Let's talk about SquareSoft's bizarre first steps onto the PlayStation 2. Let's talk about...The Bouncer.

The year 2000 was a strange time for SquareSoft…and…well, the world. It was the turn of the century, a time of huge change. People were excited for the future and afraid of Y2K killing us all. 

Good times!

The video game industry was also changing, emerging from the first generation of 3D games where experimentation and ambition were everywhere. Sony’s follow up to their successful PlayStation, the creatively named PlayStation 2, was fresh on the scene and developers were experimenting with the powerful new hardware, seeing what horizons they could expand, what kind of new worlds of unprecedented fidelity they could create.

In the midst of this technological upheaval, Square, or SquareSoft as they were known in the US, was riding high as one of Sony’s most loyal partners. While most were focused on Final Fantasy X, the newest entry in their prestigious JRPG franchise, there were whispers of another title coming first…Square’s first careful step onto the powerful new hardware.

A podcast-style version of this article for your listening pleasure.

So what would this mysterious title be? Surely it would be something extraordinary. A new JRPG? Perhaps a new fighting game, or some genre bending new IP that no one could even conceive of?!

It was none of those things, and all of those things. It was…

A History of The Bouncer

Square’s first international release on the PlayStation 2 occupies a truly unique place in their catalog. While rightfully overshadowed by the juggernaut that would be Final Fantasy X, The Bouncer is worth examining as both an example of the bizarre artistic excesses of the era, and as a cautionary tale on the dangers of embracing style over substance.

The story of The Bouncer begins with Dream Factory, a developer that worked with SquareSoft on two early 3D fighting games, the delightfully titled Tobal No. 1 and Ergheiz: God Bless the Ring. It’s useful to revisit these games when discussing The Bouncer, as they provide pivotal insight into the structural DNA of what this game would become.

A 2000 IGN interview with director Takashi Tokita sheds some interesting light on the very clear lineage between The Bouncer and these fighting games that came before it. When asked about inspiration for The Bouncer, he said,

Direction-wise, I believe it developed from Ehrgeiz. The basic control form follows the Tobal series.

3D movement and 8 way running were still new in fighting games, and Tobal and Ergheiz (which means “ambition” in German, if you were wondering) are great examples of early 3D fighters experimenting with how to push this tentpole genre into a new dimension.

Many expected a sequel to the relatively well-received Ergheiz, so there was some surprise when it was revealed that The Bouncer would not be a fighting game, but rather a beat ’em up in the style of Streets of Rage or Final Fight, or, more recently, the tepidly received Fighting Force. 

Even so, expectations were high. Square had developed an excellent reputation in the preceding years and players were curious to see how they would take advantage of the new hardware. 

Unleashing The Bouncer on the World

The Bouncer was finally published in Japan in December 2000, in North America in March 2001, and in Europe in June 2001.

Sadly, it did not sell well, likely a victim of those lofty expectations. No one seemed to be sure quite what to make of The Bouncer. It received acceptable reviews, with many admiring the way it looked, but it sold less than 400,000 copies in Japan. While hardly a disaster, when compared to the smashing success of the three Final Fantasy games released on the first PlayStation, this number must have been disappointing.

Many of the game’s criticism s were centered around the surprisingly brief length of the campaign and underwhelming simplicity of the mechanics. In a contemporaneous review for GameSpot, Jeff Gerstmann sums up the general sentiment nicely:

The Bouncer makes a great showpiece for the PlayStation 2. It looks and sounds incredible. However, the ease and extremely short length of the game, matched with other problems like horrific camera angles and lack of a multiplayer story mode, make The Bouncer fair, at best.

It’s definitely worthy of a rental, if you’re interested only in the gameplay, but The Bouncer is also worth buying if you’re looking for an amazing graphical showpiece for your PS2 library.

As SquareSoft shifted focus to Final Fantasy X, The Bouncer became little more than an odd footnote. Despite the lineup of genuinely talented developers and artists and the impressive tech of the new console, it seems to be relegated to memory, to a passing mention of, “Hey, remember that weird PS2 game where everyone looked like an absolute asshole?” 

The Bouncer Review

So, you might be wondering…what’s it like to play The Bouncer in the modern era?

Most of what was written at release still holds true, but there are a few elements that deserve recognition.

As was pointed out in most reviews at the time, the gameplay is simple. Too simple. If one were being generous one could argue it’s channeling the simplicity and visceral satisfaction of old school beat ‘em ups like Final Fight, Double Dragon, or Sega’s incredible Streets of Rage.

Even compared to those older titles, though, the gameplay is rudimentary, with a small selection of moves and paltry, repetitive encounters. Enemies stand around casually waiting to be attacked as you dial in the same simple combos over and over. There is almost no challenge whatsoever on the normal difficulty setting. 

One thing never gets old though, and that’s the overly-sensitive ragdoll physics. When you KO a foe they launch through the air and bounce through the wireframe in a way that never fails to elicit radiant joy.

So there’s that.

It appears the devs were aware of the terminal simplicity of the mechanics, which is why there is so little actual gameplay. The experience is almost entirely story (more on that in a bit) with long cutscenes interspersed with very brief bouts of fighting. This feels like a tacit admission that the gameplay was lacking, so they leaned into other elements, like showcasing the technology and emphasizing the story.

There’s roughly 30-45 minutes of actual gameplay, awkwardly interrupted by lengthy cutscenes. While it never has the opportunity to get too boring given the brevity of encounters, it’s jarring to play a video game from this era with so little actual gameplay. It must have been even more shocking for people who bought it at launch, and for those who expected a lengthy adventure in line with SquareSoft’s better known offerings up to that point. 

To encourage replaying the painfully short campaign, there’s an anemic progression system where you can unlock new moves and upgrade your stats between encounters. There’s no way to max out a character in a single playthrough, so New Game + is heavily encouraged. 

This seems… optimistic; I can’t imagine anyone doing multiple playthroughs of this game with the same character. It’s too repetitive. Too simple. 

All that to say, the main campaign is shockingly slight in terms of length and mechanical complexity, almost unforgivably.

So, what else does The Bouncer offer?

Surviving The Bouncer

There are a few additional modes that actually fare better than the campaign. The first is a multiplayer brawling mode which seems like it would be fun with a few buddies for an hour or two, though I wasn’t able to test it. My many offers to people to come over and play The Bouncer with me were rejected for reasons I cannot fathom.

More impressive though is the Survival Mode. It’s just what it sounds like: you’re placed in a bland environment where you’re asked to endure waves of enemies without a break, without being interrupted by cutscenes, and without the opportunity to heal. 

There is a twist however. As you play through the campaign, you’ll unlock additional characters to use in the Survival Mode and these characters are far more than mere pallet swaps. Every character has a distinct moveset, from the cartwheels and flips of Echidna (who we will be talking about soon) to the powerful, focused attacks of the villain Dauragon, each plays very differently. 

Why on god’s green and verdant earth you’re limited to only using three characters in the campaign when they went to all the trouble of adding these additional movesets is truly perplexing. Trying out all the different characters was by far the most engaging part of The Bouncer, and though the gameplay still struggles from rudimentary design, I was impressed by the amount of care put into making each character feel distinct.

Survival Mode is fun while it lasts, but it’s hardly enough to support the entire game. So what else is there?

The Bouncer’s Impressive Graphics

The Bouncer really does look impressive, and it makes that clear from the beginning, with sophisticated character models and remarkably detailed backgrounds. The FMV sequences have that lush SquareSoft polish of that era, but even the general gameplay looks very good, especially for a title so early in the PlayStation 2’s lifecycle. It may have the distinct feeling of a tech demo…but it’s an undeniably impressive tech demo, and I’d imagine it made many a new PlayStation 2 owner happy, if only to see what their shiny new machine was capable of rendering. 

It’s impossible to discuss the aesthetics of this game however, without talking about the art direction. And we can’t talk about art direction without talking about the character designs.

This was relatively early on in Tetsuya Nomura’s career, after finding success with his character designs in previous Final Fantasy titles. It’s difficult, impossible really, to separate his influence from the way this game looks. These character designs are Nomura dialed up to 11, and whether that’s a positive or negative is, of course, subjective…but it’s fair to say these designs have not aged well.

VERY Questionable Character Designs

Sion from The Bouncer.

The worst offender is Sion. I’m not sure I can add anything that looking at him won’t tell you but…damn. From the off-the-rails jewelry to the ludicrous hair, weird half shorts and bright yellow gloves, it’s difficult for me to imagine anyone ever thinking this looked “cool,” even in 2000.

People rightfully give Tidus…Tee-dus? from Final Fantasy X a hard time for his dumb-ass outfit, but compared to Sion, he’s dressed for the Met Gala.

At least Sora (another cursed Nomura creation) is a child, so you can give him a pass for looking like an absolute dipshit, but Sion…no real excuse here.

The other two main characters aren’t quite as egregious, and I actually came to sort of, probably ironically, like Volt Krueger, the big tanky fellow I ended up using for most of my playthrough. 

From the weird demon horns (the result of trying to cover up bullet hole injuries he sustained, according to the bizarre interstitial loading screen lore) to the absolutely wild jacket that indicates his apparent distaste for the Final Fantasy B tier mascot the Cactuar, he has a certain goofy charm that I think works. 

Yes buddy! A report! Good job!

Bland Characters with Insane Designs

It’s not just looks though, these three protagonists are as paper thin as a Thousand Year Door. Sion is the stock standard aloof, stoic protagonist, Volt Krueger the gruff but caring father figure (who in standard JRPG style is probably ancient at 21) and Kou Leifoh, the “comic relief,” …basically the quippy guy. All of them are noble but good and tough but fair.

Bland, in other words.

When asked about these characters in the previously mentioned IGN interview, Takashi Tokita said,

Sion is the standard main character type while Volt is a cool, silent, mature man. I believe that videogames benefit greatly by having both serious and comical elements. Kou is the comic relief, but he also has the most difficult mission to live up to.

The fact that even Takashi called Sion the “standard main character type” really provides insight into the standards we’re dealing with here. 

It’s not just the main three, there is also the damsel in distress Dominique, who, spoiler alert! turns out to be a robot. She kicks off the conflict by being kidnapped in typically sexist fashion. 

The nefarious agents of the evil Mikado corporation fare a bit better, because even a dorky evil person is more fun than a dorky good guy. Dauragon is the primary antagonist, and he chews scenery with the best of them. If you offered me 5 million dollars I couldn’t tell you what he is so mad about, or the motivation for his dastardly deeds…but he seems fun.

There’s also Kaldea, a woman who can turn into an animal for some reason and the archetypal “insane” villainous sidekick Mugetsu, because every game from this era needed a cyber ninja.

All the characters suffer from acute underdevelopment syndrome, all but one.

All Hail Echidna

Echidna absolutely rules.

From her incredible hair and name to her whiplash inducing character arc, the fact we never got an Echidna-centric game is a real loss for humanity as a whole.

If The Bouncer gave us nothing else, at least it gave us Echidna!

Poorly developed characters with insane outfits were hardly unique to The Bouncer, it should be said, but this title is emblematic of the worst eccentricities of the era. The self-seriousness of the writing paired with the utterly asinine character designs makes for a heady cocktail of stupidity that is hard to turn away from. I can’t help but believe Sion, Volt, and Kou are designed to be cool…and by that metric, they are abject failures.

Cool, they are not, with the exception of Volt’s anti-Cactuar jacket and of course, Echidna, who is EXTREMELY COOL. 

A Story That Could Not Be More Insane

The story is as relentlessly bizarre as the characters and I’d argue it’s the best part of this very strange game. It begins in a bar, where the three playable protagonists work as…you guessed it… Bouncers. Cyber ninjas attack and steal Sion’s sort of girlfriend, and the chase begins.

The frenetic pacing channels the energy of a Adderal-addled child and as a result it’s incomprehensible…but never boring. 

Here’s a brief summary from Wikipedia so you get a sense of what we’re dealing with here:

Set in Edge, a modern-day metropolis run by the Mikado Group corporation led by Dauragon Mikado, the story opens at the Fate bar on Dog Street, where three bouncers are enjoying a quiet evening; the young boy Sion, the light-hearted Kou, and the intimidating but just Volt. 

Dominique, a new friend of Sion’s, visits to gift Sion a new necklace from his favorite fashion line. Fate is then attacked by masked soldiers from Mikado who kidnap Dominique, and Sion pursues them with Kou and Volt in tow. They pursue signs of Dominique across Edge, splitting up in a few places and confronting agents of Mikado.

During their missions, they learn that Dominique is an android created in the image of Dauragon’s late sister, and he is planning to destroy Edge and take over the world as an act of revenge, in hatred towards their abandonment and unforgiving lives on the streets, and as his sister died due to neglect by the city’s social systems.

So…there you go. You can probably tell by now if this is something you will find funny or annoying. I fall firmly in the former category.  

The story moves INSANELY fast, bouncing from relatively benign locations, like the bar and a train station, to massive cyberpunk dystopias and giant dome bases, to, eventually, outer space. This variety in locale would not be unusual for a JRPG of the era, but remember, this happens over the course of a two hour campaign.

The pacing is absolutely wild. 

It was entertaining to see what bizarre directions the story would go in, but there isn’t a shred of pathos to be found. The joy here comes from laughter and laughter alone. The Bouncer feels like the kind of game that people who didn’t play games thought all games were at the time; loud, stupid, incoherent flashes of color and insipid dialogue desperately trying to emulate anime of much higher quality.

That said, I enjoyed the unhinged story, and found myself looking forward to the cut scenes…which is good, because that’s most of the game.

If you’re in the pocket for this particular brand of ludicrous, bombastic storytelling, watching the cutscenes could be a fun distraction from the dull realities of our world. Not being sober might help.

Maybe buy some Adderall from the aforementioned child to match the energy. 

Should You Play The Bouncer?

Probably not. 

The only unironically compelling part of actually playing The Bouncer is exploring the different characters’ abilities in Survival Mode. That said, you have to play through the campaign to unlock them, and that’s a prospect that’s challenging to recommend. 

You could probably run through the campaign in less than an hour if you skipped all the cutscenes, but that would be a rather grim exercise in repetition, and would deprive you of the best part of The Bouncer: the absolutely batshit insane story and dialogue. 

Of course, that could be experienced by watching a playthrough, and that’s what I’d recommend doing. The sheer early-2000s of it all is pretty endearing, and there are worse ways you could spend a few hours of your life.

So where does that leave this strange game? It’s essentially a bad, if charming, animated film, one firmly in the so bad it’s good camp. That charming quality paired with the fact it’s a more than competent  tech demo for the PS2, you end up with an interesting relic of the long march into modern 3D gaming. 

It’s also a compelling insight into the kind of company SquareSoft was at this time and an interesting fulcrum point for the careers of the many talented people who worked on it. 

I suspect Square Enix would prefer if we forgot The Bouncer existed, but I refuse. I’ll remember the few hours I spent with it fondly, even if it’s not for the reasons the developers likely intended. 

And the heat death of the universe won’t stop me from smiling every time I think of Echidna. 

Thanks for reading. Hope you’ll check back for the next one.

A contributor to the Forgotten Code collective.

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