So there’s this epic TV show called Fist of the North Star. They call it Hokuto no Ken over in Japan. It’s about Kenshiro, inheritor of the North Star martial arts style. His punches make people explode. That’s a pretty wicked power. Kenshiro’s friend-turned-foe — a jealous sort named Shin — has the power to cut through flesh with his fingers. That’s pretty wicked too, but there’s another even more wicked character. I’m talking about Kenshiro’s older brother Raoh: a burly type who’s nicknamed himself “the Ken-Ou”, the King of Fists. He’s a bad guy, but he’s a bad guy with a deep sense of honor. Still a bad guy though. And he proves himself the baddest of the bad over and over. People across this apocalyptic world come to expect strength from him. He also rides a cool black horse.
So in one episode, there’s this town in turmoil, and the Ken-Ou arrives on his cool black horse. Some bad guys are being independently bad and the Ken-Ou doesn’t like to see that, because he wants to bring organization to crime. So he kills a couple punks just for show. The entire gang gets down on its knees and starts worshipping him. They’ve seen the Ken-Ou say and do some profound stuff in the past, so they’re expecting something great. They don’t know what he’s going to do, but he’s the King of Fists, so these punks know it’s going to be something cool. Like maybe he’ll take them into his army, or bless them with some villainous wisdom, or something.
So the punks are all kneeling on the ground, ready to hear the Ken-Ou’s mighty prophetic word. And the Ken-Ou just sits atop his cool black horse, glaring down at them in disgust. Then the Ken-Ou proceeds to trample over the lot of them, causing everyone to burst into bloody messes all over the ground. The Ken Ou-does what he wants, not what the masses want.
“That’s just beautiful.”
It is. And in Hokuto Musou, gamers get to relive that beautiful moment — and the punks who don’t flee in terror will grovel and beg for mercy before being popped underfoot. Of course, the Ken-Ou has to be unlocked. He’s the game’s final boss, so he can’t just be selected from the start. Players have to learn the ropes with the noble hero, Kenshiro.
Since this is a Musou game, I expected it to play like a Musou game. It often doesn’t. Instead of presenting a series of sprawling warzones, the game gives us straightforward levels. Simplistic obstacles must be passed, traps must be avoided, and switches must be flipped. Koei has built a world that’s out to get Kenshiro — they’ve built a world in the spirit of Hokuto. His friends are for the most part weak and ineffectual, but Kenshiro can always turn to a downed telephone pole or concrete pillar when he needs to put a little extra “oomph” behind his swings. This feels more like Double Dragon than Dynasty Warriors. I’m cool with that.
When the game starts, even the lowliest mohawked Mad Max reject requires multiple punches to take down; by the time Nanto master Souther is unlocked as a playable character, enemies are bursting by the dozen. Abilities are enhanced through a blend of experience and skill points — slowly earned by killing enemies or quickly earned by killing enemies in stylish ways, such as sending their bodies flying into explosive oil canisters. Each character has his or her own “skill constellation”, where unlocking one ability or stat boost opens new paths to other enhancements. In action games, I prefer to get better by really getting better, but at least this method of stat-building requires a bit of effort and thought instead of simply killing people for hours. Heaven help you if you feel the need to grind.
There’s not much to the game other than death. Fist of the North Star was known for presenting a world simultaneously dramatic and humorous, equally brutal and touching. The interludes that gave the Hokuto anime its charm are missing from Koei’s brawler. Kenshiro does not stumble across a seven-foot-tall punk disguised as a kindly old woman; he does not give people ten seconds to live as a digital timer counts down. Koei does not recount enemies’ backstories; they don’t even explain how Kenshiro received seven scars on his chest! Without that dramatic setup, rival Shin is nothing more than a speedy man wearing white. Jagi is just some bum with a shotgun. Bandai’s Hokuto epic on the Playstation filled these gaps — surely Koei could, as well.
I don’t expect such things from the average brawler, but Hokuto Musou is based on a beloved series and thus comes with a bit of extra baggage. Still, there are some beautiful moments — and some hilarious ones, as well — once the “Illusory Mode” is unlocked. On the surface, this bonus mode is what Musou fans expect: one hero dropped into a sprawling battle, one hero hunting down enemy generals and securing checkpoints. Since it’s not the “main” game, Koei used this as an opportunity to have some fun with the storyline.
One of Kenshiro’s brothers is a misfit named Jagi, who intentionally scarred himself on the chest to impersonate Kenshiro and ruin his good name. In a different arc of the anime, a demented sadist named Amiba pretended to be the generous and benevolent healer Toki. Koei paired these two for one truly bizarre Illusory Mode.
[Jagi blows someone's head up with his shotgun]
Amiba: “Well done, Ja . . . I mean, Kenshiro!”
Jagi: “You’re welcome, my brother Toki!”
Of course, they’re saying that in Japanese.
Jagi and Amiba never met in the anime, but Koei saw their similar gimmicks and put them together in the Illusory Mode. Instead of cheering when noble Kenshiro and master healer Toki arrive, the citizens run in fear, shouting “RUN AWAY! IT’S KENSHIRO AND TOKI!!!”
When the real Kenshiro and Toki happen to show up, they are amusingly bewildered by everyone’s panicked reaction.
Both modes offer a lot of fighting to sate my manly bloodlust, and each stage is capped by a boss encounter. The story mode’s battles are particularly impressive, showing off a slew of environmental hazards. Jagi is like a 3D version of Final Fight‘s Rolento; he often leaps behind cover and hurls firebombs at Kenshiro (make sure not to stand in the pool of oil). Ryuga waits in a room laden with spear traps, and the final battle against the Ken-Ou is particularly impressive; their mutual love interest Julia watches helplessly as two proud brothers fight for supremacy and a special rock version of Ai o Torimodose!! plays in the background. Finishing blows are performed with a button-tapping extravaganza . . . and, in a poor design decision, bosses regain a huge chunk of health if a single button press is missed. That’s the one drawback to these otherwise exhilarating encounters.
With some sensible skill selections, Hokuto Musou is not a difficult game to master, but it’s still a long and worthwhile journey. Unlike most episodes of the entertaining Dynasty Clones series, each of the eight characters behaves like a unique individual — Kenshiro fights up close, Mamiya fires arrows from afar, and speedy Rei enters a trance-like state to slice enemies into ribbons. Bandai’s Playstation epic is still a more polished product, but Koei’s Hokuto Musou fills the battle action niche quite nicely even if it doesn’t quite live up to its inspiration.
One final note: if you pick this up, you’ll want to get the original (i.e., not the “international”) version of the game. Nana Tanimura’s two excellent ending themes were chopped out of both the overseas edition and the Japanese reprint. They make nice endcaps to a dramatic package, and Hokuto Musou just doesn’t feel the same without them.