Still Gate Collapsing Cave Finger Strike!!!
Pulverizing muscular punks in a dystopian world and watching their bodies rupture and explode into bloody pus - that's all you need to know about Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage. There's no time to sugarcoat it, because by the time it takes you to make up your mind about the game, Kenshiro will have already touched you, turned around, and said you were already dead.
[image1]For those who don't know, Kenshiro is the badass Bruce Lee-inspired hero of Hokuto no Ken (or Fist of the North Star in the States), a popular manga and Japanese animation that ran in the mid '80s about a man of justice who uses his pressure-point martial arts to protect the downtrodden and smack around tyrants, gangs, and all-around evildoers. The series has already spawned four video games for Nintendo's Family Computer and remains in the top ten Shonen Jump's best-selling mangas of all time. Such is the legacy that Tecmo Koei's Ken's Rage must live up to, and by that measure, it succeeds a little more than halfway.
Fans of the animation will note that the game translates the Hokuto no Ken universe into the equivalent of a Mad Max leather fantasy; that is, the updated universe of the manga - complete with Japanese voice-work and metal rock soundtrack - and not the occasionally colorful rendition in the '80s animation. Kenshiro wears black leather with fire engraving details on his tight-fitting pants and metal shoulder pads. Gang members have mohawks, motorcycles, and ridiculously bulging musculatures in a time when food and water - let alone hair gel, fuel, and protein - is gold. It's a place of power, domination, and unsuppressed testosterone.
Given the outlandishly serious shlock and the inescapable fact that the developers are Tecmo Koei, who notoriously dish out a new Warriors game like a certain kind of horse beating, the beat-'em-up combat system has surprising depth, in much the same way as a solid fighting title. Of course, it may not look that way at first. Every character's basic moveset has several combo strings with weak and strong attacks, several jump attacks, a block that turns into a parry if timed correctly, and a special maneuver like a dodge or a projectile. There's also a distinction between Hokuto characters who can cause Meridian Shock effects on enemies and Nanto characters who can enter into a powered state through timed attacks.
On top of that are a spirit gauge that can store multiple special attacks, like Kenshiro's signature "RATATATATATA!!" North Star Hundred Crack Fist, and a focus bar that fills with consecutive hits and drains completely if you get knocked down. But if you can build the focus bar high enough to store a unit, you can activate your Spirit Aura to strengthen your attacks. The major downside, though, is that doing so fully depletes your spirit gauge, and the cost of losing up to eight units of special attacks is usually not worth it.
[image2]Though it may look like you can throw all of these maneuvers and crowd-clearing combos into the fray - and survive unscathed - there are several unspoken but faintly hidden techniques that you'll need to master if you wish to conquer the tougher bosses or complete any stage on Hard mode. Nearly all combination strings are slow and lumbering, opening fighters to possible counters and interrupts during the recovery time for the move.
However, at any time during a recovery animation, you can jump cancel or evade cancel (if the character has it) immediately. In turn, a jump attack can also string right into another attack... which then can be jump cancelled, etcera, etcera. It's tricks like these that fans of the fighting and beat-'em-up genres will notice, appreciate, and use indefinitely.
And let's not forget how unapologetically visceral it is to punch, kick, and grab dumbass brutes until their heads burst open in a beautiful blood splatter across the screen. You can talk about justice and zen martial art philosophies, but all they serve is the context for killing overgrown bullies without remorse. It only makes it easier to collect karma points from their dead bodies and spend them on upgrading stats and learning new skills in the Meridian Chart to make killing them even easier. Selecting Hard effectively increases the amount of karma points you earn, which is great for grinders who will likely repeat the first level over and over again until their characters can wipe the floor with anyone who steps in their path.
But as you slug through each chapter in the manga-based Legend Mode, the monotony begins to spread the combat thin. Enemies do have some variety in the commanders - regular, fat, or spiked - and each boss has their own moveset and battle arena, but the droves and droves of standard grunts slowly become a nuisance. Though each level has a different layout and set of objectives, some of the set pieces are reused and the objectives are always saving someone or killing someone quickly.
[image3]Moreover, practically everything in the environment is yellow-grey, brown-grey, black-grey, or grey-grey. Yes, it's the apocalypse, but splashes of color would bring some relief. Also, the camera tends to be zoomed too close in, allowing grunts to get in some cheap crossbows or jumping strikes. Worse, there are even platforming sections that involve pulling and pushing boxes, and jumping along the tops of pillars - all of which slows down the action to a crawl.
Disappointing still is that the local-only multiplayer Dream mode unnecessarily restricts itself. The point of the mode is to play as characters who would otherwise be dead in the canon of the manga, and as a single-player experience, fans should enjoy the "what if" scenarios. But each character in Dream mode needs to be unlocked by playing through Legend mode; Dream mode doesn't even exist until you've unlocked one of them.
This means that multiplayer is absent at the start of the game, and that's ignoring whether you or your friend want to play as those characters in the first place. There's really no reason why you and a friend can't select Kenshiro and Rei and start kicking ass from the moment you pop the game in.
Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage reminds us what a great beat-'em-up at its core is all about, as long as you're playing by yourself and hopefully in spurts. The enemies, environments, and sometimes thirty minute-long levels can wear on you with their repetition, but it has an in-your-face satisfaction that's sorely missing from the rest of the gaming lineup. Saying otherwise would just make Kenshiro mad.