Hokuto no Ken: Seiki Matsukyu Seishi Densetsu (PlayStation) review
"Yeah, I had seen quite a bit of the TV show, and it was alright. The movie sucked. But the video game, OH MY FRIGGIN' GOD. Call me a "Fist" fan, effective immediately!"
There's a lot to talk about here. First things first.
Fist of the North Star is BONE-CRUSHINGLY AWESOME.
Yeah, I had seen quite a bit of the TV show, and it was alright. The movie sucked. But the video game, OH MY FRIGGIN' GOD. Call me a "Fist" fan, effective immediately!
I've played Streets of Rage, I've played Final Fight, I've even played Rival Turf. Those games are good as brawlers go (well, the first two are) but let me tell you: good is good, but good ain't BONE-CRUSHINGLY AWESOME.
"You wa SHOCK!" screams the title song in your ear. Literally translating to something along the lines of, "Youuuuuuuuu SHOCK!", it makes no sense at all — but it's damn strong and damn manly, just like the game's hero Kenshiro... the original badass who carved the mold for all future anime and videogame badasses. Snake, Guts, Bean Bandit, Himura Kenshin — these guys all learned their lessons from Ken and his hundred-handed punch. From the adrenaline-laced opening number, to the ridiculously melodramatic finale, Fist of the North Star gives us one giant cheesy-awesome epic, the scope of which SKULL-SMASHES any of its competitors or even its non-competitors. Oh yeah, that's right, not only is Fist more epic than Final Fantasy 7, it's even more epic than Homer's Odyssey. Viking metal bands should be singing ballads about this guy.
Similar to such recent 3D cinematic brawlers as EA's Lord of the Rings games, Fist alternates cutscene against action over and over and over again. However, the comparison is not so simple, oh no! The differences are threefold. One, Fist doesn't include a cumbersome "NES Double Dragon"-style experience system. As one of three potential inheritors of the North Star style, Ken can kick ass in a dozen ways from the very start. Two, Fist gives us the ENTIRE tale, with beginning, middle, and end — seven sequential story arcs in all. The third difference surprised even me. Through phenomenal pacing, stellar control, fluid storytelling, varied action, and fantastical style, Fist: The Game actually surpasses Fist: The Anime! Without the episodic filler and meandering tangents, this game DOMINATES the original, passing the threshold of "homage" and crowning itself the canonical Fist of the North Star experience.
And that's a pretty damn impressive feat for a videogame.
Punch up the disc, watch the f'ing awesome intro, and witness THE NUCLEAR DESTRUCTION OF ALL CIVILIZATION. After a shoulder-shaking vision of buildings crumbling to dust, we see that the ravaged world has stumbled into a post-apocalyptic age of gang warfare (blatantly ripping off the parched Earth wastelands of Mad Max, right down to the helmet-clad jeep riders and spike-studded jackets).
From a polygonal rendered cinematic sequence, the game slides seamlessly into a polygonal action sequence, as Kenshiro fends off the Zeed gang's bandits. Manly music immediately kicks you in the crotch with its awesomeness, sounding something like this: "DU DUUU DU DUUU DU DUUU DU DUUU DUU DUU DUU". Toss in a perfectly-timed glissando and a resonant trumpet bridge for good measure. It's bold and brassy, a style long thought lost in the shadows of the 16-bit era.
One thing you'll notice during the musically-charged battles, separating Fist from Final Fight, is the complete and total absence of optional weaponry and grappling attacks. Kenshiro will ride no motorcycle, wield no baseball bat, and throw no daggers — although he absolutely will face such dangers (and more). As a martial artist trained in the North Star style, Kenshiro tosses weapons to the side, fighting only with his fists and feet. Even with an assortment of elbows, leaps, and sweeps, people expect... no, need... something to spice up their beat-em-up lovelife.
Fortunately Kenshiro practices the most mind-blowingly amazing martial arts ever imagined. You see, when he punches someone, they don't just pass out, they don't simply keel over and die... THEY EXPLODE INTO A BLOODY MESS. Throw enough damage into an enemy, and he'll burst from head to toe, erupting like a Wasteland blood sausage.
"ZEED! This guy, he's coming to town, he's scary! He has this martial art that makes people explode!"
And in case words alone weren't enough, the messenger's head splits open right in front of his boss, causing a geyser of blood to spew into the sky!
The ensuing battle in the town square shows off Fist's shockingly detailed graphical power. Not only are several fully-realized, polygonal characters duking it out (in a PSX game!), but elaborately-textured dilapidated buildings — gang members cheering Zeed from the rooftops — overshadow the battle below. Even the random thugs look different from each other, some sporting mohawks, others clad in feathered helms. Fist features more enemy variety than the mighty Streets of Rage 2, and the visuals are more stimulating than The Bouncer, despite being on a weaker system.
When an enemy flashes red, you know he's about to bust open. When he flashes white (usually right before launching his own power attack), deliver a quick hit and you'll launch into a "special arts attack" screen. The concept is kind of like the battles in Legend of Legaia, with the control style of Dance Dance Revolution, where you have to tap the buttons in proper UP UP DOWN DOWN LEFT RIGHT LEFT order to deliver such elaborately-named attacks as "Fist of Lingering Regret" to an unfortunate victim, which of course causes him to EXPLODE in one of many secret cinematic sequences, crying out, "Stop stop stop stop UWAAAUUUUURRRRGGGHHH!"
Even with such cool devices, the cinematic story steps in to prevent any potential wailings of repetitive play. On the one hand, plot points trigger special "mini-game" moments. For example: take control of and guide a pre-teen boy on a short stealth mission, running through corridors and avoiding club-toting brutes. The goal? To unlock a door from the inside, so that Kenshiro can bust in and mercilessly pound the bloody guts out of an entire pack of goons.
On the other hand, the action itself influences future events in the story. Consider the tale of "the nameless old man with seeds".
An old man runs in fear, muttering "urrrrrrnnn! urrrrrrnnn!" like decrepit old men are wont to do, protecting his precious seeds... with which he intends to plant crops for the starving village. Behind the old man, Spade's gang pursues relentlessly. Slaughter Spade and save the seeds! Take too long, and Spade not only grabs the seeds, but runs off and warns his boss (your nemesis, Shin) of Kenshiro's impending arrival at the gates of Southern Cross.
A cinematic flashback to the past.
Kenshiro, student of the North Star style. Shin, student of the South Star style. After the passing of their mutual master, Shin viciously assaulted Ken — scarring his chest, stealing his girl. For the purloined Julia, the wicked Shin has built the massive city "Southern Cross", an oasis of beauty in the harsh desert. Yet she takes no solace in this gift, for it is beauty built upon death. She waits only for Kenshiro, cherishing the memory of their love for each other.
When Kenshiro does arrive at Southern Cross, his reception changes depending upon whether or not he defeated Spade earlier in the game.
The ensuing battle across twilit palatial bridges and through arch-bound corridors is exciting, but Fist's tastiest treat: ridiculously grandiose boss battles. Just like in the ancient Gameboy game, one of the villains is the mighty fat man HEART.
Heart — you know he must be a villain because he's fat, and heroes are never fat. Punch him in his blubbery belly, and Heart laughs in your face. "Punches cannot pierce my pudge!" (A loose translation of his taunt, but not inaccurate.) Each boss battle keeps Kenshiro on the move, hopping and yelping like Bruce Lee, darting in-and-out. In the end, similar to the vastly inferior Last Battle, each boss must be sent to hell with a super-secret technique...
...and you haven't lived until you've seen 500 pounds of flesh burst from the inside out.
And even after every single thing I've already mentioned thus far, the first level still isn't over.
Seven levels in the game. "Levels" they say, "lifetimes" they mean! This game is longer than any beat-em-up has any right to be. Devil Reverse, Ra-Oh, Toki and Amoeba... they're all in here. For the first time in my life, I wondered to myself, "how in the hell did they fit all of this on a single disc?" The game's loaded with CD-quality music, tons of battle sequences, a LOT of intricate character models, hours' worth of professionally-acted voices, and a RIDICULOUS number of memorable moments.
For a brief respite from desert travels, Kenshiro visits an old woman's house and is offered some (poisoned) water to quench his pangs of thirst.
Granny: "Here sonny, have some water."
Kenshiro: "You drink first."
Granny: "Uh... um.... no, you can have it all!"
Kenshiro: "I insist. You drink first."
Granny: "But... but... arrgghhh! You bastard!"
Then the evil granny reveals herself to be a 7-foot-tall transvestite goliath, armed with foot-long iron claws.
In a world where it seems none can be trusted, not even a pandering seven-foot tall granny, Kenshiro represents hope. Just as people begin to believe in the inherent evil of the world... a good man with the strength and desire to set the world right and protect the innocents around him arrives, proving that the world is not itself a bad place, but rather the self-centered, self-serving attitudes of the gangs are the source of despair.
Then again, you could say that Fist teaches you that when confronted with adversity, the best way to handle it is to KICK THEIR ASS. When confronted by a bad guy like shotgun-toting Jagi, kick his ass to save the town. When you get in an argument with good guy Rei, kick his ass to earn his respect! But to say such a thing would miss the story's ultimate point. The final showdown climaxes between two people who can kick ANYONE'S ass, and, like the climactic fight between Kenshin and Shishio in Rurouni Kenshin or between Vash and Knives in Trigun, what separates the two isn't strength, but philosophy.
A lot of stories (I'm looking at you, Lord of the Rings) have the foundation to build a multimedia legacy. However, most spin-offs — be they movies based on books, or games based on movies — are so scared to cross the line, so scared to surpass the original, that they crumble just like Shin's phantasmal paradise of Southern Cross... a shadow of something much, much grander. This game could have easily told only a single chapter of the Fist of the North Star tale. Instead, it takes 100 or so episodes, fishes around deep inside, pulls out the story's ultimate message, and builds on that. Whereas the television series seemed to... meander... at times, the game presents itself with a cohesive sense of purpose, reinforcing the philosophical foundation to the entire saga.
Fist of the North Star teaches us that strength founded on fear is no strength at all. It teaches us that the greatest powers in this world are life and love. It teaches us that unoriginal, uncaring fools who try to leech off the success of others may climb the mountain... but they will fall, and none will decorate their graves. Evil emperors lie splayed upon the ground, heads cracked open against cold, unfeeling stone... and the old man who protected his precious seeds will be mourned for years. How fitting that his grave provide fertile ground for the plants he loved.
The message speaks beyond a simple "materialism is bad". People who live only for themselves, fighting for personal gain — even if fighting for their own self-actualization — will not be remembered. Those who build a legacy will be honored and treasured. Those who build a legacy will matter. This is the proof of life.
Whether creating something new or reinventing something old, you have to put your heart on the line. Otherwise, as Kenshiro would say, "You're already dead." Fist of the North Star may lack magic spells, extra weapons, and an English language option, but it definitely doesn't lack Heart.
Staff review by Zigfried (April 11, 2004)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
More Reviews by Zigfried [+]
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