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Hokuto no Ken
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By Alex Kierkegaard / November 30, 2006


After nearly two decades of piss-poor efforts by various companies, Arc System Works comes out with a Hokuto no Ken title that's actually worth playing. The only other decent HnK game I can think of is Konami's Punch Mania: Hokuto no Ken (2000), a first-person boxing title that never made it out of the arcades (partly due to its custom cabinet, which made use of six punching pads). And while that game did see release outside Japan (as Fighting Mania), few know of it and even fewer have actually played it, so as far as most people are concerned there was no good HnK game, until now.


For those unfamiliar with the series, the story of the manga revolves around Kenshiro, a powerful martial artist who swears to protect the helpless populace of a ravaged world from the ruthless gangs of bikers and bandits who prey on them. Think of it as a cross between Mad Max and Bruce Lee, with the oftentimes shockingly brutal battle sequences being the main draw. During the course of the storyline human bodies are smashed, chopped up and diced as though struck by powerful weapons, in a series of dramatic and over-the-top bare knuckle fights.


As one of the pioneering works of the post-apocalyptic manga/anime genre in the mid-80s, Hokuto no Ken has a long history. On the one hand the series borrowed from pop culture personas of its time (there were characters based on Mr. T, Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Legion of Doom), and on the other it influenced many works, both inside and outside the manga medium. Capcom's designers, for example, drew inspiration from HnK for some of the Street Fighter II cast (Zangief, Balrog, Rolento), and Earthquake from Samurai Spirits (1993) is obviously modeled after Heart-sama.


Screenshot 1

Now given the flow of the manga, with story arcs culminating in epic one-on-one battles, a versus fighting game was obviously the ideal genre for a good videogame adaptation (consider this my swipe at Sega/Sammy for the five HnK pachinko games they've made since 2004). And with Capcom out of the scene, and with SNK playing it safe by sticking to their established franchises, newcomer Arc System Works decided to take on the challenge, with Sega taking care of the business side of things.


And the game certainly makes good business sense, as it has the appeal to attract players from two seperate fanbases: the 2D fighting/Guilty Gear fans, and those who simply love the Hokuto no Ken universe. And, thankfully, none of them will be disappointed here. Because what Arcsy crafted is not only faithful to the licence, but can also stand on its own as a modern versus fighter. Its system in particular is remarkably well-designed, combining a kind of fatality move with the all-new Star Gauge. Here's how it works.


Beneath each player's life meter you'll find a seven-point Star Gauge, with certain attacks during the course of a round knocking off one or more of these stars. When all of them are gone a single Star of Death will appear below the empty Star Gauge, and the player that has it will from then on become vulnerable to a Fatal Strike technique.


Now a Fatal Strike is the equivalent of a fatality move. If this elaborate move should connect the attacking character will instantly knock out his opponent, regardless of the amount of energy left in the latter's life meter. In addition, Fatal Strikes can be comboed into as well.


Because of this system, the modus operandi of the matches goes something like this: win the first round knocking off as many stars as possible; take away the remaining stars during the second round and land Fatal KO off a combo for a quick win.


Screenshot 2

Now someone might say that this system is unfair, because it rewards the winner of the first round too much. In a way it's somewhat similar to what was done in Killer Instinct (1994) and Vampire Saviour (1997), where winning round one gave you an incredible advantage. One of the good things about the standard two out of three round setup is that -- barring perhaps the state of any super meters -- all conditions are reset at the start of a round, and each player has the same chance of winning the second round as the first. But in Hokuto no Ken round two is slanted too much towards the winner of round one (round three is fair since now both characters have the same potential to end with a Fatal KO). But is this really a bad thing?


Not by any means -- in fact, quite the opposite. It's true that many players will find this setup uncomfortable -- at least at first -- but it's what makes this game stand out among other fighters, and what brings it even closer to the source material. Because, true to the Hokuto no Ken universe, if you get caught with a good hit once, you're going to die in this game.


In fact, if it had been up to me I'd have gone one step further and have Fatal KOs win the whole match. One of the things I didn't like about this game is that Fatal KOs are not really that "fatal" looking (Ken's and Shin's are notable exceptions) -- this is a series renowned for its violence, after all. The reason Arcsy held back here was because it would have been unrealistic to get your head blown off and then come back for round three. But if Fatal KOs won the whole match this problem would have been solved, and the artists would have been allowed to go wild with the finishing move animations, and come up with some real gory moves. This would have made the matches even more exciting, and brought the game even closer to the manga than it already is. It's not a major criticism, mind, but it's something to consider if a sequel ever gets under way.


Screenshot 3

Of course there is much more to the system than that, though the rest are just details. You have the Aura and Boost Gauges, which fill up as your character attacks or is getting attacked; the first one is used to launch the so-called Deadly Strikes (essentially super attacks), and the second to execute the Boost Attacks (these enable you to instantly cancel out of normal attacks into specials, or to cancel out of special attacks into other attacks -- and can also be used during a combo.)


Then there are two blocking techniques which use up energy from the Aura Gauge. The Aura Block creates a glowing force field that provides a powerful defence barrier, while the Block Cancel technique helps you recover faster from a blocking stance and launch a counter-attack. In addition, there is a blue bar underneath your life meter, which indicates that your character can slowly heal only that specific portion of their health bar, in a similar way as this is handled in the recent Neo Geo Battle Coliseum.


And finally, adding an even greater element of risk to the matches, if you miss a Fatal Strike your Boost and Aura Gauges are completely drained, and you have to fulfill the Star Gauge/Star of Death requirements once again before being able to execute another one.


Now all the above is certainly a lot to take in and, depending on how experienced you are in fighting games, it might be some time before you begin to feel comfortable with all the features of the system. But it's a good thing the learning process takes a while, as it's the most enjoyable part of the game. Because once you get really good at it, and start squaring off against equally skilled opponents, you quickly realize how poorly the characters are balanced, and how broken and glitchy the game is.


Screenshot 4

For one thing, the tiers are too far apart, with Rei and Toki the clear stand-outs, Juda and Raoh following closely, and the other six characters far behind. For another, within weeks of the game's release players in Japan started discovering tons of glitches, and flooding YouTube with lollerific videos. So far I've seen a 100% Toki throw combo, a 100% infinite with Mamiya, Rei's infinite dragon punch (999+ hits), and the most hilarious one: Raoh's Super Bouncy Ball combo, which effectively turns his opponent into a basketball. Sometimes I think the only reason people are still playing the game is to find more and even funnier bugs.


And if the above was not enough, there seem to be differences between the player one and player two sides, with some combos being easier to perform depending on which side you are using. So if you are in a tournament you'll want to insist on a coin toss (or, if you are in Japan, a round of rock-paper-scissors), with the winner getting to be on the player two side. This seems to be of particular importance for Heart, Ken, Raoh, Shin and Rei players.


But take all this talk of a 'broken game' with a grain of salt. While its high-level play is shady, the mid-level play (the kind of level you'll be playing at for at least six months to a year, as a Westerner) is a lot of fun. Toki runs the show at any given point, but you can deal with him. Play with friends, as you would play any non-serious fighting game, and you'll enjoy yourself immensely.


Looking at the game as a whole, I can see that Arc Systems put a lot of effort and soul into it -- something especially commendable since this is, after all, just a licensed game -- but it's also clear that they stopped well short of going the whole way. The poor balance and all the bugs I mentioned are the main results of this lack of commitment, but you can also see that there's not nearly the amount of polish here that usually goes into the company's Guilty Gear games.


Screenshot 5

I mean Holy Christ, the animation is real choppy. The characters look great, but their movement feels stiff and stilted, since they do not always bend or flex their limbs when you expect them to. The animation is so rough that the effect can be quite distracting at first. A friend of mine, who is a long-time HnK fan, has this theory that they did it on purpose to give a sense of great power to the characters' attacks, but come on. I can't recall a recent 2D fighter that looks this shoddy in motion -- you'd have to go back to early SNK fighters for this level of choppiness.


And the more deeply you examine the game, the more shortcomings you end up finding. For example, you've got the small character roster (only ten of them), lack of real bosses, storylines and different endings, and, most importantly, the ridiculous single-player mode, which is even easier than that of a typical Guilty Gear (I got to the seventh fight, out of eight, on my first credit -- I shit you not).


On the upside, fans of HnK have little to complain about. Each of the stages follows different themes from the manga/anime (Shin's stage is a slightly run-down palace; Jagi the Pretender's stage is what looks like a wrecked metropolitan area, with a crashed helicopter in the center), and many of the moves are instantly recognisable (for example Shin's instant death move on Kenshiro is just like the scene in the manga where he gives Ken the seven scars). And though I did not recognize any of the tunes, I bet some of them are related to the anime. There also seems to be a decent amount of spoken dialogue between the characters, and some of them have special intros with specific characters, or during certain situations, like the Fatal KO sequences.


Hokuto no Ken is in the end a decent fighter, which could have been much better with a bit more effort, and even great with more of a commitment on the part of the developer. Its problems are many, yes, but they are not fundamental, and they are easy enough to fix -- what's important is that the core game is solid. Arc System knows what works, and they are certainly aware of the game's problems; the question is: do they want to turn this into a full-fledged fighting franchise? Do they want to go the whole way? The answer to this question will most likely depend on the bottom line of this first effort.