Platform: Playstation 1
Digimon and Pokemon were only two of the megaton forces facing each other off back in the late 90s. Had you asked any child on the street what their favourite Digimon | Pokemon was, you would have had an answer 99% of the time. It was in these carefree days that many of us used to play the trading card games, and play either the GameBoy Pokemon RPGs or Digimon World on the PS1. There was however, another attempt made by Digimon to break free of the narrowed down expectation that its game had to be an RPG like Pokemon. Where Pokemon played it safe with a Trading Card Game on the GameBoy, Digimon took more risks in these regards, where it not only had a 3D RPG on the PS1 [in comparison to Pokemon's 2D RPG on the GameBoy] alongside a TCG on the PS1 as well, but it also took the risky leap into the arena quite literally, with Digimon Rumble Arena as a multiplayer fighting game.
Seeking the same reception as Super Smash Bros, the aim of the game was to take part in a duel with another Digimon, and knock them out before they did the same to you. This was achieved by jumping around an arena and collecting powerups to help you, eventually gaining enough power to either digivolve and finish off your opponent, or to unleash your final move, very similarly to how Super Smash Bros Brawl deals with final smash moves on the Wii. The SSB formula has always worked in fairness, whether you attach it to Nickelodeon toon characters, Nintendo, Playstation Mascots, or whatever takes your fancy; the results are the same.
You get a fun and engaging atmosphere for two players to face each other head to head, with enough tactical choices that make it a fair fight of skill, and with enough random moments thrown in with the powerups to add a little bit of gambling to the whole system to keep things exciting. Where DRA falls short unfortunately is in the content department. With only a few arenas to choose from, and the character roster 'cheating' the player almost, since you have the choice to pick a Rookie Digimon, but later unlocking their Champion form to play as permanently in a match, instead of having to Digivolve, it can feel as if the roster was doubled simply by saying “well look here, if we just make the Champion forms separate characters in themselves, we'll double the roster immediately!”. They've still had to integrate the Champion forms into the game, and it's still work done at some point, but it does feel overall a little cheap as a player, and seems like a simple answer, where we could have been just as happy with lowering the Rookie roster a little [keeping it to the main characters], and adding more unique Digimon to the mix.
That aside, there's still a nice list of Digimon to choose from in terms of quality, Agumon and WarGreymon most likely being fan favourites are present, alongside the other Rookie digimon you've come to know and love. Renamon seems a little overpowered with a Diamond Storm ability, which basically throws shards of Diamond at the enemy, constantly stunning them while each shard connects, giving Renamon time to move away or setup another attack, but other than a few instances like this with very particular Digimon attacks, the entire experience feels balanced and fair.
Another small annoying thing that breaks the balance a little, is that when you've taken heavy damage, you simply start falling in a predetermined arc [based on your momentum etc.] and have no control over your character and must simply fall until you land and then get up again. Sometimes you could be jumping upwards, be hit by a heavy attack, and start falling off the map and you can't correct your flight path at all. This becomes unfair when your opponent begins to land lucky hits and you being unlucky enough to fall off the map and lose a chunk of health, respawn, and you've suddenly fallen behind. These aren't really moments of skill or 'setting up a trap', but more just annoying instances where you have no control after you've been hit unlike in SSB, or most other arena fighters where you can have some influence over your flight path. This removes any feeling of control over your character, and you just have to suck it up, hoping you don't fall off or fall through the smallest of gaps meaning you basically fall to the bottom of the arena, placing you in similar territory again.
The single player mode is no more frills or extras than the simple progression through match after match until you beat the final boss, and eventually unlocking him alongside the other Digimon along the way. Sometimes you'll be challenged by a dark Digimon, or another special character which is context sensitive to the conditions you've fulfilled along the way through each match. These special characters must be beaten in order to unlock them; same as the final boss. The A.I isn't so much challenging, as it's more along the lines of being tricky. Just when you think you have the A.I worked out, and its patterns memorised, they choose another route or behave unpredictably for no reason at all [most likely the randomisation seeds in the behaviour functions to avoid being so predictable]. This keeps things from growing stale and repetitive, but at times their movement can seem erratic at best.
For instance, sometimes an A.I will jump a gap over some lava, coming towards you, if you choose to move towards them, this changes their behaviour and they reverse their direction which makes them fall into the lava. It's these moments that make the behaviour more erratic than unpredictable, which can be as humorous as it is annoying at times. Thankfully these moments are rare, and the enemy is too busy focusing on attacking you than playing tactfully, so the case usually is that you're trying to defend constant barrages than it is trying to outsmart your opponent's positioning.
There are certain ability | item cards you can pick up around the arena to keep your lead on your opponent. There are elemental ball cards, which are picked up and then activated by pressing the special attack button, which will throw an energy ball towards the direction of your opponent. The fireball simply doing massive damage, and the frostball freezing your enemy into a cage of ice, where they slide along the floor and possibly off the arena. There are also + and – cards, which fill or deplete your digivolving | final ability energy bar. There are other items that for instance, completely fill your digivolve bar amongst others, but the philosophy is generally to have a small selection and keep things neat and polished, without too many distractions.
There is local 2 player mode, but 4 player mode is sorely missed here. After SSB creating such a buzz with fun 4 player arena gameplay, DRA feels a tad bit underdeveloped in this area, and would have meant the difference between being a mediocre title and a classic gaming gem of the PS1 era. 4 player battles aren't necessarily the only problem with the game however. Like I said before, the arena roster is very limited, but additionally it is lacking space. The arenas feel tight on more than one occasion, and this isn't due to the arena themselves in scale, but more so on the design. Constant clutter with the foreground objects you use to navigate the arena, some even blocking you with collision boxes can be a pain at times, and before 4 player can even be thought about as an additional feature, the arenas would need to have some of this clutter taken out alongside redesigning the arenas to be bigger and more spacious. That's most likely a reason for sticking to 2 player, or perhaps it was a conscious design decision to keep things limited and small for 2 players, keep arenas tight and types of items available quite limited as well. All I'm implying however, is that choice would have been nice, as SSB caters for these moments of “should we have a 1vs1 on a small arena with few items? Or should we have a 2vs2 in a large arena with all items turned on?”.
DRA lacks the polish of SSB, but that can be said about most arena fighters, even the brilliant Playstation All-Stars lacks the polish of a game created over a decade ago in truth. We all know however, that SSB seems to keep the crown for the party-arena-fighter genre, as admirably as other games try, they always seem somewhat overshadowed. This though, is where DRA reaches the same heights as Playstation All-Stars, it still manages to give SSB a run for its money, which makes it all the more surprising considering the features it lacks, and its limited nature. Out of all the arena fighters in the SSB style of gameplay, with SSB obviously holding the crown, I place DRA next to Playstation All-Stars in terms of what it has achieved, but it's incredibly important to remember that it has achieved as such with very limited focus, and it makes you wonder what might have been had the game widened the scope of its content by only a margin. Had they expanded on ideas and polished the gameplay a little more, we'd have an equal contender for SSB, or at the very least 'back in the day'. More items, more characters, more arenas, and more players are the basic improvements needed, which DRA 2 added in later on, but still missed the soul and the texture of gameplay that DRA 1 has, and came with its own unique set of problems.
So overall, a pretty good game back from the PS1 golden days of gaming, but hasn't managed to create a legendary status for itself, and lacks polish here and there, but with all things accounted for; a solid and fun fighting game. For Digimon Fans I say finding this old title to play is no brainer, a superb Digimon fighting game that will satiate your nostalgia for the show. Still enjoyable though for non-fans, and stands the test of time extremely well.