For Naughty Dog, it wasn’t always leaping marsupials, discount Indiana Jones wisecracking heroes and post-apocalyptic, surrogate parenting. Nah, long before Jak would nab his first Precursor Orb, or our man Nathan Drake would murder a small country in his pursuit of misplaced shinies, Naughty Dog would bring us Way of the Warrior for Panasonic’s ill-fated 3DO home console.
A one-on-one brawler with digitized combatants complimented in turn by some crazy bad CG backgrounds that look like they were forcefully pulled from the rectum of 1989, Way of the Warrior seemed to be a bandwagon jumping attempt to capitalize on the ultraviolent shenanigans Midway had unleashed on the world years earlier with Mortal Kombat.
Quite unlike The House That Johnny Cage Built however, Way of the Warrior was utterly hamstrung by charisma-less characters, objectively horrendous visuals and some of the very worst fighting gameplay this side of Kasumi Ninja on the Atari Jaguar (honestly, look it up). Ultimately, it was so impressive in just how crushingly terrible it all was that you just couldn’t look away.
As one of nine different warriors, with additional secret characters available for selection if you should so choose to prolong the misery, Way of the Warrior’s plot was the sort of trite, face-clawing nonsense you might well expect from an early 90s, straight-to-video venture starring Lorenzo Lamas. Once you’ve beaten all the other warriors, yourself in a mirror match, a massive dragon called High Abbot, and then a skeleton that goes by the name of ‘Kull’ (yeah, I have no idea either), you are then sealed into the Book of Warriors and that’s basically it. Job done, story over.
Look, Mortal Kombat is hardly Shakespeare in comparison, but at least each character had a somewhat fleshed out backstory, and then there was also the whole broader story of the meta-struggle between the Earthrealm and Outworld cracking on in the background. Though characterization obviously shouldn’t be a massive concern when it comes to brawlers of this ilk, Way of the Warrior seemingly went out of its way to be more on the nose than the rest of its genre stablemates.
From Major Gaines, an aptly named hulking green beret type who clearly consumes a 1:1 ratio of steak and steroids and whose special ability is, in fact, to take a handful of roids to increase his size and damage, to stick-swinging Aussie brawler Shaky Jake who looks about as threatening as pre-puberty Neville Longbottom, the cast of Way of the Warrior is hardly one that strikes fear and awe into players. Put simply, Scorpion and company would ruin these fools pronto.
When it came to the act of actually putting fist to face, Way of the Warrior’s seemingly gleeful descent into terribleness continued unabated. Sure enough, while you have all the expected punches, kicks, throws and crappily CG augmented special attacks that one might expect, it’s crucially the way that it all fails to hang together which really undercuts the whole experience.
You see with Mortal Kombat, when you crouched and let rip with an uppercut to the chin of your foe, the bone-crunching sound that would accompany their journey into the sky was palpable and satisfying. Pointedly, it felt like your strikes actually landed and had a physical impact that was both measurable and satisfying. In Way of the Warrior, however, each of the fighter folk kind of bounce off one another other and can leap improbable distances up into the sky, while the strikes that land are totally bereft of any real kind of heft or impact.
Being very much an offering in the Mortal Kombat mold, this meant that Way of the Warrior also included a whole bunch of suitably violent fatalities. And to be fair, for the time they were suitably gory and pleasingly brutal. Whether it was samurai dude Nobunaga carving someone in twain, or Major Gaines doing the sort of body-splitting backbreaker that even Bane would be proud of, Way of the Warrior at least knew how to end its fights in suitably brutal fashion, even if it didn’t know how to do anything else with them.
Way of the Warrior does actually do one thing incredibly well, however, and that’s provide a decent soundtrack. Somehow making the whole abysmal spectacle remotely tolerable is the fact that you have White Zombie absolutely belting out some cracking ear-ringers from their 1992 metal groove album La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One across the whole thing. But then again, you could just listen to the music separate from the game, couldn’t you?
Anyway, clearly emboldened by the success Midway found with Mortal Kombat, Way of the Warrior is the perfect example of a developer jumping onto a bandwagon, spectacularly missing said bandwagon and then caving their face open on the ground instead. The videogame equivalent of a shit-covered firework being let off in a barn, it’s like anything remotely innovative or entertaining about Way of the Warrior was pulled past the event horizon of its lamentable, black hole design brief early on, only to never escape or be seen again.
But at least it had White Zombie. We’ll always have White Zombie.