In an attempt to force some culture into you philistines, today we're going to explore the fascinating world of Japanese theatre with Taito's 1988 arcade game Kabuki-Z. I hope you're ready to be thrilled by the spectacle!
Okay, it's not a very thrilling start, I'll grant you. Still, pondering the mystery of how this man's lower body came to be replaced by a big rock will hopefully be enough of a hook to draw you in.
Oh. So... not kabuki theatre, then? It's ritualised self-disembowelment instead. Okay, first things first, Taito, this makes Kabuki-Z a very misleading title. Secondly, that's quite a tone you're trying to set before the title screen has even appeared. I hope you've got the commitment to stick with it for an entire game. As for the chap performing the impromptu abdominal surgery, maybe the bloke behind holding the sword can speed things up a little.
There we go. He's killed the guy with the stone legs, his sword-swipes leaving a Z-shaped spray of blood on the wall like that "dark" and "gritty" Zorro reboot everyone's been clamouring for.
Shenron the Eternal Dragon looks on with a disinterested expression. He's probably expecting that guy to be wished back to life via the power of the Dragonballs any time now.
When I think of Taito, I tend to think of either cutesy platformers or cartoonish but relatively non-violent action games - Bubble Bobble, New Zealand Story, Chase HQ, those sorts of things. Based on the intro, I think we can safely assume that Kabuki-Z is not going to be one of those games. But what could it be? I doubt it's going to be a whole game about helping people who get stuck halfway through their attempts at seppuku. It doesn't feel like there'd be a lot of mileage in that, you know? It's my suspicion that Kabuki-Z might be a side-scrolling hack-and-slash adventure.
Well, would you look at that. Scrolling sideways, hacking and slashing at things. What a prediction, I'd better hurry and start my own astrology website. Aries: while work commitments are piling up, a chance encounter may lead to romance. Remember that Ghost Rider cosplayers are not to be trusted and you should hack and / or slash them. Your lucky colour is blue.
The first thing I noticed as I threw myself into the action is that the player character doesn't really walk. He moves around, sure, but he doesn't move his legs. He just kind of... wiggles his feet, so either his ankles have the power of a deep-sea oil drill or there's no friction at all on the floor and the slightest movement is all that's needed to send him on his way.
It looks even more ridiculous when you move around while crouching, gliding across the stone floor of the Giant Samurai Armour Storage Dimension in a pose that suggests our hero was intending to actually propose to that skeleton but somehow things got way out of control and now they're fighting to the death. Best of all, being in the crouching pose is often the best way to approach fights in Kabuki-Z, so you'll see a lot of the hero in this position but with nary a kneepad to be had, the poor bastard.
After fighting a few - and I do mean "a few," because this is a very short stage - fairly harmless skeletons, this guy and his massive Christmas trousers appears to spoil everyone's fun. He's trying to put the Kabuki in Kabuki-Z, as well as trying to put his tiny sickles into my body. Why are your sickles so tiny, kabuki man? Did you forget to convert from Imperial to Metric when you were building them? Do you have an elaborate ritual for preparing watercress when you're making a salad?
Having accepted that I'm unlikely to unravel the mystery of the kabuki man, I went in for the kill, only to find he could block my attacks. In fact, he was really good at blocking my attacks, and as I struggled to land to land a telling blow he kept spawning tiny blue demons that would cling to my bosom and presumably nuzzle around trying to find a milk-bearing nipple. Fortunately, I figured out the boss' weakness before I could be completely drained of my life essence.
Kabuki man likes to jump. He's really good at it, too, sailing high into the air and covering about two screen-widths of distance at his most energetic. However, he doesn't attack while he's jumping - too busy concentrating on his totally sweet backflips, no doubt - so as he lands you can get near him and stab him in the back at no risk to your own safety.
Immediately after beating kabuki man, you're thrown straight into a battle with an armoured skeleton who learned his swordsmanship from the heaviest hitters in major league baseball. Look at the swing on that guy! He's going for a home run, no doubt. He's gonna send me out past the bleachers, a real smash drive into the fourth quadrant and look, I know nothing about baseball beyond it being American Cricket, okay?
A far more dangerous opponent than the kabuki man, the skeleton forced me to look a bit closer at Kabuki-Z's combat system, and it's more complex than it might first appear. There's one button to swing your sword, but the other button isn't jump. Pressing both buttons does make you jump, and like the kabuki man's jump it's a physically impressive but completely useless jump (unless you get pinned right in the corner, I suppose). No, the second button changes your stance, when combined with a directional input on the joystick. Down and the button puts up into the crouching state, which works on a toggle and not by holding down on the joystick, while up on the joystick raises your hands so you attack in an overhead chopping motion. Do not use this stance, because it severely reduces the range of your attacks. Does it make your hits do more damage? I haven't got a clue, I never managed to hit any of the bosses with it and all the regular grunts die in one hit.
It's an interesting system, because the bosses also have these three stances, and the aim of combat is to hit the boss while they're in a different stance to you. If you're in the same stance, such as in the screenshot above where the skeleton would be justified in accusing our hero of cheating during the squatting contest, the boss will block your attacks. So, you've got to focus on the rather difficult task of evading the boss' attacks and striking when they're out of position. Or, and this strategy works for about three-quarters of the game's bosses, stay out of their way until they jump and stab them in their undefended backs as they land. Look, if they're stupid enough to not play to their strengths - range, power, remembering to bring kneepads - then I have no hesitation in taking the easy way out.
Having emerged triumphant, it's a simple mater of lopping the boss' head off in a clean, efficient manner so I can move on to stage two. And it is surprisingly clean, for a decapitation, although I guess the presence of blood means the boss wasn't a skeleton after all. Oh well, he will be soon enough.
The first part of stage two is on fire, and I swear it was like this when I got here. The same skeletons as before scamper through the burning building, desperate to divest themselves of their leather catsuits before the sweltering heat causes them to pass out but prevented by modesty from doing so. Jets of flame occasionally burst up through the floorboards, although they present even less threat than the enemies. So zero threat, then.
Eventually you fall through the floor, and the house's basement / underground corpse pile is patrolled by these capering clowns, who provide further evidence that Kabuki-Z's artist had never seen a human walk. They move in a jaunty, sideways, high-kneed gait, like a crab at a ska gig. It's a shame you can't decapitate these guys, too. Then I could shout "pick it up, pick it up!" as their heads roll around on the ground.
Bosses in Kabuki-Z come around quicker than tasteless jokes after a major tragedy, and here's another: a samurai wearing red whom I suspect went to the same sword-fighting school as me. He was clearly a better student, mind you, and he represents a huge step up in difficulty from the first stage. If you swing and miss while fighting him, you will be punished, so if you intend on fighting him properly - that is, not by exploiting his jumps - then you're in for a rough time.
I like that when you die, your head is surrounded by the spinning blue demons from earlier, as though you've not so much died as succumbed to a hangover caused by drinking Satan's bathwater. What I don't like is that you only have one life and you're sent back to the beginning of the stage if you continue. It didn't take long to get back to the boss - whittling down his health for a second time was a different story - but I did manage to deplete his health bar.
Doing so causes a bony facehugger-looking thing to scuttle onto the screen and attach itself the boss, reviving him while also making it impossible for him to ever wear a coat again. Was the monster just biding its time? Has it been waiting for years for someone to come along and stab this guy just the right amount so it can latch on and start a new life as the world's most useless backpack? I wish I had answers for you, folks, I really do. Instead I can only pass on the information that the symbiosis allows the boss to curl up like an armadillo and roll at you, which I'm not sure is a power worth dying for.
I like the scenery in stage three. The decision to stick the moon in the middle of a field of flowers is an odd one, granted, but I think it gives the scene a strange, dreamlike quality - a quality that is only enhanced by Kabuki-Z's slightly wonky gameplay, which sometimes sees our hero jerking around, teleporting short distances and occasionally being unable to turn around. It was at this point I realised that Kabuki-Z has a lot in common with Taito's Gladiator, AKA Great Gurianos, which in turn owed a lot to Great Swordsman. Like Gladiator, it features very short stages that are merely warm-ups for a series of boss battles, using combat that tries for something more complex than the usual side-scrolling brawler mechanics. Kabuki-Z, then, seems to represent another attempt by Taito to refine this concept, although with not much success, I'm afraid. What was presumably intended to be flowing, dynamic swordfight is instead a dull experience in poking at enemies and exploiting the same weaknesses repeatedly. The weirdness of the setting mitigates this somewhat, mind you.
Here's another boss, a sort of hunchbacked, quadrupedal ape-man. Yet another mysterious figure in the unexplained world that is Kabuki-Z, he threw a projectile at me but I walk past it and slashed him repeatedly until he died, making this the easiest boss in the entire game and the only one where I didn't struggle to make my character stand up properly after accidentally having him crouch.
The boss isn't quite finished, however. Once you kill him, a pair of smaller and much more deadly bosses burst out of his corpse in a pleasingly gory fashion. If I'd known the ape-man was little more than a diabolical piñata, I would have just run past him.
Instead I have to fight his children, or hideous parasites, or whatever they're supposed to be. I don't know what they're meant to be, but I know what they are, and that's extremely annoying. They bounce and tumble around the screen taking potshots at you and making it very clear that Kabuki-Z is not a game that's built around the player fighting more than one opponent at a time. They kinda remind me of Wilykit and Wilykat from Thundercats. This is probably because they're annoying.
After dealing with the twins, our hero is struck by lightning and transported to the next stage. What helpful lightning! It didn't just move him through space, either...
...it gave him a whole new wardrobe, too! Seems that lightning is into some pretty kinky stuff. Maybe it swapped my clothes with someone else's, and somewhere out there the very confused patron of a bondage dungeon is wondering why he's suddenly dressed like a samurai. The new outfit comes with a shield, which is nice, but I definitely preferred my previous get-up. You'll get no judgement from me if S&M is your bag, but I hate sitting on leather sofas so the idea of having my most tender areas snugly bundled up in a leather posing pouch is very upsetting to me. Also, look at those tiny boots. So teeny!
I think it's fair to say that so far, Kabuki-Z has been a weird game. There are tiers of weirdness, though. There's "murderous twin children hatching from a monster's back" weird, there's "sudden leather daddy transformation" weird...
...and then there's "attacked by rocket-propelled chess pieces" weird, which is a whole new level of strangeness and one that I'm fully on-board with. I went into this game expecting to be fighting demons and malformed creatures of darkness, but not expecting an assault by Garry Kasparov's elite ground forces, and in this instance it's nice to be taken by surprise.
The boss is a knight, but sadly not the chess piece of the same name. No, it's just a bloke in armour. Well, his top half's in armour, at least. I've detected a promising area of attack, let's put it that way. But where is our hero? He's jumping around, off the top of the screen. You can just about see his sword poking downwards near that pillar, which is new: the change in costume means that he now thrusts downwards with his sword during his jumps although, much like with the overhand attacks, I never managed to hit anything with it and I think it might just be a cosmetic change. That's not to say he's the same warrior as before, oh no - the addition of the shield means some of his moves have changed, and more interestingly you can now properly block enemy attacks with your shield. If you manage to do so, you opponent is momentarily stunned - represented in-game by their sprite rapidly vibrating, as though they recently licked a plug socket - and if you're very lucky you might even be able to land a free hit while they're recovering. It's an odd decision on Taito's part to suddenly change the basic combat at this late stage of the game, and not a wholly successful one. This fighting style is more interesting - more involved, certainly - than the first, and if it had been present from the start of the game then Kabuki-Z probably would have been better for it.
The end of the stage is guarded by another knight. This one is significantly larger, he remembered to put all of his armour on, his shield could double as a surfboard and he's using a lance. This means he spends most of the fight charging at you, so there's finally a reason to jump. Other than that, he's not very interesting, and soon you'll arrive at the final stage.
And here it is - a vaguely Egyptian land with strange geometric buildings and scimitar-wielding bandits. There are also a couple of instant-death pits knocking around. If there's one thing this game really did not need it was the sudden introduction of platforming elements, so it's a relief that there are only two or three holes total. The most interesting thing here is that the enemies appear to be wearing rubber gloves. Given the general slimy unpleasantness of Kabuki-Z's environments, I'd say that's a good call.
The mid-boss is a big man with a hammer, and ever since I was ambushed by the drag-racin' chess squad the villains of Kabuki-Z are rapidly becoming less and less interesting. Okay, so this guy can summon flaming devil heads to get in my way and I think anyone would have a hard time putting such a feat into the "not interesting" category, but other than that he is just a big man with a hammer.
After a long and arduous struggle - the struggle to find a decent range to attack from, mostly - Kabuki-Z reaches its dénouement with this final boss. Let's call him Johnny Four-Swords. I'd be more enthused about the fight if there'd been any indication of who this guy is, what his goals are and why he's got dinosaur feet. None of that is offered by the game, so we'll just have to accept the usual boilerplate answer of "he's a demon lord who wants to enslave the world." He's not even an interesting opponent to fight against, because he's little more than a whirling blender of swords that will strip your health bar if you get too close to him. I'll be honest, I cheated to beat him. Not because I couldn't beat him, but because it was taking forever to do legitimately and it wasn't any fun. That's the sad thing about Kabuki-Z: there's the basics of a decent game in here somewhere. The setting, especially early on, is bizarre and gory enough to stand out, and with more refinement the block / parry / slash flow of the combat could have made for an exciting, tense action game. As it stands, Kabuki-Z feels unfinished, or at the very least incredibly rushed, and missing the vital extra polish that could have made a sub-par game an engaging one.
There goes Johnny Four-Swords. He died as he lived: in a gushing torrent of blood. Well, now that I've completed Kabuki-Z, maybe the ending will fill me in on some of the story, or at least present some reward for our hero?
Or not. You know when I said this game feels unfinished? Yeah.