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One Must Fall: 2097 (PC, MS-DOS) Retro Game Reviewby@stefanopavone
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One Must Fall: 2097 (PC, MS-DOS) Retro Game Review

by Stefano PavoneDecember 15th, 2021
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***One Must Fall 2097*** is a fighting game developed by brothers Rob and Ryan Elam under the name **Diversions Entertainment** and published by **Epic MegaGames** on 10 October 1994. The premise of the game is set in the year 2097 (hence the title) and focuses on **HARs (Human Assisted Robots) to perform tasks that would otherwise be considered too dangerous for an actual human being to carry out. This is one of the first fighting games to actually feature a story behind the all-too-common martial arts tournament. Before each fight, both fighters will briefly converse with each other and their initial rapport will be either friendly, hostile or neutral.

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One Must Fall: 2097 is a fighting game developed by brothers Rob and Ryan Elam under the name Diversions Entertainment and published by Epic MegaGames (yes, the same company now known as Epic Games) on 10 October 1994 - it evolved from a 1992 playable tech demo known as One Must Fall, which consisted of a pair of nameless fighters simply facing off against each other. A sequel, One Must Fall: Battlegrounds was released nearly a decade later in 2003 for Microsoft Windows, which was met with mixed reactions and is considered the “franchise killer” of the series.


On the surface, One Must Fall: 2097 may seem like a typical 2D fighting game inspired by Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, it actually has several unique ideas of its own - some of this game’s mechanics and tropes can be seen in modern tournament fighters today. For example, this is one of the first fighting games to actually feature a story behind the all-too-common martial arts tournament, and each character has their own personal arc intertwined with the overall plot - furthermore, before each fight, both fighters will briefly converse with each other and depending on their personality and/or role in the overall plot, their initial rapport will be either friendly, hostile or neutral. This game was originally released as shareware, with the full version only available via mail order or via authorised dealers, which was eventually declared freeware by the original developers in 1999.

Welcome to the future of the human race.

What is Shareware?

Shareware is an archaic term referring to the practice of distributing computer software (usually games) with one’s friends or relatives. Originally, the games distributed were in their complete form, but eventually morphed into a business model codified by George Broussard and Scott Miller of Apogee Software, later known as 3D Realms. This model consisted of releasing a very limited version of the full complete game - a trial version, if you will - with just the bare essentials included, but enough to give players a taste of things to come, should they wish to purchase the complete edition.


This was commonplace in games with episodic content such as Doom and Jazz Jackrabbit, where the first episode was available to play for free while the rest had to be purchased as part of the full package, making shareware games attractive to potential players as they were richer in content than a playable demonstration commonplace on competing computers such as the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST.


This practice eventually fell out of favour in the early 2000s as Internet connections became faster and more ubiquitous, and playable demos once again reclaimed their crown (in addition to shareware being fairly unpopular outside of the United States, since most people expected a full game after paying a hefty sum for a copy). I will be playing the full, complete version for the sake of this review.

The Story

The premise of the game is set in the year 2097 (hence the title) and focuses on HARs (Human Assisted Robots) to perform tasks that would otherwise be considered too dangerous for an actual human being to carry out. Naturally, this also extends to fighting, and there is money to be made.


The tournament’s founder, the World Aeronautics and Robotics Corporation or WAR, led by Major Hans Kreissack and his bodyguard Raven, are using the championship as a front for Project Nova, an attempt to extend biological life by placing an organic brain inside a robotic body.


The HARs in their current state are controlled by neurological signals from the human pilots’ minds as opposed to the pilots being physically transplanted into the robots’ bodies. The HARs are adapted for combat, and the game’s cast of characters converge upon the tournament, setting into events the main story.

The Pilots

Our heroes (and villains), and one mysterious antiheroine.

If the player chooses to play a 1 or 2-player game, then they will be greeted with the above screen (Player 1’s cursor will be red while Player 2’s will be blue - it is possible for both players to select the same pilot and robot; when their cursors occupy the same space, they will change colour to purple).


However, playing a 1-player game will allow the player to progress through their character’s unique story complete with a different ending sequence for each pilot. The cast of characters are:

  • Crystal Devroe - the blonde bombshell of the game (a prerequisite for fighting games) seeking the truth behind her parents’ murder.
  • Steffan Tommas - a young, arrogant socialite who sees the tournament as a glorified ego boost.
  • Milano Steele (real name Milano Angston) - head of WAR security and the son of one of the company’s founders who wants to reclaim what is his and steer the corporation into a more peaceful direction.
  • Christian Devroe - Crystal’s twin brother and much more aggressive in demeanour and fighting style than his sister.
  • Shirro - head of WAR’s PR department with a placid nature and amiable sense of humour, and is the oldest playable character in the game (73).


The following pilots are only playable in the full version of the game.

  • Jean-Paul - a market analyst for WAR, he is calm, quiet and logical with a God complex and a very defensive fighting stance, forcing players to go on the offensive to defeat him.
  • Ibrahim Hothe - one of WAR’s chief engineers involved with Project Nova, although he is aware of the questionable ethics of his work - a retired triathlete, he is also a mentor to some of the younger fighters alongside Shirro.
  • Angel - nothing is known of her, and her presence in the tournament remains a mystery.
  • Cossette Akira - a former competitor when human brains were physically used to control pre-HAR robots, Cossette received a crippling injury which prematurely ended her career, but that doesn’t stop her from taking part in the HAR-dominated tournament.
  • Raven - Major Kreissack’s personal bodyguard and is the final boss in the shareware version of the game.
  • Major Hans Kreissack (unplayable) - the final boss of the full version of the game and pilot of the hidden robot Nova.


Each character has three (3) statistics available: Power (how much damage they can deal), Agility (their overall speed and reflexes) and Endurance (how much damage they can take before collapsing).

The Robots

Do you have what it takes to be able to access the hidden robot Nova?

When the player has chosen their pilot, they will then be prompted to choose their robot. Each character has their own unique colour palette but both players can customise their robot’s appearance by pressing 1, 2 and 3 on the keyboard for Player 1 and 4, 5 and 6 for Player 2, allowing them to tweak the robots’ tertiary, secondary and primary colours respectively (press F9 to reset the colours to their original palettes). The available HARs are:

  • Jaguar - an all-rounder and easily the most iconic robot in the game - beginner’s recommendation.
  • Shadow - a robot with the ability to create holographic copies of itself to deceive opponents.
  • Thorn - one of the few robots made from the ground up to be deliberately combat-oriented and has a slower pace than Jaguar and Shadow.


The following robots are only playable in the full version of the game.

  • Pyros - originally made to construct and maintain space stations and lunar colonies, its jet thrusters (in lieu of limbs) can be used as flamethrowers, making this robot very deadly - this robot is also playable in the shareware version but only in Tournament Mode.
  • Electra - an electrical-themed robot (hence its name) that has the double distinction of being both the fastest and the weakest HAR in the game, although its attacks can be positively shocking.
  • Katana - fast and powerful, this robot’s dual strengths lie in both devastating attacks and feline agility, making it formidable, armed and dangerous - it is also more robust than Electra.
  • Shredder - a robot built to assist miners with its detachable hands, its quick reflexes and relentless fighting style make it one of the more challenging opponents in the game - it can be considered an offensive version of the Jaguar HAR.
  • Flail - one of the tougher HARs to master due to its unconventional design, but its chains grant it an advantage of a native ranged attack (as opposed to it being a special move) - slow, but sadistic.
  • Gargoyle - initially built for reconnaissance missions, its wings allow it to easily evade opponents’ blows and traverse the arena with ease but it comes at a cost of extreme fragility (although it is slightly more durable than Electra).
  • Chronos - this robot was made to assist in search and rescue missions with its abilities to temporarily freeze time by generating a stasis field around its person. It can also teleport behind its opponent and render itself temporarily intangible, making this HAR unpredictable and useful in the right hands.


There is a hidden robot, Nova, which can be accessed by pressing the button combination below at the robot selection screen:

Forward x3, Down, Back x2, Up, Back, Up, Down x11, Forward & Punch.

This code can be used in either 1 or 2 player mode, both players can play as Nova, and only works in the full version of the game. “Forward” and “Back” refer to the direction the robot is facing on the selection screen.

The Arenas

Seemingly harmless fighting rings, right? Wrong.

The game has five (5) arenas, which are randomly chosen with each new fight (in a 2-player game, the players can select an arena manually). Each arena is set in a different environment and features a hazard unique to that particular stage.

  • Power Plant - this is the only arena available in the shareware version and is surrounded by electrified walls.
  • Fire Pit - in this stage, computers project holographic spheres which, when physically interacted with by the player, will launch a deadly flame upwards into the opponent’s body.
  • Desert - this is the only level to feature multiple versions, coming in both daytime and nighttime variants - occasionally, jet fighters will open fire on the HARs, temporarily stunning them.
  • Stadium - this is the only arena without any environmental hazards, being a plain old fighting ring, and is always the final stage of the game.
  • Danger Room - in this level, spikes will intermittently emerge from the background, simulating a 3D effect - fighters must be careful lest they get impaled.

The Game

When the first fight begins, the game starts. As seen in the screenshots above, the players have two (2) gauges - the thicker uppermost gauge, coloured reddish-pink, represents their health or vitality, while the thinner lowermost gauge, coloured light blue, illustrates their reflexes or stamina - when this gauge is depleted, the affected robot will be temporarily stunned and unable to attack, similar to Street Fighter 2.


They can regain their senses either automatically (after several seconds) or manually (by having the player jam buttons and directions in an effort to wake them up more quickly). Fighters earn points by dealing damage to each other (only applicable to human players), earning higher scores by landing successive hits without taking damage or using special moves in conjunction with combo attacks.


The game uses two buttons - one to punch and one to kick. Blocking is accomplished automatically by backing away from your opponent. Throws can be performed by pressing the Punch button on your opponent when backed into a corner and/or up close and personal. Sadly, each robot only has a single throw, although they can have up to three (3) special moves, each of which require a specific combination of direction and button press to activate, and should not be too much trouble for experienced gamers to work out.


The game’s rounds can be defined from the options menu, accessible from the main menu of the game itself - the player can fight for the best 2 out of 3, 3 out of 5, 4 out of 7 or a single round only, the very last of which is my personal preference.

This is Media Break... hang on, wrong franchise.

At the end of each fight is a news report commentating on the players’ performances and offering either congratulations or commiserations. Sometimes, the newsreader will throw in a sarcastic remark or offer sympathies depending on how the fight went and how well each player fared, similar to the news interruptions in the RoboCop movies.

Nota Bene

To reach the final boss of the game in 1-player mode (Major Kreissack), the player MUST be playing on at least Veteran difficulty mode - any easier and the game will mock you for trying to take the easy way out (in the shareware version, Raven can only be fought on Rookie difficulty or higher). Furthermore, if you are defeated and choose to continue, then you will lose ALL your points and must pick up where you left off with a blank slate (your score will be reset to zero). The game’s difficulty levels are presented in order (from easiest to hardest):

  • Punching Bag
  • Rookie
  • Veteran
  • World Class
  • Champion
  • Deadly (unlockable by pressing Right 20 times or holding it down until it changes while Champion is selected)
  • Ultimate (unlockable by holding down O, M and F and pressing Right until the difficulty changes while Deadly is selected)

Tournament Mode

Not quite the end of the show yet - there's one last number left.

The game’s Tournament Mode, from what I understand, takes place a few years after the main story and focuses on a new cast of characters, although the original fighters do appear as nonplayable opponents. First, the player must make a pilot of their own, unique to this mode, choosing from four (4) avatars, each one with their own unique colour palette which can be customised later in the Buy and Sell menus. Tournament Mode has its own separate difficulty levels which are assigned when the new pilot is created. Unlike the main story, this difficulty level is tied to the player’s own pilot and cannot be altered later. The difficulties are (in ascending order):


  • Aluminium

  • Iron

  • Steel

  • Heavy Metal


The player’s custom-made pilot cannot be carried over to the main game. The Jaguar robot is always their initial HAR and is the one I recommend to keep due to its intuitive controls and balanced performance, although it can be traded for another robot if the player wishes (providing they can afford it). This mode has four tournaments to choose from:


  • North American Open (only tournament available in the shareware version)
  • Katushai Challenge
  • WAR Invitational
  • World Championship


Each successive tournament is harder than the previous one and will contain more opponents to face before reaching the current champion. It is recommended that the player upgrades their robot’s primary characteristics (power, agility and endurance) as early as possible if they are to stand a fighting chance after the North American Open. Their secondary characteristics (limb speed and power, armour, and stun resistance) are of more concern once they enter the Katushai Challenge. The player’s robots, in addition to the HAR trinity, now have some additional characteristics, consisting of Arm and Leg Power, Arm and Leg Speed, Armour and Stun Resistance.


The tournaments can be played in any order, although it is recommended that the player enters them sequentially (a registration fee in virtual money is required to enter each tournament). The player’s HAR can be upgraded by either purchasing parts such as leg power or arm speed or by undertaking training courses to improve any one of their three main traits. Take too long in upgrading your robot (or raising the money to upgrade it) and your primary characteristics (Power, Agility and Endurance) will be weakened, affecting your pilot’s performance.


When the player is ready to fight, select the Arena button to face your opponent (selecting Sim or Simulation merely allows the player to practice against an opponent of their choice, it does not promote or demote them within the tournament itself if they win or lose respectively). Your chief engineer (responsible for maintaining your robot in between fights) will comment on your performance in a similar way to the newsreader, depending on how you fare in the fight. Unlike the 1 and 2-player modes, all tournament fights consist of one round only. When you have won the current tournament, you can press E to replay the ending sequence.

Presentation

The game is rich in content, secrets and playability, making this one of the best fighting games available for any computer platform and one of the best games for the IBM PC (and compatibles). The original version was limited to local play only but a later revision included the ability to play over a LAN (Local Area Network), allowing two people to play against each other on their own separate computers. The opening and closing credits at the beginning of the game and when quitting respectively are a nice cinematic touch, and add a feeling of grandiose to this anime-inspired fighter.

Graphics (Detail, Colour)

For a game from 1994, this is one of the most pleasant-looking games I’ve ever played, having spent many hours on it in my youth. The visuals seem to be heavily inspired by Japanese cartoons, creating an odd fusion of Eastern and Western gaming sensibilities, merging the tropes from the former with the game mechanics of the latter. I like how each character has their own unique colour palette, making them all stand out in their own special ways, and their personality is also reflected in their performance when controlled by the CPU.

Sound (SFX, Music)

The music is the real standout of this game, composed by demoscene musician Kenny “CCCatch” Chou - each track is unique and full of personality befitting its intended scene (the main menu theme is iconic in its own right, and the in-game compositions are equally memorable and live on in the minds of gamers). Sound effects by Joshua Jensen are detailed, clean and crisp, and they really do give the feel of metal hitting metal, with the atmospheric sound effects for the hazards only serving to increase the tension as the fight moves on towards its inevitable conclusion. A sound test is accessible in the configuration submenu by holding down Alt, S and F at the same time for a few seconds on the main menu.

Controls

Smooth and responsive are the best words to use to describe the controls for this game, which can be played with either a keyboard or joystick (or a combination of the two, although the latter requires calibration due to its analogue nature unlike other home computers of the era, which used digital controls).


The keyboard controls are split on either the left-hand side (the keys surrounding the S key to move with Tab and Control to punch and kick respectively), right-hand side (the arrow keys to move with Right Shift and Enter to punch and kick respectively) or a custom profile (redefinable keys, separate for each player).


The on-screen HARs respond 100% of the time, although their finishing moves can be a bit difficult to execute, which come in two forms: Scrap and Destruction - the former effectively cripple the doomed opponent while the latter totally annihilates them. The button combinations for these moves are unique to each robot and must be inputted PERFECTLY and sequentially (first Scrap, then Destruction) while the winning HAR is performing their victory pose, giving the players a VERY short window of time.

Gameplay

The gameplay is incredibly fast-paced - a little bit too fast, even for computers of the era. Thankfully, the game offers the option to control the speed of the action, which I heavily recommend, especially if playing this game in an emulator like DOSBox.


There is also an option within the gameplay submenu (from the main menu) to toggle on or off in the form of Hyper Mode, which essentially grants extra damage to the players’ special moves and also facilitates chaining combo attacks together, in addition to turning on or off the environmental hazards. An advanced options menu can be accessed from the gameplay submenu by holding down the keys 2, 0, 9 and 7 for a few seconds on the main menu - this hidden submenu can be used to tweak the game mechanics and balance out the difficulty, especially on harder skill levels.


Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, and a combination of skill, speed and strategy (and some patience, particularly when fighting the AI) is required if you are to fight your way to victory - for in the end, one must fall.

One Must Fall: 2097 Overall Verdict

One Must Fall: 2097 is a forgotten gem from the days of DOS gaming, a cult classic from the shareware era that deserves a second chance and is still fun to play today with its rich lore, well-written characterisation and pioneering gameplay mechanics, some of which can still be found today in many modern tournament fighters (a tournament with an actual story, fighters quipping at each other before battle, each character having strengths and weaknesses instead of being identical performance-wise, etc.).


Even though this game can be a bit challenging to get into at first due to its unconventional game mechanics, it is ultimately worth it in the end because there really is no substitute for a computer from this era, and is one of the IBM PC’s finest hours, and arguably the best fighting game made for MS-DOS. Recommended without question.

Nova awaits you...

Final Score: 5 out of 5.