The first article of 2018 was about an unusual take on a beloved fighting game franchise, and while I didn’t intend for this to become a theme here’s another unusual take on a beloved fighting game franchise, expect this time with a lot more copyright infringement. Released into arcades at some unknown time by a nameless group of Chinese bootleggers, it’s the match-of-the-the-millennium-em-up Jue Zhan Tian Huang!
This time around, the beloved fighting game franchise in question is SNK’s King of Fighters, as made clear by the appearance of series mainstays Iori Yagami and Kyo Kusanagi on the title screen. These two punchmen are bitter rivals, and being Japanese fighting game characters they have complex, convoluted backstories about ancient curses, family lineages and being able to set your own hands on fire. In Jue Zhan Tian Huang, however, they’re working on the same side.
As for the title, Google Translate tells me that Jue Zhan Tian Huang means “Decisive Emperor” and sure, decisiveness is a good quality for an emperor to have. No-one wants an indecisive emperor. The title also includes the character for “war,” though, so maybe the title translates as something more like “War to Decide the Emperor.”
Maybe that emperor will be Iori or “Kio” (sic). It might even be one of the other King of Fighters characters that you can play as in this game: Chizuru “Shoulderpads” Kagura or drunken kung fu master Chin Gentsai. I think I’ll start by playing as Iori, the brooding antihero. Is he shrouded by an air of dangerous mystery? Well, he does wear trousers with the legs tied together, and that’s definitely mysterious and dangerous.
Let’s get right into the action, and surprise - as well as being a bootleg King of Fighters game, Jue Zhan Tian Huang is also a bootleg Street Fighter game! It turns out that this game is a side-scrolling beat-em-up where you play as a King of Fighters character while the vast majority of the villains you have to fight are Street Fighter characters, ripped directly from Capcom’s flagship franchise. Here I’m using a flying kick against both Ryu and Vega (or Balrog, because this game uses the characters’ original Japanese names,) but it’s not only Street Fighter sprites that the developers cannibalised. Hiding out behind Iori is a recoloured version of Mary / Eliza from SNES brawler Final Fight 2.
Dhalsim’s here too, as well as B. Jenet from Garou: Mark of the Wolves. Quite the eclectic cast of stolen characters, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more familiar faces pop up as the game goes on, but for now let’s talk about the gameplay. As I said, it’s a side-scrolling beat-em-up. If you’ve been reading VGJunk for a while you’ll know there’s nothing I like more than a good side-scrolling beat-em-up and oh no, the obvious joke has set itself up and I can’t avoid making it now, so here goes: but this isn’t a good beat-em-up, boom boom. It might seem premature to make such a judgement after only a few screens of action, but the “quirks” of JZTH’s combat engine are immediately apparent.
For starters, there’s the whole “punching people” thing. A cornerstone of the genre, I’m sure you’ll agree, and JZTH does feature the usual “tap attack for a combo of blows” control system. However, it’s not a well-implemented system. Iori’s basic jabs are very slow, making it difficult to land a solid punch on whatever Street Fighter is in front of you unless they fill in a detailed form telling you exactly where they’re going to be standing in three week’s time. So, you work on your timing and when you’re ready you unleash your attack… but lining up on the same vertical level as your opponent is much more finicky than it ought to be. Most beat-em-ups – the good ones, at least – give you a fair amount of leeway so that you can hit enemies who are “above” or “below” your character. JZTH does not. This has the effect of making every character feel as thin and flimsy as a paper cut-out.
If you do manage to land that first attack and get your combo going, eighty percent of the time your opponent will simply walk away after the first two hits, leaving your fighter flailing their limbs at empty air. So you move in for another attack, but JZTH’s gameplay engine isn’t done being frustrating yet and you’re confronted by the fact you can grab enemies for a grapple attack. Okay, that’s fine. Along with “punching” and “extreme skull trauma caused by metal plumbing supplies,” grappling is another cornerstone of the genre. Unfortunately, the range of your default punch and the range at which you’ll grab an enemy are almost identical, making it extremely difficult to determine which move you’re going to perform. This would be forgiveable if your throws did more than two or three pixels worth of damage to an enemy’s health bar. They do not. Many fights in this game devolve into accidentally grabbing the enemies when they charge at you, chipping away at their health bars with your pathetically small throw damage over and over again.
Oh look, Sagat is here. Hi, Sagat. Anyway, those are just the gameplay problems that I noticed after a minute or so of play time. Am I being a little harsh on JZTH? No, I don’t think so. The basic beating-em-up portion of this beat-em-up just isn’t much fun, and I’ve always found that the brawler is a genre with a very thin line between fun and frustration. JZTH falls firmly on the frustrating side, but it does have one thing going for it, gameplay-wise: a surprisingly large amount of moves are available to the player. As well as your grabs and normal combos, you also have a second attack button that produces a different combo when pressed. This combo is a sort of “dash” attack, a series of attacks that moves your character forward when used, and because you’re starting your attack from further away when you use this dashing combo you’re far less likely to keep accidentally grabbing the bad guys. You’ve also got the traditional desperation attack that knocks enemies around you to the floor at the cost of some of your own health, and in keeping with JZTH taking “inspiration” from famous fighting games you’ve even got a couple of moves activating using fighting-game-style joystick inputs. Quarter-circle forward and attack is the one I figured out first, but each character also seems to have a “dragon punch” type rising attack that I never figured out how to activate. Yes, I tried the dragon punch motion. I might be stupid enough to waste hours of my life playing crappy bootleg beat-em-ups but I’m, erm, I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this.
The fighting continues, the action having moved to a post-apocalyptic cityscape that was traced from Capcom’s arcade brawler Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. These rotund, charging chaps are also very familiar. I think they’re from one of the Final Fight sequels? I’m sure someone in the comments can confirm. Anyway, using the dash attack rather than the “standard” combo seems to be the best way to go, although much later on I did realise you can sort of link the two together if you manage to land the first couple of hits of your normal attack and then use the dashing moves. I’m convinced this wasn’t an intentional design decision, it’s just that the enemies are programmed to move directly backwards when you hit them so you can chase them down with the dashing moves.
Then the stage ended. There wasn’t a boss fight or anything. I’m kinda relieved, I wasn’t looking forward to spending twenty minutes delicately throwing a hastily-recoloured Andore around for tiny amounts of damage.
Smash Bros. already has Pit and Dark Pit, they might as well throw another version in there.
Now this is a proper beat-em-up stage – it’s the farm where they send all the oil drums from other beat-em-ups so they can live out a happy retirement. As you can see, I’ve switched characters and now I’m playing as Chizuru. She’s not a character I know much about, honestly, besides that she looks rather stylish in a very “1980’s art poster” kind of way and also she’s vastly better at fighting than Iori was. She’s faster, her desperation move attacks all around her rather than Iori’s overly-aggressive basketball dunk attack which only damages enemies directly in front of him and her dashing attack is easily the most effective move in the game because it’s quicker and covers more distance (she slides along the floor while using it) than the others. In short, my advice is to ignore the other characters and only play as Chizuru.
Plus, Chizuru’s neutral stance has her standing around with her arm constantly raised. If you try standing still with one arm held out in front of you for as long as you can you’ll realise how tough Chizuru really is – if you ever needed an impromptu battering ram then Chizuru’s ready for the task – but even better is that you can get screenshots like this where it looks as though she’s force-pushing a bunch of Street Fighters off an elevator. That’s right, it’s a fight on an elevator where enemies keep dropping in. The developers really were trying to cram all the brawler clichés into this stage, huh?
Okay, fine, I’ll try playing as Kyo for a bit. He’s okay, I guess. Not quite as nimble as Chizuru and therefore not as good because all the characters seem to do the same amount of damage when they attack so speed and reach are the only important traits, but he’s definitely better than Iori.
You can also play as Chin. You know, if you want to. I’m not sure why you would want to, besides the innate enjoyability of the drunken master style of kung fu. You’d think if he was hammered all the time then Chin’s special ability would be to take absolutely zero damage until he wakes up the next morning with a satanic hangover, burns on his hands from trying to cook a frozen pizza at three in the morning and a traffic cone sitting in his bathroom.
Chin suffers from being smaller than the other characters, which is reflected in his reach and makes it awkward for him to chase down enemies that can just keep moving away from him. Still, he’s better than Iori. I can’t stress this enough, Iori is bloody awful in this game.
Stage two does have proper boss fight. The game gives the boss’ name as Heidern but hold on a moment: I’m not as up on my King of Fighters knowledge as I am with Street Fighter, but I’m pretty sure Heidern is a uniformed military man with a beret and everything. This guy is a ninja, and therefore not Heidern. The boss is actually Saizo Hattori from the Power Instinct series because, y’know, it’s not like the developers were going to start drawing new sprites at this point. Why is he called Heidern, then? I don’t have a clue. Maybe it was intended to be Heidern but the developers reached into their big sack of stolen graphical assets and accidentally grabbed the wrong character.
As for the fight, the boss does little besides jumping up and throwing kunai knives at the floor. They’re easy enough to avoid. The hard part is, as always, actually hitting the boss rather than grappling. As a result, the fight takes ages and I sincerely hope the rest of the game takes its cue from stage one and doesn’t feature any more boss fights.
Another stage, another fresh batch of Street Fighters to fight on the streets, and by streets I mean, erm, a very long boat? It might be a pier? Whatever it is, M. Bison and Blanka are here to make your life miserable. It’s nice to see all the Street Fighter characters putting aside their enmities and quests to claim limitless psychokinetic powers in order to work together, isn’t it? It must have taken Chun Li and M. Bison a while to get on the same page, but here they are, side-by-side.
Obviously the most interesting thing about JZTH is the mish-mash of King of Fighters and Street Fighter (plus miscellanous) characters, but what are the SF characters like to actually fight against? They’re okay, I suppose. They can be frustrating but a lot of that is down to your character handling awkwardly rather than the enemies being overpowered, although there are plenty of times when the lengthy animations on your combos means you can’t avoid being hit by a Street Fighter’s special move. Oh yes, they have their special moves intact… mostly. The most noticeable difference is that no-one has their projectile attacks, so you don’t have to worry about avoiding hadokens or sonic booms. Most of their more “physical” attacks are present, though. Dhalsim has his Yoga Drill, E. Honda can and will repeatedly hit you with flying headbutts from across the screen, Ryu has both his hurricane kick and his dragon punch and so on. Without wanting to sound to cynical, my theory is that whatever beat-em-up game engine the developers ripped off in order to cobble JZTH together didn’t include any code allowing for regular grunts to have projectile attacks, and so they were excised. The only other explanation I can think of is that projectiles were removed in an attempt to keep the game fair, but that seems extremely unlikely because when have bootleg arcade game developers ever given a shit about fairness?
Oh dear, it’s another boss. This time it’s ripped from the far superior SNES beat-em-up Ninja Warriors Again, a game that’s something of a hidden gem and if there’s one thing I want you to take from this article it’s that you should definitely play Ninja Warriors Again rather than this game. If you’ve already played Ninja Warriors Again, play Ninja Warriors Again again.
Ninja Warriors Again is actually a single plane beat-em-up, which explains why this boss is so lame: its main attack is to shoot at you. In a game where you can’t move “into” or “out of” the screen, that’s a problem. In JZTH, you can simply walk around the bullets.
Stage four is called “Stow Away” but that’s the subway background from Final Fight and I think if you stow away on public transport it’s generally called “fare dodging,” right? Anyway, here’s some more punching. Lots and lots of punching, and kicking. From here on I’ll be skipping a lot of JZTH’s scenes because a) there are so, so many of them and b) they’re all exactly the same. A flat screen populated by a wave of Street Fighter characters. Beat those up and some more Street Fighter characters will appear. Repeat this until a boss arrives or the stage simply ends. There are no interesting level layouts, no stage hazards and nothing like collectible weapons or bonus stages. If you’ve fought one group of enemies in JZTH, you’ve experienced around ninety-five percent of the gameplay and my god there are a lot of enemies to wade through in this one. For a beat-em-up it’s a pretty long game at about two hours, but I suppose you’ve got plenty of development time to pad out your game when you don’t have to worry about designing characters or creating graphics or anything.
The closest JZTH gets to mixing things up is when you’re fighting the exact same waves of enemies but now you can’t see what the bloody hell is going on thanks to the obnoxious foreground elements. If you’ve ever wondered what an arcade beat-em-up might look like if someone poured a bowl of Shreddies directly onto your eyeballs, here’s your answer.
Another boss, and other sprite ripped from Ninja Warriors Again. This boss is called Dark, which you might think is a lame name for a buff robot ninja, but that character’s name in Ninja Warriors Again is “Ninja” so for once JZTH might have improved on the original.
Stage five is the Choatic City (sic), although it’s not any more chaotic than the other stages. It is very grey, though. The only even slightly interesting thing about it is this colour scheme for Blanka. It’s striking, it’s captivating, it’s really making me want to eat some Battenberg.
Having seemingly drained Ninja Warriors Again of inspiration, this boss is taken from Final Fight 3. In that game he’s called Black, but in JZTH he’s renamed Blue, a change so half-arsed it somehow feels more cheeky than not changing the boss’ name at all. Blue is more challenging opponent than recent bosses because he was designed for a “proper” two-plane brawler, but he’s still easy to avoid. Don’t think that JZTH will ever give the player any respite from grinding through hordes of enemies though. If you look back at the other boss screen shots, you’ll notice that there’s always a Street Fighter hanging around – that’s because every boss comes with an endless supply of one kind of Street Fighter. They can be killed but they respawn immediately, and I mean “pop into existence from nowhere” rather than adhering to the usual “walk in from off-screen” rules of the beat-em-up. Fighting the bosses would be a slow, tedious process even if it was a one-on-one fight, but the fact that you’ve always got to worry about getting a sudden Flash Kick in the back of the head while you’re fighting against the fiddly, fussy controls adds another layer of misery.
Stage six is called “Special Troops,” which is a lie because all the troops are the same ones you’ve been punching for the rest of the game. There aren’t even any new Street Fighters being added to the mix: no Kens, no Balrogs, no nothing. By this point the tedium of JZTH is only mitigated by the creeping suspicion that hearing Chizuru’s “hah, yah, hoo!” sound effect roughly twenty-seven thousand times might have driven me to the point of insanity.
There’s no boss in stage six so it’s straight into stage seven. It might look like exactly the same stage, but that’s only because the backgrounds and enemies and combat are all identical. This stage is called “Crime Source,” though, so surely this long nightmare is almost at an end.
It has to end soon. We’re past “boring” and into “if you gave Sisyphus a choice between more of this or his previous torture he’d be straight back to his boulder.” At least the background has changed, but at this point even that is annoying me because while I’ve recognised most of the character sprites I’m having more trouble placing where the scenery is from.
I recognise this one, though! It’s the cage fight scene from Final Fight. Oh, and there’s a boss. The final boss, if there’s any goodness left in this miserable world. This boss is Kain R. Heinlein, the final boss of Garou: Mark of the Wolves, except JZTH’s developers have changed his hair colour from blonde to blue and renamed him “Rain.” Good work, lads, that’ll fool the lawyers.
In keeping with the fine traditions of SNK bosses, “Rain” is a proper pain in the backside to fight against and he would be even if you didn’t have a roaming Sagat to contend with. Rain can fire massive energy blasts across the screen and they deal a lot of damage, but the real problem is trying to catch the guy as he flies around the screen, covering his movements with yet more energy blasts. By this point, I had resorted to doing nothing but abusing the invincibility frames on Chizuru’s desperation attack and slamming in credit after credit. I felt neither guilt nor shame about this, and neither would you. It worked, eventually, and Rain was defeated.
Oh come on. No more, please. I’m not sure I can take it. But hey, another way of saying “Inferno Door” would be “Gateway to Hell” and it kinda feels that what I’ve stumbled on to by playing the latter half of JZTH.
Thankfully this truly is the last stage, and it’s just a boss battle, not a full level. Your last opponent is Orochi, a (you guessed it) King of Fighters character, a divine creature that wishes to erase the corrupting stain of humanity from the Earth and there’s nothing in the rulebook that says you can’t eliminate mankind while also wearing comfortable slacks. Also M. Bison is here. He’s probably trying to figure out how to clone Orochi to serve as a new body. Loves a good clone, does M. Bison, although by this point he’s got more clones than the Star Wars prequels so he won’t mind too much when I beat Orochi up.
Happily, this is a much easier fight than the last one because Orochi likes to teleport rather than walk and you can clearly see where he’s about to materialise, which means you’ve got plenty of time to get in the right position and land a decent combo. Ending with an anticlimactic, simplistic battle definitely fits the mood of JZTH, but I’m just happy that it is over and we can sit back to watch the ending.
It certainly is. Extremely danger, you should leave.
And so they left, but not before dangling a sequel hook right into my sneering, contemptuous face. Not to worry, I think the chances of Jue Zhan Tian Huang getting a sequel are extremely slim, unless you’re willing to argue that every bootleg Chinese game packed with stolen graphical assets all take place in the same universe.
So, Jue Zhan Tian Huang was not the SNK vs. Capcom game we’ve all been waiting for. I really cannot stress enough just how boring this game gets beyond, ooh, the second stage or so. The same enemies with the same attack patterns, and you just have to use the same moves against them over and over again. Dull, dull, dull. If the person playing your game lets out the wearied sigh of someone seeing that their train has been cancelled whenever a new stage begins, you know you’ve messed up somewhere. Is there anything to recommend JZTH besides the weirdness factor? No, not really. At least the sprites are nice, hyuk hyuk.
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