It's 2016, and I'm back from my festive break (I'd like to say "relaxed and refreshed", but "fat and stressed" is closer to the truth) with more words about old videogames, and where better to start, during this period of rejuvenation and change, than with a game about a man who transforms himself into a righteous instrument of justice by waving his arms around and shouting? It's Sun L and Bandai's 1993 Super Famicom henshin-em-up Kamen Rider!
I'll be honest, I don't know much about Kamen Rider beyond the basics. It's a long-running series of Japanese superhero shows starring a man who becomes a grasshopper-themed purveyor of vengeance, presumably because all the cool animals were already taken as superhero identities. Kamen Rider is phenomenally popular in its home country, and if Ultraman is the Japanese equivalent of Superman then I suppose Kamen Rider would be Batman. There are roughly twelve thousand Kamen Rider series, including a new one that started last year, but this game is about the original Kamen Rider. Kamen Rider has a motorcycle, which is why he's called Kamen Rider and not Kamen Jogger, and his most powerful move is the Rider Kick. That is about the extent of my knowledge on the subject of Kamen Rider, and because this game is all in Japanese that's unlikely to change. If you want more detailed info on the Kamen Rider franchise, I'm sure there's a nightmarishly detailed wiki out there, but I'm just interested in the game.
The intro depicts two young ne'er-do-wells harassing an old man and stealing his treasured family pipe, all viewed through a mirror crafted by an Aztec Nazi. No, of course not, The young man on the left is Kamen Rider 1 and so I guess the one in the 1920's newspaper boy hat is the imaginatively-named Kamen Rider 2. There's evil in the world in the form of terrorist organization Shocker, and the Kamen Riders have vowed to bring an end to their tyranny right after they've finished playing keep-away with this guy's plumbing supplies.
Here are the Kamen Riders. They're posing, which seems to make up around seventy percent of a Kamen Rider's workload. The rest is punching freaks, so let's get on with that, shall we?
Kamen Rider is a side-scrolling beat-em-up, so you can call this a fairly self-indulgent start to the year. Assuming you're player one, you're put in control of Kamen Rider's alter-ego Takeshi Hongo, although every time I look at him I want to call him Kabuto Kouji. I have no idea why, because Kabuto Kouji is the hero of Mazinger Z. Maybe it's because Kouji and Hongo both share a fondness for large sideburns. Hongo is dressed in white jumpsuit that makes him look half mechanic, half Elvis, although in his defence Kamen Rider did start airing in 1971. To bring things back around to videogames, in the original series Takeshi Hongo was played by actor Hiroshi Fujioka, perhaps better known to lovers of weird videogame ephemera as the mighty Sega mascot Segata Sanshiro.
Opposing Hongo, although probably not exactly striking fear into his heart, are the troops of Shocker, who dress like beatniks and prance onto the screen like a dance troupe auditioning for Britain's Got Talent. Shocker's true goal is revealed - by creating a soldier that loves abstract poetry and modern dance, they've come close to developing the most easily-bullyable schoolboy imaginable.
As this is a beat-em-up, the gameplay mostly explains itself and, for the most part, doesn't stray too far from the usual genre template. You've got an attack and a jump button, the attack button can be tapped repeatedly for a short combo of hits, you can do a jumping kick, that kind of thing. The most immediate differences are that you don't have a life-draining emergency attack, and that each stage is broken into five or six short vignettes that see Hongo leaping off the top of the screen once he's finished one, rather than the continuous stages of something like Final Fight.
Just in case you were in any doubt that this is a beat-em-up, here's an oil drum that you can smash. There's an item inside, although Kamen Rider is not very generous with the power-ups. There are big health refills, small health refills and (I believe) one solitary extra life. Hey, I've just noticed that there are no points in this brawler! That'd a little unusual. How am I supposed to know the numerical value of each life I take with my bare fists?
One of the beatnik-gymnasts is orange, and he has a rapier. Even their fighting styles are kinda wussy.
Luchadores! Now this is more like it, something manly and tough and easily baited into standing near the edge of this hole so I can kick them down it. So, take a closer look at these masked menaces and ask yourself: are they wearing leather bracelets, or did their evil henchman sweatshirts shrink in the wash and now their sleeves are all too short?
Hongo has been making short work of these Shocker minions with his basic punch combos, but just around the corner lurks a much sterner test in the form of this strange creature. It can spit sticky, damaging webs at you, as though it is some bizarre combination of spider and man. But who is this strange creature? I suppose I'd better check the wiki. Oh... so his name is Spider Man, huh? No, it's fine, I can see why you'd call him Spider Man. I can't think of a reason why you wouldn't call him Spider Man.
Spider Man is a far tougher foe than all the other Shocker goons, with his web attack being especially dangerous, and so there is only one option: Hongo must transform into the mighty hero Kamen Rider (1), which you can do whenever you like by pressing the X button. The transformation consists of Hongo standing there slowly waving his arms, with the enemies paralysed though sheer incomprehension at your decision to break off in mid-battle to get some quick tai chi in.
You're also treated to a shot of Hongo's belt buckle, which facilitates his transformation into Kamen Rider. You have to watch his belt buckle spinning around every time you transform, which is nice and definitely doesn't stretch out into what feels like a goddamn eternity after the eighth or ninth time you've seen it.
Here he is, Kamen Rider himself (note: Kamen Rider does no actual riding in this game, just punching)! Spider Man stands no chance now, although honestly Kamen Rider doesn't play that much differently than Takeshi Hongo. He has a running jumping kick, which is a lot of fun if a little impractical when it comes to actually hitting the enemies rather than jumping past them. I want to say his punches are slightly more powerful than Hongo's but I think that might just be a matter of my own perception - now that I've transformed Kamen Rider I feel like his punches should be stronger, you know?
Now that I've become Kamen Rider, I'm ready to face the first end-of-stage boss. It's a dinosaur that spends the first half of the fight wandering around in the background and disinterestedly throwing bombs at you while you mop up the beatniks, before jumping down to take you on mano-a-mano. Surprisingly the dinosaur man's name isn't Dinosaur Man. He's called Tokageron, and he's a former football player that Shocker transformed into a monster in order to harness his tremendous leg strength. That's all it takes to get you on Shocker's radar, huh? One above-average physical trait? I look forward to fighting the Birdwatcher, with their keen eyesight, or a frog-based monster the Shocker created to weaponize the ability to roll his tongue into a tube.
Tokageron isn't much of a challenge as long as you keep moving and don't let him batter you with his tail, although the fight does take longer than I expected: given that he's a former soccer player it's surprising that hitting Tokageron once doesn't result in him rolling around on the floor in simulated agony.
Once you've depleted all the boss' health, and assuming you're in Kamen Rider form, you can press X to finish the job with the Rider Kick. I like the Rider Kick, as special moves go. It's got a pleasing simplicity to it. Kamen Rider is here to destroy evil, not spend ages faffing around with special chants or giant combining weapons. See the bad guy, kick the bad guy, move on. It's all very efficient.
Here's Kamen Rider on his motorcycle, which plays no other part in the game. His motorcycle looks like a six-year-old's drawing of a motorcycle, with gigantic wheels and more exhausts than a Kwik-Fit warehouse. All it's missing are some machine guns, maybe a couple of fins.
Between stages one and two, you're given the option to participate in one of three mini-events, or to ignore them all and move on to the next stage. This one sees Kamen Rider wrestling with a bulldozer, and naturally you have to tap the button to hold the bulldozer back. Keep the bulldozer at bay until the time runs out and congratulations, you win... erm, I'll have to get back to you on that one. I'm sure there is a reward for completing the mission, but I couldn't figure out what it was. A stat increase, maybe?
The bulldozer is the easiest of the three missions, although none of them are particularly strenuous - one has you dodging falling rocks for a set amount of time, and the other fills the screen with enemies and challenges you to survive until the timer runs out, a task made simpler by the reluctance of the enemies to chase you into the bottom corner of the screen.
Okay then, stage two proper begins and it's that classic staple of the beat-em-up genre, the construction site... except there doesn't seem to be much construction going on, unless this is the site of the world's largest sandcastle. While the character sprites are good - a little stiffly animated, perhaps, but drawn in a way I find very appealing - the backgrounds in Kamen Rider definitely fall onto the "waiting in a Post Office queue" side of dull. We've got sand, rocks, more sand and, to really jazz the place up, some emergency barriers. How thrilling.
It's Pickle Dan, the Gherkin Man, here to coat the world in his evil brine. I'm not going to look Pickle Dan up on the wiki, because it might tell me that Pickle Dan isn't his actual name and that he wasn't formerly a retired civil servant that Shocker mutated into a monster so they could control his incredible ability to preserve vegetables in vinegar.
I'm not sure why I'm fighting him as Hongo and not Kamen Rider, mind you. As far as I can see there are no drawbacks to being Kamen Rider, so I might as well be Kamen Rider all the time! It's a decision that definitely won't bite me in the arse later. Also, Kamen Rider wears gloves and Hongo does not. Imagine how it would feel to punch a gherkin into a coma with your bare hands? No, this is definitely a job for Kamen Rider.
The end of stage boss is this... thing. It's got Ookami in it's name, so I guess it's supposed to be wolf-based? It doesn't look much like a wolf. Wolves, unless I've been sorely misinformed by the dodgy t-shirt stall at my local market, do not have horns. Or wear belts. Or boots. Look, whatever this thing is it likes to charge at you, so combined with the horns I'm going to say it's a bull. It charges at Kamen Rider, so move out of the way and then hit the boss. Do this until your chance to finish the boss with the Rider Kick appears.
Then kick the boss out of the window and into a ravine. Rider Defenestration, very heroic.
Hmm, maybe I'll start taking Shocker more seriously now I know they're into crucifying people. What we can also learn from this image is that it's very difficult to draw pixel art of someone in a balaclava, because unless they're right next to the camera they just end up with an expression of cartoonish surprise. Maybe that's why they're called Shocker.
Stage three, and already Kamen Rider has sunk into a grey sludge of repetition, with Hongo pummelling the same beatniks and luchadores over and over again in this and indeed every other stage, all set against some of the most generic backdrops I've ever seen in a beat-em-up. Ooh, shipping containers, the developers are really stretching their horizons with that one.
At least the combat itself is fairly decent, with the ability to transform into Kamen Rider adding a touch of variety. That's not to say that the fighting is flawless, mind you, and my biggest problem with it is that once you've started your combo it's difficult to interrupt it - once Hongo's fists are flying he'll keep on swingin' as you watch, helpless to react, as a masked thug walks up behind you and clobbers you over the head with a 2X4. Combine this with even the most basic enemy's ability to do a lot of damage with very few attacks, and Kamen Rider ends up being one of those games that feels more difficult that it should be thanks to a hero who fights as though he's still shaking off the effects of last night's vindaloo and lager session.
Then something came along that took me by surprise - between stages three and four, you're given the opportunity to change Kamen Rider's moveset! Now the L and R buttons can be equipped with attacks from a pool of different moves, which can be checked out on this screen here, including new combos, double jumping kicks and a host of new throws. I went for a throw-kick combo and a series of more powerful karate chops.
I'm surprised there aren't / weren't more beat-em-ups that included this kind of move management system, and I'll give Kamen Rider a lot of credit for including it. I don't think it's incredibly deep, and frankly I didn't have the time to try out a huge amount of permutations so I can't tell you if there are some combos that can be abused for an easy win, but I'm very impressed that it was included at all. I wish a similar system had appeared in more beat-em-ups, although this may be partly down to my brain's insistence that all games should be more like God Hand.
Excited by the murderous potential of Kamen Rider's new moves, I started the next stage and immediately transformed into the insectoid superman. I was having a merry old time beating up the bad guys, although it would have been a merrier time had I been offered the chance to fight something other than a beatnik, a luchador or an orange beatnik, but then I noticed something. Playing as Kamen Rider rather than Hongo does have a drawback. You see the stage boss's health bar at the bottom of the screen? Now look at it again in this screenshot from later in the stage.
It's gone up. The boss' maximum health actually increases as you dither about teaching these Ginsberg wannabes a lesson about not crucifying people, and if you're playing as Kamen Rider the health bar goes up way faster than if you're playing as Hongo. I'm not sure how I feel about this turn of events. On the one hand, I can see why the developers would want to keep Kamen Rider as a special ability, a transformation to be used in times of crisis, and this is at least an interestingly different way to keep the player from using KR all the time rather than, say, having a limited amount of Transformation Tokens or something. One the other hand, Kamen Rider is far more fun and interesting to play as than Hongo, with a wider move-set and a rather stylish scarf. Personally, my solution would have been to get rid of Hongo altogether and had the player be Kamen Rider all the time. After all, the game's called Kamen Rider, not Takeshi Hongo's Shocker-Smashing Slam-Fest.
Cool, a squid-man. His name is Ikadevil. It's okay, Ikadevil, I still think you're cool even if your name does sound like something from a Moshi Monsters-style creature collecting game. Who will triumph in this, the immortal battle between squid and grasshopper? You'd think Kamen Rider would have the advantage given that the battle is taking place on land, but Ikadevil can summon tiny meteors from the sky so that evens the odds a little. After a couple of deaths at the suckers of Ikadevil's tentacle whip, I eventually triumphed using the cheesiest of beat-em-up strategies: the repeated jumping kick. It took ages. It's a good job I played as Hongo for most of the stage, or I'd still be doing this fight now.
Stage five takes place in a fun fair, and there's very little to say about it because it's all the same as the other stages only with a 1000% increase in roller-coaster tracks. Still, I can look at this screenshot and imagine, for a brief moment, how nice it would have been to fight a monster with a huge carousel horse for a head.
Then there's the boss, a lumpy chap called Hiruchameleon. He's got "chameleon" right there in his name, so it's no surprise that his special power is camouflage, and by camouflage I mean the ability to vanish completely and become immune to damage before reappearing right next to you and draining half your health before you can react. At first, this was one of the most frustrating boss fights I've ever participated in - I just couldn't land a blow, and Hiruchameleon never left himself open to a counter-attack. Then, it clicked: if I'm already attacking when the boss reappears, he can't dodge my punches! So I stood there, tapping the attack button, until Hiruchameleon reappeared. When he did, my relentless attacks meant I could grab him immediately and give him a swift knee to the bollocks, or whatever disgusting sack of organs this mutated freak has instead of testicles. Yes, my incredible strategy actually worked. A true hero needs brains as well as brawn.
Into the final stage now, and Kamen Rider faces his most dangerous foe: himself! Okay, so Evil Kamen Rider is probably his third or fourth most dangerous foe, after Ikadevil, the final boss and Hiruchameleon before I figured out his weakness. Evil Kamen Rider is too fond of flying kicks, you see, allowing for plenty of opportunities to hit him when he lands. I don't blame him, I've often said that it you can do flying kicks all the time then you should do flying kicks all the time. It would be hypocritical of me to cast too much scorn on Evil Kamen Rider's tactics.
Then you get a boss rush, because Kamen Rider hasn't had enough problems with repetition already. Even in a really good beat-em-up a boss rush always feels like shallow padding, but here it feels like a Sisyphean task, if Sisyphus was pushing a boulder made of monster parts and cheap attacks. On the positive side, I spent so long chugging through the early part of the stage that the boss' health bar is already at maximum, so I might as well play as Kamen Rider.
The final showdown is against Shocker's secret weapon - so secret, in fact, that I don't think it exists outside this game. Prove me wrong, internet! But first let me tell you about this boss: he's a dick. A real pain in the arse. His claws and tail have a huge range, and each single hit takes about three-quarters of you health bar, so I hope you're looking forward to a fight with the same tentative approach work and potential for sudden, crushing defeat as me asking someone out on a date. It just drags on and on, and it's not even an interesting fight - the boss only really has two attacks, but when he can obliterate you so easily, why would he need any more than that? So you chip away at him, slowly whittling down his health until finally the menace of Shocker is destroyed and all men, women and grasshopper warriors can live in peace.
There go our noble heroes, streaking into the sunset on their bike which do, on closer inspection, totally have fins. Awesome. Thank you, Kamen Rider 1 and Kamen Rider 2. I'm sure you will be a great inspiration to Kamen Rider 3.
Kamen Rider comes close to being a really excellent little game, close enough that I was frustrated by its inability to push itself over the edge. The game's biggest flaw is undoubtedly the repetitive nature of the stages, and more variety would have gone a long way towards making this an easy recommendation, along with the addition of a few tweaks to speed up the combat and make Kamen Rider more responsive. There are some potentially exciting ideas in here, though. Transforming heroes are always fun, and the ability to select your own moves is great, but as it stands Kamen Rider will have to go down as a merely "good" game rather than a true classic of the genre. That said, I've been lying to you: the repetition isn't the worst thing about this game. The worst thing about this game is that it's making me wonder if I can pull off a flowing red scarf when, deep down, I know very well that I can't.