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Dead or Alive Retrospective

VO: Adrian Sousa WRITTEN BY: Ty Richardson
The Dead or Alive franchise consistently puts out some of the best fighting games generation after generation. But that doesn't mean the behind-the-scenes always runs smoothly. Join MojoPlays as we go over the complete history of the Dead or Alive game series.

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History of Dead or Alive

Brawny, beautiful, and, sometimes, a little … “bouncy” ; these are the words many would describe Koei Tecmo’s legendary fighting series “Dead or Alive”. While it has seen exceptional critical and commercial success, the franchise has spent its two-decade lifespan struggling with its own image. Over the years, “Dead or Alive” has been treated as an overly sexual joke by the general public, but there’s more to “Dead or Alive” than just buxom ladies and skimpy outfits. Those who have given the series a fair shake discovered one of the most strategic and smartest fighting games, and it continues to be labeled as one of the best fighting franchises ever made.

Around the mid-90’s, Tecmo found themselves in critical financial troubles. Sales were tanking, and the company was on the verge of shutting down. For what could be their final game, Tecmo asked then-programmer Tomonobu Itagaki to create a fighting game. The company noticed SEGA’s success with the “Virtua Fighter” games and wanted to capitalize on their success. Still, the game would need something to stand out from its competitors. Itagaki had a strong belief that in order for media to be considered “entertainment”, it needed to have a blend of sex and violence. And so, Itagaki decided to give the game a sexier style.

“Dead or Alive” made its debut in arcades on November 26, 1996. Developed by a newborn Tecmo division dubbed Team Ninja, the game implemented a rock-paper-scissors mechanic where strikes counter throws, throws counter holds, and holds counter strikes. On top of that, it was one of the hardest fighting games on the market! Needless to say, players immediately fell in love, and Tecmo accrued a profit of over nine million dollars. “Dead or Alive” would be ported to the SEGA Saturn in 1997 with a Sony PlayStation port following a year later.

We wouldn’t see a sequel until three years after “DOA’s” debut. The reason behind this was because Team Ninja sought to build a better game engine, one that would render characters and objects in greater detail. In addition to the core engine, Team Ninja was toiling away at a second engine. Oddly enough, this second engine was designed specifically for “breast physics”... Tecmo, on the other hand, was growing impatient and wanted “Dead or Alive 2” out the door. According to Itagaki, he was tricked into publishing “Dead or Alive 2” early. Allegedly, a manager had asked Itagaki if he could take the game home and play it. After receiving Itagaki’s approval, the manager took the build to a printing factory.

“Dead or Alive 2” launched in Japanese arcades on October 16, 1999. Fans and critics were astounded by the game’s detailed environments, smooth character models, and tight controls, with most outlets calling it one of the best fighting games ever made. Unfortunately, the only person who wasn’t happy with the game’s success was Itagaki himself. The game hadn’t been finished yet, and seeing the game suddenly released caused Itagaki to feel betrayed by his bosses and slip into a period of heavy drinking and depression. After spending some time watching Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” and listening to some Aerosmith, Itagaki returned to the studio and resumed development on what would become “Dead or Alive 2: Hardcore”.

Only two years passed between the release of “DOA 2” and its sequel. “Dead or Alive 3” was pretty much the exact same as its predecessor with the exception of a few minor tweaks in gameplay. “Dead or Alive 3” would release in North America on November 15, 2001 as an Xbox exclusive launch title. It became the third-best selling launch game for the Xbox, right behind “Project Gotham Racing” and “Halo: Combat Evolved”. In light of this success, one would think “Dead or Alive 4” would be right around the corner to keep the success going. On the contrary, it was sometime after “DOA 3” where things got a little...weird, and we aren’t just talking about that “She Kicks High” commercial.

“Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball” released in North America on January 22, 2003 as an Xbox exclusive. Almost surprisingly, … almost … this would be the first “Dead or Alive” game ever to receive an M rating. The reason? Skimpy clothing. Regardless of its sexual self-indulgence, “Xtreme” received solid review scores from critics for its goofy humor and shockingly good volleyball gameplay. Although, the commercials made it very clear what this game was for. Surely, this wouldn’t affect the franchise later on...right?

It wasn’t until May 2005 when the public got hints about an upcoming “Dead or Alive” title, and not one with volleyballs and bikinis. Sure enough, “Dead or Alive 4” was revealed a month later during E3 2005. Similar to “DOA 3’s” development, the formula went through no changes outside minor tweaks and additional content. Originally, the game was supposed to be a launch title for the Xbox 360, but faced several delays. “Dead or Alive 4” would release on December 29, 2005, about a month after the Xbox 360 launched. Team Ninja, once again, nailed it, and critics called “Dead or Alive 4” one of the best fighting games ever made. At this point, the franchise had made a spotless track record of success!

The sun doesn’t shine forever, though. 2006 would be an incredibly rough year for “Dead or Alive”. On September 7, a film adaptation was released in Australia and New Zealand, and in the US the following year. And like most video game-film adaptations, it was a total bomb. It certainly didn’t help that marketing for the movie focused solely on sex appeal, something “Dead or Alive 4” managed to avoid.

Just two months after the disastrous film, “Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball 2” launched in North America. Whereas “Xtreme 1” received positive reviews, “Xtreme 2” was met with scathing scores. Critics were appalled by the simplistic minigames, broken volleyball gameplay, and absolutely absurd breast physics. This was the moment “Dead or Alive” would be seen by the public as one sexualized joke.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, trouble began stirring up back at Tecmo. Around the time the “Dead or Alive” movie released, Itagaki was accused of sexual harassment by a former Tecmo employee. However, the case would be dismissed for false claims in December 2007. Six months later, Itagaki was back in the news, announcing his departure from Tecmo and plan to sue the company for unpaid bonuses. Tecmo fired Itagaki on June 18, 2008, a little over two weeks after Itagaki’s announcement. Tecmo claimed his termination was “without reasonable cause”. With the series creator gone, the future of “Dead or Alive” was unclear.

Players would not see another “Dead or Alive” game until March 30, 2010, shortly after the lawsuit between Itagaki and Tecmo finally ended via undisclosed settlement. “Dead or Alive: Paradise” on PSP was yet another entry in the “Xtreme” spin-off series, serving as a port and a remake of “Xtreme 2”. Somehow, it made things worse for the franchise. Critics were disgusted by the mixed messaging of the game with some accusing it of creepy voyeurism. In May 2011, the franchise made its first debut on a Nintendo console with “Dead or Alive: Dimensions” on the Nintendo 3DS. While reviews were solid, “Dimensions” would be a commercial failure, selling just over three hundred thousand copies. With the failures of “Paradise” and “Dimensions”, was there any hope left for the franchise? Would handheld consoles be the death of “Dead or Alive”?

No...not yet. At the Tokyo Game Show in September 2011, Tecmo announced a new “Dead or Alive” game. The newest entry would be produced Yosuke Hayashi with Yutaka Saito, Ryuzi Kitaura, and Yohei Shimbori serving as directors. If the new crew of the next major “DOA” game was anything to go by, the franchise was gearing up for a new, perhaps brighter, future. With a new engine built from scratch, Team Ninja made characters look more realistic, included new cliffhanger events and destructible environments (a feature inspired by the “Uncharted” games), and added battle damage to characters to show them with bruises, dirt, and sweat.

Shockingly, the biggest change that was to be made was how this new title would tone down the sexuality “Dead or Alive” had been known for. After releasing demo discs of the game, fans criticized the new, conservative nature. Overseas producer Peter Garza even cited that “Dead or Alive’s” sexual attitude is a part of the series’s history. Thus, Team Ninja changed gears to find a balance between being provocative and being mature.

“Dead or Alive 5” released on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Microsoft Windows in September 2012. Reviews were not as glowing as previous titles, but were still exceptional with critics praising the detailed graphics and new artstyle. Over the next few years, “Dead or Alive 5” would release updated ports for both current and next-gen consoles. The game even launched a free-to-play version that accumulated over 3.5 million downloads! Though that aforementioned mature approach? That resulted in including a mode that gives breasts a mind of their own. Totally mature guys.

“Dead or Alive 5” would continue seeing success until development ceased for it in September 2017. The game ran for seven seasons of content in the span of five years, reaching a total of over 10 million downloads. Team Ninja held a funeral for the game at the DOA 5 Battle Royale 2017 Grand Finals, which consequently confused fans into thinking the series was ending.

And whatever happened to that volleyball spin-off series? Well in 2016 “Dead or Alive Xtreme 3” wouldn’t be released outside of Asian countries. Despite being anticipated by fans across the globe, A community manager on the Dead or Alive Facebook page claimed the region lock was; due to the contentious discussion of women in video games. Koei Tecmo denied that this was the case, but did not provide their own explanation. Nevertheless, the region lock didn’t stop the Internet from hacking the game to work on Western PS4s later on.

Now, here we are with “Dead or Alive 6” on the horizon. Earlier this year, Koei Tecmo invited MojoPlays to try the game, and interview producer/director Yohei Shimbori. And yes, he came dressed as Bayman. When asked about how the game would apprach the series notorious sexualized nature, he said that the game is again trying to achive an ideal balance between maturity and the notorious sexualised nature, now on a worldwide scale. With new mechanics, new modes, new stages, and new costumes, we can’t wait to get our hands on the final version of “DOA 6”.

Oh and when he was asked what DOA character should be represented in Super Smash Bros?

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