GAIA CRUSADERS / Noise Factory / Arcade
Noise Factory wasn't fashionably late to the beat-em-up party -- they were just plain *late*. Gaia Crusaders is their first release of any type, and it came out in '99 when the traditional arcade market had already greatly shriveled up and what was left of it was almost exclusively devoted to competitive one-on-one fighters, rhythm games, elaborate pricey racing cabinets and endless Time Crisis sequels/spinoffs.
Nevertheless, genre aficionados seem to hold this one in high regard. It has a very high level of aesthetic polish, and though it doesn't have the Street Fighter-style specials that were being incorporated into these few late-stage beat-em-ups, it does have a fairly elaborate combo system that allows you to alternate punches and kicks for different series of moves.
The setup is pretty basic: our team of five heroes is tasked by Goofy Master to recover crystal shards from various ne'er-do-wells, which when assembled will save the world somehow. Cue the standard progression of beat-em-up levels. The characters are pretty samey in their basic attacks; the main difference is how they use the various elemental orbs you pick up. Each has a certain elemental affinity, and when they get that particular type of orb they can clear the screen with a Golden Axe-style spell. Using elements they aren't affiliated with just lets them do a more powerful short-range melee attack.
It looks good, and it sounds good (if you like Fifth Element-esque "worldy" music at least), but I feel like the gameplay and level design aren't entirely up to par here. The game has a cheap feel due to a combination of various factors: very passive enemies that slink around beneath the range of your punch attack and pose no real threat except when they're backshooting you as you combo someone else, constant environmental traps shooting from the walls and floor that the enemies get to just ramble right through, and bosses who spew so many mooks and projectiles out you can't reasonably avoid taking serious damage.
You end up with a game that centers on long elaborate combos, yet you're constantly getting punished for using them -- either getting backshot by enemies when you're only two or three hits in, or sliding forward as part of the combo into one of the many environmental traps lying around. If you eschew combos to avoid this, you can't hem the enemies up effectively and they start spamming homing-missile rush attacks it you.
In the end I'm left with the feeling that people who praise this one are getting lost in the graphics and music. The gameplay and level design really seem like a semi-amateur first effort, leaning too hard on cheap chip damage to suck quarters out of your pocket.