Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage
Fist of the North Star is a love story. It’s a love story between a man and his fists—fists that make people explode. Realizing it would be selfish to keep this love all to himself, he journeys into the world to share his exploding fists with whomever will have them. Thus begins Kenshiro’s quest to teach the world how to love once more.
In all semi-seriousness, Fist of the North Star is really a pulp manga from the ’80s about men with neck muscles thick enough to stop a Tokyo bullet train pummeling each other with kitschy kung-fu moves that cause blood and body parts to erupt like a volcano. It is unabashedly silly in its displays of ultra-violence and the pseudo-philosophical dialogue the characters spout when they’re not spouting hemoglobin everywhere.
Ken’s Rage follows the story arcs of the manga. After a nuclear war devastates the world, law and order are a thing of the past. Might makes right, and the gangs of roving, mohawk-ed thugs aren’t shy about using it. To make things even bleaker, most of the heirs to the deadliest martial arts known to man have become despots and genocidal megalomaniacs.
Legend Mode is the default mode that follows the basic plot of Ken trying to stop his brother Raoh. Unlike other Koei games, there’s an attempt to actually deviate from the typical Dynasty Warriors layout that they’ve kept recycling for a decade now. It’s setup more along the lines of a traditional brawler. Kenshiro moves from area to area and kills the thugs therein before he’s allowed to continue on. There are even a few segments where Ken has to platform a little or use his head, but these segments merely highlight how little experience Koei has with anything that doesn’t involve Dynasty Warriors.
Which isn’t to say that Ken’s Rage doesn’t have a certain charm about it that may be enough to propel fans of the series into beating Legend Mode. It highlights what Ken and the series is known for best: pummeling hundreds of samey thugs until they burst like blood sausages stuffed with nitroglycerin. Ken’s signature battle cry of “WAH-TA-TA-TA!” is included as are the accompanying special moves from the series. Once Ken has either taken or dished out enough damage he can unleash a barrage of super moves borrowed from the manga, complete with the camera changing to multiple angles with kanji scrawled at the bottom.
Much like the series it’s based off of, there’s not much one can say about the game because in many ways it’s just so simple and repetitive. Yes there are moves that can be unlocked, and yes Legend Mode can be done with characters like Rei and Mamiya, but the paltry moveset is so small it’s quite difficult to get into the combat regardless of how cartoon-ish and bloody it may be. And while the super-moves are cute for a while, they quickly wear off their charm.
What may be more of a draw is Dream Mode, a kind of “what if?” scenario in which Ken’s would-be victims wise up a little. Without mincing words, it’s classic Dynasty Warriors gameplay with a Fist of the North Star flavor to it. Players can choose from fan-favorites like Jagi, Shin, Toki and Thouzer and see how their destinies have changed somewhat. A huge battlefield is littered with enemies and their commanders, and it’s up to the player to meet whatever conditions of victory have been set. This usually means killing the enemy’s leader, but occasionally it’ll be something as simple as just running away, which is a bit odd considering the mainstays of the series go through thugs like they were gift wrapping.
The roster of characters to choose from is significantly smaller than what’s been previously seen from Koei—merely eight to choose from. It doesn’t make sense that characters such as Amiba, Juda, or even Boss Fang aren’t playable since they’re already there, even if they are essentially palette-swaps of the main characters. Still, at the very least the characters that are playable have been given enough variety in combat so they play somewhat differently. The Hokuto warriors are slower and focus on delivering harder hits, while the Nanto fighters are all about speed.
So essentially the same problems that have plagued the Dynasty Warriors series crop up in Ken’s Rage. Your army is pretty useless, relying on you to bail them out whenever a commander is in trouble, and seem to always keep a hundred feet away from wherever your character is currently engaged in battle. With so many enemies to deal with in every battle it becomes quite tiring no matter how many gallons of blood the screen is splashed with, and more often than not I found myself just running past them so I could end the mission in a timely manner.
It isn’t as if the aesthetics help to make the experience any more interesting either. Every battlefield is exactly the same and the same forgettable metal plays over the level, occasionally falling silent for no reason. Two-player does little to enhance the experience, except for maybe beating the levels at a slightly quicker pace.
Koei’s done what it did with the Gundam series: try to mix a popular anime series with their tired formula to try and fool players into thinking they’re playing something other than the latest, billionth installment of the ever unchanging Dynasty Warriors series. Something like Fist of the North Star deserved something better than just a blatant copy/paste job. Ultimately, all the buckets of blood in the world fail to hide this is the same thing players have grown disenchanted with a generation ago.