Aquapazza: Aqauplus Dream Match has a deceptively simple audacity. A crossover fighting game built around a handful of obscure-to-Western-audiences video game erotica franchises (also known as “eroge”) from Japanese publisher Aquaplus, with all the bells and whistles and flash and excess of the genre at its most baroque, including 20-hit combos and a 13-fighter roster (with a further 13 partners, providing backup). And through it’s commitment to these fundamentals, Aquapazza has a better cast of women than any other game released this year.
Developer Examu could’ve easily bungled its gambit with the same T&A indulgence of a Soul Calibur or a Dead or Alive–the designs of plenty of the characters run up to the edge of that line. Instead, the tone they adopt is one of Capcom’s 2D brawlers (i.e. Street Fighter II or Capcom vs. SNK), with cramped stages, an often punishing demand for precision and speed, and a barely-there plot intended to get oddball matchups like Tears to Tiara‘s scantily-clad bow-hunter Morgan vs. Kizuato‘s demonic Chizuru, or ToHeart2‘s wrestling schoolgirl Tamaki vs. Utawarerumono‘s sake-drinking swordswoman Karulau. Far from cosmetic differences, they inform fighting methods–Morgan must use her limited arrows carefully, while Tamaki is a shockingly efficient ground-based bruiser (frustratingly, if you’re on the wrong end of her special attacks). The biggest success in Examu’s lineup is another ToHeart2 figure: bookish Manaka. Frail, unassuming, and klutzy, many of her attacks are actually accidents, weighty tomes flying from her hands as she trips which end up knocking out enemies or tipping over a row of bookshelves onto them by mistake, she even gives an apologetic bow for knocking someone out. The balance in Aquapazza is just enough to make it so her rise through the ranks of more skilled opponents seem both believable and based on little more than sheer luck, the in-over-her-head nature of her arc making Manaka the closest the game has to a protagonist.
Examu smartly exploits the anime style to fully express their characters, whether it’s partners like Ma-ryan throwing temper tantrums over a defeat or Karalau “slipping” her hand from a sake bottle as a cheap attack, but still adhere to the Aquaplus form. The sparse cutscenes (not dissimilar to the visual novel approach most eroge takes) have plenty of innuendo (especially in each character’s ending) and images meant to be leered at. Character selection will have conspicuously bouncing bosoms. And, even with proper characterization, it’s hard to get past the way characters like Morgan are barely-dressed, a complete appeal to the eyes of teenage boys.
That there’s still a boys’ club mentality to Aquapazza‘s proceedings is no surprise. We are talking about eroge here, the precedent for the one-dimensional relationship minigames of Bioware’s Mass Effect series. And yet, Examu’s wildly diverse group of women–of serious students and happy-go-lucky warriors and stoic badasses and, yes, sexpots who are quick to jump in the sack–is a much better treatment of femininity than the persistent misery and victimization of the Tomb Raider reboot and Beyond: Two Souls (both hypocritically masquerading as “girl power”). Lara Croft and Jodie Holmes are defined entirely by men (the former through rape threats, the latter by being raised by Willem Dafoe), making them hollow shells. Men in Aquapazza are few, and the women hardly fawn over them–indeed, the only one who does ends up being the villain, using the tried-and-true bad plot device of a love potion to instigate the whole dang mess. This becomes pointed when characters make it to the final boss, a brief dialog underlining their worldviews as opposed to her’s. The Aquapazza women get personal, political, philosophical, appeal to reason or feeling, or just plain bluster their way to a fight. They have range.
It hardly gets out of the shadow of the male gaze, but Aquapazza dares to show something more than what its audience wants.