unsurprising for fighting games to include limited content in the mid-1990s, but at least Street Fighter Alpha on PSone included a Turbo choice – even if there was still only two more than Battle Arena Toshinden's eight starting characters. Battle Arena Toshinden would have benefited from an option to change to a faster game speed. However, it's possible to unlock both Gaia and Sho Shinjo as playable characters in Tamsoft's game.
A year after its 1995 launch on PlayStation, Battle Arena Toshinden Remix was released on SEGA Saturn with an extra character, and more importantly a story mode, which is especially missed in the limited 1P Game or Vs Human options of the PSone original. This omission is heightened as the story would become expanded with an entertaining and bloody Battle Arena Toshinden anime film, which directly follows the first game, particularly in regards to the relationship between the fighters and the final secret boss, Sho Shinjo. It's apparent how strong the original character designs were by Tsukasa Kotobuki, because they translate well from the PSone game to the anime.
Ultimately, with three other sequels on the PSone, the first Battle Arena Toshinden is too bare bones and scant in its extras to stand out amongst a crowd of one-on-one fighters. Even games like Tobal No. 1 had an extensive Quest Mode on PSone, and Soul Blade was superior in the specific weapons-based genre. In Issue 137 of Retro Gamer magazine there was a 'How the PlayStation Changed Gaming' cover feature, where Nick Thorpe revisited Battle Arena Toshinden as a PSone launch game, stating that, "it just doesn’t play that well. It’s easy to see how Tekken became more popular". Consequently, Namco’s Tekken 3 almost seems like a generation ahead of Battle Arena Toshinden – even though they're both PSone titles – through its graphical presentation, cut-scenes and extra modes, like Tekken Force.
Tamsoft's Battle Arena Toshinden epitomises how the ageing process changed gamers' perspectives from being bedazzled by the outstanding 32-bit visuals of PlayStation's first 3D fighter in early 1995 to feeling unimpressed by primitive polygonal graphics as a PS Classic title in 2018. Its classic status is undermined by slow, unresponsive controls for moves like Super Attacks and sluggish weapons-based combat, as well as rudimentary gameplay options and no story mode. This is unfortunate, because an energetic soundtrack is a highlight, plus innovations like circling and counter-attacking opponents meant that Battle Arena Toshinden was not a load of old tosh. PSone was finding its feet in the fifth generation console face-off in 1995, so launch games like Battle Arena Toshinden have historical significance by ensuring that at the call of 'Bout 1, fight' Sony's first console came out swinging.