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20 Years Later I’m Still Thinking About The Bouncer

Image: Square Enix / Kotaku
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Sometimes a piece of pop culture worms its way into your brain, builds a comfortable, cost-efficient home in your cerebral cortex, and lives there happily for decades on end. My own tenant is The Bouncer, an odd beat ‘em up by Square Soft, which came out in Japan 20 years ago today before fading into obscure cult status. This piece is my best attempt to banish this unruly beast from my skull.

Runaway hype machine

The Bouncer was one of Square’s first games for the highly anticipated PlayStation 2, and hit just four months after the exciting new console’s U.S. launch. As such, it was beheld to a certain hype machine. Square Soft, the publisher that defined a generation of RPGs on PS1, was ready to make the leap to next-generation hardware, with its team of iconic creators in tow.

The Bouncer’s talent mix was as diverse as it was deep, a constellation of specialists and all-stars at the height of their powers. Case in point, just one of The Bouncer’s directors, Takashi Tokita, variously wrote, designed, and directed on Square classics like Final Fantasy IV, Parasite Eve, and Chrono Trigger. Tetsuya Nomura, still fresh off the success of his iconic work in Final Fantasy VII and VIII, designed the characters (as if you couldn’t tell from a second’s glance). Final Fantasy dad Hironobu Sakaguchi executive produced. Even Final Fantasy crazy uncle Akitoshi Kawazu—I kid because I love—got a “dramatisation” credit.

This would also be Square’s first attempt at a brawler, making the game’s other director, Seiichi Ishii, a crucial addition to the team. Ishii had cut his teeth creating arcade classics like Sega’s Virtua Fighter and Namco’s Tekken before starting his own company, DreamFactory—which co-developed The Bouncer with Square—where he created Square’s first fighting games in Tobal No. 1 and Ehrgeiz.

Above all else, The Bouncer’s defining trait was that it looked really fucking cool. Gone were the days of drastic differences in detail between low-res characters and highly detailed cutscenes. The PS2 and its new Emotion Engine CPU, Sony promised, marked the first time gameplay could look like FMV cutscenes. In short, The Bouncer was awash in anticipation, poised to be a marquee title for a promised bold new era of gaming.

I was in early elementary school while all this went down, and as such was not privy to the beast of video game hype beyond schoolyard boys boasting of rumored uncles who worked at Nintendo. I knew I liked video games from my experience with my PlayStation and Game Boys, as well as my older cousins’ many Sega systems. Up until receiving my first PS2 along with Kingdom Hearts (which was definitely the best Christmas present I’ve ever gotten) I’d only known of Square Soft in the context that my older cousins played Final Fantasy and therefore anything it made was cool.

It wasn’t until probably a year after its initial release that I spotted The Bouncer in a Blockbuster video store, and I doubt I even so much as looked at the back cover before begging my mother to rent it. The guy on the cover looked like Sora from Kingdom Hearts but older, somehow cooler. I didn’t need to know anything about what this thing was, I just knew it looked awesome. It was made by Square, so it had to be awesome, and I had to play it.

A donkey in wolf’s clothing

I wouldn’t call The Bouncer a bad game then, and I wouldn’t call it that now. But I will say The Bouncer marked the first time I learned that games could be messy and flawed. Suffice it to say, the fantasy of The Bouncer simply didn’t match up to its reality, and even my child’s brain could sense that It wasn’t me that was bad at this game, it kind of just had some bad parts.

Camera angles during fights felt wonky. Enemies and player characters got ragdolled all over the place by a simple kick. There were points where you just kind of ran around near-identical corridors and hallways for minutes on end. And while the game was heavily plot-based, all of its important backstory was told through loading-screen text, most of which you’d likely miss if you had a scratch-free disc.

The game’s story was broken into short chapters, with three main characters you could choose between at the beginning of each section. AI took over for the other two. Unfortunately, AI-controlled characters didn’t gain experience points, and could in fact steal kills from you, as only the finishing blow earned XP. So while alternating between each character could show you different perspectives throughout the story, as well as different endings, it could also leave the ending phases of the game nearly unplayable if you haven’t scored enough kills to power-up your main.

The Bouncer also fell far short of the typical length of games Square, kings of the cinematic RPG, were known for putting out, totalling under two hours of combined gameplay and cutscenes. The truth is, though anticipated as the next big creative triumph from Square—literally a playable action movie, only now possible thanks to the mind-blowing capabilities of the PlayStation 2—the full-price game came off more as a tech demo to show off what the new hardware was capable of.

Ultimately The Bouncer was a B-movie in a blockbuster’s clothing. And though I knew the game was mediocre, I continued to think about it year after year, to the point of announcing to my fourth-grade class that I was changing my name to that of The Bouncer’s protagonist, Sion Barzahd. (This was a bi-weekly ritual for me, with other suggested names being “Ryoko,” “Faust from Shaman King,” and “Gengar.”) Despite playing so many better and more engaging games in the decades since, I still think about The Bouncer at least once every week.

If I tried to pinpoint what sparked this most niche obsession, it might have something to do with how cool its story and characters seemed to young Chingy. Despite its many flaws, the game still felt like a playable anime to me, especially given how bizarre its plot was. In that spirit...

Here is my best attempt to explain the plot of The Bouncer

Three bouncers, all with mysterious pasts, work at a bar called Fate. One of them, Sion Barzahd, is a scrappy youth who acts like a jerk because he lost someone he cared about. Another, Kou Leifoh, is an inked-up jokester who’s also a secret agent that’s bad at his job. The last, Volt Krueger, is what Tony Soprano would describe as “the strong silent type” and what I would describe as “a Folsom leather butch with literal devil horns.” Between the three, no one owns a shirt, only jackets and vests that apparently do not close. A girl named Dominique also works there and is in love with Sion.

A bunch of latex-clad ninja soldiers walk into a bar, by which I mean they crash through the ceiling and kidnap Dominique. The ninjas work for the powerful Mikado Group, a megacorporation that has harnessed enough solar energy to power the entire planet. The bouncers go on a night-long journey to rescue Dominique that first involves breaking into a train and beating up security guards. After that our heroes break into a warehouse to beat up security guards and roombas before finally breaking into a forest where they beat up ninjas and evil dogs. (It’s odd that in a game named after a profession that involves refusing people entry, these characters’ main method of achieving their goals is breaking and entering.)

Finally they find Dominique and the man who had her kidnapped, Dauragon C. Mikado. Dauragon proceeds to kill Sion’s former mentor (who was apparently his bodyguard) before beating all three protagonists with one arm literally tied behind his back and the help of a weird panther (who is also a human lady). He drops our heroes down a secret supervillain trap-door, separating them.

Suddenly we learn Volt used to work for the Mikado company, Dominique is Dauragon’s sister who died from illness because a hospital was busy or something, and the panther lady is Sion’s long-lost friend who he thought had died. When the bouncers reunite, they finally save Dominique, but actually it turns out she was a robot the whole time and oops she gets kidnapped by ninjas again.

Somehow the characters end up in space, where Dauragon uses his solar energy satellite to blow up a hospital that made him mad. He plans to take over the world for some reason, and needs his robot sister to do it. The bouncers fight Dauragon and at this point Dauragon removes his trench coat to reveal—in what I consider to be the game’s weirdest twist—he’s been wearing overalls and nothing else the entire time he was plotting world domination. No one in this game owns a shirt.

After beating him again, the bar workers escape and the spaceship explodes. The characters’ lives go back to normal, working at the bar and not telling Dominique that she is an immortal ageless robot who will go on living forever and watching all her loved ones die. The moral of the story, as always, is that love is important and solar energy is evil.

The ones that stay with you

In the end, I guess there really isn’t a clear reason I think about this very silly, incredibly mediocre game so much. Perhaps now, after writing this, I shall be freed of the lifelong compulsion to periodically utter the name “Dauragon C. Mikado.” But even this begs the question of what, if anything is The Bouncer’s legacy? While it was hyped to hell and back leading up to its release, the game all but fizzled into obscurity in the years following. Square, a company that never forgets an IP, hasn’t seen fit to revisit, remaster, or develop a sequel to The Bouncer in all the years since. I mean hell, even Drakengard spawned the NieR series.

I suppose the game’s true legacy, as with any other that doesn’t spawn a successful franchise, is in the tactile memories it left with those of us who played and struggled with it. I don’t know that I’d call myself a fan, but it’s hard to deny that the game’s sense of “cool” left a lasting impression on my young mind. Perhaps The Bouncer’s most enduring legacy is that it convinced me that wearing a hoodie, biker jacket, or vest without a shirt underneath is a really bitchin’ look to rock at my local leather bar, club, or anime convention.

Chingy Nea is a writer, comedian, and critically acclaimed ex-girlfriend based out of Oakland and Los Angeles.