When Namco released the original Tekken in arcades in 1994 it was a welcome change from the derivative 2-dimensional fighters of its day. While Street Fighter 2 and its countless copycats were stagnating with sequels that offered little more than better graphics and flashier combos and super moves, Tekken’s deep fighting system and well-balanced gameplay made it one of best fighting games of the time.
Eight years later, with the release of Tekken 4 for the Playstation 2, the series is beginning to show the same signs of the stagnation that it once stood in contrast to.
Tekken 4 can best be thought of as a refinement of last year’s Tekken Tag Tournament, which itself was mainly a refinement of Tekken 3 before it. All three games share the same basic fighting engine, which rewards careful timing and memorization of long strings of button combinations. Each subsequent release has taken this highly competent base and basically thrown on the graphical touches and redesigned special moves that die-hard fans seem to love.
Yet while Tekken Tag Tournament at least boasted an impressive cast of characters (including all 30+ characters from the first 3 Tekken games) and the innovative tag-team mechanic that its name implies, Tekken 4 offers neither.
Instead, the character list in Tekken 4 is basically a slimmed down version of the Tekken 3 character roster with a few wholly uninteresting new characters seemingly thrown in at the last minute.
The return of 13 of the 19 characters from Tekken 3 guarantees that all the standard fighting styles (boxing, karate, wrestling, etc.) remain well represented, as do all the standard character archetypes (the big slow guy, the small quick girl, the all-around balanced fighter, etc.), with absolutely nothing new or different to make any potential buyers uncomfortable.
The four new characters that round out the roster don’t break any new ground either, each being a stripped down copy of one of the other 16 returning characters in one way or another.
In the place of Tag Tournament’s tag-team mechanic, Tekken 4’s main "innovation" is the addition of walls and background objects that you can push your opponent into and/or through during a fight, a feature that other fighting game series’ like Dead or Alive have had for years.
The constraints imposed by these new enclosed fighting arenas far outweigh the benefits. It is much too easy to push your opponent into a corner of the room and continually push them into a wall, leaving them with no room to retreat or escape to the sides.
Where matches in the Tekken were once all about dancing around your opponent and waiting for a good opening to strike, they’ve now been reduced to a question of who can force their opponent into the wall more aggressively. Camera problems mar the implementation of this new system too, with walls and objects often coming between the camera and your character.
The weird thing is, despite the total lack of any redeeming new features in Tekken 4, I still didn’t have a horrible time playing it for a while. After all, Tekken 3 was a great game that kept me busy for hours on end, and any game that basically copies from that is going to have some value to it.
After reliving the past for a few hours, however, I found myself tiring of playing as the same basic characters and performing the same repetitive button combinations over and over again. Maybe I’d just been jaded by playing way too much Tekken in the past, but if Namco had done it right, Tekken 4 could have recaptured the magic of the previous Tekken games while still being fresh enough to remain interesting past the nostalgia period.
And that’s really what it comes down to when a series gets up to its fifth installment (including Tag Tournament). If you rest on your laurels and simply polish the most recent game in the series, you’ll manage to attract both fans of the old game and newer players who may have missed out in the past. But if nothing significantly new is added to the package, then both groups are going to eventually tire of a game that could easily be replaced by any other in the genre.
Tekken 4 is one of those easily replaceable games, made good by the virtue of copying of one of the best. Buy it only if feel you simply can’t get enough Tekken. Otherwise, go dig Tekken 3 out of your collection or your local gaming store’s bargain bin and save your money for a more original game.