In our Final Round series, we take an in-depth look at as many fighting games as we possibly can!
In part 22, Shaun Eddleston takes a look at 1996’s Red Earth…
Year of Release – 1996
Developer – Capcom
Publisher – Capcom
Platforms – Arcade
When asked about Capcom’s portfolio of 2D fighting games throughout the 90s, there’s a few titles that immediately spring to mind. The iconic game-changer that is Street Fighter II. The spooky, horror-inspired Darkstalkers games. The popular Marvel series (and their crossovers). They’re all franchises that are immediately recognisable to even the most casual of fighting game fans, with excellent animations, exciting gameplay and colourful characters, available to play across a wide range of platforms.
Outside of these franchises, there was another lesser-known game that never actually made it to home consoles, and still remains one of Capcom’s most unusual and, as a result, most interesting fighting games; Red Earth.
Released in arcades in November 1996, Red Earth (known in Japan as War-Zard) was the first game in Capcom’s library to make use of the new CP System III hardware, giving everything about the game a noticeable boost in power and speed. This engine would be utilised in Street Fighter III (a game that we’ll be covering in this series later this year!).
Taking on a more fantasy-themed approach to the game’s visuals and story, Red Earth is noticeably different from its peers in a number of ways.
First of all, the game feels more similar to the Boss Rush genre than it does a standard 1v1 fighting game. While the familiar 2D fighter mechanics are all in place, there’s no use of rounds and the opponent’s life gauge now sits at the bottom of the screen (and is considerably longer than the player’s health), much like the end-of-level bosses found in Capcom’s many beat-’em-up titles. Health doesn’t completely refill at the end of a match either, and the rate that it does recharge is completely dependent on how well you do during a fight in terms of picking up items and successfully landing hits on opponents.
Another genre that Red Earth adopts elements from is the RPG genre. Instead of a high score, players now gain experience points from fights, effectively levelling up at different intervals. Levelling up adds different effects to each individual fighter, ranging from immunity to wind and poison attacks, to gaining brand new, stronger weaponry. Special moves are also an aspect of the game that needs to be levelled up to achieve too, so the more you play the game, the better the fighters are to play as.
Items from breakable chests make an appearance during fights too, adding more points to a fighter’s EXP, dropping Streets Of Rage & Final Fight-esque food items to replenish health mid-match and enabling special moves.
Beaten the game’s story? Players can start a new game and retain the progress that a specific character has made in terms of what level they are by inputting a numerical password that is displayed at the top of the screen as the game’s endings are running. With this exclusively being an arcade game, including this password system must have been a massive relief for players with a limited amount of money for more credits.
Another interesting feature of Red Earth is the inclusion of “The Six Elemental Spirits”. These characters (displayed above) enable each fighter to pull off special moves, and look as unique and unorthodox as the fighters themselves. The order each spirit shows up on screen is dependent on whether players have collected the corresponding coloured orb from a chest during a fight.
Capcom’s fighting games are renowned for their art styles, boasting colourful characters and detailed stage backgrounds. Red Earth is no different in this respect, and much of the promotional material leading up to the game’s release in arcades shows off just how interesting the game looks, putting a spotlight on not only the game’s protagonists, but the bosses that they’ll face too.
In addition to the concept artwork, we also got a series of vivid, busy information sheets that give players a taste of what to expect from the game. Short character bios, move tips and a little bit more insight into the game’s lore aplenty!.
Set in the year 13XX (or, in the Japanese version, 1999?!), Red Earth takes place in an alternate reality version of Earth. A new country, led by the evil Blade, has arisen and begun to take over the planet. Four unique heroes step forward in a bid to defend the world from this insidious threat.
As previously mentioned, Red Earth is an unusual entry in Capcom’s fighting game history, as it has the lowest amount of playable characters since the very first Street Fighter game 9 years earlier.
The first of the game’s protagonists is Leo, the king of the nation of Savalia.
When his kingdom is taken over by an unknown force, Leo is cursed with an affliction that sees him transformed into a half-lion/half-human hybrid.
The wise old sages of Savalia fail to lift the curse, so Leo decides to use this new dark strength to repay his countrymen. When he returns to his kingdom, he finds that many of the residents have been kidnapped, and the monster Hauzer is awaiting him.
Brandishing a sword and shield (both of which see a visual upgrade as players gain more EXP points to level up), Leo’s fighting style is very much a brutish hack & slash-based experience.
His “Chrono Rush” headbutt, “Mars Slash” sword chop and “Hercules Rush” attack are all simple, yet effective in charging forwards at an opponent to cut them down to size. If players time the “Mars Slash” attack just right, foes will literally be sliced in half, Mortal Kombat-style!
Leo (alongside a couple more Red Earth fighters) makes a return as a playable character in a later game, 2004’s Capcom Fighting Jam. He also makes cameo appearances in Pocket Fighter and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
A ninja from a mysterious clan based in the town of Zipang, Kenji (known as Mukuro in the Japanese release) serves his master from the shadows, taking out anyone who plans to take over.
After witnessing the terrifying transformation of Kongua, Kenji vows to destroy every monster that threatens the world, while investigating the rumours that his master may not be as innocent as everyone thinks.
Kenji’s fighting abilities are a mixed bag. In addition to an impressive cyclone kick that is reminiscent of Ryu from Street Fighter II‘s now iconic
Tatsumaki Senpuukyaku kick, his weapons range from close range blades, poisonous orbs that leave a lasting effect on foes and ranged kunai that differ depending on what direction a player is pressing at the time.
He also has an attack known as “Enma Zuki”, a powerful charged punch that can literally rip into an opponent’s chest, then their heart is ripped out whilst still beating.
Kenji also returns as a playable fighter in Capcom Fighting Jam.
A “sorcererologist” from Icelarn who excels in the magic arts, Tessa starts to witness some strange storms brewing in the area.
Refusing to believe that this change in weather is a natural phenomenon, Tessa sets out to discover their true cause. As she begins her quest, she is ambushed by Hydron, a marine being that Tessa feels should not be in her land.
Having magical abilities with elements of science really makes watching Tessa in action a very entertaining and unpredictable experience. She flits between throwing balls of energy known as chakras, chucking flasks that launch deadly shards towards opponents upon contact and summoning all sorts of craziness like cannons and swords.
Tessa’s final unlockable move is “Death Phenomenon”, where she surrounds herself with tiny heart-like objects. Should an opponent touch one of these, they immediately get surrounded by a number of cat-shaped balloons and is cursed with a countdown, which, when finished, proceeds to pop each balloon and massively damage the opponent. Utterly bonkers.
Tessa is probably most recognisable as one of the roster members of Pocket Fighter, and also returns in SNK Vs. Capcom: SVC Chaos.
A young martial artist from Gora, Mai Ling (known as Tao in War-Zard) leaves her hometown to participate in a fighting tournament, which she proceeds to take first place in.
Upon returning home to tell her family and friends of her success, she finds that her entire village has been attacked and is now burning to the ground. As she stands in shock at the horrible situation, the harpy known as Lavia emerges from the wreckage, taking credit for the destruction of her home. Mai Ling vows to avenge her family and takes the enemy on in battle.
Looking like the love child of Street Fighter‘s Chun-Li and Adon, Mai-Ling is the closest in play style to Capcom’s previous fighting game output up to this point. Utilising fireballs, somersaults and uppercut kicks, in addition to a pretty impressive throw move, Mai-Ling is an ideal character for fans of those previous games to become acquainted with the new mechanics of Red Earth.
Despite making cameo appearances in games such as Capcom Fighting Jam, Pocket Fighter and Capcom Vs. SNK 2: Mark Of The Millennium 2001, Mai-Ling is the only main character from Red Earth who has yet to make it onto consoles in a playable form, which is a shame, as I feel that she’d fit perfectly into the Darkstalkers series or even the more recent Street Fighter titles.
Aside from the four playable characters in Red Earth, there is also a selection of non-playable bosses to overcome…
An ancient fossil in the Greedia region who was revived through the use of Scion’s magic powers, Hauzer is a Tyrannosaurus Rex who’s only goal in life is to do one thing; destroy everyone and everything that crosses his path.
He debuts in the game as a fight against Leo in the Savalia stage.
Hauzer’s an incredibly powerful character to face off against, as he has a variety of charged lunges and fire attacks at his disposal. He’s also resistant to both fire and lightning attacks, and is totally immune to being thrown (due to his massive size). However, he is incredibly weak against ice attacks, and has no way to defend himself.
Want to play as this giant dragon/dinosaur hybrid? Capcom Fighting Jam includes him as a representative for Red Earth, so you can stomp around, breath fire and headbutt opponents to your heart’s content.
Born from a deal with a Zipang merchant named Tanuma (who has no fighting ablities) and Scion’s magic powers, Kongou is an incredibly powerful Oni that wants to kill Kenji and absolutely annihilate any and all challengers who oppose him with his brute strength and deadly spiked club.
What you see is pretty much what you get with Kongou, a slow but devastating demon troll whose attacks center around the huge spiked club that he drags around with him. He’s a powerful foe that can decimate your health bar in mere seconds, but his lack of speed leaves him open to attacks.
A malevolent half-kraken/half-crustacean hybrid, Hydron (known as Nool in the game’s Japanese release) lives for the sole purpose of creating complete and utter chaos wherever he goes.
The only character standing in his way (in a canonical sense at least)? The mystical witch Tessa.
Possibly the strangest character in any Capcom fighting game (which is quite the task!), Hydron’s moves are water and electricity themed, ranging from whirlwinds of water being fired across the bottom of the screen, a close range electric blast (think of Blanka from Street Fighter II’s button mash attack and you’ll be on the right lines), and launching a tadpole projectile towards you, which he can also use as a makeshift barrier for himself.
He’s a playable fighter in Capcom Fighting Jam, so if you were ever interested in fighting as something that’s reminiscent of something that you’d find in a deep sea episode of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, you are in luck!
A dangerously powerful harpy, Lavia (known as Luan in War-Zard) has her power increased by Scion’s magic.
She takes the credit for destroying Mai Ling’s village and killing her friends and family in the process.
Being the only flying character in Red Earth, Lavia likes to make good use of aerial attacks that keep you at a distance for much of the fight. On top of having to try and reach her to land attacks, you’ll have to avoid a number of projectiles that she’ll lob at you too. One particularly nasty move in her arsenal sees her pin you to the floor with her talons, then slowly rip away at your torso. Urgh.
Known as Secmoto in War-Zard, Ravange is a four-headed chimera character (mixing together the heads of a lion, a goat, a dragon and a serpent) that is given this new form by Scion, and whose statue is brought back to life by a sorceress named Clara Tatus.
In a game that has some of the most colourful and unusual character designs in Capcom’s back catalogue, Ravange really is one of the most joyfully bizarre fighters I have ever seen, and a true highlight of Red Earth.
From a visual standpoint, his attacks remind me of what Anakaris from Darkstalkers can pull off, including a number of different summon abilities (one of which sees players get dragged into the ground by a crowd of hieroglyph-like women) and specific attacks coming from each of his heads.
Originally a statue of Chavín/Incan design, Gi Gi is the robotic guardian of the Crypt, and brandishes four swords, while also possessing the ability to summon traps to stop foes dead in their tracks.
In addition the fact that he is (multi)armed with a bunch of heavy sword attacks, Gi Gi’s tricky summonable traps that come up from the floor (that make a reappearance in one of the game’s bonus rounds) make it difficult to get anywhere near him at times.
While not specifically a “character trait” as such, seeing Gi Gi get sliced in two as part of Leo’s slash ability at the end of a match will never not be satisfying to see.
The former leader of Leo’s bodyguard unit in Salavia, Blade (originally known as Jihad in the War-Zard version, and changed across the board for obvious reasons) is a small emerald crystal that summons a suit of armour that brandishes a massively powerful sword known as Adrayer.
Players are led to believe that Blade is the game’s main antagonist throughout the game’s story, but it is eventually revealed that he is just following orders from his master (who we’ll get to shortly).
Most of Blade’s moves are based around his sword that he thrusts forward, swings around and breathes fire with (because why not?), but it’s his other attacks that are the most irritating/interesting to note here. The first of these moves sees Blade’s suit of armour completely break apart and then fly across the screen, damaging whoever stands in its path. It’s a major “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!” moment, but pales in comparison to how annoying his other move is.
The “Thrasos” technique sees his armour open up and fire a mirror towards you, which, if it makes contact, stops you dead in your tracks and traps you inside the mirror for a moment. This move makes it quite difficult to build any momentum against him, and the rate at which he spams this cheap command is pretty infuriating.
The game’s main baddie is Scion. Known as Valdoll in the game’s Japanese version, Scion is an incredibly powerful wizard that believes himself to be the new messiah of the world, with the intent of destroying earth in its current form and rebuilding a new society under his rule from its ruins.
He is backed up by two small dragons, respectively named Misery and Despair.
Scion’s moveset is pretty much made up of a mix of summon attacks, status effect projectiles and techniques that his dragon henchmen (henchdragons?) are commanded to do. The attacks range from huge, ethereal blades that shoot up from the floor, powerful energy blasts from his staff and projectiles that leave you both stunned and poisoned.
If you thought that defeating him here was the end of the game, then you’re sorely mistaken…
In true “THIS ISN’T EVEN MY FINAL FORM!” fashion, whittling down Scion’s health bar sees him transform into a grotesque floating brain/human hybrid that is even more powerful. His moves switch up slightly here, as he now relies much more heavily on summon attacks, such as dragons that fire across the bottom of the screen.
Perhaps the most hilarious attack that Scion can use is where he transforms players into a small, cutesy version of themselves, effectively disabling their offense for a few moments (if you’ve seen Mortal Kombat II‘s “Babalities”, you’ll know exactly what to expect here…).
As it wouldn’t be a fantasy themed game without one, Red Earth centers itself around an ancient map. Similar to Street Fighter II‘s world map but with with more of a “treasure hunt” aesthetic, each stage in the game is highlighted by a green orb.
Upon beating all the stages on the map, an additional section then opens up, revealing the floating island castle of Darminor.
Each of the game’s boss characters has their own stage;
- Crypt – Gi Gi’s stage is a stone tomb that has breakable gargoyles at either side. This is also the stage used for one of the game’s bonus rounds.
- Gora – The bleak, desolate remains of Mai Ling’s hometown where players encounter Lavia. True to the game’s title in terms of colour, there’s not much else to shout about this stage.
- Icelarn – With viking-esque longboats lining the background, this cold stage is home to the fishy strangeness that is Hydron. Fighting atop a sheet of ice with a log cabin close by is an interesting experience.
- Sangypt – Featuring an almost portmanteau name (mixing together sand & Egypt, ha!), Sangypt is home to Ravange, and uses pretty much every cliché to do with ancient Egypt that you can imagine such as hieroglyphs decorating huge columns and a massive statue of a pharaoh overlooking the fights.
- Savalia – This set of watery ruined columns in Leo’s kingdom is the backdrop to your battle against Hauzer. Like Gora and the Crypt, this is one of the simpler stages in Red Earth.
- Zipang – Kenji’s village, but completely engulfed in flames, this fiery stage is where you’ll fight Kongou.
- Darminor (Exterior) – The castle grounds of Darminor look like they’ve come straight from a Studio Ghibli movie, with some interesting clockwork architecture and fantastic building designs. Difficult to take in properly though, as this is where the showdown with Blade takes place.
- Darminor (Interior) – The inside of the castle of Darminor is equally as impressive as its surroundings. The final battle with Scion is littered with experimental machinery, egotistical statues and a looming staircase in the background.
Red Earth features two different bonus stages in its single player mode.
The first of these harkens back to Street Fighter II‘s iconic “smash a car up” bonus round, and requires fighters to punch and kick their way through a statue of what appears to be the game’s final boss, Scion.
Chipping away at the stone in this scenario is a stressful grind, as many attacks just don’t seem to connect (especially when trying to break the top of the head down), but players who manage to break the sculpture down enough can reveal a smaller gold statue and gain a buttload of EXP points.
The other bonus round takes place after defeating Gi Gi in the Crypt. Players must break the six stone heads on the walls at either side of the stage, as they spit projectiles out and the floor constantly tries to stab you with spears. This stage is significantly easier than the first bonus round, but does require quicker reflexes to avoid the barrage of obstacles.
The last bonus in Red Earth can be accessed at the end of the credits sequence, and features an obscure mascot of sorts from Capcom. Beating the game on one credit (or entering a secret password) transforms the credits into a minigame that stars Mobi-chan as he fires shots at the names of the staff involved, much like the end credits of classic mode in Super Smash Bros Ultimate.
Who is Mobi-chan, I hear you ask? He’s the chibi version of the main character in Capcom’s 1986 shmup title Side Arms: Hyper Dyne, and has made small cameo appearances in several of the company’s back catalogue, most famously as the selection icon in the Super Nintendo versions of Street Fighter II.
As this minigame comes to an end, players come face to face with an alternate version of the character they’ve just completed the game with, along with the text “COMING NEXT?”. These never show up again in the game, and seemingly hint at a future project that doesn’t seem to have happened yet (just like in the ending of Rakugakids!).
True to the RPG elements found throughout Red Earth, each character has two endings, each dependent on either reaching certain criteria or choosing a specific response to a question asked during the game’s campaign.
Leo’s “good” ending sees him meeting with the sages of his kingdom, who manage to relieve him of the curse. He vows to return and bring Savalia back to its former glory (complete with fanfare and celebration from its residents).
His “bad” ending sees Leo send the sages away in disgust. We then see him become more and more engulfed by his curse, further transforming him into a lion. The final shot tells us that he is now an outcast that is spoken about in hushed tones.
Kenji’s endings depend on whether or not a player chooses to believe that his master has set this entire story up in order to gain more power. Should the player decide that Kenji’s master deceived everyone for personal gain, his ending shows him assassinating him, then considering his future after bringing dishonour upon himself. The punishment that he alludes to isn’t stated outright in the game, but my limited knowledge of Japanese history tells me that it is not pretty.
His other ending simply shows him continue to serve his master.
Tessa’s endings depend on a choice that players must make when she enters the strange laboratory in Scion’s castle. Upon discovering what appears to be a strange experiment, players can choose whether to seal everything off and destroy the lab, or take the experiment back to her home for further research. The first option is pretty obvious; Tessa destroys the lab, everyone lives happily ever after.
Should players choose to keep the experiment for further research, this is where things get weird. Tessa becomes obsessed by this insectoid’s “beauty”, and seems to fall in love with the creature, caressing the water tank where it lives whilst stark bollock naked. Huh?
Mai Ling’s endings aren’t really “good” and “bad” as such. The canonical ending sees her vow to search for (and protect) all of the missing children from her destroyed hometown of Gora.
Mai Ling’s other ending sees her getting distracted by a small dog, whom she decides to adopt and give him the name “Tin”. It’s a hilariously daft ending that is reminiscent of many Street Fighter character endings.
Red Earth is an interesting smorgasbord of different ideas that does a brilliant job of showcasing the brand new hardware that Capcom would be using in their future titles. Mixing together elements of the RPG, boss rush, beat-’em-up genres with a cast of colourful characters and a standout setting in terms of theme makes for one of the most memorable 2D fighting games that I have played in quite some time.
While things do get slightly grindy when trying to level up each character (especially for Leo’s “Giga Driver”), the game’s strengths lie in its single player experience. In a genre where this area is so often seen as a supplementary section of a game, Red Earth‘s change in focus is initially a bit jarring (especially to anyone expecting a standard fighting game experience), and would definitely be a negative point had it been a normal Capcom fighting game. Luckily, Red Earth is anything but normal.
This dedication to the single player experience does make the versus mode feel a bit barebones, as there’s only four characters to choose from, each with varying skillsets depending on how much of the main game has been played before a fight. It’s so skeletal and basic in fact, that it may as well not even have been included in the game, which, when taking into consideration the brilliant array of characters included in the main story, does leave me a bit disappointed.
It’s such a shame that this relatively obscure title slipped under the radar for so many people, but seeing characters from the game return in a handful of titles in some form (either as playable fighters or simple cameo appearances) shows that Capcom never truly abandoned the game. In addition to Rival Schools: United By Fate, Red Earth is one of Capcom’s IPs that I wholeheartedly want to see a sequel or HD remaster of, as the game’s unique style would undoubtedly be a success with gamers that want to experience something a bit different to the standard 1v1 fighting games from this era that are synonymous with the company.
Failing that, can we at least get a console port of the original? Please?
Have you played Red Earth?
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