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‘Eternal Champions’ Is the Game That Quenched a Teenage Thirst for Gore

It was more messily slapstick than outright offensive, but Sega's fighter took a look at Mortal Kombat's fatalities and said: we can do better.

by Mike Diver
20 October 2016, 9:00am

In the lead-up to Waypoint's launch on October 28, the site's staff is giving a preview of some of the titles that they'll be playing during the massive 72 Games in 72 Hours live stream. Which means, yes, hopefully we'll be playing some 'Eternal Champions', or at least trying to.

In the early 1990s, you were one of two things in the playgrounds of Britain's primary and secondary schools: Sega, or Nintendo. Yes, there were several people who banged on about the Amiga, and a few who thought a Game Boy was sufficient to satisfy their growing gaming needs. There were always rumours that the new kid, recently moved to the neighbourhood, had a Neo-Geo – but if you never got to go to someone's house to see for sure what was under their handed-down 14" CRT, balanced on a chest that once stored soft toys and Transformers, chances are they were probably bullshitting.

Me, I was a Sega boy – albeit one with brothers who preferred Nintendo and, later, Sony, meaning that there were always opportunities to play away from Sonic et al. But being Sega first meant feeling the burn when Street Fighter II was ported exclusively to the Super Nintendo in 1992, not arriving on the Mega Drive/Genesis as the "Special Champion Edition" until a year later. That hurt – this was the game that we all wanted at home, whatever the cost (and that was one expensive SNES cart). And while a cracked Amiga version came home with dad one day, U.S. Gold's conversion of Capcom's silken one-on-one fighter was near unplayable, using only a single button for all moves.

I eventually got the game, twice, for the Mega Drive – Super Street Fighter II, "40 Megs, the largest Mega Drive game ever!", was a superb port of the updated, New Challengers-starring arcade hit – but Sega's versions lacked that special, almost regal air that the SNES original had. It's hard to really describe the feeling, today, of what it meant to see this essential game only playable on the 16bit machine of your deadliest rivals. Basically, it sucked. Us Sega faithful, we wanted a fighter that was ours and ours alone. We'd one-upped Nintendo by having blood in our version of Mortal Kombat, while they had to lose the red for "sweat" instead, but Midway's fatalities-featuring fighter was platform ubiquitous, even appearing on the Game Boy, spines being torn from bodies and heads punched clean off left, right and centre.

The intro and attract mode for 'Eternal Champions' on the Mega Drive

Eternal Champions was just for the Mega Drive, though, and how we instantly loved it when news of its imminent release reached us through the pages of Mean Machines. Developed by Sega, the fighter came out in the UK in early 1994 amid, as I remember it, no little hype. "PREPARE FOR THE ULTIMATE FIGHTING GAME" read the back of the box, one of the newer, blue-background Mega Drive cases with the slick new console logo running down the side of the front cover. It was best played using Sega's new six-button pad, confirming to the classic Street Fighter II layout of three punch and three kick commands, arranged in rows from weak to strong, running left to right. But its special moves relied a lot on charging, pushing away from your opponent before hitting forward at the same time as any number of face buttons – one necessitated the pressing of A, Y and C simultaneously, shifting from thumb control to fingers, exactly the kind of ridiculousness that modern QA processes would revise.

The way that the special moves worked, fiddly and too easy to fudge, was one alarm bell as to its inferiority versus the sleek d-pad swipes of Street Fighter II's hadoukens and hurricane kicks. Very little about Eternal Champion's moveset, spread across nine useable characters, was intuitive. It was a struggle to become efficient with a single character – all of whom were stylistically standalone from fighting game clichés, largely unlike stereotypical ninjas and wrestlers – but struggle on we did, I did.

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When I open my Mega Drive version of the game today, the first things to fall out, before a chunky manual that barely fits into its designated space, are several pages of my own handwritten notes: on how to pull of each character's most damaging moves, and more importantly to a teenager in the era of fatalities, how to completely obliterate the opposition. (See them for yourself, below.) "Blade: Get opponent at the very edge of the fan (either side) and hit them. Result: opponent lands in the fan and is completely shredded. Xavier: Place them in front of first door to the right of fire and hit them from right. Result: burned at the stake." I studied, practised, experimented; I sat in the local newsagents after school and copied down instructions until the owner politely chucked me out for not actually buying any of the games mags I was poring over. (Sorry, Sega Pro.)

Yes, that's a Mega Drive II set up for the sake of this feature. No, you can't come over and play 'Micro Machines' with me.

Eternal Champions made its version of fatalities, "Overkills", easier to pull off, in my opinion, than those of Mortal Kombat and its sequels. It also did something that Midway's series, later moved to NetherRealm, would incorporate later in its own lifetime: it used the background, the environment, to its bloody advantage. Very little thumb dexterity was required to dispatch a staggered foe in the goriest manner possible – just line them up with a certain section of the stage, and give them a whack via fist or fireball. The results absolutely trounced what Mortal Kombat offered, and because they were stage, not character determined, meant that a player proficient in just one or two fighters could see them all. Where Mortal Kombat saw a beaten fighter smacked sideways onto some spikes, Eternal Champions had them devoured by carnivourous plants in Atlantis, machine-gunned into chunks outside a 1920s Chicago theatre, and chomped by a dinosaur before an erupting volcano.

And this was cool. It wasn't classy, obviously, but the innovative fatalities on show in Eternal Champions made it quite the go-to game when mates came over. The story was more than the usual revenge mission/lust for fame fare seen elsewhere – each fighter was plucked from the moment of their own deaths, from right across Earth's history, to compete against the Eternal Champion himself and ultimately win a second chance at life. (It all gets fleshed out in an accompanying comic.) But that's not what we came for. We wanted blood, and got it by the bucket load.

"At a time when every fighting game developer was looking to Mortal Kombat's deadly finishers and ripping them off wholesale, Sega pushed that viscera-smeared envelope further than anyone."

At a time when every fighting game developer was looking to Mortal Kombat's deadly finishers and ripping them off wholesale – hello Killer Instinct, Primal Rage, Way of the Warrior, Bloodstorm – Sega pushed that viscera-smeared envelope further than anyone, issuing a Mega/Sega-CD semi-sequel to Eternal Champions in 1995, Challenge from the Dark Side, that multiplied the gore and guts of its predecessor by a dizzying amount. This was an absolute bloodbath of a game, unashamed in its devilish revelling in splashing internal fluids and intestines all over the screen. And, again, the teenage me thought this was hilarious. It was all so exaggerated that it couldn't possibly be offensive – okay, perhaps for an elderly relative who'd never watched Evil Dead II. And, again, I set about noting down all the ways to maximise the melted flesh and severed limbs on show.

The introduction of new characters presented Sega with a fresh opportunity to design some truly disgusting demises. "Sudden Deaths" were added to each stage, complementing the carried-over "Overkills" – these were finishing moves that didn't quite take all the opponent's health in one blow, but left a little remaining for a nasty set of circumstances to take care of. Cue: deaths via impalement by fish, toasting by lightning bolt, melting by acid and by being dumped into a volcano by a pterosaur. And those were just on the existing levels: on newer ones, the devs really went to town, presenting dismemberment by monkeys, bodies exploded by gigantic wooden stakes, and beheading by evil spirits. You can watch the lot here, if your stomach – and funny bone – is up to it.

'Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side', "Cinekill" compilation

"Cinekills" – CGI clips taking advantage of the Mega-CD's increased-capacity format – I don't have notes on. In place of anything detailed I've simply written: "See Mean Machines Jan 96 issue (Thunderhawk 2 special)." These were, however, the big attraction of Challenge from the Dark Side: you couldn't get this sort of content on a cartridge. But cartridges, and 16bit machines in general, were already old hat by Challenge's UK release in 1995 – the age of the PlayStation was upon us, and the limited-palette FMV sequences looked ancient beside the bright colours of both Sony's breakthrough system and the Sega's own Saturn console. Watch the complete collection for yourself just up there. They're generally not as gory as the "Overkills", but still on the sadistic side of gaming cutscenes.

Playing the Mega Drive version of Eternal Champions today, I can see why, the novelty of some splattered brains aside, Super Street Fighter II would ultimately be the fighter I played the most on Sega's 16bit console. The big sprites and bold colours lose a lot of their lustre when seen on a modern HD screen, and the speed of each contender is sluggish in comparison to Ryu et al. There is some fine animation, and the overall presentation – from the menus to the music – is of a high standard, the kind that the best first-party productions tend to exhibit. It's the (only) game that so briefly got me thirsty for blood – and the "Overkills" remain more funny than offensive.

But it's a game best left in the past, in the memories of players of old. The Eternal Champions brand never got a third game proper (leave the spin-offs alone), I grew up, and so did video games: all the way to Mortal Kombat X and its completely subtle spins on its own series' archaic fatalities. It is to Challenge from the Dark Side what Eternal Champions was the first Mortal Kombat, amplified by so many powers of ten, and just a little too much for the me of right now to take. To be honest, I prefer the comfort of Nintendo these days.

@mikediver

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