11/06/2015

HOKUTO NO KEN (MASTER SYSTEM)

It seems that in every other article I end up saying "this martial artist / violent thug / shoulderpad aficionado sure looks like he was inspired by Hokuto no Ken," so I decided it was probably a good idea to write about an actual Hokuto no Ken game. I may come to regret this, because most retro Hokuto no Ken games are terrible. If I'm lucky Sega's 1986 Master System you-are-already-dead-em-up Hokuto no Ken will be hovering somewhere around "below average," but I'm too much of a pragmatist to hope for anything better than that.


This scowling man, his hair all frizzed up by the electrical discharges in the air around him, is Kenshiro. He's the hero of Hokuto no Ken, also known in the west as Fist of the North Star, a manga and anime franchise about a man who can punch people so hard that they explode. Spoiler alert: he punches people a lot, especially if you include kicks and really violent pokes with a finger as a subset of punches. Actually, this article is going to end up being 90% Hokuto no Ken spoilers, so bear that in mind if you want to watch it for yourself. Kenshiro is the master of and sole successor to the ancient martial art of Hokuto Shinken, which revolves around pressing the pressure points of your victims' bodies to kill them in a variety of interesting ways. It's weaponized acupuncture, essentially. A nuclear war devastates the Earth, and Kenshiro travels the desert wastes, killing bad guys and saving villagers as he searches for Yuria, his lost love who was abducted by the evil Shin.


Kenshiro is the conceptual lovechild of Mad Max and Bruce Lee, all leather jackets and high-pitched kung-fu screams, and I'm big fan of his hyper-violent adventures - they're completely insane, contain a fair amount of black humour and are occasionally, just occasionally, quite touching. Of course, in an eight-bit videogame the only part of Hokuto no Ken that's going to be replicated for the player is all the punching, so let's get on with it.


Within seconds of the game starting, Hokuto no Ken is unmasked as clone of Irem's classic Kung Fu Master. Kenshiro walks along a (mostly) flat plane, defeating the swarms of villains who rush towards him with a limited set of moves. You've got punches and kicks in the usual standing and crouching variants, as well as a jumping kick. As is often the case in this type of game, the jumping kick is best used by jumping, sticking your leg out while in the air and then falling onto the enemy with your outstretched foot, letting gravity do most of the work. Punches have a slightly shorter range than kicks and the cannon-fodder enemies all die in one hit, so I guess I was wrong about there being a lot of punching in this one. No point making things more difficult for myself than they have to be. Let's just hope Kenshiro is wearing his stretchiest jeans.


The graphics well above average for a game of this vintage, too. Your sprite is recognisably Kenshiro, and there's even some decent parallax scrolling going on in the background. Sure, it's a wasteland stripped bare by the horrors of nuclear fire, but at least there's some depth to it. Less convincing is the bad guys' death animation, where the terrifying power of Hokuto Shinken is depicted by having the thugs break into small chunks and float away on the wind. It's a softer, gentler form of explosive death, then: suitable for the home console market and less taxing on the Maser System hardware than having everyone you punch burst open like a gas-filled whale carcass.


After a while, the screen stops scrolling and the first of the stage's four - yes, four - minibosses pops out and attempts to block Kenshiro's progress. He's one of Shin's lieutenants, and his name is Spade. He does not fight with a spade, which is a shame. Instead he throws axes, which Kenshiro can punch out of the air. Aside from that, it's a simple matter of getting close enough to Spade to land a few punches, and punches are recommended because I think they do slightly more damage. Low kicks are right out, because as is the case with so many sub-human gangers from the irradiated wastes, Spade is wearing an extravagant amount of shin armour. Maybe the mutations that allowed these men to become hulking eight-foot-tall slabs of muscle despite the scarcity of food also rearranged their internal organs, moving everything vital into the lower leg.


Next up is Diamond, another of Shin's lackeys. Diamond presumably saw Kenshiro slaughter hundreds of men singlehandedly, as well as Spade, and thought to himself "sure he's tough, but I've got a stick!" Yes, you do have a stick, Diamond. Well done. It's not a very long stick, mind you, and it's easy enough to move Kenshiro back when you attack so he's slightly out of range, before moving in for the kill while you're recovering.
As a sidenote, in the manga Ken defeated Diamond using a move called the "Face-Breaking Fist." The name Face-Breaking Fist is played with a completely straight face, which is sort of why I love Fist of the North Star.


The deck of cards-themed psychopaths keep comin' with the appearance of Club, a man who fights with claws and not a club. It was Diamond that used the club, remember? Try to keep up. Club's gimmick is that he jumps around a lot, which proves to be his downfall because he doesn't actually attack while he's up there. This means you get a free punch to the shins, armour be damned, as he falls back to Earth.


Finally in the roster of midbosses for the first stage and rounding (pun intended) out the card suits theme is Heart. One of the more famous of Hokuto no Ken's lesser characters, Heart is a big fat man whose fighting style is being so big and fat that no-one can hurt him through his blubber, a martial art in which I am close to being awarded a red belt myself. His unmatched durability has earned Heart the nickname Destroyer of Fists, but Kenshiro gets around this problem by not-so-gently nudging Heart's belly out of the way with his foot before dealing the final blow. In the game, this boils down to Heart having more health than all the previous minibosses combined, which makes for a dangerous combination with the powerful kick to the groin that he delivers if you spend too long in close proximity to him. This fight became a straight-up race to the bottom of our respective health bars, and once I'd realised that you can't hurt an enemy if they're too close to Kenshiro - the hitbox for his attacks only covers his hands and feet and not the limbs in between - I managed to whittle away at Heart until I killed him, presumably mere minutes before the catastrophic coronary that would have finished him off anyway.


The bosses battles just keep on coming, but now that I've reached the end of the first stage things are a little different. The camera has moved closer to the action, the sprites are bigger and while Kenshiro still has only the same limited moveset the whole thing feels a little bit more Street Fighter, possibly thanks to the visible health bar for the boss I'm facing.
The boss in question is Shin, master of Nanto Seiken, the rival martial art to Hokuto Shinken. Shin beat beat Kenshiro in a fight prior to the start of the series, horribly wounding him in the process and kidnapping his fiancée Yuria. I know that seems like a lot of baggage to be piling onto the very first real boss fight of the game - putting a stop to your hated enemy and rescuing your girlfriend are usually reserved for the very end of a game - but that's just how Fist of the North Star is, becoming more stretched and convoluted as the franchise goes on.
Shin is dressed like a space stewardess from a 1950's fantasy of what space travel would be like in the future, so you might be worried about going up against him. Anyone who can wear a magenta jumpsuit and still control an army of vicious killers through fear and intimidation must be a truly terrifying foe, right? Well, never fear. Shin likes to act the big I-am with his fancy hand movements and battle poses, but if you calmly walk towards him and punch whenever you're in punching range then you'll emerge triumphant.


Ken finishes Shin off with his trademark Hundred Crack Fist. Ironically, Shin was not wearing shin protectors. Maybe he could have survived if he had been. Anyway, time for Kenshiro to be reunited with his lost love, and the two of them can go off into the sunset together.


Or not, because this is just a doll that looks like Yuria, a fact that escaped Ken's finely-honed senses. Let's give him a break, he was engaged in a battle to the death at the time. Sadly the real Yuria has killed herself already by throwing herself off a balcony. Except she hasn't, and it turns out later that she's still alive. I told you Hokuto no Ken gets convoluted. By the end it's all Dickensian coincidence and long-lost siblings. And punching, there's still quite a lot of punching.


Chapter two sees Kenshiro entering Godland, home to a military organisation who believe they can purge the wastes of the weak and undeserving through military might and jumping around with no shirts on, like a cross between a totalitarian junta and the WWE. Each stage in Hokuto no Ken follows the same pattern - wade through a level full of identikit goons, pausing occasionally to fight a miniboss before reaching the finale, where the action switches to the slightly more detailed "proper" boss fight. It might be a shallow rip-off of Kung Fu Master, but then what other kind of game could Hokuto no Ken really have been? Even for a fighting anime the series itself is set up just like a scrolling beat-em-up: Kenshiro fights to either save his girlfriend or destroy evil, killing cannon-fodder troops until he reaches a boss. He's got special moves, and even (although it didn't make it into the game) a "powered-up" state where he becomes so furious his jacket disintegrates. That definitely sounds like a scrolling beat-em-up to me.


I see oil drums, Hokuto no Ken's beat-em-up status is confirmed.


The first miniboss of the stage is the Major, a very angry man with a whip. I think he's so angry because the nuclear apocalypse destroyed his career as a lion tamer, forcing him to use his whip skills in other, less salubrious ways. He really likes the whip, too. Never stops swinging the bloody thing, and if you let him get too close he can shred Kenshiro's health bar very quickly. So, this becomes a hit-and-run type of battle, the main goal being to preserve as much of you health as you can. You only get one health bar to last you through the entire stage, and aside from a tiny refill when you beat a midboss there are no health-restoring pickups, giving the whole game a sort of "Survival Mode" feel.


Mad Sarge now, his madness apparently not holding him back from promotion to the rank of sergeant. He's mad all right - mad about knives, which he throws around with gay abandon. It's okay, knives are one of the few things that are easy to come by in the post-apocalyptic world, along with shinpads, mohawk gel and super gain protein powder. As for the fight, well, you remember earlier I fought that guy who threw axes? Yeah, it's the same as that.


The end-of-stage boss is the Colonel, a soldier in a red beret who carries a baton and strives to create a soldier's utopia. I think there's a strong possibility that Colonel is the inspiration for Final Fight's Rolento, although Colonel never bounces around on his baton like a pogo stick so Rolento is clearly the superior warrior.
In fact, Colonel doesn't use his baton at all when you fight him, choosing instead to harass the player with many tiny boomerangs like the warrior dwarfs of Australia. Once you've figured out the boomerang's flight pattern, it's a simple matter of jumping over them and clobbering the Colonel, moving away before he throws another. In the manga, Kenshiro finishes the Colonel off with a move that makes his skeleton erupt from his body. This does not happen in the game. If I'd paid money for Hokuto no Ken, I would have demanded a refund.


We're back in the wasteland for chapter three, and here I've made the grave mistake of letting Kenshiro become surrounded by punks who are channelling their disappointment at not being cast in Mad Max: Fury Road into making Kenshiro dead. During the non-boss portions of the game, making sure Kenshiro has plenty of space around him should be your only goal, because if the grunts manage to surround you even they can quickly wipe away big slabs of your health bar. The key to success on that front is not being too impatient: if an enemy appears behind you, make sure you take them out straight away instead of thinking "oh, I'll just murder them when they catch up to me." When enemies start leaping around the level, don't go chasing them. Wait for them to land and kick them when they're defenceless. Slow and steady wins this particular race.


There's only one midboss in stage three. His name is Fox, and wait until you get a load of his secret martial arts technique: he lies in the dirt pretending to be dead, only to spring into the air and decapitate his opponents when they let their guard down / have stopped laughing at his "skills." When every other person is the master of a powerful and ancient fighting style to which there can be only one successor, it was bound to happen that those who turned up late to the party got lumbered with the kung fu equivalent of the toffee penny in a box of Quality Street.


This is Devil Rebirth, the end of stage boss. Even by Hokuto no Ken's ridiculous standards of male largeness, he's a big lad, responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of people and forever imprisoned because he's so tough the multiple execution attempts didn't stick. Despite his impressive credentials, Devil Rebirth ends up being the easiest opponent in the game: wait for him to vomit up a fireball, jump over it and kick him in the face, repeat. You just need to be wary of his jumping attack, because it does massive damage. I can understand that, just look how tiny his feet are and then imagine all his weight being focussed into that small an area as he stomps on you.


In the next stage, Kenshiro breaks into a prison. The prison is guarded by men with axes, and eagles. The many times I've played Knights of the Round means I treated the eagles with a degree of trepidation, worried that I would be struggling to hit them as they pecked away at my health bar with their merciless beaks. Luckily the eagles seem disinterested in their work as prison screws, lazily drifting towards Kenshiro in a dive that's easily sidestepped before flying away. This makes the eagles the most intelligent enemies in Hokuto no Ken.


The warden of the prison is Uighur, a Mongolian man who fights with a whip. Is Uighur a comically overmuscled chap who threatens Kenshiro with an arrogant overstatement of his fighting prowess, only to die in a grotesque manner? You bet your ass he is, because only two kinds of people survived the nuclear war and "overconfident martial artists" are one of them. The other kind is "weak villagers just trying to survive / biker gang magnets."
Unlike the Major, Uighur's whip isn't his most dangerous tool: instead, you have to watch out for his dashing shoulder charge. Did I mention that Ken can perform a super-jump if you press down and then up on the d-pad? Well, he can, and it makes avoiding charging Monoglians easy as well as being handy for putting up Christmas decorations and painting ceilings.


The villains are finally starting to get the hint that sending one person to deal with Kenshiro isn't cutting it, and so our hero comes face-to-face with Zarqa and Qasim, a pair of scimitar-wielding warriors who trap Kenshiro between their spinning blades and slice him to oh, I've beaten them already. That was easy. Thanks to the lack of threat from both the eagles and Uighur, I came into this fight with more than enough health to throw caution to the wind, and once you've taken out one of these guys the other one isn't much of a threat. You even have all of your health restored before the end-of-stage boss, so you might as well walk through a few sword blows if it gets the fight over with more quickly.


In a shocking twist, the final challenge of the stage is a battle against... your own brother! This is Toki, Kenshiro's adopted brother and fellow student of Hokuto Shinken. Toki was meant to be the successor to Hokuto Shinken, but he was exposed to nuclear fallout while saving Kenshiro and Yuria's lives and renounced his claim on the title, dedicating his life to healing people using the non-lethal pressure-point-pressing techniques of Hokuto Shinken. He's karate Jesus, essentially, and now I must do battle with him for some reason.
And quite the battle it is, too - Toki is extremely difficult to hit, and even if you do hit him he generally hits you straight back for the same amount of damage. In the end I managed to claim victory by standing still and trading punches with Toki, which only worked because his health bar hit bottom a fraction of a second before Kenshiro's. Even that victory felt hollow, because it was again a kind and gentle man who is dying from radiation poisoning. It's difficult to feel like a big man after that.


Stage five, and more of the same thug-splattering action. You can stand on a ruined truck in this level. It doesn't add much, I'll be honest.
On the whole, Hokuto no Ken has been exactly the game I imagined it would be: very basic smack-and-walk action with relentless enemies and a difficulty curve that'd look like a plate of spaghetti if you drew it out on paper. I don't have many serious complaints about the mechanics of the game, apart from Ken's jumps being unresponsive, and really, how much better could it have been? More variations in the levels would have been nice, I suppose, but at least you get a surprisingly wide variety of different minibosses to fight. An expansion of the need for accuracy could have made for an interesting spin on the action: Ken's attacks already have to land with a fair degree of precision, so if the gameplay had been zoomed in a little and more focus placed on landing accurate punches I think it could have created a more unique gameplay experience and one that'd fit nicely into the setting - after all, with Hokuto Shinken being a martial art based around hitting pressure points, precision would be a logical thing to focus on.


Stage five has three minibosses, or six minibosses, or one, depending on how you want to look at it, because you fight these two flamethrower-carrying punks three times. Kick one of them to death while avoiding the other, then finish the job. I found a good tactic was to keep jumping up to the top level, waiting for the villains to follow and then dropping back down, giving Kenshiro a free hit as they chase you back down to the ground.


Things get tricky in the boss fight against the Nanto Seiken master Souther, (or Thouzer, or Souzer, or Thouther. He's got some transliteration issues,) because fighting against him in the usual manner will have no effect. Instead, in order to damage Souther you have to hit him with specific moves in a specific order - kick, punch, crouching punch, crouching kick. I'll admit I had to look this combination up, because I doubt I would have figured it out on my own, especially the coup de grace: when Souther is out of health, you have to finish him off by jump-kicking him while he's doing a jump kick, which is by far the hardest part of an otherwise relatively easy (if you know the right sequence, anyway) fight.
All this faffing around is, I assume, an attempt by the developers to recreate Souther's gimmick from the anime. Kenshiro's Hokuto Shinken has no effect on Souther until he discover the mystery of Souther's body - that his internal organs, and thus his pressure points, are a mirror-image of a normal person's. Kenshiro figures this out by sticking his fingers into Souther's chest and feeling the flow of his blood. Is there a word that means both "ingenious" and "disgusting"? Because I think I've found the perfect use for it. Speaking of disgusting, that blue thing in the background is the mummified body of Souther's master and not the expertly-carved ice sculpture that it first appears to be.


Immediately after defeating Souther, Kenshiro is thrown straight into the game's final battle: an earth-shattering confrontation with the mighty Raoh, king of fists! Look, I'm trying to punch this up a little, because the Master System's graphics can't really do justice to Hokuto no Ken's climactic fight. Without some cheerleading, the casual observer might think that this is just a punch-up between a man dressed head-to-toe in denim and a wandering pro-wrestler.
Raoh is also Kenshiro's adoptive brother, a powerful martial artist who seeks to crush all before him and conquer the land with his Hokuto Shinken powers. Why anyone wants the land is a mystery to me - all there is dirt and ruined buildings, with plenty for everyone - but Raoh is bent on conquest through pure might. He does right to choose might over wisdom as his tool of conquest. He's got a lot more of one than the other, as evidenced by the fact that he pretends to murder Yuria just to get Ken extra angry, which is up there with "only hire the most vicious, untrustworthy scum for your personal army" as bad plans go. Yes, Raoh does that too.
Fighting against Raoh was a lot more simple than I thought it would be: I was prepared for more opaque gimmicks after the Souther fight, but aside from having to finish Raoh off with a standing punch this is a straight-up fight... which is not to say it's easy. Far from it, as Raoh knocks massive chunks from your health bar with a single punch and has arms that are much longer than Kenshiro's. In the end it was Raoh's lack of intelligence that did for him, as he got stuck in a loop of trying to jump at me while I hunkered in the corner of the screen, throwing punches at the bottoms of his legs. Somehow this tactic worked, and without giving me time to ponder just how hard you'd have to punch someone in the shins to kill them, Raoh was defeated.


Raoh dies claiming that he has lived a life with no regrets. I'm not sure I believe him. There's no way a life that ends with being punched to death by your younger brother can contain no regrets.


Kenshiro is reunited with Yuria, who is on her second or third faked death by this point, and they walk off into the sunset to live a happy life together. Except she dies for real later, because Hokuto no Ken 2 was in the works and a peaceful, contented Kenshiro is a lot harder to write violent martial arts adventures for than a grumpy Kenshiro.


If you've read this entire article with the nagging feeling that you've played Hokuto no Ken before but in a slightly different form, then you're probably thinking of Black Belt. Yep, Hokuto no Ken did receive a western release after all the characters and graphics were scrubbed clean of their gore-soaked origins, with Kenshiro replaced by a generic karateman called Riki and the title changed to Black Belt.


The gameplay is basically identical, although the hit detection does feel just a little off and there are honest-to-god power-ups in Black Belt, collectible items that can grant temporary invincibility and health restoration. Overall I'd say Hokuto no Ken is the better version, but then again I'm pretty biased, as you've probably deduced.


That's Hokuto no Ken, then: a mostly predictable and fairly unambitious game that does the things it sets out to do in a solid if uninspired manner. The graphics are good, the controls are mostly tolerable and the boss fights mix things up just enough to prevent it becoming too repetitive. Yuji Naka was apparently involved in Hokuto no Ken's development, so that gives it a bit of historical appeal, too. I have played this game with no regrets, as Raoh might say, but there are disappointments: I'm sad there was no appearance from either of the show's two best characters, Kenshiro's other evil brother Jagi or Raoh's massive horse, but the biggest disappointment was the music. The soundtrack is completely average, but they missed a trick by not including an 8-bit version of "Ai wo Torimodose," the anime's theme song and quite possible the best song ever recorded.
On the whole, then, check out Hokuto no Ken if you're a fan of the franchise because it's probably the best Fist of the North Star game that was released before the PS1 era. If you want to supply your own screams of "atatatataaa!" as you fight, then I can confirm the experience will only be enhanced.

2 comments:

  1. Maybe he was a Fox in Japan, but I remember the old dub calling him Jackal. He was also hilarious in a subtle way as he kept himself alive long enough for a whole arc, constantly tricking Ken with dynamite, even though he was more outmatched than the Fang Clan (who seem to be missing here!). And his target was an orphanage run by a lone nun!

    I also recall on an old fighting game board wondering why he didn't make it to the ArcSys game instead of Heart. He could've been the joke character like Dan!

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Fox is actually a separate character, although he does work as Jackal's right hand man. You're right though, Jackal was great. Why not make a martial art based around dynamite? Apparently there's still plenty of it around even after the apocalypse!

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