Break out the rooster's blood and sticky rice, because today we'll be delving into the dark side of Chinese mythology with FCI's 1989 NES exorcise-em-up Phantom Fighter.
What we have here is a beat-em-up with a few RPG elements, but before I get onto the gameplay let's talk about your terrifying targets: the dreaded jiang shi, or Chinese hopping vampire (literally stiff corpse, which funnily enough was the name of my high school death-metal band). Here's one right now, struggling to get out of bed after a heavy night's hoppin'.
The jiang shi that gamers are probably most familiar with is Hsien-Ko from Capcom's Darkstalkers series, although she's much more cheerful, sentient and mobile than most other jiang shi. While they're often called "hopping vampires" in the west, they don't really have much in common with their European counterparts - they drink life-force instead of blood, they're as dumb as a tray of doughnuts and they are very rarely seen in formal eveningwear. If anything, they're more like the standard western zombies: slow, stupid reanimated corpses. The reason they hop is because, being corpses, they have rigor mortis and they can't bend their rotten legs. Once again we are left to ponder the fact that Eastern monsters just aren't that scary. Hopping is hardly the most menacing form of locomotion, is it?
The jiang shi are your foes then, although just to confuse you the game refers to them as "kyonshi", which is the Japanese reading of their Chinese name. Your mission is to travel between various villages and help destroy all the jiang shi that have taken up residence by using a combination of kung fu and items like paper wards and mirrors. If this is all sounding somewhat familiar to you, then you may well have seen an excellent film called Mr. Vampire.
One of my favourite films ever, Mr. Vampire (Geung si sin sang in Cantonese) is the story of a Taoist priest called Kau (or Gau, depending on your translation) and his two assistants. They're called to oversee the reburial of a rich man. Unfortunately once he's been dug up he becomes a jiang shi, and soon Kau and his assistants are battling a jiang shi, a succubus-ghost thing and their own incompetence in a kung fu /comedy / horror / action masterpiece. The fight scenes are great, the comedy is very funny and Lam Ching-ying's wonderfully straight-faced portrayal of Kau is a joy to watch. If you haven't seen it and you have any interest in kung fu or horror-comedy movies, you should really check it out.
What I'm getting at is that in Japan, Phantom Fighter was originally released as Reigen Doushi...
...which is the Japanese title for Mr. Vampire. It's a Mr. Vampire game! Now you know the real reason I'm playing Phantom Fighter - because I get to play as this badass.
Aww yeah, now we're talking. So, is the game up to the standards of the film that spawned it? Well no, not really, but it has its moments.
As I already mentioned, Phantom Fighter is a side-on beat-em-up at heart. You control Kau and battle thr... what? Alright, so he's not called Kau in PF, he's been rechristened as Kenchi. You control Kenchi and fight jiang shi / kyonshi, and that's really all there is to it.
There are eight villages to save, and each one follows the same pattern. Your goal is to find the three jade orbs located in each stage: collecting all three will let you enter the boss' room, where you can use the muscular power of Tao to send him back to his grave. You're allowed to freely walk around each village, although there isn't much to them: they each have a temple and a training hall, but they're mostly made up of houses full of kyonshi. You can tell what's waiting inside by pressing the A button at the doorway. Temples and training houses are clearly marked, and if you get a message that says "Kyonshies are here" then you have stumbled upon a room full of lingerie models having a pillowfight.
Don't be silly, they didn't even have lingerie models in nineteenth-century China. What you get instead is a one-on-one fight with a kyonshi, and it's these fights that make up the main meat of the game. The general concept is simple enough: you have a health bar, they have a health bar, and the basic idea is to hit them more times than they hit you. You have a button each for punch and kick, you can jump and crouch, all the basics are here. Of course, the most important thing - the thing this whole game hinges on - is how do these fights play?
Kinda weird, is the answer. The fighting isn't bad, necessarily - in fact, when compared to a lot to NES fighting games from this time, it's pretty impressive. The collision detection in particular seems much more accurate than most, and Kenchi reacts quickly when you hit a button. That said, there are some unusual quirks to the fighting system, the most obvious of which is that your movements have momentum. If Kenchi is running forwards and you let go of the d-pad, he'll keep on keepin' on for a while - usually just long enough to walk into a kyonshi's sharpened fingernails (their deadliest weapon). For someone like myself who is so used to playing inertia-free fighters like Street Fighter, having your character keep on sliding when you let go of the button takes some getting used to.
Also, you can't move or attack when you're crouching. This lead to a couple of awkward moments when I ducked to avoid a kyonshi's attack and found myself trapped, unable to stand up because I'd be stepping straight into an attack and equally unable to throw my own punch or even crab-walk to safety. Instead I sat on my haunches for a while, my face frozen at the level of the kyonshi's rancid groin while it flapped its hands around like it was trying to dry its nail polish, until I finally bit the bullet, stood up and took the hit. There’s only so long you can spend with your face that close to undead genitalia, you know?
Once you defeated all the kyonshi in the building, your assistant will ask you if you want to head back into the village, where you'll have to repeat the whole process. Occasionally, you'll come across a doorway that gives a different message, namely "Danger's in the air", which means you've stumbled upon one of the houses that holds a jade orb.
The standard kyonshi-fighting rules apply, except when you defeat the last one he'll drop a jade orb. Now, I know what you're thinking: if you can easily identify which houses contain jade orbs, why would you bother entering any other buildings? I can only say that that's a truly disgusting attitude for a kyonshi hunter to have. Just going to leave all those other villagers to die, are you? You sicken me.
No, I'm kidding: I'm just as lazy and uninterested in the fates of these mere peons as you are. The point of clearing out the other houses is that the inhabitants will generally give you a reward when you save them. Sometimes you get a weapon to help you in battle, like a sacred sword that extends your range slightly but has the unfortunate side-effect of being more fragile than a freshly-orphaned child, but usually your reward comes in the form of ancient scrolls.
These scrolls aren't just fun reading material to help you get through the long nights of guarding recently-expired corpses to ensure they don't rise from the dead - they're also used as currency, and they can be exchanged for new moves at the training halls found in each stage.
You can't just wander in and see the master, though. First you have to correctly answer a question posed to you by this fat pink jobsworth.
He is supposedly testing your knowledge of the kyonshi and their weaknesses, but as some of the questions are things like "how many stars are on the American flag?" and "which of these games are also by FCI?" it's pretty obvious that this jumped-up prick is just trying to impose his authority on my zombie-killing ass. At least the question shown here is vaguely related to kyonshi, although I'm not sure how knowing their dietary preferences are is going to help me. Maybe I'm going to lure them into a buffet-based trap where all the foods are laced with anti-kyonshi poisons.
The answer to this one is ice cream, by the way. You aren't told this anywhere in the game, so I presume it was included to highlight the truly sinister nature of the kyonshi. I mean honestly, what good, decent person doesn't like ice cream? Except the lactose intolerant, obviously. And people whose parents were killed in a tragic Mr. Whippy explosion.
Once you're past the quizmaster, the actual master will trade you scrolls for skills, and they're all pretty useful. There're skills for extra speed, more damaging attacks, a jumping kick and most importantly the ability to move and punch while crouching. No more getting frozen in a squatting position with my face mere inches from a kyonshi's batch for me! The upgrade system is a nice little extra: too simple to be given the usual "RPG elements" tag that so many NES games of this time seemed to be aiming for, but a welcome addition that gives Phantom Fighter the edge over something like Kung Fu none the less.
Now that we've raided all the houses for scrolls and collected the three sacred jades, it's time to face the boss, and... they're a little underwhelming, to be perfectly honest. That's the first boss pictured above: not a group of kyonshi that have formed a demonic conga line, but one kyonshi that creates after-images when it jumps. That's all there is to the bosses, really. They're just kyonshi that have slightly different powers, with the first one having his fairly useless trails but most of the others having the mystical power of chucking stuff at you. There are bosses that throw knives, or lightning, or fireballs, and they're all about as interesting as that sounds (although in his defence, the one that throws fireballs does so with the "hadouken" hand motion).
Once the boss kyonshi is dead(er), it's on to the next village and, well, that's all there is to it. Each village follows the same pattern of checking doorways, fighting kyonshi, collecting scrolls, finding the orbs and defeating the boss. Sadly, this repetitiveness is the game's major failing - it's tedious enough performing the same actions over and over, but when you get to the later villages and have to fight five or six identical enemies one at a time just to clear out one building it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration. I found myself wishing for something, anything to break the tedium, to the point of even (and I'm ashamed to admit this) hoping there'd be an overly-difficult and poorly-implemented platforming section or two.
If you do manage to summon the mental energies required to reach the final stage, you'll learn that a witch called Obo is behind everything and needs a firm Taoist arse-kicking to get everything back to normal.
Of course, there are plenty more rooms filled with the same old enemies to wade through before you reach your target.
And here's the witch herself, in all her crimson, misshapen glory. She's only vaguely humanoid, but she's still a welcome change from the stream of kyonshi that you had to put down to get here. She's only got two moves, teleporting around the room and firing what might be eye-beams but could equally be her hair at you, and she's easy enough to kill.
Evil has disappeared, Kau / Kenchi has destroyed the evil witch and her army of kyonshi / jiang shi, and we're treated to the standard NES ending: scrolling credits over a still picture and fuck-all else. What did you expect, unlockable costumes or something? You should know better by now.
A decent game almost completely ruined by repetition and, yes, the standard NES difficulty level (that is, ridiculously high) that means every fight could spell game over if you're not very careful - hit-and-run tactics are a must here. Being the positive and cheerful person that I am, (for a misanthrope, I mean,) I'm always looking for the bright side, and Phantom Fighter has a few. While the sound isn't much, with a small selection of tracks which quickly get (you guessed it) repetitive, the graphics are pretty good throughout. The screenshots don't do justice to the fluidly-animated sprites, and particular praise goes to the backgrounds which are well-drawn and detailed. I particularly like the effect of the polished wooden floor in the last stage.
The actual fighting takes some getting used to, but once you do it's relatively well-executed, although the "punch while crouching" skill occasionally feels ridiculously overpowered. Who knew corpses shared the same testicular vulnerabilities as living males? The inclusion of upgradeable skills and, thankfully, a password system are also greatly appreciated. Overall, Phantom Fighter is worth trying out, and if you enjoy it enough to not mind the repetition then it's definitely got more class and depth to it than most NES brawlers. Plus, it's based on Mr. Vampire. What more could you possibly want?
As for the Hallowe'en-O-Meter, Phantom Fighter gets a solid seven out of ten, as befits a game which revolves around punching zombies. Also, it's Mr. Vampire!
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