Game: Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star)
System: PlayStation 2
Despite leveraging the skills of Arc System Works, creators of the Guilty Gear franchise, as well as the famous anime property Fist of the North Star, Hokuto no Ken is ultimately a failed experiment. It retains the high-resolution presentation of its creator’s previous effort, but disappoints in almost every other conceivable way. An unbalanced 2d fighter, its animation, interface design and basic combat mechanics suggest an obvious lack of effort invested in its production. The location tests it underwent have failed to reduce the marked difference between the high- and low-tier characters which brings is comparatively tiny roster into prominence. As a final nail in its coffin, Hokuto no Ken offers none of the additional extras that are characteristic of Guilty Gear PlayStation 2 ports, surrendering an easy opportunity to add variety to the otherwise banal offering.
The aging genre of 2d-fighting games has typically drawn newcomers against benchmarks like Street Fighter II but Hokuto no Ken inevitably has more in common with Guilty Gear, hinted at by my numerous mentions of the series. The reason is that this essentially the sophomore 2d effort from Arc, the team responsible that has made a name for itself through the eclectic and visually stunning later game. However, no matter what you compare HnK to, it comes out wanting. Against SF2, HnK finds itself with looser gameplay and a smaller roster despite having almost 15 years on the legendary title. When placed beside GG, it is slower, clunkier, and seemingly lacking the technical intricacy of that game. One of the most notable problems with this game is that one-hit-knockout moves, usually marked by extremely long and obvious execution, are now able to be combo-ed into. At length, the issuess with this title are legion. For the mass market, the minuscule number of characters will be a turn-off, and to the hardcore crowd, the fact that balance is nonexistent amongst the game’s already small cast will add insult to injury. However these are just two things that will annoy you about the fighting. Another is that lithe-looking characters are oddly slow, as compared to the behemoth, Raoh, who can end up running at cheetah-speed. Admittedly, I have not seen the anime on which this is based (there may be a canon justification for this), but it definitely stands out. Hit-boxes are also noticeably out of whack- I have never played another fighter (or any game for that matter) where jumping kicks so clearly go straight through a standing, non-guarding opponent. Still, the gameplay side of things is just one way in which HnK fails to deliver.
Hokuto no Ken’s main draw against other, better established 2d pedigrees is the high-resolution engine that has been quite literally copied and pasted from Guilty Gear. Unfortunately, the animation and presentation overall is of a lesser calibre than its cousin. Sprites, while of a similar resolution, animate extremely poorly. This is about as smooth compared to Guilty Gear as Guilty Gear is compared to Street Fighter III. Gauges seem to be directly copied over, but the menus and pre-match fireworks are honestly laughable to witness. While it may be harsh to say so, the VS. screens just make you think the new intern at Arc was a little too trigger happy with the motion tween in flash, despite only knowing how to make things slide side-to-side. Similarly the introductory movie (with its absurd theme ‘You ha Shock’ [?]) is plain ugly. The decent enough anime art is ruined by the obscene use of pseudo-3d scaling and other effects that the resulting pixilation is not only obvious, but unacceptable. Another questionable aesthetic choice is the overuse of on-screen text during the fight. Slayer’s instant-kill move, and maybe a handful of others in memory have used the technique, but here it is overkill. The developers apparently wanted to shove writing on to interrupt the fight as much as they could – someone should have reminded them they are directly adapting the anime, not the manga. On the bright side, the music is palatable fare and the stage backgrounds are, if not plentiful, varied and interesting enough. Sadly, they are probably the best part of the game.
On top of the mentioned streamlining of the core fighting mechanics, and of the animation, more corners have been cut in the extras department. Hokuto no Ken features a rather stark presentation, consisting of the obligatory Arcade, Team Battle and Training modes, and lacks unlockable galleries, characters or anything such. Those who have come to expect Gold, Shadow or even SP-coloured characters from Arc will not only be disappointed but also bewildered at their omission. They are but some of many curious oversights – there is not even an option to switch to monaural sound output in the menu options! The tacked-on History mode, which does not rightfully deserve to be a mode on its own, is inadequate compensation. In all it is indicative of the developers unwillingness to invest anymore in this title, which offers grim speculation as to what they thought of it themselves.
There is not a great deal that can be said in Hokuto no Ken’s favour, or even about it as all. It offers nothing new or compelling to a genre that has really been beaten to death and even presents less than its forefathers and[/i] its contemporaries manage to. For some time now 2d fighting releases have been built on a solid base of either nostalgia, an enormous offering of characters, a budget price or innovations and improvements. Hokuto no Ken however has none of these things going for it, and its ill-concealed imbalance will likely doom its competitive longevity at arcades as well. Those looking for an improved package for the PlayStation 2 will have to look elsewhere as it misses all the chances to either rectify its problems or compensate for them with some amount of bonus content. Considering its prestigious anime heritage, a version of the original Fist of the North Star feature on the disc might have made the package more appealing at least to fans of the series and surely would not have been that difficult to secure. As it stands, the property on which it is based will likely be little incentive for fans to pick up the game, and the numerous shortcomings of the game itself will most definitely deter almost everyone else.