Atlus is really good at bringing Japanese niche titles to western audiences. AquaPazza: Aquaplus Dream Match, a 2011 arcade fighting game developed by Examu, is the definition of niche titles. Aquapazza features 26 characters in a mashup of various Aquaplus manga and anime titles such as Tears to Tiara, To Heart, and Utawarerumono. These titles are obscure to all but the hardcore anime fans in the western audiences. Fanservice tends to carry crossover mashups but without that familiarity AquaPazza loses that pizzazz that would allow it to be anything but niche.
The 26 characters are split up into 13 playable fighters and 13 non-playable support characters. Certain special relationships between fighters and support characters bestow bonuses come fight time and play into the cut-scenes between fights during the two story modes. A lack of familiarity with the source material will leave the player scouring the internet to discover these connections and understand the nonsensical cut-scenes. Since Aquapazza is a fighter, internet scouring doesn’t hamper the one thing that matters to the genre — gameplay.
On the surface Aquapazza plays like most fighters with health bars depleted by attacks and special bars built up to do special attacks. Four buttons dictate a weak attack, a medium attack, a strong attack, and an assist attack. The assist attack button utilizes that non-playable support character in both regular and special attacks. While all of that sounds pretty standard for a tournament style fighter, Aquapazza shines with both a tightness of controls and the rock paper scissors style cancellations of weak into medium into strong.
Aquapazza is balanced to the point that similar moves on each character do the same damage and the real difference comes in from how a character moves and how special moves set up combos. All of the archetypes are in the game with projectile throwing beasts, speedy all out offensive juggernauts, brute force grapplers, and the middle of the road fighters. These archetypes come with different key movement styles like super jumps and dashes but miss one key type of movement found in similar titles — the air dash. This causes Aquapazza to be a game more about a slow methodical strategy rather than massive combos based on millisecond twitch controls. It is easy to see how Examu crafted balance has quickly become a favorite in fight game tournaments.
While gamers might enjoy the slower gameplay, Examu put in a feature to try and stem any kind of turtling called emotions. An aggressive player will enter a high emotion state increasing their damage, adding special effects to attacks, and have a higher chance to stun. A player that blocks and dodges will enter a low emotion state increasing damage taken that makes for a dangerous situation if the opponent is in a high emotion state.
Unfortunately even though the characters are extremely balanced, they are also super generic for those not familiar with the source material. A majority of the cast are school girls with a couple androgenous dudes with swords giving the game a random anime feel rather than something unique and aesthetically pleasing. The genericized character design does not take away from the excellent artwork nor the specially animated scenes during the super moves as both are beautifully done.
Aquapazza is a hit on the tournament circuits because of an extremely balanced and methodical gameplay style. Unfortunately for the western audiences, they are probably more familiar with tournament notoriety rather than the source material leaving the title very much the definition of niche. The generic character designs don’t help much either despite the gorgeous artwork and animation. The key feature of a fighting game might be gameplay but if gamers don’t pick up the game to play, they will never experience that gameplay.