Growing up, I had two game systems: a barely working Atari 2600 (which lived largely forgotten in our guestroom closet) and an original NES. These lasted me until 1997 when I saved up and bought a Super Nintendo — over a year after the release of both the original PlayStation and Nintendo 64.
So, during my childhood, I did what many young gamers did: went to friends' homes and played with them on their game systems. Of course, as I was the invader, I had little choice as to what we played. So in my young years, I played a staggering variety of games: platformer to puzzle, racing to adventure — and, of course, fighting games.
Back in the '90s, fighting games were the go-to type of game when you had more than two people over and wanted to game — the loser just passed the controller to the next person in line. So as a kid, I played everything from various iterations of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter to Killer Instinct and Primal Rage.
Despite this, I was never really "good" at fighting games — mainly because playing alone, I lost interest in them rather quickly. I always liked the colourful cast of characters and wanted to know more about them. But at that time, the entirety of a character's arc tended to be their biography in the instruction manual, their pre/post match one-liners, and a single-picture ending screen when you beat the game. So after I had beaten a fighting game once with each character, I was pretty much done with it.
Then one day in mid 2001, a friend called me up and told me I had to play this Dreamcast game he'd rented; so I headed over to his house. That was my first introduction to Project Justice.
As I sat down and saw it was a fighter, I expected that we would be fighting each other — like always. Instead, he handed me the controller and told me to do the single player. So I did and was then given the choice of which school I'd like to play as. Looking through the list, I picked the all-girls school team from Seijyun High on a whim.
I was then treated to something I didn't expect — the thing that makes me love the game to this day: a plot. I was introduced to my lead character, Akira, a girl who had just transferred to this all-girls school. Before long, I had a new best friend and had beaten up (and thus befriended) the most dangerous girl in school. From then on, it was an adventure to discover what had happened to my (Akira's) brother to make him try to start a school gang war.
Before and after each battle, I was treated to long manga-style conversations between the characters where the plot and characters were developed far beyond what I had ever seen in a fighting game. I was entranced. I eagerly played the other stories, one after another.
As the game continued, I encountered more and more characters from other schools and, of course, fought many of them. But to my surprise, some of them joined my group instead. Moreover, they were more than just a note in the story scenes, they were playable in battle — meaning I had several characters to choose from before each fight.
At one point I encountered one of the villains of the game, Vatsu, who defeated me with painful ease. As always when I lose, I immediately began mashing buttons frustratedly to retry the fight as quickly as possible. And that's when the game stunned me once again: the game continued on despite my losing. While this was not the first time I had encountered an unwinnable battle, it was the first time I had seen such in a fighting game and it blew my mind. But that was nothing compared to the shock I got when I discovered that the opposite was also true: you could lose the game by winning a fight as well.
When I caught up with Akira's brother Daigo in the Gedo High School storyline, it was clear to everyone that he had been brainwashed. So I fought him, won... and then sat there slack jawed as the story scene that followed revealed I had killed him in the fight. Game Over.
After a bit of panicky internet searching, my friend and I discovered that to avoid killing Daigo, he must be defeated in a specific way (a double or triple tech attack). I was stunned as it really struck home. Project Justice is a game where how you fight actually impacts the plot of the game. That's something that can't be said of most games, much less most fighting games.
But interestingly, that's not the only time when how you fight can completely change the story.
In the Taiyo High School route, Batsu, the main character of the series, chases down a doppelganger who has been ruining his image. Along the way, he and his friends encounter and subsequently fight the characters from the other schools, including Akira. And if you lose a round with Batsu and switch to another character for the rest of the fight, Batsu runs away in shame after the battle — he straight up leaves the party, forcing his friends to recruit a new member and push on without him. Yes, the main character of the entire game quits and goes home.
But this is not a game over. When Batsu's former party finally catches up with the doppelganger, they find they are no match for him — until Batsu returns (at the most dramatic moment, of course) with a new look and powered-up attacks resulting from the secret training he's been doing.
In other words, Project Justice is a game that rewards you for losing if it serves the plot.
And that is why I love Project Justice, a somewhat obscure fighter on a system few people owned. Not only does it have several long, deep, and intertwining plots, but it also has more than a few branching stories that change based on your actions in battle. Project Justice is the first fighter I ever played that kept me motivated with the story long enough for me to actually get good at it.
Even now, more than a decade and a half later, I keep coming back to Project Justice to re-experience it again and again. In my mind, it is exactly what I want out of a fighting game — or any game for that matter: great gameplay tied together with an equally great story.