I remember seeing a spread about Guilty Gear X in the Official Dreamcast Magazine and being a little smitten. In that burgeoning era of proliferating polygons, here was a reminder that consummate 2D sprite work was alive and well. Here were lovingly rendered, passionately stylized, physically implausible people and places, built frame by frame. Even then I had a sense that this approach couldn’t be around, or at least couldn’t be normal, much longer.

In that way and others, the Guilty Gear games are unapologetically and irrevocably of their moment, dripping as they are with a now-retro vision of coolness. Beyond that, they represent a generally less familiar branch on the fighting game family tree—combining gestures that we might associate with realism in something like Bushido Blade (most notably instant-kill attacks) with gestures that we’d associate with just the opposite in, say, Darksiders (monstrous bodies moving impossibly). These games mean it, even though and especially because what they mean is goddamn ridiculous.

In the absence of a rigorous, comprehensive Digital Eclipse or M2 collection of Guilty Gear games, we can turn to Arc System Works’ recent Switch re-releases of two of two key games in the series for some always-welcome preservation and some newly-accessible pleasures.

Guilty Gear has a moderately incomprehensible set of naming conventions, even as these things go, but the sweep of the series is less daunting than it first appears. Let me set you free of your confusion. In the mainline series, there was the original, and then there was the X run, and then there was the Xrd run, which each seeing revisions and rereleases aplenty, along the lines of Street Fighter II or III.

In this context, Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R is sort of the Street Fighter III: Third Strike of the series, probably the single best release in arguably the single most essential iteration of Guilty Gear. It’s the expanded and perfected and purposefully fiddled-with final form of the one that wowed me on the Dreamcast way back when, and like Third Strike, it remains a showpiece for a now-niche school of video game image-making.

One could argue that Guilty Gear XX doesn’t quite reach the same heights of semi-rotoscoped fluidity as Street Fighter III, but one would be obliged to admit that Street Fighter III’s roster doesn’t included a possessed man with a semi-liquid spectral ghost-face in his back. With no disrespect to my buddies Necro and Oro, the Guilty Gear series is simply more committed to wild, vivid, end-of-days anime grotesqueries.

This tendency sings in XX, but it’s very much present even in the original Guilty Gear—which is the harder of the two to recommend if you’re new to the series, but with which I’ve been having a blast, and for the very same reason: those oft-cited balance issues. This is not a modern fighting game roster in which everyone has carefully tuned advantaged and disadvantages. This is an unwieldy confluence of smoke-devils and fuck-off buster blades.

In single-player, that fact can be frustrating: Is this a boss, or just a character vastly more lethal than mine? But in multiplayer, it can make for a thrilling sort of tonally appropriate chaos, amid the game’s operatic story and early 2000s metal hooks.

This is, after all, one of those series wherein a single well-placed insta-kill attack can end a match abruptly and dramatically. A fighting tournament should be fair, I guess, but maybe not when it’s among monstrosities duking it out between apocalypses. I’m with Zach Gage on this one. Fairness is in some ways vastly overrated.

Don’t get me wrong. If you’re only going to pick up one of these games, then XX Accent Core Plus R is the one to pick up. It’s polished to the point of gleaming, and it beautifully represents this middle arc of the Guilty Gear series, this ultimate version of the luxurious sprites that caught my eye way back when, and the unhinged fisticuffs that go along with them. (Guilty Gear Xrd -REVELATOR- and Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2 are fantastic in their own right, but the graphics are rendered in 3D, as with Street Fighter IV and V. Lovely, it is. The same, it ain’t).

Plus, XX is the one with online multiplayer, and the metal-as-fuck soundtrack stylings of Shin Hae Chul. Substantial advantages, those. Substantial indeed.

But that said, both releases are worthy, and I’m glad to have them ready at hand whenever I crave their opulent opera-metal aesthetics and their earnest artisanal strangeness.

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