Just in case you thought an over-reliance on sequels was a recent trend in media, here’s a game called Hokuto no Ken 7. To give it its full title, it’s Shouei’s 1993 Super Famicom game Hokuto no Ken 7: Seiken Retsuden – Denshousha e no Michi, which I think means something like Hokuto no Ken 7: History of the Sacred Fist – The Successor’s Path. I reckon I’ll stick to referring to it as Hokuto no Ken 7, thanks.

It’s another strong candidate for the title of “Most Boring Title Screen,” that’s for sure.
So, Hokuto no Ken. You might know it better as Fist of the North Star, the hyper-violent manga and anime about a man named Kenshiro who travels the post-apocalyptic wasteland righting wrongs in the only way he knows how: by slaughtering thousands of people using the ancient martial art of Hokuto Shinken. It’s a fighting style that allows Kenshiro to punch people so hard that they explode, or he can poke the “pressure points” on their body to compel them to die in other, more creative ways, like walking off cliffs or hugging each other to death (no, really). I went into a bit more detail about Hokuto no Ken when I wrote about the eponymous Master System game, so check that article out for more info. For now, though, just let it be known that Hokuto no Ken is an extremely gory, incredibly violent and utterly ridiculous series, and it’s also one of my all-time favourite media franchises.

As this is number seven in the series – not including a few other Hokuto no Ken games that weren’t part of this line, like the Japanese home computer game with the wonderful subtitle Violence Adventure Theatre – I suppose I should give a quick rundown of the others. Hokuto no Ken 1 to 4 appeared on the Famicom, with the first two being side-scrolling punch-em-ups inspired by Irem’s Kung Fu. Hokuto no Ken 2 was actually released in the west as Fist of the North Star, making it one of the first officially licensed HnK products to make it out of Japan. Hokuto no Ken 3 and 4 are turn-based RPGs in the Dragon Quest mould, and so was HnK 5, the first of the series to appear on the Super Famicom (albeit with a more Final Fantasy style of battle graphics). When it came to HnK 6, and no doubt influenced by the impact of Street Fighter II, they finally decided that maybe this anime about martial artists fighting each other to the death should be adapted into a one-on-one fighting game. Having played HnK 6, I can tell you it didn’t work out so great. Still, after all these previous attempts, Shouei must surely have a firm grasp on what it takes to make a good Hokuto no Ken game, right? Right?! Look, you can’t blame me for hoping, even if I know the outcome.

There are a couple of different game modes to choose from. Freeplay mode lets you pick two fighters, fiddle with various setting and have a punch-up, and that’s where you can get your two-player jollies. Battle mode is more of a standard arcade mode, where you fight all the game’s characters in a row, and we’ll get to that in a while. For the majority of this article, though, we’ll be looking at the story mode. That’s the mode that tells the story. The story of Hokuto no Ken, I assume. I can read enough of this Japanese to know it mentions both the location Southern Cross and the character Heart, so I reckon we’re going to be starting out by fighting Heart in Southern Cross.

Well, would you look at that, it is indeed a battle between Kenshiro – and you can only play as Kenshiro in story mode – and Heart. That’s Ken on the left, looking as ever like the lovechild of Mad Max and Bruce Lee, with his opponent Heart on the right. Heart’s an example of a minor character who somehow gains a major place within a franchise, and he appears in far more HnK spin-offs than other characters that enjoyed an equally small amount of screen time. Perhaps his fame is because he’s the first adversary in the show who gives Kenshiro even a moment’s challenge – Heart’s whole deal is that he’s so fat martial artists have trouble landing a killer blow. People tend to get their fists stuck inside his gut, you see. In the original material, Ken solves this problem by moving Heart’s fat out of the way by kicking it. Ken solves most of his problems by kicking them, let’s be honest. Sadly I don’t think that special technique is going to be available to me, the player, so I’ll have to go down the usual route of the one-on-one fighter.

Or maybe Ken will shift Heart’s blubber aside by rubbing his crotch against it. When you’ve mastered a secret assassination art with a deadly two-thousand year history, you’re bound to encounter a few moves developed by your weirder predecessors. Just imagine the weird squeaky noise of Ken's leather trousers rubbing against Heart's sweaty gut.

Hokuto no Ken 7 is a fighting game with many features that will make it familiar to anyone who’s played a fighting game before… but with enough of its own strange quirks that it feels rather unusual. You’ve got four attack buttons, a weak and hard punch and a weak and hard kick, you can jump and attack from the air, you hold back to block, and you can perform special moves using a combination of controller inputs and button presses. However, I’d say the special moves inputs have more in common with Mortal Kombat than Street Fighter II: for example, to perform Ken’s projectile attack you hit back, towards then punch rather than using the quarter-circle-forward motion you might expect. Also, and this is the one that really threw me for a loop, both characters’ health bars are constantly refilling. If you’re not getting hit, your health is coming back. It’s such an unusual, unexpected system for a fighting game to have that I didn’t even notice until after ten minutes of fighting Heart when I thought to myself “blimey, this fight sure is dragging on.”

In fact, I had a lot of trouble giving Heart the kicking he so thoroughly deserves. I’d land a few blows, mainly with Ken’s crouching hard kick which makes him fly towards his opponent feet-first like he’s been greased up and fired out of a cannon, but then Heart would retreat and keep me at bay with a barrage of open-handed slaps until his health had refilled. It was awkward, tedious and frustrating, which is not a great first impression for a videogame to make. But then I realised what I should have been doing: using Ken’s special moves. Specifically, using his projectile attack where he forms his spirit energy into the shape of a fist so he can punch people from across the room. That was powerful enough to break through Heart’s attacks and deal substantial damage, but there’s a problem. The controls for performing special moves are abysmal. Imprecise and unreliable, they make the simple act of throwing a fireball an absolute chore, and that’s one of the easiest special moves to do! Back, forward, punch, nice and straightforward, except I could only get the projectile to come out maybe once out of every five attempts. God help you if you want to try some of the more complicated moves. They might come out or they might not, and their lack of consistency makes the idea of reacting to the situation with the appropriate special move completely laughable.

The only move I could produce reliably was Kenshiro’s famous signature move, the Hundred Crack Fist. That’s because you just have to repeatedly tap punch to perform it. It’s a shame, then, that the Hundred Crack Fist is bloody useless. It’s got very little range, takes enough time to get going that the enemy will have moved out of the way and while you’re standing there punching over and over again the enemy will either stand still and get their health back or, more likely, completely ignore Kenshiro’s most iconic and lethal attack in order to jump-kick right through it and jam their ki-soaked feet right down Ken’s trachea.
I eventually managed to beat Heart by getting as far away as possible and repeatedly using the projectile attack. When I got lucky enough for it to come out three times in a row, an alignment of the fates akin to being struck by lighting while cashing the giant cheque for your lottery winnings, the fight was over. And that was only fight number one.

Fight number two is against Shin, Kenshiro’s former friend. I think it’s safe to say they had a falling out, given that Shin abducted Ken’s girlfriend Yuria and poked Ken in the chest seven times, giving him the seven scars for which he is famous, but they did used to be buddies. Not any more, though, and it’s a fight to the death: Ken’s martial art that makes people explode from within versus Shin’s style that focuses on chopping people up from the outside. They’re like chalk and cheese, if chalk and cheese were capable of destroying your body in a multitude of agonising ways.

After fighting Heart, I thought I was getting a handle on HnK7’s gameplay. Then this fight started, and Shin destroyed me in moments by repeatedly doing extremely fast flying kicks at me. I simply could not keep up with the relentless onslaught, especially because the CPU doesn’t have to worry about the special move inputs not working. I was on the verge of giving up entirely, but thankfully I figured out how to defend myself. You see, normal blocks will not defend against special moves. Instead, you have to press L to surround yourself with a magical aura that can block special moves, but the problem with that is your magical aura isn’t unlimited. You see that “OP” bar under the characters’ health? That’s your super bar, basically, and it also gradually fills up as the fight goes. Holding L to block drains this bar very quickly, but also prevents you from being immediately killed. So, block special moves with your special block. Makes sense. However, the OP gauge can also be used for special attacks of your own, which are executed simply by pressing R. The first section of the bar does nothing, but when you’ve got two bars you can fire a projectile without having to do the motion, and three and four segments of the bar being filled allows for even more powerful attacks which you can’t otherwise pull off.

In a better game, this system might add a bit of spice and tactical thinking to the gameplay. Do I use all my OP power to block specials, or try to save it up so I can use special moves that a) are very powerful and b) don’t require me to engage with the bullshit that is the game’s controls? Unfortunately, HnK7 takes this potentially interesting idea and chucks it to one side, because there’s no way you’ll get anywhere in the game if you don’t use all your OP for blocking the constant tsunami of special attacks that all of your opponents use, especially as one hit from a level three or four special can take off seventy percent of your health.

Now Ken’s fighting Rei, the handsome and graceful master of the Nanto Suichou Ken fighting style. In the show they are friends and allies, forced to fight against each other by villainous manipulations, but they get out of it by pretending to be dead. No one seems to have informed the videogame version of Rei about the “friends and allies” bit, though, and he’s just as relentless as everyone else in his desire to see Ken dead. Happily, things went a bit better than in the fight against Shin now that I know how to block special attacks

I even managed to avoid being killed for long enough that the OP bar filled and I could try Ken’s ultimate technique: the Musou Tensei, a move that you can only learn by being really, really sad. I know that sounds like the kind of martial art dreamed up by someone who spent too much time watching The Crow, but it does make Ken completely invulnerable while it’s active. I guess now we know why it’s called the “OP” gauge.

And here’s the man-mountain who forced Ken and Rei to fight in the first place, the king of the Fang Clan. He’s a non-playable character, and he’s unusual to fight against because he only has two moves. He can make his skin as hard as steel, which just means you have to spend more time than usual punching him, or he literally throws his tiny minions at you. That is the entirety of his fighting style; he grabs the smaller members of his bandit army and pitches them at you like baseballs. What the hell kind of scale are we supposed to be working at here? Is King Fang throwing babies at Kenshiro? Maybe that’s it. It would explain why using the Hundred Crack Fist didn’t seem to allow me to punch the mini-Fangs out of the air, because Kenshiro would never hurt a baby.

Next up is Shuu. Guess what? He’s a martial arts master! In the world of Hokuto no Ken, only three types of people survived the apocalypse: martial arts masters, enormous street punks with bodies that look like Conan swallowed the Terminator and impoverished villagers. If you were a middle-class professional when the bombs fell, you were shit out of luck.
Anyway, Shuu. He’s also a good guy, to the extent that he clawed out his own eyes in exchange for Kenshiro’s life when Ken was a little kid. Hokuto no Ken is not a series that does subtlety, as you have probably realised. Shuu’s favourite attack isn’t subtle, either – he pirouettes across the battle with one leg sticking out, spin-kicking anyone in his path. It’s as though someone saw Ryu and Ken’s mighty hurricane kick and though “yeah, but it doesn’t look lame enough.”

The goofiness of Shuu’s spinning kick is only exacerbated by the overall jankiness of HnK7’s graphics. The spritework is passable, but the backgrounds are ugly and when the game’s in motion it looks a real mess, with characters jerking around the screen and special moves that seem to simply shift the player from one place to another with no intervening movements. In fact, every animation in the game looks as though it’s missing about half the frames it should have, and as a result it’s a stiff, unappealing mess to look at.
On the other hand, at least the sound effects are good. There are plenty of “atatata” and “shou!” noises, and frankly that’s half of the appeal of fights in Hokuto no Ken. Everyone sounds like they’ve just had a shovel full of smouldering embers poured down the front of their trousers, and that’s as it should be.

After beating Shuu, it’s time to take on Souther. Souther mostly attacks with this flying kick, so, you know, the same as almost every other character in the game. Souther’s unique quirk – that the position of his internal organs is reversed, making regular Hokuto Shinken techniques ineffective  - is not mentioned, and in fact I think he’s actually an easier fight than Shuu because Shuu’s spinning kick is far more difficult to avoid. That’s not to say it’s an easy fight, mind you. None of the fights in this game are easy, thanks to the sluggish characters, merciless AI opponents and, worst of all, the frustratingly poor controls. This is especially true when it comes the special move inputs, because once you get past the first fight special moves become mandatory. Regular attacks simply don’t do enough damage, what with the refilling health bars. Fortunately, I harnessed my inner martial arts master and formulated an unbeatable method of attack that saw me through most of the game.

It’s simple, really. I used the hard crouching kick attack to fly towards my opponent, then feverishly mashed up and down on the d-pad and tapped punch in the hopes that would cause Ken to use his uppercut special move. Twenty-five percent of the time it did work, and I hit my opponent for big damage. If it didn’t work, or my enemy was pushed back or knocked down, I used the flying kick again and got back to hammering. And that’s the story of how I become the ultimate fighting champion. Hokuto Shinken may be a legendary martial art with a long and storied history, but my martial art can be summed up on the back of a postcard so frankly I think I win on pure brevity.

And now, the Earth-shattering final confrontation between Kenshiro and Raoh: Ken’s adopted elder brother, post-apocalyptic conqueror, horse-owner and bloke who thinks he should be in charge of all the punching of martial artists that needs to be done in this lawless world.

I think I may have built this fight up a little too much. It’s hard to be that impressed by a fighter whose go-to move is that awkward-looking sliding kick you can see above.
While I generally think of myself as a pessimist, I might have to revise that particular piece of introspection because even at this point in HnK7 I was still hoping that a good game – I’d have settled for a decent game – would emerge from the mess. Of course, it never did. There’s really nothing to recommend it, and it all feels unfinished and half-hearted. As well as the problems I’ve already mentioned, the pure core of the game is stodgy and unappealing. Characters get too close to be able to hit each other and then fly apart unpredictably, the hit detection is all over the place… I’m struggling to describe why it’s bad, but it definitely is. It’s one of those game that makes you thankful for the classics of the genre, your Street Fighters and your Kings of Fighters, and helps you appreciate just how hard it is to make a fast, accurate and balanced one-on-one fighter.

The ol’ slide-kick-uppercut strategy once more proved effective, and Kenshiro has finally defeated all of his enemies (and a couple of his friends). Raoh goes to his grave proclaiming that he has lived a life with no regrets. I think I mentioned this in the Master System HnK article, but that cannot be an accurate statement. He appeared in this game, for starters.

When you finish story mode, you’re treated to some credits with gameplay footage playing in the background, and then this: a final image of Kenshiro riding into the sunset on a horse. That’s Raoh’s horse. That’s right, the hero of Hokuto no Ken punches his brother to death and then steals his horse. What a bastard.

That’s story mode finished, but before I wrap this up let’s take a look at the battle mode. You can choose from any of the characters (except Heart and King Fang, who aren’t playable,) select a difficulty level and then fight through the game’s cast in a traditional “arcade mode” fashion. Above you can see Shin doing his best M. Bison impression as he takes on Raoh, so this mode at least lets you live out your burning “what if?” Hokuto no Ken fight fantasies.

The most interesting thing about battle mode is that there’s a whole new fighter hiding in there who doesn’t appear in the story mode: the free-spirited and roguish Juza. That’s him on the right, the bloke with the unfortunate trousers who is surely doing irreparable damage to Shuu’s nether regions with the energy radiating from his hands. Actually, let’s go back to Juza’s trousers for a second, because they look like someone made pants out of lobster shells and then stretched slices of American cheese over the top. Okay, yeah, time to stop looking at those trousers, that description is making me queasy.

The battle mode is a nice addition, I suppose, but it does confirm something I suspected while playing story mode: that some characters are simply better than others. There seems to have been very little effort to balance the fighters, and this was especially noticeable when I played as Shuu because Shuu’s spinning kick is ridiculous. It’s one of the few moves that I could perform reliably, it travels a good distance over the screen, it has very little start-up and deals decent damage. This meant that I rattled through battle mode simply by whirling around like a one-man recreation of Flashdance.

Not even having to fight Shuu’s lime-green doppelganger put the kibosh on this technique, because fake-Shuu made the mistake of trying to use other moves that weren’t spinning kicks.

There’s no ending or anything for clearing battle mode, so I think this is a good place to bring this article to a close – mostly because I’m fed up of thinking about this game. Hokuto no Ken 7 is a pretty crappy game all around, with almost every problem a fighting game can have bubbling away underneath a surface of ugly graphics and shoddy controls. I think I am perhaps being slightly too harsh on it because it’s based on a property I really like, but only slightly. Also, Jagi’s not in it, and he’s my favourite HnK character. If you’re determined to play it, try it in two-player versus mode, because at least then you’re both suffering together, but a better idea would be to take that friend and make them listen to the anime’s theme song over and over again. If they’re not willing to do that, then they’re not worthy of being your friend.

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