One of Chicago’s most well-known and enduring legacies is that of the gangster and mafia era that peaked in the early 20th century. Like so many things in history – Nazis, pirates, pilgrims – what was a time period rife with crime, bloodshed, and murder and the people who were at the heart of it have become a fun thing to dress as for Halloween, base themed restaurants on, make the mascots of sports teams, and set shallow, action-packed fiction around. Not that gangsters and mob bosses weren’t also glamorized at the time, and not that the glorification and reverence of criminals and killers in the media isn’t a practice that dates back to at least Old West outlaws. But without a doubt, the image of the dapper, smooth-talking gangster as a loveable figure is definitely quite prevalent in popular culture. Rather than take a hard look at some of the deeper, critically-acclaimed games based around prohibition-era Chicago, however, I’ve decided to spotlight a mostly-forgotten character from a few mostly-forgotten games.
The year was 1993, and the fighting game craze was at a fever pitch. Street Fighter II saw it’s biggest upgrade yet with Super Street Fighter II, the Mortal Kombat series came into its own with a stellar sequel (and my personal favorite MK game), and the genre had taken its first steps into 3D with Sega’s Virtua Fighter. That wasn’t all Sega had in store in its attempt to make a mark in the fighting game scene, though. That was also the year they released Eternal Champions for the Sega Genesis. In a very rare move for the time, the game was developed from the ground up as a home console game without an arcade version preceding it. Because of this, a greater emphasis was placed on the game’s story than was typical for fighting games of the time. While a “fighting tournament” is still at the heart of the plot, Sega aimed for a deeper, heavier reason for all the fisticuffs: Existence as we know it is in danger of collapsing on itself due to the death of nine people who had a chance to do make a positive impact on the world but met their demise before they had the chance. A being known as the “Eternal Champion” has plucked these individuals from their respective timelines prior to their deaths in order to compete in a tournament, and those that best him will get a chance to change their fate and go on to the greatness they were capable of but never reached. Okay, I didn’t say it was worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, and it’s pretty nonsensical even for time travel fiction. But they tried. Just like they tried other things (to varying success) intended to set EC apart from the fighting game pack of the time: characters that carried weapons, a unique training mode that pitted fighters against various Danger Room-esque traps, and of course, the famous Overkills, which were elaborate ways to finish your opponents off using things in the environment (and were executed BEFORE their health bars were fully drained).
At the heart of what made Eternal Champions unique, though, were the characters. Like with any other game set in a time travel narrative, Sega had free reign to design characters that were wildly different from one another and didn’t have to make them all work together in any sort of cohesive way that “makes sense” for a specific setting. The characters were actually more interesting and less archetype-based than you might expect, with the roster including things like a cyborg kickboxer, a 19th-century Russian acrobat, and a warrior from Atlantis. Not all were quite so hard to come up with, however, and among the go-to’s was 1920 Chicago’s Larcen Tyler.
Larcen’ was a mob-contracted burglar and illegal errand boy. He refused to whack people, though – another unique feature of EC was that all of the characters were “good” people, so while Larcen may have been a petty thief, he wasn’t a violent or evil one. His demise came when he had been hired to plant evidence in the hospital room of a rival kingpin, only to find said room occupied by a police chief. Adding to the set-up was that the evidence was in fact a bomb, which upon discovering the device Larcen attempted to save the chief (and himself) by throwing it out the window. But he was too late. Larcen go boom. Well, until the Eternal Champion gave him a second chance, that is…
Larcen’s fighting style, for reasons equally unknown and inexplicable, is Preying Mantis kung-fu. You know, that old gangster fighting style made popular by Al Capone and John Dillinger. His weapons are a spiked brass knuckle, and the trademark of every burglar, a grappling hook, which he uses both as a bladed swinging weapon and as a means of maneuverability to fly across the playing field quickly. Each character in the game also had their own unique taunt, and Larcen appropriately growled “Punk!” at his foes.
His stage is actually pretty neat. It takes place outside what looks like the Biograph Theater, fitting not only because of its standing as a classic Chicago landmark but also being the infamous location where John Dillinger was gunned down by the FBI in 1934. The marquee in the game, however, simply reads “Chicago Theater”. It’s not impossible that it’s actually meant to be, in fact, the Chicago Theater, but I’m guessing that the reality of there actually being a theater called that in Chicago is a mere coincidence. Every so often, a vintage car putters by, and a cashier sits bored in the ticket booth, clearly unimpressed by the epic battle taking place right in front of her. But something tells me she’s more affected by the street fight than she’s letting on (more on that later). The musical theme for this stage isn’t particular Chicago-ish or gangster-y, it’s pretty standard metallic techno Genesis fare, save for the familiar strains of the Dragnet theme that crop up halfway into the song (that most players probably never hear as it reaches beyond the length of a typical match). As I mentioned earlier, each stage has its own unique fatality-style Overkill in which to mortally wound opponents, and Larcen’s unlucky adversaries fall victim to a drive by shooting by that puttering car. In the Sega CD sequel to Eternal Champions, Challenge from the Dark Side, where everything is cranked up to a ridiculous degree, the Overkill is that supposedly bored ticket taker bursting out of the booth with a shotgun and blows apart the poor sap that couldn’t best Larcen’s grappling hookery.
Eternal Champions was also pioneering in another way interesting way. Beating the Mortal Kombat spin-off MK Mythologies: Sub-Zero to store shelves by a year, Sega released not one but TWO non-fighting game spinoffs centered around two of the characters from EC. One was the Genesis beat-em-up X-Perts, which starred ninja assassin Shadow, the game’s token “present day” character. Although the attempt at Donkey Kong Country-style “3D graphics” on the Genesis were fairly impressive for the time and the hardware, at least in terms of the character models, X-Perts made many of the same mistakes MK Mythologies did – namely, taking a character that moves like a fighting game character and trying to make that work in a side-scrolling action game. The other spin-off starred our hometown hero Larcen, and that game was called Chicago Syndicate. It was released for…Game Gear. Now, I owned a Game Gear and probably spent a lot of years defending it with all the fanboy fervor my middle teenage years could muster, but let’s face facts: The Game Gear’s software is “decent” at best, and even that adjective is only applicable to a number of games you’d barely need a second hand to count. Sadly, Chicago Syndicate isn’t among the Game Gear’s Hall of Fair. There is some vaguely Chicago locales, and the developers tried to implement a few ambitious ideas like an adventure game-esque hub world, but the gameplay is so completely broken that it negates the few positive things I could muster to say about it.
The only other appearance by Larcen was in the UK-based comic series entitled “Sonic the Comic”, which ran from 1993 to 2003 (though its since been revived and continued online). Each issue had stories based around other non-Sonic games, and Larcen was featured in one of two Eternal Champions-based stories. I wasn’t able to find any art from these issues, unfortunately. If anybody can direct me to some pictures of it, please let me know.
Beyond that, Larcen is essentially a dead character, as Eternal Darkness is also a dead series. Even though it never established itself as a true blockbuster fighting game or franchise, Sega clearly believed in it enough to make a sequel to the original and two spin-off games, and was at one point planning a third installment for the Saturn. People also have a fondness for it, even if it’s largely based only on their memories of it and not of any recent attempts to play it. Still, it’s odd that Sega has done almost nothing to keep the series’ memory alive beyond releasing the original game for Virtual Console (and that’s its sole re-release). It’s been absent from all of Sega’s Genesis compilations, even ones that include plenty of other games that are far less treasured and far more forgettable, and EC characters never make cameos in other games – even the Sega fan service orgy that was Fighters Megamix, which had the Daytona USA car as a playable fighter character, had not one single EC combatant. Ditto for Sega Superstars Tennis and the two recent Sega cart racing games. Sega almost seems embarrassed by Eternal Champions, which is unfortunate. Beyond their spin-off missteps, the two core fighting games weren’t awful, and definitely don’t deserve to be left out of compilations that have garbage like the the dreadful third installments to the Streets of Rage and Golden Axe franchises. But alas, sometimes that’s just the way things go. Not all franchises live on, and certainly not all characters live on. All we can do is assume that Larcen didn’t win the tournament, and he kept his original fate, exploding alongside the police chief he was tricked into taking out.
Rest in peace, Larcen Tyler. The first and last Preying Mantis kung-fu cat-burglar gangster with a heart of gold. You probably won’t be missed.
The video below is a compilation of all of the deaths throughout the Eternal Champions games. Conveniently, it’s bookended by Larcen footage: a little bit of Chicago Syndicate at the very start, and all of the Larcen-related deaths at the end, beginning at 30:03. That is, unless you have the time to sit through a solid half hour of pixelated murder, in which case, enjoy!