Then and Now: The History of Tekken

By Kenneth Richardson

August 2, 2010

Tekken is one of the most storied fighting games of all time. Its name is synonymous with arcades, tournaments and the fighting genre in general. It is also one of the purveyors of the at home multiplayer experience on consoles and has sold millions of copies. It has been adapted in both animated and live action movies.

There are entries in the Tekken series on the WonderSwan, GameBoy Advance, mobile phone, PSP, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 gaming platforms. Thousands of dollars have changed hands in worldwide Tekken tournaments and contests. It was one of the first Japanese games whose popularity transcended region.

It packed arcades globally and has done so since 1994. It is a household name that has brought competitive fighters to the masses and its success is beyond comparison to nearly any game in its genre. Tekken is considered by some to be the pinnacle of the fighting game genre, and it has amassed millions of fans around the globe.

But it did not become the worldwide phenomenon that it is today overnight. Pull up a chair and join me, as we traverse the humble beginnings of what has become a legacy.

Tekken: The Birth of a Legacy

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In 1994, the original Tekken game hit japanese arcades like an atomic bomb. It wasn’t until 1996 however, that Americans were able to fill their local arcades to experience it. I can remember lines of more than a dozen gamers, all waiting for their turn to partake in the King of the Iron Fist tournament. The game featured many different characters and fighting styles from various parts of the world (an aspect that has since become a series staple). Fighters from Japan, Ireland, Mexico, America and more clashed to decide the victor. This “global scale” feeling has only evolved since the first game.

While there was some skill involved, most kids could jump in and have a good time button mashing also. Combos, grapples, and tackles made their first appearances however unrefined. The graphics were unlike anything else at that time and consisted of full 3D models with detailed movements, expressions, and clothing fighting on a 2D plane. It became a sensation, filling arcades around the country. In 1995, the game made its appearance on the then new PlayStation entertainment system.

Gamers were treated with unlock-able characters and even short Full-Motion Videos (FMVs) for characters once they used them to clear an arcade mode. While general reception of Tekken was mixed, it is the main home platform from which the prized series emerged. Looking back, those graphics are hard to watch, but it was still the birth of a giant. Tekken became the first PlayStation game to sell more than one million copies, which says enough about its popularity.

Tekken 2: Cementing a Place in History

In 1995, only a short time after the console release of the original Tekken, the sequel made its way to Japanese arcades. It followed suite in the States, again a year later. Having already amassed a sizable following, the game reinvigorated the fighting game community.  Nearly the entire roster from the first game had made their reappearance for the sequel. Full 3D character models still did battle in infinite stages on a 2D plane.

Game-play refinements made the game more fluid, while the addition of several new characters forced vets of the first game to re-evaluate their strategy. It was also in the sequel that the story of the series was able to develop further, with Heihachi making his first attempt to murder his son, Kazuya. With everything that made the first game huge, only in larger doses, Tekken 2 had no choice but to become a hit. A year later in 1996, the home port of Tekken 2 released to similar success.

This time, the home version received a wealth of content that did not appear in the arcade versions. For example, the now standard Survival and Practice modes first appeared in the home port. Also making their triumphant return were the FMV sequences that furthered the story of the game. General reception of the game this time around was mostly positive. Critics cited the dramatic improvements of game-play, even after such a short time period, as selling points for the title. It was a sealed deal: Tekken was the new premiere fighting game that had niche fans cooing in arcades and living rooms globally. The King of the Iron Fist Tournament 2 was even bigger and badder than the first.

Tekken 3: A Shot in the Dark Hits the Bull’s Eye

In 1997, Tekken 3 made its first appearance in American arcades. It needed no promotion after the first two games had firmly established the series as a household name. However, with this installment, game-play had made a significant leap of faith. Fighters no longer did battle on a 2D plane. Instead, fights occurred in 3D depth of field, allowing new strategic options like side stepping and similar evasive maneuvers.

This change was an indeed a risky one. This new depth required more complex strategies and greater understanding of evasion than the previous two games. Whereas one who was skilled in Tekken would be at least similarly skilled in Tekken 2, this third installment required more learning than ever.

Recoveries were faster and more reflexive. The new engine allowed improved escapes from tackles, throws and stuns. Juggling combos where born, presenting thorough punishments for not guarding or evading efficiently, and the throw escape was pure necessity with the addition of powerful combination grapples for characters like King. It was truly a move from two to three, metaphorically speaking. Button mashing would get the unskilled practically nowhere with this installment, which can be viewed as both a good thing and a bad thing.

No one knew how fans would respond to this dramatically more complex game-play. Despite these changes, Tekken 3 emerged as one of the biggest games of the year. Fans applauded the added depth and game-play, as well as the vastly improved character models and environments. Critics praised the game almost universally. It is with Tekken 3 that most would agree the biggest evolution of the game took place. There were not half as many returning characters as there were in Tekken 2.

However, there were more than a dozen new characters, each adding a very distinctive style of fighting. The character Ling Xiayou is often cited as a glaring example of how deep the combat became. Having multiple attack and defense options, she is considered an advanced character. The new minigames, Tekken Force, and Volleyball were enjoyable distractions from the superb fighting. The detail of the stages and characters reached new heights, and the dance and rave-esque music was an audible treat. In 1998 the home version of Tekken 3 was released. Like the previous home ports in the series, Tekken 3 was arcade-perfect, meaning that it contained all content from the arcade version.

New characters were added in this version, as an added incentive. The story mode could be explored further, with the substantial addition of Jin Kazama, Kazuya’s son. Tekken 3 is one of the most positively received entries in the series. It is currently the second highest graded game for the PlayStation system on review aggregate Metacritic. The King of the Iron Fist Tournament 3 was explosive.

Tekken 4: You Can’t Win Them All

In 2001, the next numbered Tekken entry released with Tekken 4. Excitement surrounded the first numbered Tekken installment on the PlayStation 2. The game featured vast game-play and graphical improvements. The environments now impacted game-play in a major way. Players could trap foes against walls and other objects. The new “switch” maneuver allowed you to trade places with your opponent should you yourself fall victim to this new cornering mechanic.

However, the focus on shorter, more impactful blows shifted the spotlight from strategic setups and jugglers. This change upset many fans of the series, as less strategy was required for victory. Seemingly a step backwards had been taken, from the depth of combat established in the third game.

This problem is compounded with poor balancing, as Jin Kazama, (the guy on the cover oddly enough) was clearly overpowered compared to other characters. This is evidenced in his saturation of the Tekken 4 tournaments. The smaller, tighter roster introduced only four new characters (five if you count the Ling Xiayou palette swap) while still suffering from balancing issues.

The now staple Tekken Force mode made its re-appearance and was considered an improvement over the previous game (unlike the combat in Tekken 4) and the story was able to develop even further with Kazuya seemingly returning from the dead to halt his father’s henchmen in one of the coolest opening sequences yet.

Sadly though, Tekken 4’s reception reflected the negative change to the combat.  It became the worst received Tekken game of the series; critics citing the game-play changes as the culprit. The most positive aspect of Tekken 4 was the vastly improved graphics system. It, along with Tekken Force, made the biggest improvements from the last numbered entry. The reception was similar for the home version of the game, which was released in 2002.

Tekken 5: The King is Back

In December of 2004, Tekken 5 made its way to arcades. Immediately noticeable was reduced focus on the cornering mechanic and shifting that focus to combos and greater defensive options. The new “crush” system required that players use predetermined moves to counterattack moves with long invulnerability periods.

This added an even greater emphasis on strategy and provided adequate countermeasures for the cornering that plagued Tekken 4. The stage design in Tekken 5 removed multi-level stages in order for more fluid, consistent combat regardless of the stage. Redesigned juggling made it more accessible (similar to Tekken 3) while the removal of the “switch” mechanic all combined to streamline game play.

Position-altering techniques were removed and also, players were required to remain stationary before battles. The rather large roster introduced 6 new characters and addressed the aforementioned balancing issues. Fans delighted in the return of a proper Tekken game. The significant game-play changes returned Tekken to the glorious strategic combat established in Tekken 3. The graphics system was also dramatically improved from Tekken 4. The new crush system expanded game-play options in a very positive way whereas the switch system from Tekken 4 allegedly seemd to bring combat down.

The new characters added a wealth of game-play options, also similar to Tekken 3, whereas the new characters in Tekken 4 did not add very much and one was simply a variation of another character (referring to Christie). Most notably, Asuka Kazama possessed a fighting style that made her control a lot like Jun Kazama from Tekken 2 and Feng Wei was a very contextual advanced character, similar to Ling Xiayou.

A variation of the Tekken Force mode entitled “Devil Within” featured the beat’em up game play that TF mode is known for. The story of the game leapt to new heights with the reveal of Heihachi’s father Jinpachi. In 2005, the home version was released with some very significant content. Firstly, arcade versions of Tekken, Tekken 2, and Tekken 3 were available on the disc. This was extremely important to Tekken enthusiasts who sought the rare original games.

Another major addition was the ability to customize your characters with items bought from an in-game shop. The money used to buy these additions could be earned in Arcade, Time Attack, Survival and Devil Within game modes. Critical response to Tekken 5 was mostly positive. Gamers enjoyed the series’ return to what helped make it great and arguably all the flaws in Tekken 4 were addressed.

The King of Iron Fist Tournament 5 firmly reestablished Tekken as a benchmark fighting series, and alleviated all concern for the franchise that Tekken 4 had amassed.

Tekken 6:  Long Live the King

In 2009, the long awaited next entry in the Tekken series hit home consoles. It should be noted that by this time, the arcade scene in America had become endangered, and this may attest to the games absence in American arcades. With game-play and graphical improvements, much hype surrounded the first numbered Tekken entry on HD consoles. The game hit the market without a hitch.

Stages and characters looked better than what was ever possible before. A staggering roster of more than 40 characters colored the select screen, with no unlocking needed. The new motion blur added graphical flourishes to the game, which is simply stunning when running in HD. Stages are now destructible, allowing fighters to break through walls and floors to access extended areas of the stage.

These cosmetic changes are only precursors to the real meat of the title; it’s exceptional combat. Tekken veterans needed to concern themselves with three new systems. The bound system allows players to bounce opponents from walls or floors, so that they may continue their attack. The bound system, when adequately used, can unleash some absolutely brutal assaults, giving your foe little or no time to recover.

Reversal parries also appear in Tekken 6. Certain attacks, like the low sweeping kick, can be stopped dead by a parry, leaving your enemy wide open and their face covered with egg. Low oriented characters like Christie had a lot on their plates with this new system.

The third new mechanic was the rage system, which covers players in a red aura and drastically increases their attack power when their health falls below somewhere around 15 %. This allows for some crowd pleasing come-backs, especially when one player is down by a large gap. The refined game-play and combo systems combined with these new mechanics made Tekken 6’s combat a winner.

Fans enjoyed both the new depth and simplicity of the game, while the technical milestones for the serious made the game look and handle incredibly. There was also a wealth of new content. For the first time, players were able to fight battles on a true global scale using the internet functions of the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.

Tekken force returned in the form of Scenario Battle. Ghost Battle mode allowed players to earn money and titles, and the in-game shop returned with a lot more content than in Tekken 5. Tekken 6 received mixed reviews but was still generally positively received. Fans enjoyed the online addition as well as the superb combat, but shots were taken at the Scenario Battle mode. Online play was also fairly laggy until a patch was issued from Namco Bandai. Summarily, the game was considered a fitting entry in an epic franchise.

I know that more than likely only the true Tekken aficionados are still reading this. Thank you for enjoying with me this perusal of a fine, fine franchise. Fighters the world over have passionate feelings for the Tekken franchise. It has been the source of arcade and living room competition for more than fifteen years. While many games have come and went since 1994, one franchise is cemented in its place as a fighting game legacy.

Dedicated fans like me have enjoyed each and every venture into this quality series, and Namco has always seemed intent upon our satisfaction with their flagship fighter, making it better with each iteration and listening to the fan’s desires and responding accordingly. Few titles have been able to amass the amount of loyalty and respect held for the Tekken franchise. Here’s to fifteen more years of Iron Fist Tournaments.

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Kenneth Richardson

Kenneth is a Graphics and Game Design student who's worked as an author for since June of 2010. His favorite gaming genres are Fighting, Role Playing and Sadistic Action games like Ninja Gaiden and Bayonetta. In addition to gaming, he is also strongly interested in music, fashion, art, culture, literature, education, religion, cuisine, photography, architecture, philosophy, film, dance, and most forms of creative expression.

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