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Phantom Fighter (NES) artwork

Phantom Fighter (NES) review

"In this game you assume the role of an aged kung-fu master who channels his years of ancient wisdom so that he can kick vampires in the nads."

In this game you assume the role of an aged kung-fu master who channels his years of ancient wisdom so that he can kick vampires in the nads. Lucky thing that, because over the course of his travels he’ll encounter no shortage of netherparts in sore need of a good booting. Seems that a socially maladjusted witch has conjured up an insatiable horde of the dead to rise from their graves – not to rescue her daughter, but to mindlessly stalk the land in pursuit of delicious human flesh.


This is set in historical China after all, a country where anything even remotely bad that might befall it is inevitably attributed to those wily females. It’s safe to say that this would indeed fall under the category of “bad;” with the local villages up to their tasty eyeballs in cannibalistic specters and spooks, and with the Emperor powerless to stop them (no doubt preoccupied with one of his concubines), who ya gonna call?


Fortunately for the beleaguered peasantry, our wizened hero Kenchi (that’s you) quickly arrives onto the scene, returning these wayward souls to the soothing peace of eternal sleep through a hearty helping of unadulterated violence!

With your endearingly inept assistant in tow, you’ll travel through eight villages to hone your skills, protect all the sniveling weaklings, and ultimately face its vile boss before moving on. But while it may have begun to sound like one, this definitely isn’t a straightforward action game; it’s more like a very basic fighter with even simpler RPG elements. You’re free to wander the very empty streets as you please, going from door to door and engaging the ghouls lurking within for one-on-one duels to the death! Well . . . re-death. These Eastern-style “vampires” are better known as kyonshi (or jiangshi); they’re actually ravenous corpses animated by evil sorcery, and easily identifiable due to their peculiar method of getting around. It’s something that most of us would call “hopping.” Yes, they relentlessly hop around with arms outstretched straight ahead like stereotypical zombies, this curious posture caused by the wonders of rigor mortis. If you’ve played Capcom’s Vampire Savior, just think of Lei Lei – although she’s understandably quite a bit more energetic, being in a finely tuned 2D fighter and all.

Unfortunately, the combat system in this game is actually pretty clunky. Each kyonshi gradually springs and sproings towards Kenchi as if riding a pogo stick until it finally bounces into him with its razor-sharp claws. Allowing this to occur would be decidedly unhealthy. Unfortunately, most of your time is therefore spent backing up out of your foe’s range and subsequently lashing out as the mindless creature leisurely closes the gap, causing it to momentarily tumble to the ground. Then you’ll repeat the process as necessary, slowly but surely whittling away its sizable health meter. Allow yourself to get knocked down, however, and you’ll have to scramble out of the way or risk getting hit again, possibly a number of times before you can successfully retreat and line yourself up to start the pattern anew. The constant repetition aside, Kenchi’s abilities are pretty damn lacking in the beginning – he’s slow moving, even slower to turn around, a poor jumper, and he can only muster up a single punch or kick at a time – which certainly causes the encounters to drag on in the early goings.


Oh, sorry. That was just the bottom falling out.

Fortunately, all is not lost. By the third village you’ll be stomping some decomposing butt with ease thanks to techniques like a furious flurry of fists and punishing mantis kicks, which speeds things up and lowers the frustration level considerably. Kenchi can also dramatically increase his walking speed as well as learn an airborne assault, even if he does remain forever unwieldy to turn around; and while he can’t attack while crouching until about halfway into the game, it subsequently becomes what’s probably the most potent (and cheap) strike available. How might one unleash these, you ask? Rescue one of the villagers from their uninvited guests and you’ll be presented with a gift in thanks, often in the form of mystic scrolls that can be traded in for New! and Improved! martial arts techniques. Once you’ve stumbled about in a new town (probably getting your head kicked in) for a bit and gathered up enough of these scrolls, you’ll definitely want to head for the local dojo to learn some crushing blows and turn the tides.

But first you’ll have to reach deep within your stores of knowledge and answer one of many profound questions posed by the dojo’s guardian. Things like the teachings of Confucius . . . who built the Great Wall of China . . . or the name of George Bush’s dog. Or perhaps you’ll have to know that kyonshi really despise ice cream, or that they’re known to reside in Beverly Hill(s) and New Jersey – or that there are, in fact, fifty stars on the American flag. Otherwise the guard will say something like, “You, Kenchi, not know a thing like this? Worth a laugh! Ha ha ha! Now, get out! Get out!” I’m not making any of this up; Phantom Fighter’s dialogue consists of mostly intelligible Engrish that reads like a bad martial arts movie and occasionally crosses over into the realm of the insane. Whether the Japanese version of this game is similarly campy or the localization team simply had a few too many cups of sake that night whilst partying down with the literary geniuses from SNK is anyone’s guess. What I did learn is that “an ancient Chinese philosopher said he who worships monkeys can do no evil,” thus I was encouraged to “cease [my] evil actions.” Thanks FCI, I feel better about my life already.

One quibble about that (the dialogue, not my life); the text scrolls by too slowly. You can technically set it to “fast,” which allows you to breeze through all those boring speeches of gratitude, not to mention dealing with your assistant every time you try to leave a building after a glorious victory. The problem with taking that route is that the entire message will just zoom by so that you can’t read the beginning. And that would be a shame, because then you’d miss out on occasional gems like this one:

“Let me give you my secret of life. First is to sleep late. Second is to play video games during breakfast. Third is to eat all your carrots.”

Words of wisdom, gramps!

Too bad all your enemies are so very similar. I mean, there are the regular, run of the mill kyonshi, their tall and rail-thin brothers, or massively obese ones. But they all fight in the same manner, even the occasional midget kyonshi; the only thing that really changes is how easy they are to hit versus their total number of hit points. None are particularly bright, either, as crouching will cause them to futilely turn their heads back and forth in search of where you disappeared to. But while the enemies may all look and behave pretty much the same, the backgrounds are actually rather striking, featuring detailed close-ups whether you’re strolling through golden Buddhist temples, ramshackle old houses, or crumbling mine shafts. I especially like the expansive groves of lush bamboo shoots and the cemeteries filled with towering markers as far as the eye can see, while the audio provides a number of cliche Chinese themes that are a little cheesy but perfectly complement the similarly archetypal scenes they’re presented in.

That includes two different battle themes, a nice inclusion since you’ll be hearing them so often. The kyonshi respawn every time you leave a building, so you can keep re-entering these dens for more scrolls until you’re fully powered-up. You’ll also have to collect three magical orbs guarded by generally stronger variants of your foes, their locations marked with the disclosure that “DANGER’S IN THE AIR,” and only then can you finally head for the boss’ lair and “REMOVE THE SEALENTER.” And then you’ll be in for a pretty tough battle, even if these reclusive entities often look just like a regular baddie – save that it might start flinging daggers or send you crashing to the floor whenever it descends from a jump with its hefty bulk.

Besides a headache, you’ll receive a thankfully short password for finishing off one of these uninspired bosses. This is definitely a good thing, because while it’s not a particularly long game, I can’t see anyone managing to finish it in one sitting. I say this because a feeling of monotony is bound to set in after a while. The gameplay never actually changes, rather it heaps on more and more of the same. You merely move on to the next village and then follow the exact same pattern you did in the previous one: fight a bunch of kyonshi for scrolls, learn a couple of the newly offered moves, fight more kyonshi for scrolls, learn the rest of the moves, fight still more (slightly harder) kyonshi for orbs, and then take out the boss. And then you’ll do it again, except that it’ll take a lot longer; while Kenchi can never battle more than one enemy at any given time, as the game progresses he’ll discover an increasing number of them in each house before he can reach its helpless inhabitant.

All of this translates into a hell of a lot of brawling, and despite being the clear focus of the game it’s far too simplistic and awkward a system to be compelling. Instead it feels more like a chore as you enter yet another house filled with hopping undead, beat them all, and then enter it again. You’ll grow stronger in every level, true, but that merely makes things easier than they were before so that you can handle an increasing number of enemies in each building; it doesn’t alter your “retreat & attack” tactics overmuch.

Well, unless you loiter in front of a cemetery for too long and a lonesome female spirit suddenly makes off with your assistant, forcing you to go in there and smack her around to save the luckless lackey.

That’s Phantom Fighter in a nutshell; I certainly wouldn’t call it a good game, but every now and then it’ll surprise you with something totally weird that leaps right out of the blue. Toss in the eccentric, B-movie vibe that hangs over the whole thing and you’ve got something that’s actually worth playing . . . once. I mean, come on – you use kung-fu to start a beating on the undead! If you don’t think that’s a bloody awesome idea for a video game, then you’re probably a lifeless bouncing zombie creature yourself. Someone desperately needs to resurrect this idea on a modern console, maybe something along the lines of Otogi melded with Ninja Gaiden’s crazysweet combat engine. Just imagine a crowd of ridiculously dubbed villagers looking on in delight while throwing steaming meat buns your way. Meanwhile, you’re brutally tearing apart an army of putrid vampires by flipping over them with slapping backhands to their pointy hats, guillotine throwing them right through the dilapidated walls, or launching yourself into the air for a series of lightening-quick feet to the fangs, all the while dispensing snippets of fortune cookie wisdom!




“Ooooooooooooooooo . . .”

Oh, yeah . . . its kung-fu would be strong indeed. That’d be the perfect mix of sweet action, svelte moves, and cheesy horror, just like an 80s cop show starring Dracula and the Wolfman.

"A robbery on 57th! Grrrr . . . to the WOLF CAR!"

"Volfman, you oaf! Put your seat belt on!"

sho's avatar
Staff review by Sho (October 28, 2006)

Sho enjoys classic video games, black comedy, and poking people until they explode -- figuratively or otherwise. He also writes a bit.

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