You might be surprised to hear that it was an obscure old roller-skating arcade game called Roller Jammer that brought us here today, rather than very recently (as I write) having had my passion for fighting games reawakened by the Capcom Fighting Collection on Nintendo Switch, and in particular its Darkstalkers games, and in particular Vampire Savior: The Lord of Vampire! But no, it’s all down to Roller Jammer, playing like Road Rash on skates, with you bashing your way through stages of increasingly aggressive competition. It’s by Nichibutsu in 1984, and I reckon it’s a pretty ambitious and certainly unique take on the fledgling 3D racer scene for the time. Someone at Hamster obviously does too because it got an Arcade Archives release on Switch and PS4 at the end of July 2022, which is how I came across it!

Now, I’m going to justify what I’m about to say by also saying that I do buy loads of Arcade Archives releases! The most recent as I write (no doubt some time before you read this) was Dragon Saber, sequel to my favourite PC-Engine shoot ‘em up Dragon Spirit, although the arcade versions of both games are absolutely brutal – I know because I bought that one too! They’re also a total bugger to emulate in MAME. Not sure why because I’m a real MAME-bumbler (which might actually be why!) but some games just don’t play ball, and that makes these Arcade Archives releases priceless to me. But while I’m happy to drop £6.99 or whatever for something priceless like Dragon Saber, when something a bit off-the-wall like Roller Jammer comes along, I like to try before I buy! And while I did have fun with it, after a few goes I wasn’t convinced I was going to get much more out of it, so in that case I decided not to buy and the game shuffled back into the depths of MAME from whence it came.

And there’s the problem. Everything is so accessible at no cost now that it’s easy for things to have no value. Of course, it wasn’t always that way, and I’m sure we all spent plenty of money on stuff we ended up being less than enthralled with when we got it home, but by that point we’d made our bed so we had to lie in it, and they got played to death regardless! Now, I’ve wasted enough words here and there on my greatest gaming disappointment, the dreadful Kung-Fu Master on ZX Spectrum, but it wasn’t just rubbish full price games that could take the wind out of your sails – £1.99 was more than enough to do the same! There are two specific examples of this that still haunt me to this day – Grand Prix Tennis and European 5-a-Side, both also on the Spectrum. To make matters worse, now I look at the box I reckon the Tennis one was £2.99 as well! At first glance its isometric black on yellow looks okay, but everything else about this game stinks, especially the ball movement, your movement, the controls, the lack of knowing where you should be to successfully hit the ball back and the collision detection being so bad that none of that even matters! The football game is no better – so slow and the opposition are so easily confused, and they should have spent more time on the gameplay than shoving in unnecessary sampled speech all over the place. But I’d bought them by the time I knew all of that, so I played them as much as if they’d been the best game ever!

Okay, I exaggerate slightly, but really not that much! It’s very different now though, where the most you need to spend on such things is your time, and as Roller Jammer was being cast aside, and I was pondering what’s become the throwaway nature of the one-time holy grail of being able to play arcade-perfect (or even a decent approximation) in your own home – let alone the actual arcade game – I was thinking that can’t always be the case though, and, of course, that led me back to a prime example of the complete opposite, Star Gladiator! I’d never heard of Star Gladiator in any form until October 2021, and Episode 17 of the wonderful Video Wizards Podcast, spanning the entire summer of 1996 over the course of no less than seven hours and ten minutes… They might be arcade gurus, fellow Spinal Tap obsessives and all-round top blokes, but that took me almost as long as the entire summer of 1996 to listen to as well! Anyway, true to form, I get it running on MAME to pass judgement, but this is no Roller Jammer, although like that I did stop playing after a few goes but this time because this thing was really special and it needed to be savoured properly!

We’ll get to where I savoured it properly in a minute, but as the next thing I did after that was a bit more digging on the game and its history and its legacy, we should probably do that first here too. Star Gladiator – Episode 1: Final Crusade, to give it its full title for the first and last time her, was released by Capcom in that Video Wizards’ summer of 1996 for the PlayStation-based ZN-1 arcade platform. You might have heard of Capcom from other such fighting games as the Street Fighter and aforementioned Darkstalkers series, but this was their first stab at developing those new-fangled polygonal 3D ones, although they had licensed Battle Arena Toshinden 2 from Tamsoft a year previously, and had recently released Resident Evil in glorious 3D. Kind of. All the same, they were playing serious catchup by now, with Tekken and Virtua Fighter already well-established, and by their own admission they weren’t very good at 3D (hence using the ZN-1), and in reality also didn’t have much confidence in its use in the genre; or at least any great desire for its success! As you might now expect, PlayStation conversions weren’t far behind, with Japan and North America getting them in October then Europe in December 1996, and that would eventually appear on PS3, PSP and PS Vita around 2011 too. And because I’m a day-one PS1 enthusiast who’d somehow completely missed this at the time (and also because it was only a few quid on eBay!) I decided that’s where I wanted to savour it!

It doesn’t seem to be any kind of secret that this started out planned to be a Star Wars fighting game, and, even if not by name, ended-up pretty much one too, but it does also have its own story that we should recap… It’s 2348, and by now us Humans are flitting from planet to planet and living peacefully alongside many alien species, but as always, there’s a few troublemakers among them so the Earth Federation starts researching a plasma weapon (but definitely not a lightsaber!) to protect the Earth. It’s top physicist, Dr Edward Bilstein, has come across a way of harnessing the immense power of the human mind, you see, but it turns out that while he’s been weaponising it, he’s also been using actual humans in his experiments, which seems to be a bit frowned upon in the future. Development of the weapon is suspended in once he’s been found out, and he subsequently gets imprisoned in a cell orbiting the planet Zeta, but not before word has already spread around the galaxy that Earth has this light-up super-stick and isn’t to be trifled with, so any rumblings of hostility cease anyway. Job done.

All is well for precisely four years, which apparently is how it also took for everyone to also forget the name of Dr Edward Bilstein, but then reports start coming out of Zeta that a Federation army base has been attacked by a small group of rebels (but definitely not Rebels!) calling themselves the Fourth Empire. Okay, the definitely not Star Wars “Empire” bit is a potential source of confusion now, but probably legally sound, so we’ll go with it! Anyway, when word of the attack gets back to Earth, the Federation suddenly remembers the evil Dr Bilstein and not only decides he must be behind the attack, but also that he’s plotting a course of destruction back towards Earth for a a bit of revenge, so they gather together the only group of people who can use the previously suspended but now fully operational plasma weapons against their own creator. And this venture shall be known as Star Gladiator!

It definitely might not be Star Wars, but it definitely sounds like a great setup for a fighting tournament, taking place all over the world, to sort out some kind of galactic beef! And as such, we’ve got a lovely cast of outrageous characters to take part in it – some of which may seem familiar but definitely are not – all tooled-up with their plasma weapons which, it turns out, aren’t exclusively plasma swords either – there’s plasma maces, plasma axes and even plasma yo-yos… Suck on that, George Lucas! Anyway, there are effectively three sets of characters in Star Gladiator, each signifying a different fighting style to suit your own play style. The first is A-type, and these are the proper Jedi-type plasma sword wielders, where their move sets mostly revolve around horizontal slashing attacks. Second is B-type, and these guys are focussed on verticality, so it’s all about overhead strikes and a bit of longer range attacking too, depending on who you’ve got. Finally, there’s K-type, and these also vary a bit by character, but K is for kick, so they’re all about using their legs as weapons, albeit not always kicking. And while we’re talking these types, each of them is also assigned to one of the three available attack buttons on your PS1 controller. Completing the four button control layout, everyone’s got a guard too, which both blocks high and low or combines with directions to dodge left and right. And we’ll talk about all the other combinations of these shortly!

Before that, we can run through each of the characters available to you at the start within those different combat-type groups. It’s not everyone you’ll come across as you play, but we can at least get a flavour of who you’re dealing with and then mention a few of the others on the way. First up, those A-type sword guys, Hayato and Gerelt. Hayato is like Japanese Boba Fett, and with his love of orphanages he’d also fit right into a Yakuza game! He was my starting point in this one for a long time though, with a decent all-rounder move-set, and was also my first clear of the arcade mode… Quick mention of those while we’re here too – in arcade you choose your character and fight through all the computer characters in a series of win two round matches, though a player two is always welcome. Vs is a pretty full featured one-on-one, where you can adjust character handicaps for a decent skill matchup. Group Battle has you select a team of five then face-off in a series of one rounders, but this is cool because you can play one player versus computer, one-on-one against a fellow player or even let the computer play itself! And then there’s a training mode for trying out all those fancy moves, with a handy move map to help you with combinations. Right, back to our sword guys, the second, Gerelt, is a Spanish matador with a bomb in his chest, planted by Bilstein, and his weapon of choice is a plasma rapier. Not so keen on him – quick and powerful attacks but I don’t find him quite as mobile to match. Worth stating here that I while I was once really, really good at IK+ in the late eighties, my fighting skills mostly lapsed after that until that Capcom Fighting Collection came along in 2022, so take everything I say here about character preferences and move-sets and so on with a pinch of salt if you know better!

Right, B-types, and we’ve got four of these vertical attackers to run through… Saturn is, without doubt, the most flamboyant fighter you’ll be coming across here or pretty much anywhere else! He’s an alien with a cone-head from the Andromeda Galaxy, a street artiste by trade and possessor of those legendary plasma yo-yos! Loads of fun to play as too, with some really devastating attacks from out of nowhere, and often from a safe distance. Interesting side-note – when Hayato later appears in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, you might spot Saturn during his winning pose! Next up, Gamof is a furry alien from the forest planet De Rosa, also within the Andromeda Galaxy, and like another well-known furry alien, wears an ammo belt over his shoulder! He’s a bounty hunter, like his friend Hayato, but prefers to wield a plasma axe. Big, powerful, lumbering lumberjack, this guy. Hulk smash! Vector is another tank, playing like Robocop meets Frankenstein’s Monster. He’s actually one of Bilstein’s old prototype weapons, a robot assassin with a plasma gun; some impressive attacks, but not really my cup of tea. Last of this type on the roster is Gore, a walking brain from Indonesia, deformed by his plasma wizardry but still handy with a plasma mace. Bit of an unorthodox fighter this one, though he does have an insane, more than screen-filling special up his wizard’s sleeve!

Three more to cover in our final kicking K-type group of fighters, and we’ll start with June who, no surprise to many, is definitely my cup of tea… Always choose the busty, scantily clad, suicidal British-Chinese rhythmic gymnast if there is one is what I say! Fast and deadly with her feet, which are complemented by a plasma hoop and some very provocative advanced manoeuvres, and, perversions aside, a really fun character to play as. Actually, all of these guys are pretty fun. Zelkin’s just not as sexy! He’s a feathered humanoid alien thing from the Planet Klondike, with a plasma claw and some nifty claws on his legs too. Finally we’ve got Rimgal, who was June’s father until he got turned into a velociraptor with a bone club, which I think is the only non-plasma weapon here! Unlike the others, it’s the only place you’ll find him too… Killed himself before he made it to the sequel to stop himself killing his daughter! Apparently Capcom came up with copious amounts of backstory for everyone, in Japanese, of course, but we’ll leave it there, except to say that as well as Dr Bilstein and his big plasma broadsword, there are a couple of other characters to unlock – Kappah Nosuke, a plasma spear-wielding turtle-humanoid from the Planet Kappa, rather than the sewers of New York, and Blood Barbarian, an American swordsman with the most plasma power of anyone and a plasma broadsword to match. And you can find out about Ghost Bilstein for yourself!

Let’s have a quick look at how those move-sets are put together. I mentioned the move map in the training mode earlier, but that’s actually the basis of everything everyone does, and is known as their plasma tree, made up of different attacking button taps. This directs how you put those individual button taps together into plasma combos, and each fighter has a minimum of ten combinations of moves, with A-type and K-type having a finisher on top. You’ve also got a plasma combo indicator under your energy bar that shows the button pressed, and if it’s part of a chain you’ll see the next appear, so you can also work them out for yourself with a bit of experimentation in regular arcade play. Nail the whole chain and you’ll get a plasma combo move, with one more tap for the finisher if available.

Counters are a bit more complicated, and never the friend of the amateur like me at the best of times, but let me have a go at explaining them even if I struggle to pull them off! There’s two types of plasma counter, one for vertical (high) attacks and one for horizontal (anything lower), although both sometimes seem to work in either situation, and they involve either pressing forward or back on the controller with either A+B or B+G. Get it right and you’ll get a big counter strike in with a nice lighting effect as an extra bonus for being great at fighting games! Quick shoutout to the lighting throughout the game too, as well as the mass of background flourishes like changing weather, flocks of birds in the distance, spaceships darting about way too close for comfort, or just some neon advertising flashing away and platforms going up and down and life in general going on while you’re scrapping. All of it adds immeasurably to the drama unfolding, and there’s loads of it everywhere! Before we get too carried away with looks, let’s finish off the moves, although this one’s probably one of the best lookers in the game… Again, I’m not sure I’m entirely qualified to talk about the plasma assault, but once a round, you can press all three attack buttons at the same time to be enveloped in plasma energy, and I think if you land the subsequent attack it will keep landing a load of heavy hits on your opponent while the camera goes nuts! What I can be sure of is that the ring-outs are a decent way of winning a round, but apparently you can also turn this off if you beat the game on the hardest difficulty.

I can also tell you with some authority that everything we’ve just discussed makes for a very accessible fighting game! The plasma tree system is way more intuitive than my words make it sound, especially if you’ve spent only a few seconds checking out the training mode, and you’ll be pulling off a couple of your favourite characters plasma combos in no time, even if it’s a bit inconsistently for a while; the timing takes a bit of getting used to, especially when you’re trying for some of the more complex sets of button presses with a finisher on the end. But that’s where the depth lies, alongside the character roster and the secrets and the difficulty levels. Of course, some characters will suit you better than others, and some definitely feel more or less fluid as you try to string moves together. And there’s also a temptation to be fixated by the plasma combo readout thing, especially as you’re getting to grips with a new character, just to see what button presses are creating combo links and which are not… “It’s like a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

And what heavenly glory we’ve got on our hands here! Even an apologist like me will occasionally admit that the PS1’s tendencies for wobbly polygons and dodgy texture mapping, particularly now we’re all on super-sharp non-CRT goggleboxes, mean that the odd game hasn’t aged particularly well in the graphics department, but I won’t be doing it here! We alluded to the animated backgrounds earlier but didn’t go into quite how stunning they are! Even when they’re relatively mundane, like the Earth Federation army HQ elevator in the first of the ten plus stages, there’s incredible detail in the elevator mechanisms and drama in the mountainous skyline in the distance. The second level, set on a rooftop in downtown Neo Tokyo is another level again though, where even the chain link fences behind you are impressive enough, but then there’s a whole, real night-time world going on everywhere else and all around, and same for the spaceports and launch stations. Just this neon-drenched, usually jaw-dropping vista every time, bathed in all that colour and light and life, and they’re all among the best places to be on the system!

The cast of characters only adds to of all of that, but we’re in more regular PlayStation territory now with the way they’re presented and also the way they move. Nothing wrong with any of them, and a lot right, with vibrant colours highlighting their rich tapestry, even when they’re of the less flamboyant variety, but there’s no avoiding they’re made up of lots of jagged little polygons but probably not enough of them, especially the furrier characters like Gamof who come off looking a bit primitive. They all move well enough though, as do the 3D arenas and multiple cameras at play, and when you’re in the heat of battle it combines to look just the part! It sounds the part too, with all kinds of lightsaber swooshing and some very solid and crunching points of contact complementing some very interesting vocal performances. The soundtrack didn’t particularly resonate with me, but it’s a suitably epic and certainly inoffensive space opera that takes you from full-on orchestral classical to synth-funk and electro-jazz, more atmospheric eighties-injected electronica and some soaring rock guitars as you travel from stage to stage. It’s good stuff and I’d happily listen to it standalone, but it did go in one ear and out the other.

A sequel, Plasma Sword: Nightmare of Bilstein, did emerge into the arcades on the new ZN-2 hardware a couple of years later in 1998, with a Sega Dreamcast conversion following in 2000. In-game only a year had passed though, with Bilstein back for more trouble in an all-new cybernetic body. While it looks mostly familiar, from what I’ve played of the conversion the control system has had an overhaul, with the four buttons now made up of two weapon attacks, a kick and one for evasive manoeuvres. The plasma combos are replaced by a gauge that allows you to stack supers, a bit like the aforementioned Darkstalkers, and there’s also new specials. We’ve got ten characters returning from the first game and a whopping fourteen new ones, with eight stages that go character specific after a mid-boss fight on the fifth. All that’s missing is my dirty ring-out strategy because we’re now in a continuous 3D arena. It’s not the best looking Dreamcast game I’ve ever seen, but it’s a step up on the original, and I’ve had a good time with it so far even if it’s not massively groundbreaking.

I’m not sure the first game was massively groundbreaking either, but nor was the pizza I had for dinner last night and I still loved my time with that! And I’ve loved my time getting to know Star Gladiators too. The gorgeous environments you travel through, with whatever wild character’s taken your current fancy, elevate what might not be the most sophisticated fighter but is definitely an accessible one, and is definitely a fun one too. Even if it’s definitely not a Star Wars one! Not sure where this born-again appreciation of the genre might take me next (although Fightin’ Spirit on the Amiga A500 Mini is a strong possibility) but I reckon I might hang around here for a while first.