...and the award for longest game title goes to...
When I was growing up, there used to be a fairly steadfast rule for fighting games: for every Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat, Samurai Showdown, or Soul Blade - there were at least 20 Pit Fighters, Battle Blaze's or Rise of the Robots'. In other words there was very little middle ground - save for the occasional Fatal Fury game (which have been, and always will be - average.) However, there are a few games that; while they offer very little in the way of actual fun or excitement, get a gold star for trying. A consolation prize for almost making it to the show.
These are the games that either sound like a great idea on paper but don't work correctly in execution (Time Killers, Clay Fighters,) are broken from the jump but will be corrected in subsequent versions (Virtua Fighter,) or are hindered by the limits of their technology (Kung Fu, TMNT Tournament Fighters.) This last category is where I would file any attempt at fighting games on the Game Boy - especially this game: Electro Brain's 1990 release of Toei's "Fist of the North Star: 10 Big Brawls for the King of the Universe."
Some may not be aware of the Fist of the North Star franchise here in the states; but it's a manga-turned-anime-turned video game series from Japan. Heck, they even released an American live-action film that featured Melvin Van Peebles, Chris Penn, and Malcolm frickin' McDowell! The anime period of my life was brief and in high school - but I vaguely remember bits and pieces of one of the Fist of the North Star films I rented from Blockbuster (and Youtube has kindly helped to refresh these memories as well.) The basic premise is such: in a post apocalyptic world, a man named Kenshiro goes around kicking butt and taking names - laying waste to scores of bad guys and delivering a punch so vicious it makes people's heads explode.
That's gonna hurt in the morning
Nothing quite so gruesome or awesome happens in Fist of the North Star: 10 Big Brawls for the King of the Universe. However, that's not to say there isn't a fair enough of butt-kicking going on - it's just through the pixelly black and white prism of the Game Boy. First, let's discuss the things that Toei got right with this Game Boy brawler. One of the first things you'll notice when starting the game is the large roster of fighters. For a game that was made in 1989, having eleven fighters to choose from is quite an impressive feat; especially considering that the Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter 2 ports for Game Boy couldn't squeeze in all of their original fighters. Ok, so maybe most of the fighters in Fist of the North Star look near-identical to each other - but it's still nice to have this many character options in a handheld game. Equally impressive is that there are unique backgrounds for each character battle - another feat that Mortal Kombat on the Game Boy could not accomplish.
Nice roster of characters!
It's nice that this game featured a head-to-head feature via the game boy link. However, anyone who remembers having a game boy and a stack of games will remember that most of your friends didn't have the same games you did - so it was tough to get a 2-player experience working on it. I would love to tell you about Team mode, but the problem of not having two game boys, a cable link, and two copies of this game doesn't permit me. However, it's easy enough to guess that team mode involves picking 5 fighters and going up against your opponent's set of 5 fighters. Neat idea; but as I said - it's tough to find other folks who also have the same game and a Game Boy. That being said - if you had two copies of this game I could see having fun beating up your buddies via the Game link - so kudos for the feature.
Like Yin and Yang or light and dark - good usually comes hand-in-hand with bad, and there's a handful of things about Fist of the North Star that almost make the mark but just fall short. For starters, the graphics are average at best. I realize it is a Game Boy game (and a relatively early one at that) but there is very little to distinguish the characters from one another aside from the two tubby characters and how many fireballs they do or don't throw. The amount of characters and backgrounds is a huge plus mark - but I've seen what the Game Boy is capable of producing and this barely scratches the surface. Also, the music is sort of middle of the road as well. On the positive side - there are a handful of different stage themes to keep things varied. However, there are only about four or so, so they get repetitive and stale in really short order. If you also decide to play on beyond beating the game once you will be treated to these songs all over again.
If only he'd come over here and taste my shoe
Sadly, along with the good and the bad: there's also the downright ugly. This comes in the way of the control scheme, hit detection, speed, and move list. For starters - I owned this game for months before I discovered that you can charge your punch attack to shoot off fireballs. If you're a kid who got your games, tore open the box, threw the instruction manual in a pile with all of the others in a drawer, and cracked into the game - how the heck would you know that?! Aside from this fireball move, a punch and a kick - that's more or less the extent of your available attacks. No throw maneuvers, Haddukens, Scorpion spears or Fatalities - just punch, kick, and fireball (and some characters don't even have that.) The controls are stiff and lifeless; they're ineffective at close range and often leave you in a stand-off with other enemies that are ducking and trying to kick you while you stand and try to punch them, neither character connecting or gaining any ground. You can jump into the stratosphere (supposing your character has the jump function) but that rarely helps in any way or form unless you're shooting off fireballs from the sky. It seems without fail that if you're trying to jump over your opponent in order to sneak attack them, they usually have ample time to catch up to you as you land and smack you silly. Hit detection is a crap shoot - sometimes fireballs connect - sometimes they don't. Because of the tendency for fights to become an unending stand-off, you usually have to resort to cheap tricks like "charge fireball, jump, fire it off, wash, rinse and repeat." I've beaten the game several times using the exact same move against every character in the game.
The difficulty is tough to determine. If you can get a good strategy together with hitting enemies with cheap projectiles, you'll beat the game in 15 minutes or less. However, if you get into hand-to-hand combat you're looking at a hairier experience. Also, beating the game once does not mean your game is completely over - you can continue to play to level up your character - with that also making the enemies marginally more difficult.
Is Fist of the North Star one of the best fighting games you'll ever play? No. However, as far as handheld fighting games go, you could do a lot worse. Even though it's not as pretty as say, Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct for the Game Boy - it controls *slightly* better, has way more characters to choose from and levels, and also has a bit more playability by letting you continue to level up past one playthrough. Sure, the Engrish is hilariously bad, the controls could have used some serious work and the music can get grating at times - it's still a really cheap and accessible fighter for the Game Boy. For the price Lukie Games has it for you should get two copies and go head-to-head with your buddies!
Souther is level up! I am of having fantastic celebrations!