They made a sequel to 300? Really? That seems a trifle redundant. Oh, the new one has boats in it? Well, why didn't you say so, I'm sure it's great. Today's game isn't about those Spartans, but in a roundabout way it's born from two blokes with a fast-food van and a private detective who gets mixed up in their business. None of that is depicted in-game, but you get to kick a hell of a lot of people in Irem's 1991 Famicom game Spartan X 2!

It's a shame this isn't a more traditional logo-on-black NES title screen, then I could have made a joke about it looking spartan. Instead I think I'll just press start and try to avoid any more terrible jokes that don't really work given the context.

Two men glower at each other. One of them looks like a standard action game protagonist. The other looks like a WCW wrestler from the nineties, or Robert Z'dar with a bowl of spaghetti tipped on his head. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that these guys probably don't get on with one another.

Yep, they're definitely having a tete-a-tete. I know the warm pink tones give the scene a more romantic vibe than you might have expected but these guys were engaged in pugilistic violence mere moments ago.

Oh, hello there, Middle-Aged Chinese Woman. Are you involved in this somehow, or are you just watching?

And now I'm jumping out of a helicopter. Crikey, this is an action-packed thrill-ride and I haven't even started the game yet! Maybe I never will get to start the game, because it doesn't look like I'm wearing a parachute. There also appears to be no pilot in that helicopter. I'd better be playing as a rule-breaking maverick, a loose cannon who does what it takes to get results, even if it means an unmanned helicopter killing dozens after it crashes into a busy dual carriageway.

Spartan X 2 was a Japanese-only Famicom release, but thanks to an English translation by Abstract Crouton I can read the compelling plot of the game. It seems I am indeed a lawman who doesn't play by the book but who gets the job done, dammit. My name is Jonny, and according to the lady on the radio I'm in pursuit of a man named Flamey. Flamey is a children's fire safety mascot who has snapped and burned down an orphanage after spending too many hours in a claustrophobic, sweltering fursuit. That's not true, Flamey is some kind of smuggler. I still like my version of events better.

Okay, here's the actual gameplay and if you're the kind of reprobate who gets a twisted thrill from kicking people in the face then please leave my website. On the other hand, if you like basic, single-plane beat-em-ups from the 8-bit era then Spartan X 2 is probably something you'll enjoy. That's Jonny in the red, and he's punching a soldier. That's fifty percent of the gameplay right there. The other half is kicking people. One button for punch, one button for kick, and you can perform crouching and jumping varieties of both. Enemies run at you from either side of the screen, and it seems that most of them are just lonely, because all they do when they reach you is give you a big, health-draining bear hug.
If all this seems familiar to you - the action, the moveset, maybe even the title - then you might be thinking of Spartan X 2's prequel. Yes, of course this is a sequel, it's called Spartan X 2. So what was the prequel?

Well, Spartan X, obviously. Pictured above is Kung Fu, the NES port of Irem's classic arcade game Kung Fu Master, often described as the first-ever beat-em-up. I'm sure most of you have at least seen the NES version of Kung Fu, because as an early and pretty decent NES title it seemed to be everywhere. In Japan, Kung Fu Master is known as Spartan X, making this game a sequel to Kung Fu. It's called Spartan X because it's (very) loosely based on the excellent 1984 Jackie Chan / Sammo Hung / Yuen Biao movie Wheels on Meals, which is called Spartan X in Japan, so that bit at the start of this article about the fast-food van wasn't just me pulling things out of my backside.

Back to the action, and whatever gang of villains I'm fighting - Flamey's Combustion Rangers, maybe - have realised that hugs probably aren't going to stop a man with the balls to jump from a helicopter onto a moving train and so they've brought out the elite purple troops. It's a guy with a knife! It doesn't sound like much, but that knife can whittle away at your health bar just as fast as it it can whittle a tree branch, so you'd better be quick to give these purple knifemen a jumping kick in the head. Kicking this guy in the head is so effective because it scares away the eagle that is quite clearly holding on to his scalp. That's not a quiff, it's a beak.

After a while - a short while, because all the stages in SX2 are tiny - Jonny drops into the train carriage for more of the same action, the only thought in his mind being whether to punch or kick anyone who confronts him. As far as I can tell kicking is more powerful but slightly slower than punching, although Jonny's kicks are pretty snappy so you might as well use them all the time. They also have just a touch more range, which is useful when you're crouch-kicking a conga line of charging enemy soldiers one-at-a-time before they can grab you.
Also in the train are ordinary commuters reading newspapers. Some of these commuters are actually bad guys merely pretending to be businessmen ruing the life choices that lead them into this soulless grind, and these sneaky villains will leap from the background to attack when you get close. Their surprise attack plan is undermined by them being bright purple.

Here's Flamey, so called because he can breath fire. Hang on: big hair, oversized boots, fire breathing... am I fighting the secret fifth member of Kiss? Kicked out of the band, stripped his facepaint and forced to earn a living on the wrong side of the law, Flamey could almost elicit sympathy if he wasn't constantly trying to set fire to my face with his mouth. I found the best way to defeat him was to open with a jumping kick to close the distance and then just keep kicking him over and over again because he can't escape. Justice is served!

His full name was Flamey Joe, huh? I take back what I said about him being a fire safety mascot, "Flamey Joe" sounds much more like the cartoon spokesman for a chain of low-rent burger restaurants.

Between stages my boss give me a call, telling me to wait for backup and not to do anything foolish, blah blah blah. Jonny ignores him, of course - who could sit on their hands knowing there's an evil magician inside who needs a good slapping? - and this is the running theme of SX2's story. Jonny is told to wait, Jonny doesn't wait, thousands of drug cartel soldiers are beaten to death.
I also like that Jonny just calls his boss Steve. Not "sir" or "chief" or anything, just Steve. What a rebel.

Stage two: the box district, where everyone in town stores their boxes. One of the bad guys was simply placing boxes onto this conveyor belt. At least I hope he was a bad guy, because I kicked him even though all he was doing was placing boxes onto a conveyor belt like it was, I dunno, his job or something.
Also on the subject of boxes, fair play to Spartan X 2: I had a rant all stored up about how getting lightly touched on the foot by a cardboard box should not hurt a kung fu master, or anyone for that matter. I had to stow that rant, because the boxes don't hurt you. They just get in your way. Thanks, Irem.

Something that can hurt you are these Tarzan wannabes who swing around the second half of the stage. However, this guy is about to get an unpleasant surprise that will force him to sit on a special inflatable pillow for the next few months. You see, Jonny has a couple of special moves, both of which are triggered by crouching. Duck down for a couple of seconds and Jonny will start glowing, and once you're glowing you can press punch to unleash a huge uppercut that sends lesser enemies flying and does a big chunk of damage to bosses. Once the king of the swingers here flies overhead, he's getting a super uppercut so hard and in such an ufortunate place that his doctor will be telling the story of the resulting injuries to his golf buddies for years to come.
The other special move is perhaps even cooler: if an enemy approachs from behind while you're super-crouching, pressing punch just as he reaches you will make you grab the guy and throw him over your shoulder. It's very satisfying, and you can even take out multiple enemies with it.

The end-of-stage boss is indeed a magician, but not the pulling-rabbits-out-of-a-hat type that I was expecting but one with actual sorceries at his command. His attack pattern is simple - he sends out a ring of green light that grabs Jonny and hold him in place if he walks under it. Once contained by the Mystical Hula Hoops of Tarak-Thuul, the boss throws objects at Jonny to hurt him. The first one was a beach ball, but I think that was just to lull me into a false sense of security because after that he started chucking dynamite at me.
The boss' magic is his downfall, because it's really easy to get out of the magical bindings by waggling the joypad. Your best strategy is to get caught on purpose, shake yourself free and wait for the magician to teleport somewhere. He's very slow at teleporting. So slow that you can see where he's going to arrive and stand there, waiting to slap him as soon as he materialises. He doesn't take long to beat once you've figured that out.

I maybe have been hasty in declaring that the previous stage was the box district. Stage three is set on a boat, a boat full of boxes, enemy troops on hoverboards and the ocassional man with a rocket launcher. The high-explosive rounds don't seem to to any more damage than getting stabbed. The hoverboards just mean the bad guys fly into my punches faster. I think this gang need to go back to the drawing board - they're trying hard, bless them, but nothing has been as effective at slowing Jonny down as a prison shiv. If all those boxes were full of knives, I could be in real trouble, but I think they're full of drugs.

The theme of boxes carries over to the boss, who throws boxes at you. I can't spruce this one up, folks, it's kind of a dull fight. Avoid the boxes, kick the sailor in the feet, if you can get him with the uppercut so much the better.

There's no hard feelings after the fight. Judging by his portrait, Billy Bailey is too much of a simpleton to feel humiliated or angry or much of anything, really. He looks like a hugger. A big, clumsy hugger with a beard like steel wool that'll tear your face clean off if he manages to embrace you. Thank god he stuck to throwing things at me.

If there's something evil going down, I'd check whether or not the circus is in town because they are at the heart of all that is impure and unholy in this world. Clowns, animal cruelty, more clowns, overpriced snacks, an endless parade of demonic, white-faced killers in baggy trousers, you can always trust the circus to inject a little terror into the lives of the ordinary person.

This circus has their own plane, because they cannot be prosecuted for their crimes if said crimes take place over international waters.
The sinister if rather nebulous drug ring have finally hit upon a weapon more effective than a basic steak knife, and that's jetpacks. The flying troopers swoop around just out of jump-kicking range, toasting you with the fire from their jets, and if you're unlucky enough to be fighting two at once then you're in for a rough time
It was only here that I realised Jonny doesn't recover all his health between stages. It's unusual and at first I was outraged - okay, midly disgruntled - but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. From the perspective of the story, Jonny is supposed to be running from one crime scene to the next despite everyone telling him to wait for backup, so it makes sense for him to be knackered after each stage. Even more important is the gameplay side, however. Spartan X 2 is a short game with small stages that you're more likely to succeed at if you throw yourself at them rather than erring on the side of caution. This is especially true of the boss battles, all of which I've won so far through relentless offence... but at the cost of taking a few hits. Not getting all your health back forces you to take the game more slowly, more conservatively, thus stretching out a lightweight game into something a tiny bit more fulfilling.

Inside the plane, an ape holds me in place while a go-go dancer whacks me on the head with a caveman's club. The circus, ladies and gentlemen! That poor gorilla, crammed into the crawlspace under the floor. God knows how long he's been down there, waiting for cop who's dangerous but who gets results to come along.

My sympathy for these noble apes evaporated when one of them started trying to kill me. Like so many enemies in this game it just wants to give Jonny a squeeze, although the way it's hands fall on Jonny's shoulders it looks like the gorilla's giving Jonny a stern talking to about a truth he'd rather not know, like that wearing a red leather jacket makes you look like an idiot, Jonny.
Uppercuts are once more the weapon of choice, and as the gorilla tries to jump over your head, that's when to strike.

Once the gorilla's dealt with its trainer jumps into the fray, and I've got no qualms about pummelling someone who whips animals for a living. I honestly don't remember much about this fight other than the boss uses the range of his whip to keep you at a distance and that distances are best closed with flying kicks. I'm going to assume I kicked him until I won. It feels like a safe bet.

Stage five is off to a good start as I kick down the door to the villain's mansion. There was a soldier behind the door, but I slammed him aside by kicking the door into him. And Hotline Miami thought it was so original.

I've thought about it, and I've decided that Spartan X 2 is fun. Is it deep? No. Does it offer a lot of replayability? Not really. It is a very basic game, but you know what? That's okay. Sometimes you just want to batter a column of enemy soldiers who have little strength and even less survival instinct, and SX2 is a game that lets you do just that with an effective control scheme, tight gameplay and graphics and sound that aren't amongst the NES's top tier but which are certainly more than serviceable.

There are ninjas in the swimming pool. They're hiding under the water by breathing through hollow bamboo canes. That only works in ponds, you stupid ninjas. People don't generally have aquatic vegetation growing in their swimming pools unless they're really bad at paying the pool boy on time.

The difficulty level takes a sudden upward spike with stage fives boss. She's presumably the Chinese woman from the intro and she's also the only boss to have done her research on Jonny and learned his one weakness: knives. She throws knives high and low, making it difficult to get close to her, and when you do get into clobbering rage she jumps to the other side of the screen and starts the pattern again. It makes a nice change to have to pay attention during a boss fight, making sure you take the correct action depending on whether her knives are heading for your face or your groin. With a bit of perseverance and some good reflexes you'll eventually wear her down.

Her name's Madda Lin. That's nice to know, but the knowledge has come a little late for me. I feel guilty about calling her "Chinese woman" this whole time. I feel less guilty about beating her into a coma, but then she was chucking cutlery at me.

Before the next stage the head villain pops up on your radio to taunt you. His name is Shi Son, and he likes to look down on Jonny. Literally look down on him, that is. Shi Son has a unfortunate neck condition, probably brought on my constant snootiness.
Shi Son also calls Jonny "Keiji Thomas" before correcting himself. Thomas was the protagonist's name in the original Kung Fu Master, so it looks like after the first game he changed his name to Jonny Spartan - a name that definitely doesn't sound like it belongs to a porn star - and joined an elite crime fighting unit. Well, you've got to pay the bills somehow, and if your only skills are "good at kung fu" then your options are Hong Kong movie star, kung fu teacher or special law enforcement agent.

After boasting that it "wouldn't be very interesting to just shoot" Jonny, Shi Son sends him into a fiendish, and incredibly short even by the standards of SX2's miniature stages, gauntlet of traps. Here, Jonny rides a moving platform while a constant stream of soldiers falls from the sky. I honestly though the game has broken here, because these grunts fell as though there was a huge goon-dispensing tap located just off screen, but in the end I realised the point of these bad guys is to push you off the platform and to your death. The trick is to let one of them grapple with you for a while so the others run past, like that bit in the movies where two characters kiss to avoid being detected except the two kissers are trying to murder each other.

There's also an underwater section, not that you'd know it was underwater unless you were paying close attention. The gameplay certainly doesn't change or anything, and the eagle-headed knife men are content to just stand in place, their lungs slowly filling with precious, life-giving water.

Here it is - the climactic battle between Jonny and Shi Son. Sorry, that should read anticlimactic battle, because Shi Son is easier to put down than any boss since the first one. He flips around like a ninja at a cheerleader try-out, he throws big but easily avoidable kicks, he tries to menace you with his size, but it's all for nothing. Just crouch until he gets close, hit him with an uppercut that takes a quarter of his health and send shim flying backwards, do that a couple more times and bask in your victory. Shooting me doesn't seem so boring now, huh?

That's it, Spartan X 2 is over and you get a wha-whaa "comedy" ending where Jonny finds another, bigger drug ring to bust. ADD and a knowledge of deadly martial arts seem like a bad mix, but I guess it works for Jonny Spartan, agent of Whatever The Hell This Organization Is Called.

Spartan X 2 is shallower than a puddle in the Sahara, but as I said, that doesn't have to be a bad thing. It doesn't do much, but what it does do is fun, well-constructed action - I'm thankful in particular for the game's crisp collision detection - that kept me entertained during the three times I played through it. If you're after a quick slice of Famicom face-breaking then you could do a lot worse than this and remember: don't wear a red leather jacket, you're not a cartoon character.



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 I some guy I know could have met Bruce Campbell but was too nervous to break into his house while he slept? I bet it does. Also, nice work turning to Chinese martial arts when the world needs saving from the dread power of the Dark Lord Satan. I mean the Book of Revelations is kinda exciting, I guess, but you can't argue that it wouldn't be improved if Jesus defeated The Adversary using his mastery of the Praying Mantis Fist. Of course he'd use used Praying Mantis style. He is Jesus, after all.

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.

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