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Dead or Alive: A Complete History

by Eric Frederiksen | September 28, 2012September 28, 2012 12:00 pm PST

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Dead or Alive has always been my favorite fighting series. Though, I recognize that there are many that are better for a variety of reasons. You’re free to suggest the role the Dead or Alive girls’ trademark endowments might’ve played in it being my favorite, but it comes down to one true answer: it’s the only fighting game I’m not terrible at.

Dead or Alive 5 hit shelves this week, and it’s been seven years since the last entry in the series and a few days short of a full 15 years since the original first hit Japanese shelves. With the game in gamers hands, it’s time to take a look back at the series—both the convoluted story and the history behind the releases themselves.

By the time Dead or Alive was released on PlayStation in 1998, I’d already been losing to my friends at fighting games for a good five years. Dead or Alive‘s fast gameplay was different from the comparatively slow 3D fighters around at the time (Virtua Fighter being the most obvious), and the emphasis on counters gave the game a different feel from everything else out there.

The title of the series doesn’t refer to the continued existence of its characters, of course. Just like Final Fantasy is never final, the Dead or Alive characters aren’t Dead or Alive (Schrödinger’s Fighting Game?). Instead, like Final Fantasy, the game was named for the precarious position of its creator Tomonobu Itagaki and developer Tecmo.

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Itagaki wagered with the head of Tecmo that he could put together a game that would pull in new fans. He probably wagered his resignation, or maybe all his black clothing and sunglasses.

Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the DOA Tournament and series poster-girl Kasumi, who is a female ninja trying to find her brother and get some revenge. Apparently, “the strict laws of ninja society prevent Kasumi from returning to her village,” making her a fugitive from her own people, who can’t leave her village to hunt her.

DOA2_Kasumi_RenderHaving started its life on the Sega Saturn and PlayStation, Dead or Alive 2 makes the hop to Dreamcast and PlayStation 2, where angry fans on IGN and GameFAQs boards argue incessantly about the pronounced jaggies in DOA2:Hardcore and the superior color fidelity in the Dreamcast version. This first sequel introduced dynamic environments to the series with multi-tiered stages that change as the fighters are thrown against the boundaries of the arena. While games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2 had used expanded arenas previously, Dead or Alive 2‘s 3D environments were some of the first of their kind.

The game’s story takes place less than a year later, where Kasumi is still 17-years-old. Everyone fights the traditional Japanese demon called the Tengu, for some reason. The story summaries say he caused a worldwide disaster, but I don’t remember this from any of the many times I played through the game.

In 2001, Dead or Alive 3 became one of the few Xbox launch titles anyone remembers, bringing greater emphasis on counters to the series, but not a whole lot else. This version released four months before the Japanese and in that time Team Ninja was able to incorporate a number of changes including new moves.

This entry’s story picks up where the last left off with Ryu Hayabusa, of Ninja Gaiden, fame having won the previous tournament. DOATEC, the company behind the tournament, has kidnapped Ayane’s adoptive father, turning him into something called the Omega Project. The younger girls are now aged N/A in Western releases, because having them be over 18 isn’t very sexy, and having them be under 18 is ‘frowned upon by the establishment,’ or something. Kasumi and Ayane are still aged 17 and 16 respectively in Japanese manuals.

Dead or Alive Ultimate also released on the Xbox, with more costumes than you really should have the time to unlock. This re-release of Dead or Alive 1 and 2 incorporated mechanical elements from Dead or Alive 3 and moved the older games onto a newer platform in higher fidelity.

doaxbv-boxThe original Xbox also marked Dead or Alive‘s first adventure outside of pure fighting game territory.

Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball takes place just after Dead or Alive 3. In the story, Dennis Rodman-lookalike Zack (who was actually voiced by Dennis Rodman) has tricked the women of the series into coming to his island for the next DOA tournament. Tricking a bunch of women and N/A-aged girls into coming to an isolated island under false pretenses isn’t super creepy at all. As logic dictates, the women play volleyball and give each other gifts of increasingly scanty bathing suits, which are not meant to be used as suits or for bathing, let alone volleyball.

Further, characters who wanted to kill each other in the main games find the creepily cheery island and ridiculous swimsuits quell their bloodlust, allowing bitter rivals to get along well enough to win some fun-time volleyball matches.

The volleyball aspect of the game was actually not terrible. It exhibited the series’ expectation of quick reaction time with pretty simple controls and made for a fun game. If someone owns this, it’s okay for you to make fun of them, but the game’s good enough that they don’t necessarily need to feel ashamed.

Dead or Alive 4 released in 2005, once again as a launch-window title, but this time for the Xbox 360. The title took advantage of Xbox LIVE and sported relatively lag-free online fighting at the time, something fighting game developers are still struggling with these days.

Those wacky villains at DOATEC are back trying to create a super-weapon again, but this time instead of picking an aging man as a base for their weapon, they go with a Kasumi clone. Taking a page from Virtua Fighter‘s Dural, this clone isn’t Kasumi with a goatee or something (that would be way better), but is instead a faceless, featureless outline of Kasumi’s shape.

If we were pretending the series had any rails, this is the part where it goes off them. Following Dead or Alive 4, Team Ninja releases a follow-up to its beach volleyball dating sim. This time volleyball has been deemphasized and the title is shortened to Dead or Alive Xtreme 2.

dead-or-areyoukiddingme-swimsuitYes, there IS a swimming suit under there.

In this title not only can you play volleyball in impractical outfits, but you can also participate in events normally reserved for Japanese Gravure idols, like a minigame where you bump butts with another girl, or slide down a water-slide.

Dedicated players could make a fortune in the casino and, if particularly determined, spend the money watching those N/A-aged girls pole dance.

The game was much harder to make real advancements in than the original. If someone played it many more hours than their pride and sense will allow them to admit, they would tell you that ten or twenty hours of play netted absolutely no achievements or sense of accomplishment. That person would tell you they probably deserved that. Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 was also one of those great early instances of really terrible DLC. While the packs are no longer available, players who didn’t want to spend time buying the bathing suits in-game could buy swimsuit packs. If someone wanted, they could’ve spent as much as $400 on digital swimsuits. Even players who won’t admit to having played the game knew better than to do that, however.

itagaki-tecmo-harassmentIt was around this time that series creator Tomonobu Itagaki was accused and later acquitted of sexual harassment within Tecmo. With his history, it’s hard to suggest anyone was surprised the allegations eventually came up. This resulted in a demotion for the designer. The Dead or Alive series went more or less silent for the next few years as Itagaki finished Ninja Gaiden II and subsequently left Team Ninja and Tecmo in 2008 over trouble with the company.

Tecmo revived the Xtreme branch of the series in 2009 in the form of an ill-conceived port of DOAX2 called Dead or Alive Paradise. You can take pictures of girls showering (in tiny bathing suits) in this one! This proved that, at least, the series’ issues with women didn’t lie solely at Itagaki’s feet.

Dead or Alive: Dimensions returned the series to its fighting roots in, you guessed it, three dimensions. This 3DS release used a modified version of the Dead or Alive 4 engine and took players through the stories of the first four games, bringing the plot of Dead or Alive as close to being comprehensible as it ever has been, making it a perfect predecessor to the entry dropping this week, Dead or Alive 5.

Even as someone who has liked the series since day one, it’s impossible not to see how silly and at times offensive it can be, but as a series intended to help save its creator and developer, Dead or Alive has clearly been a boon to both Itagaki and Tecmo. Without Itagaki, it will be interesting to see if Dead or Alive‘s bombastic style remains.

Also interesting is that this is the first Dead or Alive main title not releasing as a launch title or within launch-window for a console since the first game, taking pressure off it as a system showcase.

These concerns will be answered soon, as Dead or Alive 5 is now on shelves and will soon be in our hands for review. Look for it!

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Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...

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