Review & Emulation Analysis: Breakers

Until very recently, I'd never heard of Breakers. A game that was solely the preserve of Neo-Geo aficionados - and even then those who tended to walk on the more obscure side of the tracks - Breakers is a game that very few outside of the more niche corners of the gaming fraternity will have much affinity with. Released by Visco Games in 1996, the game remained in its native Japan and was never given a western airing, even when the home conversions for the Neo-Geo AES and Neo-Geo CD came around. Breakers is one of those games that unless you know about it, will pass you by.
That's about to change though, as French publishers JoshProd and Rush On Game launch a joint assault on the Dreamcast library with a collection of 5 new or re-issued titles; and the crowning glory amongst this lineup (along with Rush Rush Rally Reloaded) is considered to be Visco's obscure 2D fighter. With little prior knowledge of Breakers on a personal level (a boat I'm sure I crew with plenty of other people), I decided to approach this upcoming release with a three-pronged attack. First, I wanted to give my own opinions on it as somebody who is not au fait with the original games in the Breakers series; to review the sum of the game's parts from the point of view of a newbie to the series with no prior experiences to compare it to. Second, I wanted to get an unbiased opinion on how well the emulation holds up; and third I wanted to get a comparison between this Dreamcast iteration and the original 1996 version of Breakers running on genuine SNK hardware of the era. With this in mind, it's time to settle down with a mug of tea/coffee/vodka for a bloody long article...
Before I continue with this review though, allow me to address the elephant in the room. I'm not an expert when it comes to fighting games, and even less so when it comes to rare and obscure NTSC-J exclusive 2D fighting games for the Neo-Geo. Sure, I own the majority of the King of Fighters series and many, many other Capcom and SNK 2D fighters for the Dreamcast and beyond...but I'm not an expert in the genre. That said, I do enjoy the odd round of digital fisticuffs and I know what makes for a fun and enjoyable gaming experience.
I can clearly appreciate the comical gulf in quality between things like Double Dragon V, Rise of the Robots and Shaq Fu; and games like Marvel Vs Capcom, X-Men: Children of the Atom and Vampire Hunter D. I've sampled the delights of BlazBlue, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, innumerable Street Fighter titles and even stuff like Groove on Fight, Garou and Samurai Shodown. Even though I'm no expert, I feel I'm pretty well versed in the genre and I know what differentiates the wheat from the chaff. So with that in mind, let's jump in and give this Breakers thing a good seeing to...

So what is Breakers then? And how did it end up getting a release on the Dreamcast? Well, the first thing to mention is that this is an emulated version of Breakers. However, it's an emulated version that's been created by the best in the business and given official blessing by Visco Games itself. The game actually runs inside a bespoke and tweaked build of the AES4ALL program, and this special build was created by none other than a coder who goes by the name of Chui. For those of you who recognize that name, I need say no more; but for those who don't, Chui is basically the guy who co-created the popular NEO4ALL and AES4ALL emulators in the first place. Along with Fox68k, he also created the Mega Drive/Genesis emulator GEN4ALL, so you know this project is in safe hands. He's also an intrinsic part of the Retro Sumus team bringing Xenocider to Sega's little box of tricks in the near future, but that's another story.
You may be looking at this review and thinking "so what - there are Neo-Geo emulator images I can download and burn for free!" and you'd be right. There are even some fairly decent looking fan-made one-off versions available which occasionally pop up on eBay (Andro Dunos and Neo Drift-Out are two of these, and the copies pictured above are owned by friend of the Junkyard Stephen 'DreamcastHub' Robinson). I spoke to Chui to ask what makes this specially created Breakers release a more enticing prospect than simply burning an emulator disc from any one of the multiple ROM sites online. Here's what he told me:

"In Breakers, the emulator doesn't use the Neo-Geo BIOS for copyright reasons, and also it has the game files encrypted, uses more RAM than original emulator, and has some fixes in playing CDDA tracks, so it should be better in all. The main difference with bootlegs, obviously, is that they are not licensed products, and with Breakers the emulator dev himself tweaked the code of the release specifically to make sure it works flawlessly. Illegal bootlegs may or may not, while also most probably using the Neo-Geo BIOS without permission, a ROM without permission, and selling an emulator without adjusting it, so to speak."
-Chui
Naturally, if you aren't fussed about officially licensed products this won't mean jack to you, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Anyway, let's move on to the game itself.
That's the history part out of the way, then. You want to know how Breakers plays. This is going to sound really odd, but Breakers plays like a Super Nintendo fighting game. That's just how it feels and looks to me - a Super Nintendo fighting game but with massive sprites, lots of colour, a smooth frame rate and some outrageous special moves. It's a full-on assault on the senses that doesn't let up. Fast, garish, unashamedly old school...and totally awesome. Fighting games live or die by how well they play - forget the roster size or the graphics - if a fighter plays poorly or just isn't fun or intuitive...well, it's an epic fail. Breakers is not a fail. It's an all-out triumph of retro aesthetic that draws inspiration from the very best of its peers and blatantly combines them to produce a 2D fighter that is easy to pick up, horrifically difficult to master but ultimately - and most importantly - is a total riot to play.

If you're even slightly competent with other 2D fighters you'll feel immediately at home with Breakers. All of the old staple commands are there; just try the old fail safe combos from any other mainstream fighter and you'll be chucking fireballs about and unleashing acrobatic kicks in no time. Even the old 'double d-pad' manoeuvre will activate super specials. But don't let this adherence to tried and tested control methods lull you into a false sense of security - Breakers is hard. Very, very hard. Using the easier difficulty settings you shouldn't have too much trouble beating the first couple of contenders in the arcade mode, but the difficulty soon ramps up and you'll find yourself on the end of more than one outrageous ass-whooping within the first 10 minutes. The thing is, and I know this is a cliché used by a billion writers over the years, it just feels so fair. If you get beat, it's usually down to your own block timings or your inability to unleash that super that you were trying to execute with your sausage fingers.
Breakers doesn't have a massive roster - indeed, there are only 8 characters to begin with (plus an unlockable boss character) - and they're all staples of the genre. There's Sho, who is a mash-up of Ryu, Terry Bogarde and Guy from Final Fight; and there's Tia who is a clear Chun-Li clone. Then there's Alsion III who shares many characteristics with Dhalsim - stretchy limbs and all; and there's Pielle who has a lot in common with Vega from Street Fighter (but with a foil and the most annoying voice in all of Christendom), and Sheik who shares many visual and game play similarities with Chang Koehan from King of Fighters. It's a varied and mixed bunch, and you'll instantly recognise inspirations and similarities with characters from a range of other fighting games once you start experimenting. The thing is though, even with these obvious influences, the characters - for me at least - still feel fresh and original enough to stand on their own two feet. Not once did I think "oh, this guy is a rip-off of Terry Bogarde..." simply because they all seem so unique in their abilities and range of attacks and specials. The fights really flow too, as the transition between guard and attack is instantaneous - one second you're cowering under an avalanche of fists; the next you nip in and turn defence into attack. It's hard to describe with words alone...but when you play it, you'll understand.

So Breakers plays well. Anyone who's played the original versions on actual Neo Geo hardware doesn't need a n00b like me to tell them that. But what else is here in this newly arrived package for the Dreamcast? Well, there are a couple of single player modes - arcade and survival, and a two player versus mode. There are 8 difficulty settings (one of which is called MVS, fittingly), and there are several other parameters that can be amended (timer etc). Other than those, there aren't really any other play modes, but this is a bare bones fighter from 1996 and masses of superfluous content just wasn't de rigueur back then.
Breakers for Dreamcast supports the VMU and the arcade stick, is compatible with RGB Scart and VGA connections and is region free. It doesn't support the rumble pack though, but that can be easily forgiven in light of the high standards in other departments. For me, it looks really good for a game of the mid 1990s and represents something of a leap over the contemporary 16-bit fighters of the time. Huge sprites, great animated backgrounds (which feature characters who actually react to the fights going on in front of them), consistent frame rate and great music and effects make Breakers a real treat for the senses. Here's some footage recorded by my DCJY colleague Ross O'Reilly on his lovely Framemeister thingy, which I edited together for your delectation:


Looks decent, no? I can't take any credit for all those special moves or the high quality of the video - direct your praise at Ross. Enough about that git though - you'll hear from him personally in a few paragraphs' time. Let's get back to Breakers, and some of the slightly awry stuff I noticed. Firstly, I did note that there doesn't appear to be a pause function - pressing start simply activates a taunt from you character and when I did find a pause function of sorts...all it did was freeze the image on the screen while the game appeared to continue playing in background. Also, it's impossible to perform the usual 'soft reset' using all four face buttons and the start button simultaneously. Not the end of the world, but something I noted.

Furthermore (and this is less of a technical thing and more of an issue with Breakers itself), the game is a little light on content compared to more modern games...but when you approach retro titles I guess you have to appreciate that they really are products of their generation. If you can overlook these minor niggles then Breakers offers a highly entertaining and enjoyable 2D fighting experience. In my humble opinion, Breakers represents a new gem in the already stellar crown jewels of Dreamcast fighters, and if you're a fan of the genre you'd be doing yourself a disservice not giving this a go. But then, what do I know? Not a lot, as it turns out...shit is about to get real.
Emulation Station
In an effort to truly give you a feel for how accurate the emulation in Breakers is, our resident Neo-Geo fanboy Rob Jones had a bit of a play around with this new Dreamcast version and compared it to his Neo-Geo AES cartridge version. Rob, over to you...

As some of you may know, from reading my content on The Dreamcast Junkyard or listening to the DreamPod, I’m rather fond of the versus fighter genre. I mean, if you are into Neo-Geo and not a fan of old fashioned, built-for-arcade versus fighters then what the hell are you doing? The genre accounts for a vast portion of its library, after all. The King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, The Last Blade, Rage of the Dragons, Fighter’s History Dynamite, Waku Waku 7, Art of Fighting, Samurai Showdown and many more franchises grace its library and, more or less, I’ve played them all. Interestingly, however, one of the few series to slip through my net so to speak is Breakers
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve known about Breakers and its better sequel Breakers Revenge for years, with the series quite infamous for attracting big money spent whenever put to auction. I actually own both titles on Neo-Geo thanks to a superb 161-in-1 MVS aftermarket cart too, which packs many of the system’s most famous titles into its beefed up memory chips. However, for one reason or another - although primarily because after seeing it running years back I was rather dismissive and filed it away as a Street Fighter II clone - I never actually spent any serious time with it. When Tom gave me a ring-a-ding-ding therefore, asking for some thoughts on how the new Dreamcast edition stacked up in comparison, I leapt at the chance to expand my gaming knowledge base.

Unfortunately, there is both good and bad to report. 

Firstly the good. Breakers arrives on Dreamcast with a full feature set. Game modes, options and roster are all intact, even though as anyone who has played the game will testify to, the roster is small to begin with anyway. The pretty cool intro video is also included, however, unlike the Neo-Geo version it doesn’t play up front, with the user instead pretty much taken straight to the menu screen. To play the intro video you need to select 'Demonstration' from the menu screen.

Visually the Dreamcast port of Breakers is also pretty good. The vibrancy of the visuals are naturally diminished due to lack of true RGB, however the crispness is alright and, from everything I’ve seen, there are no graphical anomalies. Audio too seems fine (even though I was not a fan at all of either version’s audio effects), with no noticeable effect or music exclusions. Load times are, as you would expect for a CD-based title compared to cart, not as good either, however they are not in the realm of clock watching. Now the bad. 

The frame rate of Breakers on Dreamcast is really poor and, when you put it up against the Neo-Geo version, which runs super fast and liquid butter smooth, the lack of frames and, when some specials and supers are triggered, chunks of lag become incredibly noticeable. It’s like you’ve turned the game down to 60 per cent speed. Now look, don’t get me wrong, Breakers is perfectly playable on Dreamcast, it's just nowhere near the Neo-Geo version in terms of frame rate, and therefore animation slickness and fluidity. It just runs much slower and, if I was to have a guess, this is almost certainly because the Dreamcast version isn’t a true port but just a ROM running off an emulator. 
Lastly, here are a few thoughts on the game itself. Breakers is not a top tier versus fighter. It is a playable Street Fighter II clone in the Fighter’s History Dynamite mold that apes the character designs, stages and move lists of the famous 2D fighter but doesn’t deliver the same quality across the board. It’s like watching a Van Damme movie after you’ve just watched Stallone/Schwarzenegger flick - everything just isn’t as well realised or executed. The core fighting mechanics are solid and definitely pick up and play enjoyable, however most of the character designs aren’t memorable or just flat out poor (we’re definitely looking at you Alsion III!), and most stages are uninspiring, with an unfinished, barren quality to a lot of them. 

As I mentioned earlier, I really didn’t get on with this game’s audio effects either, which seemed fuzzy and low grade. The end boss too is both classically cheap and overpowered, being a low-rent Chinese-themed M. Bison rip off. Overall therefore, despite the game technically playing fine and packing the same gameplay (albeit much slower) and features than the Neo-Geo version, I can’t help feel that Breakers on Dreamcast falls into the increasingly large category of new but not great software releases. I really like the fact that people are continuing to breathe life into the Dreamcast by creating new content for it (all creators, no matter how small their contribution, should receive some praise), however the fact that collectors are being asked to cough up £40 for a product that barely scrapes over ROM bootleg seems very, very excessive. I'm 100 per cent collectors will have, no doubt, already pulled the trigger though...

New Challenger - Third Opinion
You've read my thoughts and impressions on Breakers, and Rob's analysis of the quality and accuracy of the emulation on display. Now Ross is here to give his opinion on this new Breakers release...

Breakers is a fairly good little game; a polished yet generic, mid-tier 90s beat-em-up. Think Super Street Fighter II without the memorable characters, timeless music or near perfect balancing. In fact, the game takes so much from the aforementioned Super Street Fighter II that I'm surprised Capcom's lawyers didn't have a field day back in 1996. On the positive side, fans of Street Fighter II will feel right at home here and have no trouble finding enjoyment in this latest Dreamcast indie release.
Take the characters for example, Sho is a Ryu rip off, Lee Dao is the Guile's Chinese doppelganger, Tia is the bastard love child of Chun Li and Ken, Pielle is Vega, Condor is T-Hawk with a dash of Zangeif, Shiek is Fei Long with a sword and a couple moves stolen from E.Honda, Rila is female Blanka post-op, and finally Alsion is Dhalsim complete with extendable Stretch Armstrong style limbs. Even back in 1996, little attention was paid to this rather shameless rip off for obvious reasons; mostly, it failed improve on what had come before it nor deliver anything new. 

Admittedly, what it did, it did well enough but the gameplay pales in comparison to top examples of the genre that came before it such as the Street Fighter and King of Fighters series. Remember, by the time it found its way into arcades, fighting fans had mostly moved onto 3D affairs such as Tekken 2, Soul Edge and Virtua Fighter 3. The 2D fighting niche was being filled by future classics such as Street Fighter Alpha 2, Samurai Showdown IV and X-Men vs Street Fighter. The game was already dated upon release and since then there have been a wealth of topnotch 2D fighters on both the Dreamcast and other platforms that offer far more, for a fraction of the price. One really has to wonder what purpose DC Breakers serves beyond temporarily filling the empty void for obsessive Dreamcast collectors.
Having said that, it's by no means a bad game. It's competent enough that fans of Street Fighter II and its clones will have a blast. I just can't really pinpoint anything it does particularly well. Fortunately though, the opposite is also true, so those that decide on a purchase will surely enjoy what's on offer while it lasts. Just don't expect anything you haven't played a thousand times before. Put it this way, if I were to assign a generic review score to the game, it would easily make it into 6 or 7 out of 10 territory. Not bad, but nothing to shit the bed over.

At least it's a good port though, right? Well...not particularly. It would be a stretch of the imagination to call this a port by any criteria. What you're getting here isn't really a port at all. It's a ROM of the Neo-Geo CD version slapped onto a disk running on an unofficial fan made Neo-Geo CD emulator for Dreamcast. Yes, if you're reading this, you're probably more than capable of burning this onto a disk yourself, leaving it feeling like little more than a repro. While certainly more than playable, due to the emulator running on Dreamcast, the frame rate can't keep up to the blistering 60fps of the original version. In fact, a far more accurate experience would be had playing the game on MAME or any number of other emulators on PC or more modern consoles. Even the original MVS cart regularly sells on eBay for only marginally higher...leaving me wondering, what on earth is the point?
One may also also find themselves pondering why they opted to release vanilla Breakers rather than the balanced and improved Breakers Revenge from 1998. The only conclusion, surely, is that they're planning to hit us with one later in the not too distant future, giving them an excuse to sell two games to the Dreamcast fanbase. Or perhaps it's because a Neo-Geo CD home version of the game already exists, making the Dreamcast 'port' possible with minimal effort.

In my eyes, the one and only feature that differentiates Breakers from the countless other Neo-Geo CD repros being sold on eBay and Aliexpress is Visco's official blessing. If you're an avid Dreamcast collector you've already made your mind up, but for everyone else this is a tough one to recommend - especially at its current price. Breakers would be a difficult sell as a ten quid digital download, but the idea of charging over £40 for this is quite frankly ludicrous. Having said that, if money isn't an issue to you and you're prepared to look past the delivery method, Breakers is a solid title that few will struggle to enjoy.
Summary
In short, it looks as though your appreciation for Breakers on the Dreamcast will live and die by your tastes for the fighting genre, and your affinity with previous incarnations of the game (or indeed, the sequel, Breakers Revenge). If you're totally new to the series and have no/little prior experience with SNK hardware, there's no reason at all that you'd get anything but thorough enjoyment out of Breakers. It's a fun and challenging fighter, which while hardly original does everything you'd expect it to do.

However, if you're a more dyed in the wool fighting aficionado who knows their 2D fighters down to the last frame of animation and sleep on a bed of AES shells...then you may find yourself less than impressed by the Dreamcast's latest rendition of a Neo-Geo. The choice really rests with you as a gamer. The TL:DR version is this: if you like 2D fighters and have never played the original Breakers, this is well worth investigating. If you already own Breakers on either the AES or MVS, you may be left somewhat disappointed.

Find out more and details on how to pre-order Breakers here, or visit JoshProd on Facebook here.

9 comments:

DCGX said...

Excellent write-up guys. Thank you for your opinions. I haven't pulled the trigger on 'Breakers' yet (I'm waiting on Japanese style case). This is slightly disappointing to me. Not because the game is only okay, but the technical downgrade especially in the frame rate.

My guess is 'Breakers' is purely a test to see how the Dreamcast community responds to an old Neo Geo game getting released for this system. I'm sure if 'Breakers' sells well, other Neo Geo games will follow.

I'l probably still purchase 'Breakers' at some point, but at least now I know how to approach the game as a whole.

CD ageS said...

A solid and above all honest review. Excellent and much appreciated!
I really wanted to get my hands on a copy so I could showcase the game to the public in a tournament setting for this years potential 2nd DC anniversary event here in the US.
Unfortunately, I not sure if I can justify the hefty pricetag for the game, not to mention the shipping fees to get it out here in the US. I'm also a major bummer to here this version can't keep a consistent framerate. It's too bad.

Florian Wallin said...

I also appreciate the honest review. I am one of them who will buy the game even tho it might have some fps issues (to be honest, i did not see much of them and when they apperead it seems it would not have much/any impact on gameplay)

I will buy the game for 3 reasons:

1. I love theese old neo geo fighters , Breakers is not new for me and it will be a nice addition in my Dreamcast library

2. If i understand this right , all is approved by Visco Games witch is really nice.

3. I want this to be a success , if this turns out to sell good , who knows what other nice neogeo games that might come ? (or other single arcade mame game, Turtles the arcade game someone ;D )

Last of all i want to thank Chui for all the great things he is doing for the Dreamcast community , please continue with what your are doing , kudos !

As always , sorry for my maybe bad english :)

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for the comments people. I just want to clarify that if you have never played the Neo-Geo original versions of Breakers, the chances are you won't even notice the issues Rob and Ross have mentioned. As I stated, I wasn't aware of the frame rate or anything like that because I'm ignorant to how the originals play. If you watch the video in the review, that's the Dreamcast version in action so you can judge from that if the speed is up to scratch for you.

Unknown said...

Wow, I ordered the game as soon as it got announced here, but after reading about the lost frames and the 60% speed I got cold feet. I mean, even in a 7 year old dingoo handheld it ran much much better than that. I assumed that since this got licensed, and the author of the emulator tweaked it for more accurate performance these issues would not be present. I am not going to cancel, and I am fingers crossed that the reviewer is the typical NG super-picky purist fanboy, because 60%, if true, is simply ridiculous. The other Chui-related DC game I own, Ghost Blade, had serious slowdown even though the beautiful animated backgrounds were removed in the final version. I assumed this was related to the fact that he took over the project after the original programmer had to quit due to the Ukraine war. But 60% speed in an emulated game is NOT acceptable.

Unknown said...

And to add to my previous comment, if this does OK, I hope more games follow. The VISCO rally game would be great.

Incidentally, if this producer was allowed to re-release some neogeo cd games just like he has done with AES games, I am sure it will be a great success. Breakers CD, for example, runs at 300 USD. I don't see why the demand of it would not be super big.

Axel 85 said...

Here in Italy for 130€ with pal covers and shipping they're pretty cheap and a nice add to my collection ( I will leave them sealed and download them to play). It's​ the first time I can buy new releases without paying the same price for shipping. I really wish that neo drift out and other classics find an "official" release approved by visco ,or an official port. For 25/30€ with pal covers and shipped I will buy them for sure.

Tom Charnock said...

I think if anything, we were just trying to be honest about the performance. Personally I can't comment on whether the claims that the Dreamcast version runs 60% slower are accurate but all three of us - if we are fanboys of any system - would be Dreamcast fanboys. I used the term in a joking manner, but I do concede that when it comes to the Neo-Geo I am the least well-versed out of the three of us. With that in mind, I thought it was important that we gave an accurate report so as not to encourage people to buy and then be disappointed if they too are expecting a perfect port.

TomTom said...

Excellent review ! Incredible work :)

I have one question on this point :
"The vibrancy of the visuals are naturally diminished due to lack of true RGB"

How come the DC lack true RGB? Can you give me more info on this? I was sure the DC had nothing to be ashamed regarding this part...