I feel I should be up-front about this, so here we go: in the game Hell Fighter, you're playing as someone who's fighting against Hell rather than controlling a fighter from Hell. I know, we're all disappointed about it and if you decided to leave now I wouldn't blame you. If you're sticking around, thank you and get ready for some kung fu-fighting, orb-collecting, sprite-flickering madness in Thin Chen Enterprise / Sachen's 1991 NES game Hell Fighter!
I know what you're thinking - this game has "Hell" right there in the title, in clear defiance of Nintendo's NES-era policy of "no hell, no crosses, nothing that anyone might conceivably take offence at". That's because Hell Fighter is an unlicensed game, so I'm riding the razor's edge of rebellious bad boy-ism to bring you this article. If Nintendo's secret police drag me away to their primary-coloured fun-prison for exposing this information, please send me a cake with a file in it. Oh, who am I kidding, I wouldn't last five minutes on the inside, let alone long enough to scrape my way through the bars of my cell. Plus they probably build the restraints from old Game Boys, and you know how durable those things are. There would be no escape.
Thin Chen Enterprise (AKA Sachen, AKA Commin, AKA Joy Van) were a prolific developer of unlicensed games, which gives me a sliver of hope that Hell Fighter won't be completely terrible because surely if you produce enough output then some of it has to be good, right? Hell Fighter is off to a reasonable start, because what's not to love about a snaggletoothed demon doing a bit of crystal ball fortune telling in his bathrobe?
I suppose you probably wouldn't love it if you lived near this volcano that the demon's attempts at carnival clairvoyance seems to have caused to erupt. I think that's what's happening, anyway. It's not very clear. What this game needs is a nice long piece of text that explains the events of the game in a clearly written and concise manner.
Would you look at that: here is the text crawl of my dreams, unless I was asked to diagram these sentences in which case it would be the stuff of nightmares. Brought to you in full, and divorced from the image of two blokes sitting in a circle of candles which only confused the otherwise perfect clarity of the message, here is Hell Fighter's intro text. Ahem:
"In the dark and cold Hades here live with an ambitious Satan who is anxious and intend to control the whole world of human being. He has no way to reach the horrible plan until the Devil Crystal Ball fallen into his hands.
On the day the Devil Crystal Ball fell, the world changes with the evil power of the crystal ball Satan made the world chaotic. In the critical moment the wise old man has found a man with Chinese kungfu. The old man trained him the uncanny power for saving the world. Finally, the young man is on his way to destroy Satan and the devils......."
Well, that's cleared things up nicely. I'm already rooting for Satan, because I can relate to him - he's ambitious, but anxious. Does his anxiety prevent him from achieving his full potential, like that time
What all this meticulously-crafted storytelling leads into is a familiar-at-first-glance NES adventure - move A Man With Chinese Kungfu from left to right, avoiding the bottomless chasms and killing the many demons that stand in his way by throwing knives at them. You can just about see one of the knives on the far right of the screenshot above. It's the brown thing that both our hero and the blue minotaur in the y-fronts are staring at intently. We'll be seeing a lot more of them. The knives, not the minotaurs in their pants.
Then a skeleton fell from the sky and lightly brushed against our hero, who promptly died. One-hit kills are the order of the day, and yet again I am vindicated in my belief that a mastery of kung fu leaves you woefully unprepared in the event of a skeleton attack. Upon his death Mr. Kungfu immediately became a skeleton himself, so maybe the skeleton that killed him was just looking for some company.
Pictured above: some platforming. The coloured bars move back and forth seemingly at random, but you've got plenty of control over your character while he's in mid-air so it's not too difficult, and the skeleton fish beneath you can't summon the energy required to jump high enough to bite you. Even if they could jump this high, those two nearby blue orbs would protect our hero as they rotate around him, because he had the good sense to collect some power-ups. Hell Fighter's power-ups come in the shape of orbs that cycle through four different colours, with the effect of the power-up dependant on what colour it is when you collect it. Yellow orbs increase the power of your knife attack, green orbs change your knives into slower-firing fireballs that have the benefit of being able to travel through scenery, blue orbs give you a protective satellite orb (up to a maximum of three) and red orbs do... something. I think. I'm not entirely sure - I think collecting red power-ups might be connected to gaining extra lives somehow but whatever they do, the effect of the red orbs is mysterious, vague and easy to ignore.
The power-up system might seem like it adds a slight degree of strategy to the gameplay as you assess which skills will help you to survive the skeleton bombardment, but no, that's not how it works. There is only one way to collect power-ups, and that's to make sure you get two yellow orbs as quickly as possible. Upgrade your knife once and it becomes a three-way shot, and if you've played Contra you'll know how useful that can by. Upgrade it twice and it Mr. Kungfu's arm seemingly transforms into a hose that sprays homing knives as long as you hold down the fire button, allowing you to walk forward and spew forth an endless stream of deadly knives that head towards their target without your intervention. You can see this happening in the screenshot above, where one of my knives has made a ninety degree turn to head straight upwards and into the tailbone of the right-hand skeleton.
Having homing knives quickly goes from being "useful" to "mandatory for your continued survival" as the game progresses, so the first moments of each new stage are a mad scramble to collect two yellow orbs as quickly as possible. After that? Get the blue orbs for added defence but avoid the green ones because if you accidentally switch from homing knives to slow, non-homing fireballs in the middle of an enemy swarm you'll be back to the last checkpoint quicker than you can say "you could argue that these homing knives are trivialising the challenge posed by Hell Fighter's enemies, and also for a kung-fu master I'm not doing much kung-fu, am I?"
Of course, your weapons won't help you negotiate the platforming sections, but they're composed of the same cliches you've seen time and again - retractable spikes in the ceiling and floor, lava geyers, fireballs. It's a relief that the jumping mechanics in Hell Fighter are solid, if a little floaty... aside from the fact that you keep jumping if you hold the jump button down. It's not a major thing, because really, how often do you hold down the button after you've jumped, but it just feels wrong. I'm sure there are other platform games where you'll jump every time your feet touch solid ground if you hold down the button, but I can't think of any off the top of my head and the phenomenon definitely contributes to the feeling of slightly wonky other-ness that only unlicensed games seem to possess.
The first boss lumbers into view, and this skeleton is fooling nobody because that's obviously a fake muscle suit. He looks like he's about to challenge me to a duel using those inflatable sumo costumes. In the end, the boss just walked back and forth, graciously jumping every now and then so I could walk underneath him. For my part, I just held down the fire button and filled the screen with homing knives until he was dead. It didn't take long.
Stage two, and I wasted a good five minutes trying to figure out how I'd be able to get past these falling water droplets without touching them. The answer is simply to jump though them, because they're not fatal. You can't blame me for thinking that they'd kill me, right? This is a NES game, anything that drips from the ceiling should be approached with the same caution you'd exercise when dealing with spilled plutonium or raw footage from Celebrity Big Brother.
Here's a visual representation of our hero's kung-fu powers. See, he's doing a kick! Granted the kick can't actually hurt enemies, but it can sure as hell knock chunks out of the floor! Sometimes power-ups are hidden within the landscape, you see, and stomping on the ground like a five-year-old who's just been told that they're leaving Toys 'R' Us is one way to free them. The other is to bash your head against them, Super Mario style. There don't seem to be any rules about which floors you can or can't stomp your way through, but this potentially infuriating lack of consistency is tempered by the fact you can usually see the orbs through the scenery.
While I'm discussing Hell Fighter's controls, here's a fun tidbit - pressing Select causes you to die instantly. Does this mean it's possible to stomp your way into an inescapable pit, leaving suicide as your only option for escape? Probably, but as there are generally enough easily available pick-ups around to get you up to "endless stream of heatseeking throwing knives" levels of power, digging in the mud for extra orbs is not something I often had to do.
The boss of stage two is a dragon. He's all the way on the right, I'm all the way on the left, so it's a contest to see whether his fireballs can reach me before my knives destroy them all and embed themselves in his mythical face. I don't see any fireballs on screen, just a conga-line of flying knives, so I guess that answers that question.
The next stage is set high in the clouds, but also somehow in a cave? Those definitely look like stalactites up there. There are birds everywhere, which lends credence to the "in the sky" theory, but also many dogs and quite a lot of buildings, things that aren't traditionally part of the sky unless you're in The Jetsons.
There's a lot going on up/down here, which gives me a chance to talk about Hell Fighter's graphics. This isn't the prettiest NES game around - the background are minimal, the animation is crude and the purple and green scenery ought to be investigated by scientists in order to isolate its migraine-causing potential - but with this much going on at once it's impressive that the game doesn't just grind to a halt. There's some screen flickering, quite a lot in places, but slowdown is at a minimum and it all clips along rather nicely. Thin Chen even included a few weather effects. In this stage it's either snowing or there's a tiny meteor shower going on.
A couple of things in this stage struck me as being kinda neat, or at least whatever is a few rungs down from "kinda neat" on the interesting scale. "Not instantly forgettable," maybe. For one thing, stage three is full of these clouds that move horizontally through the sky. When they collide, lightning shoots down from them, and because they're ubiquitous you have to keep an eye on them for the whole stage. The clouds provide a constant threat without ever becoming frustrating, so congrats to the developers because that's not an easy thing to pull off.
Also, there's a bit where a skeleton boatman paddles you across a lake. It's nothing fancy, I just think he's adorable. He's wearing a big hat! To prevent sunburn, naturally, and sunburn would be an even greater concern than usual as we're in the sky and therefore closer to the punishing rays of our hateful sun. Except there's a lake up here, and rocks. Where the hell am I? A game about a kung fu master throwing knives at Satan's minions, and this is the logical inconsistency that's annoying me the most.
Speaking of annoying, trying to get a clear screenshot of the boss was a nightmare because the three-faced pain in the arse was either floating off the edge of the screen or obscuring his features by vomiting up an endless supply of birds and red stick... things? I don't know what those are. I'd say they look like barely twist sweets if that didn't make me sound old enough to be your grandfather.
Oh yeah, the boss. Just hold down fire and casual walk to the other side of the platform if he gets near. That's if you've got the homing knives, at least. If you're stuck with the three-way spread or, god forbid, you changed to the fireballs; well, remember how I said pressing Select immediately kills you? I think that might be your best option.
Stage four has more of a platforming slant, complete with a pair of floating logs that you have to keep pace with as they travel through the level. Kung fu teaches many things, but not the breaststroke.
All this platform-hopping action is assembled in such a way that I'm not sure it I could say it's fun or not. I've played worse NES games, that's for sure, and for an unlicensed game Hell Fighter is extremely playable but there's just not much to it. The level design is functional but hardly thrilling, and then there's the boss battles. I have defeated all the bosses thus far by standing still and holding down the fire button. Dark Souls this ain't, but there's still time to turn it around. What about stage four's boss?
Somewhat miraculously, Captain Snips, Crab of the Devil broke free from the usual pattern of Hell Fighter's bosses by being unfazed by my homing knives. My homing knives also seeming unfazed by Captain Snips, deciding that he posed such a minimal threat that they refused to home in on him. That wasn't helpful, and I have to let myself be killed so I could collect the fireball power-up and even then I actually had to pay attention in this fight because you need to jump over the crab's claws when he swings them at you. Don't get me wrong, I've had more difficult times trying to eat a packet of biscuits, but at least I needed to be awake to defeat this crab. Well done, Captain Snips, you're the most threatening boss in the whole game, and considering one of your attacks is to blow spit bubbles I think that's a real achievement.
A Man With Chinese Kungfu heads into the forest for the penultimate stage, a dark and cluttered corner of Satan's domain where the things that are trying to kill you are more indecipherable than ever. For instance, I bet you saw that flapping blue thing there and assumed it was a bat. Well, take a closer look and I'm sure you'll agree that it's really a cat with fake wings glued to it. A large meatball hangs from the ceiling, ready to fall on anyone foolish enough to walk beneath it, while on the ground several smaller meatballs have formed a symbiotic relationship and become a bizarre worm-like creature intent on attacking our hero's feet. Jokes on them, his feet have disappeared in this picture.
Stage five's most super-funnest new gimmick - if you're a masochist, anyway - is that sometimes the floor disappears when you walk over it. In another game I'd be complaining that this breaks up the flow of the action as you inch through the level, trying to activate the crumbling floors before you walk on them, but Hell Fighter is such a weird mish-mash of platforming styles, negligible enemy threats and floor-stomping that there's no flow to interrupt and instead it ends up feeling like just another part of this game's weird tapestry.
The boss is a dragon who stands proudly atop his fortress of cream crackers, puking up fireballs onto any adventurers unfortunate enough to stand nearby. Is this another boss that cannot be defeated by the honourable tactic of standing in place and firing knives out of my palm?
No, not if you dig yourself a little cave in the side of the dragon's easily-damaged home / pile of chocolate cereal pieces and hide inside. The overhang protects you from the dragon's fire, your homing knives do the rest and we all learn a valuable lesson about how kung fu isn't always about using your strength to defeat your foes - sometimes you must use your mind, and take advantage of their lack of foresight when choosing building materials.
At last, the final stage, and if this is Hell then Hell looks a lot like a stage from a Mega Man game. Conveyor belts, giant spiked maces and arcade claw machines that have gone rogue and are trying to kill you by dropping rocks on your head are all out in force, plus a squadron of kamikaze robot turkeys. Did any of the Mega Man games have robot turkeys in them? Maybe in Pilgrim Man's stage. Get equipped with Thanksgiving Buster! I'd tell Capcom they can have that Robot Master idea for free but let's be honest, they're never going to make another Mega Man game.
This is a much shorter stage than all the others, and it's also easier than the rest, maybe because there's less of it and maybe because turkeys are terrible at killing people even if they have been turned into cyborgs. Your knives solve most problems before they even come into view and the only real challenge posed by this stage is that you have to get so close to the right-hand side of the screen to get it to scroll that it's easy to be killed by spiked balls you couldn't see coming.
If you manage to survive the unhelpful scrolling, eventually you'll reach Hell Fighter's final boss and the very thing from Hell that you have been sent to fight - Satan himself! Or maybe it's not Satan - I had assumed that the demon from the intro, the one with the volcano-triggering crystal ball, was Satan. Another reason that I suspect this boss may be a different entity all together is that Satan is rarely described as a huge robotic skull with Mario Bros. pipes feeding into it that's constantly crying blood.
Whoever it is, this boss has a strong case for putting up the toughest fight in the game. Second toughest after that crab, anyway. That's right, you have to move slightly while holding down fire in this one! Satan's Bloody Tears Cyberskull Playset only has one attack, which is to send a small satellite to hover over your head. After a while the satellite fires in eight directions, but the only direction you need to worry about is straight down, and taking a step to the side will cause the attack to miss. Constantly throwing knives and moving two inches to the left or right every now and then is more than enough to foil the machinations of Lucifer, Lord of Darkness and Prince of Lies. Or his novelty Halloween drinks fountain, whichever one this is.
After much struggle and some frankly disgusting language each time I accidentally collected the fireball power-up, the Devil Crystal Ball is in front of me. It's totally evil and brimming with arcane power, you guys. The fact that the symbols on the base look like shapes from a Play-Doh Fun Factory is inconsequential, this thing is a catalyst for pure terror.
Then our hero smashes the crystal ball by shooting it with an arrow, something which seems like a lot of unnecessary effort when he could have just thrown it at the floor. Hang on, an arrow? Have I been firing arrows through the whole game but calling them knives like a massive idiot? I took a closer look at them and they don't look like arrows, but then again they don't really look like knives, either. They look more like goldfish than anything else. Yeah, let's go with that. A Man With Chinese Kungfu saves the world by throwing goldfish at a big robot skull. I think that fits nicely with Hell Fighter's overall mood.
This game certainly was an experience. As an unlicensed NES game from Taiwan, I was expecting something borderline unplayable, but Hell Fighter is surprisingly competent in terms of raw game mechanics - it controls well (weird rapid-fire jumping aside) and occasionally it's technologically impressive - but it feels strangely empty. The level design is uninspired, the backgrounds are dull and the music feels like a punishment for a crime I don't remember committing. The biggest flaw with this game, however, is the the homing knives. Without them, Hell Fighter is too hard, too overwhelming and just not much fun. With them it's often ridiculously easy, particularly the bosses, and there's no middle ground. I'm glad that Hell Fighter exists, because otherwise the world wouldn't be home to that amazing intro text, but I can't recommend you play it unless you're really into throwing knives at things and there are no vacancies for knife-throwers at any the local circuses.