If you want the absolute best Hokuto Musou experience, buy the original Japanese version on PS3. But if you’re an Xbox owner in the US, second-best isn’t too far off.
When Koei fans play Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage, they will discover that Kenshiro runs slowly. They will also discover that the bulk of Kenshiro’s attacks are forward-focused, as opposed to the wide sweeping arcs displayed by spear-wielding Chinese champions. That’s because Fist creator “Buronson” wanted Koei to make the combat realistic. Defenders of love and peace who explode peoples’ heads by poking them are obviously not realistic, but each blow conveys appropriate weight and delivers convincing impact. In that sense, Ken’s Rage feels more “real” than Koei’s other anime-inspired series, Dynasty Warriors Gundam.
Then there are the ICBM missiles. While crossing the wasteland to rescue his girlfriend, Ken may find missiles lying around a dilapidated military base. Press a button to pick the missile up. Press another button to hurl the missile through the air with one hand. Or press a different button to swing that missile like a baseball bat, unleashing comical destruction if you do happen to connect. This is Double Dragon for a new generation: a crazy quest for a kidnapped girlfriend that’s just believable enough to still feel like a streetfight.
The linear stages are more straightforward than any of Dynasty Warriors’ sprawling maps. Gates and rubble block alleyways, guiding Kenshiro towards his goal. This is a game about kicking butt, not about exploring. Kill enemies to progress; smash those punks into the scenery for slow-motion replays and extra experience. Those experience points can then be spent at a “meridian chart”, reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. This will help Kenshiro become better at killing. Renowned philosopher Christopher Lambert once told fighting game fans, “it’s not about death, but life” — no, really, it’s about death.
The Western release is even more “about death” than the original. After playing through the Japanese version, watching people explode into clouds of gore, I questioned how Koei could possibly live up to their promise of adding more violence. The answer was simple: make the bloody clouds bigger and make people bleed every time they’re punched. These guys would bankrupt the blood bank if such things still existed after Fist’s nuclear apocalypse. When surrounded by thugs, Kenshiro can taunt his opponents, causing them to foolishly line up to bum-rush him. Unleash a special killing art — up to four can be equipped at once — to turn the huddle of hoodlums into a puddle of guts.
Those special arts will obliterate most foes, but some wasteland warriors are tougher. Fist of the North Star’s mini-bosses never bust out of a brick wall like Double Dragon’s bad dude Abobo, but they do add some variety to the combat. Corpulent thugs absorb punches into their flabby bellies, whereas goons dressed in spiked armor repel standard attacks. After all, punching a steel spike hurts! Flaming oil barrels, on the other hand, are an extremely effective weapon. Defeating mini-bosses may be required in some missions, may be optional in others, or may open up some of those previously-blocked alleyways. Return to those alleyways to complete subquests. This improves your rank, which in turn provides more experience, which in turn makes you a better killer.
Some people won’t feel it. They’ll start playing, they’ll be upset by Kenshiro’s (initially) limited moveset, and they’ll want to play something slicker, something quicker, something more immediately engaging. I really can’t fault that mindset; time is valuable. For those people, I have one suggestion: since you already spent money on Ken’s Rage, just finish the first two missions. It should only take half an hour. After completing Kenshiro’s first two missions, three new characters and the alternate “dream mode” are unlocked.
Those three characters move more quickly than Kenshiro and they handle very differently; one can even shoot enemies from afar with a bowgun. Playing through their campaigns — both in the story and the dream mode — will take at least 15 hours. Warriors fans in particular will enjoy the dream mode, since it abandons the linear stages and incorporates sprawling maps full of bases, commanders, and allies to assist . . . although Nana Tanimura’s excellent vocal ending has unfortunately been removed from this North American edition. Dream mode is also the only opportunity for two-player action, and it’s purely local. Fist of the North Star is a single-player experience at heart, so if you desperately want something to play with friends, don’t buy this. But if you want to beat up a chubby dude named Heart or challenge the grand emperor Thouzer, this is your game.
After playing through both the 360 and PS3 versions, the PS3 has richer colors and a better framerate. Otherwise, it’s essentially the same game. No matter which console you prefer, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage is a fantastic effort at turning a beloved anime series into a video game. Each of the eight characters wield a distinct fighting style and deftly avoid the “clone” allegations thrown at some of Koei’s other action games. I’ll hope for more characters, more thug variety, and a bit more drama next time. With Koei, there’s always a next time — but I’m glad I was around for the first.
I’ve subtracted a Hokuto star from my final score because they nixxed the two awesome ending songs.