It’s the year 1997, and I’m playing a fighting game set in the far-flung year of 2348 with wide eyes, unable to take in everything it is showing me. The outrageous characters, the stages with the power for ring-out victories, the zany powers, the futuristic and unique weapons, the way that one alien could grow to three times his size, filling up the majority of the screen like some Super Metroid boss. As a teenager with a ripening imagination, it was some pretty cool stuff. Star Gladiator had the honor of being one of a handful of strange fighting games I owned on the PlayStation at that time, rubbing elbows with Bloody Roar 2, Robo Pit, and X-Men: Mutant Academy.
I read somewhere once that Star Gladiator was originally supposed to be a Star Wars fighting game, and you can see the roadmap clearly in Hayato Kanzaki, the rebellious young bounty hunter who wields a Plasma Sword in battle. Or perhaps you can better see the lines blurring with Gamof Gohgry, a brown-furred alien that looks a bit like a certain non-English-speaking Wookie. If you squint, you might be able to find a few other striking similarities between the two franchises. Though Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi did eventually get made.
The plot is surprisingly convoluted and as follows, which I will openly admit to looking up. In 2348, humans have established contact with various alien civilizations, and life is good. Everyone has healthcare, the government hasn’t shut down, old age kills people, not guns, and so on. Humankind is able emigrate from one planet to another. Unfortunately, there are still some problems with several alien races, forcing the Earth Federation to create Plasma weapons to help protect the Earth from possible outside threats. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr. Edward Bilstein uncovers the secret to humanity’s “sixth sense,” a technique for capturing the energy of the human mind, harnessing it as an energy source called Plasma Power. Eventually, the Earth Federation learns that Bilstein experimented on innocent people, immediately arresting and exiling him from Earth, imprisoning the physicist on a satellite orbiting Planet Zeta. Four years after this, an Earth Federation army base was attacked by a small group of rebels calling themselves the “Fourth Empire”; surprise, surprise–Bilstein, who had built himself a powerful cyborg body and escaped from his satellite prison, is their leader. Panicking, the Earth Federation puts out a call for anyone able to utilize Plasma Power and put an end to Bilstein. This project is codenamed…y’know it, Star Gladiator.
Anyways, it’s a fighting game. You select a character, start on the left side of the screen, and you fight. Every character has two attack buttons for their weapon, a kick, and guard defense. You can do combos and special attacks. Battles take place on a limited 3D plane, with ring-out as possibility for victory, something that I’ve loved every since first playing Virtua Fighter in an arcade. The character’s weapons make each fight unique, and I remember enjoying Saturn’s yo-yos, Franco’s rapier, and June’s rings the most. Interestingly enough, depending on how fast you fly through the arcade mode to the final fight with Bilstein, Star Gladiator either ends with a false ending or it continues on with a special battle against an unplayable computer-controlled Ghost Bilstein. Losing to Ghost Bilstein results in both a bad ending and a game over, but defeating him will open up the character’s true ending.
Everyone remembers the cheat code for extra lives in Contra on the NES, but I also took the time to memorize another: Big Heads in Star Gladiator. After you select your character, immediately press and hold Right, Start, Circle, and Square until the match starts. Simple as that, and hilarious every time. Couple this mode with the character Gore that could grow in size, and well…my PlayStation was pushed to its limit, surely. You could also unlock Small Heads, which were not as effective in the humor department.
It’s a weird fighting game, but one I miss genuinely for its weirdness. Capcom dabbles in weirdness elsewhere, for sure, and not even in just fighting games, but Star Gladiator never took itself seriously and felt like a Saturday morning cartoon brought to digital life. Evidently, a sequel called Plasma Sword: Nightmare of Bilstein came out, but I never saw it. According to the Internet, it sounded like merely a minor update to the first game, with additional characters being more or less “mirrors” of the original cast. However, if you can, go with Episode 1, something you’ll never see me write about Star Wars.
GAMES I REGRET PARTING WITH is a regular feature here at Grinding Down where I reminisce about videogames I either sold or traded in when I was young and dumb. To read up on other games I parted with, follow the tag.