It was October of 2000, and the PlayStation 2 was the hottest thing on the gaming market. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons for this was the original Tekken Tag Tournament, which was being displayed in video-game stores all across the country, intended to entice those to jump into the current generation, showcasing the Sony console’s then-cutting-edge graphical abilities. Admittedly, Tekken Tag Tournament was the exclusive title that drew me and fellow naysayers away from our beloved Sega Dreamcasts and its magnificent SoulCalibur. Roughly 12 years later, its highly anticipated sequel, Tekken Tag Tournament 2, has arrived, albeit a bit late to the 2012 fighting-game market, and while the vastly updated visual presentation is unquestionably gorgeous, and the decade-spanning roster is stacked, the overall package lacks the innovation and wonder, both immediate and long-lasting, of its storied predecessor. What with the much more definitive Street Fighter X Tekken still the superior 3D-brawler alternative, it’s safe to say that TTT2 just might be strictly for the most diehard fighting-game fanatics or the truly Tekken-obsessed.
The first thing anyone is likely to notice about TTT2 is its remarkably condensed, quantity-over-quality approach. It’s a real fighter’s fighter, an experience that offers an assortment of modes and enough playable characters to last well beyond the release of the next Tekken installment. Per usual, Namco Bandai goes to great lengths to cater to hardcore arcaders and Tekken connoisseurs, essentially tasking them to perfect their skills to the maximum before enjoying any sort of casual leisure-time gameplay. By presenting them with a story mode that’s fundamentally an extremely in-depth training system in disguise, the developers have crafted what’s perhaps the entry with the steepest learning curve in Tekken history. Fail to pass any of the epic tutorial’s (dubbed Fight Lab) increasingly brutal courses and you simply won’t be able to press on. Luckily, Fight Lab’s combat mechanics are as sound as anything Tekken has ever possessed, and the introduction of the comical robotic sparring partner fittingly named Combot lightens the load considerably. Once you look past its moderately dull surface value, Fight Lab becomes fairly entertaining despite its lack of ingenuity. Before you know it you’ll be squaring off against an obese version of Street Fighter’s Ryu, having your cranium transmogrified into that of a swine, and dodging baked-good projectiles left and right. Believe it or not, all of this repeated frivolousness actually manages to hone your talents into something that can hold up well in any online matchup, no matter how minimal your experience was at the outset.
Even with its adamant focus on a strict training regimen and a serious narrative deficiency, TTT2 stays emphatically true to the quirks of the series at its heart. Annoying the hell out of your opponents with the constant selection of distracting bestial characters like the leopard-masked King, the not-so-average bear Kuma, the misleadingly supa-kawaii Panda, Alex (a dinosaur), or Roger (a kangaroo), and delivering your seasoned array of punches and kicks in a juggling fashion, never really gets old, yet, sadly, never feels all that new as, say, the inventive contemporary gem enhancements found in Street Fighter X Tekken. However, some of the staleness in TTT2 is washed away by a very welcome Capcom Versus-style tag-rotation scheme labelled simply Tag Assault. Finally, the ability to switch out your characters on the fly in order to chain together massive combos that keep your opponents airborne is a viable option.
If there’s one undisputed triumph about TTT2, it’s that in the face of its familiarity it rarely leaves the player bored or wanting more to do. Customary modes like practice (almost obsolete here due to the presence of Fight Lab), two-player throwdowns, and survival are all simplistic yet handled with care, those searching for flair and extravagance would be wise to look elsewhere. Possibly the most rewarding mode of all is Pair Play, which allows for four participants, a pair to a team, naturally, to duke it out in a flurry of high-speed action and occasional button-mashing that’s the closest thing Tekken has ever come to being a party game worthy of standing alongside the likes of Super Smash Bros.
What ultimately makes TTT2 a fighter worth checking out, if only for a weekend rental, is how it strikes a strange balance between stagnancy and newness. Parts of the game feel recycled and undistinguished (menus, sections of the Internet functionality, which inexcusably lags too often), while others are brimming with unique ideas (Fight Lab, Pair Play) that would improve any of the best fighting games available. If anything, TTT2 proves that merely redecorating a reputably solid format for the current generation can satisfy the majority of genre practitioners, but isn’t quite enough to rope in very many competitive greenhorns.