Import Retro Review: Hokuto No Ken/Fist of the North Star (PS2)

Hokuto No Ken/Fist of the North Star
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 03/29/07

Arc System Works is essentially known for three things, in reverse-order of “how interested in import gaming you’d have to be to know this”: publishing the more recent “Kunio-Kun“ (AKA River City Ransom/Dodgeball) games in Japan, Castle Shikigami, and Guilty Gear. While the former two are really more things that only people who pay attention could really be asked to care about with any degree of significance, the last is certainly not, as Guilty Gear has managed to become one of the most popular 2D fighters in existence in the past several years, due in large part to amazing high-quality sprites and weird characters, and in small part to a fighting system that’s not too bad. They’ve basically become among the most recognizable 2D fighting game makers on the market, at least in the US, due in large part to the fact that they’re among the few companies who are consistently making 2D fighters anymore, let alone ones that people care about.

This has, interestingly enough, gained the company a few non-GG 2D fighting projects to work on; one from Capcom in the form of Sengoku Basara X (a 2D fighting game based on characters from the game Devil Kings), and one from Sega in the form of Hokuto No Ken, AKA Fist of the North Star, which we’re looking at now. Fist of the North Star, at its core, seems like the sort of product that would SCREAM for an awesome fighting game; interesting, odd characters with weird fighting styles and battles that culminate with people exploding? That would be the most awesome thing ever if done properly, and on a presentation level, ASW certainly managed to give it a good shot. The gameplay, on the other hand… well, let’s start from the beginning.

The story of Fist of the North Star, the anime/manga, more or less follows Kenshiro (Ken) around as he traverses a Mad Max-esque environment, looking for his girlfriend/revenge, depending on the part of the story arc, and the stories usually involve a decent amount of fighting. The game appears to more or less take this story and run with it, but as it’s a fighting game, the story is fairly minimal, and as it’s in Japanese, it’s not readily understandable anyway. Insofar as game modes are concerned, you’re offered the standard Arcade Mode, Vs CPU and 2P modes, as well as a Training (practice) and Survival Mode to goof around in. The game also offers a “History” mode, which amounts to the Challenge mode of similar games, sort of, in that by undertaking various challenges through History mode, you flesh out the history of FotNS, and unlock a couple things. The game doesn’t offer as much to do as its competitors in a lot of respects, but it has enough game modes to be serviceable, if nothing else.

Visually, FotNS looks fantastic. The various character sprites are high-quality and animate incredibly well, and really bring the experience of playing a FotNS fighting game to life. The backgrounds are also top notch; aside from being lively and well drawn/animated, they’re also based on various storyline points from the anime/manga itself, which helps the game to feel more authentic and legitimate. The audio is pretty nice, too; the voice samples are generally clean and sound appropriate for the characters they’re assigned to, the fighting sound effects are generally appropriate and sound crisp and clear, and the music is flat-out awesome cheesy J-Rock that fits the experience like a glove. In short, the presentation values of the experience are top notch, which is to be expected from a company like ASW, and they help to make the game feel a lot more impressive than it really is.

If you’ve played a Guilty Gear game from about the second game onward, you probably have a rough idea of how FotNS plays, but if not, here’s the gist: you’re given ten characters (plus one unlockable boss), each of which can be controlled with four buttons and eight directions to fight your opponents. You’re offered two punches and kicks (one weak, one strong of each) to fight with, as is the standard for several fighting games, and you’re also offered various special moves to perform by making various motions (fireballs, dragon punches, yoga flames, and so on) and pressing the appropriate button. In an interesting take, however, many moves aren’t set up in the standard fashion of the button dictating the power of the move; rather, while some moves use the same motion with the different powered buttons, the resulting moves can occasionally be different, or you might have several moves that only work with one specific button but not with the higher/lower powered alternate button. GG fans will know all of this already, as this is a fairly common ASW design mechanic, but for those who’ve somehow avoided the GG franchise, well, this is something you’ll have to adjust to. FotNS, as in most fighting games, also features all sorts of combos that can be launched against opponents, so any fan of fighting games should be able to jump right in and figure out what works and what doesn’t, though, as is the case with other ASW games, the “attacks” aren’t specifically punches and kicks, so someone like Jagi might end up backhanding someone with his shotgun, as an example. There are also the standard “super moves”, called God and Deadly Fist Blows here, which drain from your God/Deadly Fist Blow meter at the bottom of the screen. Again, this is nothing new to fighting game fans, which should help you jump right into the game without a problem.

FotNS has a few other interesting mechanics that may seem familiar to well-traveled fighting game fans, and they work just as well. First up is Boost, which fans of Arcana Heart might recognize, as it’s a similar (though not identical) mechanic. Basically, you’re provided three Boost Bars that are filled by the standard attacking or being attacked mechanic, which you can use to make a fast dash at an enemy to keep combos going, as well as to cancel out of attacks into other attacks, making them exceptionally useful to keep combos going. They can also be used for Aura Blocks and Block Cancels, with the former allowing you to block without depleting your Guard meter, and the latter allowing you to counter-attack. Second is the Vital Star/Fatal K.O. mechanic, which should probably be instantly recognizable to GG fans if nothing else. Your character has a seven point meter below their life bar, which represents the seven stars in the Big Dipper (as Hokuto No Ken translates out to “Fist of the Big Dipper”, so you can probably understand why the name was changed). As you deal damage to your opponent, depending on how the damage is dealt, this bar will decrease (certain moves do this instantly, as do supers and counter attacks), and when it hits zero a cut-in shot of their face will pop up as their “Vital Star” lights up. When this happens, you can unleash your Fatal K.O. onto the enemy (all characters do this the same way), and if it hits, the round is over as you beat them unmercifully. For example:

Neat, huh? On the downside, if you miss, your super and Boost bars deplete to nothing and your opponent gets one of their stars back, but these moves can be used in combos, which make them somewhat less risky than it first seems. It also bears noting that as you take damage in general, your life bar will show two separate bars, the smaller one being how much life you PRESENTLY have, and the larger one being what you can regenerate over time, meaning that even when you’re losing you can always make a comeback if you can pull it together, so to say.

As noted, you’ve got your standard Arcade Mode, which basically amounts to “seven fights and a final boss”, as well as the standard Vs. modes and Survival Mode, all of which are pretty much expected in fighting games at this point. History Mode is really the sort of thing you’re going to need a strategy guide to follow along with; while most of the game is import-friendly what with it being predominantly in English, this mode is pretty much Japanese only, and requires all sorts of odd actions to be performed (do this move to interrupt this combo, for instance). The only rewards are staged battles meant to replicate historic moments in the FotNS universe (as opposed to actual cutscenes, apparently) and, if you complete the whole thing, the final boss is unlocked as a playable character, which should at least be of mild interest to the player who wants to unlock everything.

Now, the thing about FotNS is that it’s predominantly meant to appeal to fans of the anime, and in this regard it’s more or less successful and works reasonably well. However, for someone looking for a good, entertaining import fighter to play, well, this is a harder sell, largely because FotNS isn’t a particularly good or deep GAME. It’s not bad, so to say, but it’s very meager and unbalanced in comparison to other games.

On the depth side of things, it’s easy to see where the problems come in. For one, there are TEN characters. TEN. Even if you count the final boss as a playable character (even though he’s both disgustingly overpowered and, frankly, is just Raoh anyway), that’s ELEVEN characters. That’s less than Street Fighter II Champion Edition, which is over fifteen years older than this game. Yes, the characters are generally well-fleshed out, and yes, the characters largely play differently from one another, but that’s an absolutely anemic character roster, and considering how many characters there are in the FotNS universe, seems a wee bit… underwhelming all in all. There’s also the matter of there only being a scant amount of gameplay modes to screw around with and things to do in general, so there’s really just not a lot to see in the game, which is a bit of a problem, again, if you’re looking for a good fighting game, not just a good FotNS game.

The game is also not particularly balanced well. There are various videos on Youtube of infinite combos characters can do (basically combos that cannot be stopped until the victim is dead or the attacker stops doing it), several characters are simply more readily useful than others (Toki, Rei and Raoh seem a bit better off than some of the other characters, as an example), and hey, Arcade Mode generally presents the player seven rather easy battles followed up by yet another “SNK Boss”, in such a way that it makes the player stop and go “what the hell happened here” when you go through so many battles with little effort only to have to fight for your life against an opponent as disgustingly over-powered as Ken Oh (who, again, is basically Raoh). He’s not even that much of a challenge, so to say, so much as he’s just drastically MORE challenging than the characters prior to him, less because of the CPU’s skill level and more because of his disgusting special and super moves. Again, I’m not even talking about the sort of problems tournament-level players would have, either; simply put, the game is unbalanced on a base level, making certain characters infinitely more useful than others and presenting a final boss who is dramatically overpowered in comparison to the fights before him, and generally allowing players to unleash combos that just END THE ROUND. It also bears noting that, in comparison to a GG game, FotNS feels stiff and sluggish in comparison; moves generally feel more fluid and easier to perform in GG, whereas here the controls often feel like you’re fighting with them to accomplish various things. This is not an “all the time” occurrence, but it happens often enough to be problematic.

Also, while we’re on the subject of “things which are lacking”, the anime of Fist of the North Star features people dying, heads exploding, and a whole mess of blood. I’m not saying this game needs to be Mortal Kombat bloody, but the “Fatal K.O.” moves are exceptionally tame, all things considered. Considering GG has more violent moves than this, and considering this is a home port and thus doesn’t have to appease anyone like an arcade game might be expected to, it seems silly to make a game based off of a rather violent anime, only to have said game not be particularly violent in a way that approaches the source material.

In the end, Hokuto No Ken, Fist of the North Star, whatever you feel comfortable calling it, is a game for the fans first and foremost, but it probably won’t earn any fans on its own. If you’re a fan of the series, great; the game looks and sounds exactly as it should, it’s seriously import-friendly, the characters are all recognizable and many of the moves they use are moves you’d absolutely expect from them, and the game is generally amusing enough to play against friends casually. If you’re not a fan, though, you’ll be more likely to notice the absolute dearth of content, from the minimal fighter roster to the lack of game modes, as well as the unbalanced characters and final boss, and you probably won’t feel the need to play this over other, better fighting games. It’s not so much that FotNS is bad so much as it’s underwhelming, as what could have easily been a great game in its own right is instead a game for fans of the series and little more.

The Scores:
Game Modes: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: POOR
Originality: POOR
Addictiveness: BAD
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: POOR

Final Score: MEDIOCRE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Hokuto No Ken/Fist of the North Star is an okay game that will please fans of the franchise without doing anything to interest those who don’t know or care about one way or the other. It’s a fan product, and in that respect, it does its job exceptionally; the presentation is spot-on, the characters are recognizable and work as one would expect them to, and the general experience of the game is fun for those who actually know and like the license. However, a dearth of content and variety, balance issues, stiff gameplay mechanics and a general lack of anything to do with the product beyond the first two hours of play unless you’re a committed player hurt the game significantly. Though Fist of the North Star is generally import friendly, only fans of the license or the most dedicated fighting game fans will find any worth to owning it; everyone else can safely pass it by.



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4 responses to “Import Retro Review: Hokuto No Ken/Fist of the North Star (PS2)”

  1. […] fighting games they’ve developed outside of that franchise here, such as Sengoku Basara X and Hokuto No Ken. While the Guilty Gear franchise has, until recently, been the only ASW developed fighting game […]

  2. HEX Avatar

    i disagree with you, how can be considered sbx a good game and not hnk, hnk >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>sbx all the time, thats why the game has been on the spot for 4 years, and sbx went to the oblivion a month after the ps2 release

  3. Mark B. Avatar
    Mark B.

    First, I didn’t actually say that Sengoku Basara X was a good game while Fist of the North Star wasn’t. I said Sengoku Basara X is a marginally better game than Fist of the North Star because the gameplay mechanics are more interesting. Both of the games are limited, shallow games with small character rosters and unbalanced characters, and both of the games play perfectly fine if you happen to like what Arc System Works does with their fighting games, but Sengoku Basara X has a marginally better gameplay design and is balanced a little better for less experienced players.

    Second, Fist of the North Star has “been on the spot for four years” because Fist of the North Star is based on an anime that’s had a strong fan following for nearly two decades, not because of anything great the game itself does.

    Finally, popularity is not a good indicator of quality. If it were, Miley Cyrus would not be a multi-platinum musician.

  4. […] fighting games with pretty graphics, bizarre mechanics, and (discounting their licensed games like Hokuto No Ken and Sengoku Basara X) strange characters, they hold a big place in the hearts of many fighting game […]

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