The games developed by Japanese indie developer French Bread follow a long and rich tradition of 2D fighting games, but the studio’s doujin origins allow it to express a unique aesthetic that now finds itself emerging within American fighting competitions. Last year there was even an American competition solely dedicated to their games, which may have helped boost western awareness to the point of being featured at the high ranks of Evo 2019. It seems that these French Bread projects have aged enough to finally receive direct and honest embrace from western competitive players, but what about them is causing this rise in popularity?
It isn’t always the case, but dedicated doujin efforts can oftentimes develop media with derived, yet hyper-concentrated aesthetic sensibilities. We can look at Gainax and their amateur exhibition of Daicon IV, or how CLAMP found success with a diverse style grown from a small doujinshi group. These projects are chances for developers to elaborate upon themes in their favorite media as expressed through a fan’s intimate understanding. When these derivative works are executed well, they can potentially complement the existing lore by articulating aspects that have been perhaps overlooked.
French Bread’s history in the doujin scene can speak to their experience in this practice of adopting and interpreting influential media. With their first successful release, Melty Blood, it’s quite evident that they took anime fighting games and the source material quite seriously during development. Melty Blood’s characters are derived from Type-Moon’s visual novel series called Tsukihime, which provided the developers with elaborate lore to draw upon.
Even with ample material, their project had an exceptional undertaking: to translate the integrity of the “Tsukihime” characters into a precise and well-informed anime fighting game composition. That is, they had to inventively create combat styles based on character narratives. The success of Melty Blood can attest to how well they handled that task. Upon comparison to its source material, Melty Blood already harbors a much darker tone, perhaps signaling the beginnings of French Bread’s design preferences. Melty Blood sports character animations that are beautifully fluid and input that is swift. This type of robust gameplay would eventually carry on to its successor, Under Night In-Birth.
It’s undeniable that French Bread is quite particular with the handling of aesthetics and game mechanics, especially for such a small team. In developing Under Night, French Bread took great care in designing a fighting game that builds upon — yet distinguishes itself from — the gameplay of Melty Blood. Under Night affords exquisite higher resolution sprites and unique mechanics such as the GRD gauge, a ‘tug-of-war’ feature that responds to both offensive and defensive maneuvers. The developers are so particular about their design that they have even publicly disavowed popular mods for Under Night by western fans.
With the coming of Under Night In-Birth, French Bread had its chance to express their own aesthetic and refine all they’ve learned from their doujin history.
Upon playing Under Night, the visuals are noticeably sophisticated. It drives home the ‘night’ theme of its namesake and elegantly darkens its delivery of stage settings. Just about every title card is supplemented with quick pseudo-poetic prose, supplying fanciful quips that come across as campy yet compelling. Instead of defaulting to common fighting game tropes like “fight” and “K.O.”, Under Night displays “Divide” to start the fight (even more ambiguous than Guilty Gear’s “Heaven or Hell”) and “Break down: Vanishment of VOID” to end it. These are just a few examples of the game’s lore and personality in action. I can’t remember a time when fighting games used such distinct literary aesthetics!
The American fighting competition Climax of Night certainly realized the appeal of this aesthetic and ran a successful promotion campaign by demonstrating the French Bread style. Just as the Atlanta competition borrowed aesthetics from French Bread, it wasn’t long until they also began borrowing the minimalist aesthetic of their Atlantan compatriots at Adult Swim.
Aesthetics aside, competitions like Climax of Night have done wonders for popularizing French Bread games in America. They have shown that a much larger community exists for this type of game specifically, and that this type of tournament can claim its own air of identity while remaining accessible. If fighting games are a “communication tool” as French Bread game director Kamone Serizawa explains, then it would seem that these games have translated a rare piece of otaku culture from the east to the west.
The French Bread games may have been in rotation in previous fighting competitions (like Combo Breaker and CEOtaku), but they have never been featured like at Climax of Night. The success of this tournament raised awareness of these obscure titles, arguably enough to weigh on Evo’s decision to include Under Night In-Birth Late Exe[st] in their 2019 competition.
At the end of the day, it’s really just nice to see such an obscure anime fighting game reach the level of recognition it has at this point. Due to its initial success, a sequel competition is planned for Climax of Night in the fall of 2019.