Like a comfortable pair of slippers or an Easter egg that you told the cashier you were buying for your nephew, I’m about to treat myself to something that’ll make me feel all warm inside. That’s right, it’s a side-scrolling beat-em-up! Specifically, it’s TAD Corporation’s 1992 arcade slugfest Legionnaire!

Despite the title, it has nothing to do with ancient Rome or French soldiers hanging around in the desert. It’s an arcade brawler from the early nineties, so naturally it’s about a street gang and the vigilante heroes who step up to defeat them. I’m fine with that, I love a good bit of punk-pummelling action, but now I’ve mentioned it I’d really like a beat-em-up about the French Foreign Legion.
I’m rather looking forward to this one, for a couple of reasons. One is that the other TAD Corporation games I’ve played, specifically the crosshair shooters Cabal and Blood Brothers and side-scrolling ape-em-up Toki, have been generally good, and with enough weirdness to them to pique my interest. This is as you’d expect from a company that was formed by ex-Data East employees. The other thing it that, as far as I’m aware, Legionnaire has been unemulated for years, but now it’s working to a degree that lets you play through the entire game with only a few minor errors. How exciting is that? A whole ‘90s arcade beat-em-up that I’ve never had the chance to play before. It’s the unexpected tax refund of the videogame world!

The set-up is given to you right out of the gate: the vicious Crimson Kings are terrorising the innocent, peaceful inhabitants of Blood City. Wait, what? Blood City? Man, I’m amazed it’s taken this long for a criminal gang to rise to prominence in a place called Blood City. Take me down to ol' Blood City, where life is cheap and the crime statistics ain’t pretty.
Anyway, what does this mysterious image show us? Well, on the right we’ve got the shadowy visage of what I assume is the Crimson King’s leader, a ruler of men and fan of prog-rock music. The rest takes more deciphering, but it looks like there’s a rose in the background, a bloodied knife, (which is probably the town crest of Blood City,) someone emptying out a salt shaker and a statue representing the concept of “a headache.” The rest of the intro goes on to tell us that everyone is outraged, but no-one dares to act until the Legionnaires rise up to challenge the Crimson Kings. Let’s meet our heroes now, shall we?

First we’ve got Alfred, who I’m assuming is the leader of the group because he is the most average. We can see he’s got fingerless gloves and a sleeveless shirt, so I’m sure he’s also wearing shorts because his commitment to never wearing a complete garment is unshakeable.

Occupying the “speedy but weaker” slot on the team is Chris. She actually is wearing shorts, to facilitate all the kicking she does. I notice that Legionnaire’s characters are running a little older than those in most Japanese games. Chris is 24, that’s “spinster with dozens of cats” territory by videogame standards.

If it’s sheer brute force you’re after, look no further than Frank. He’s the muscle man of the group, plus he has a beard. If you look at his forehead, you can also see what appears to be another, smaller skull trying to push its way through his skin. He’s also the happiest of the bunch to be involved. Well, at 39 he probably thought his punk-pounding days were over.

Finally we’ve got Judy. She is not a punk, despite what the Ramones might think, and her picture implies she fights using a very laid-back form of judo. She looks like she’s yawning as she hurls that dude over her shoulder, and that insouciance is making Judy my first pick as a playable character. Hang on, though – there are four Legionnaires. That can’t be right, it completely unbalances the sacred beat-em-up trinity of a fast one, a strong one and the other, less interesting character! Judy’s a maverick, a wild card, a destabilizing influence that threatens to throw the very core of the genre off its axis!

Never mind, Judy’s been kidnapped. Order is restored, almost as though some cosmic janitor has set things right, and the Crimson Kings have made a fatal mistake – now it’s personal. The Legionnaires were going to punch them all into a coma anyway, but now they’re really going to enjoy it.

The game begins with two Crimson King footsoldiers staring intently at a pair of gas canisters. That’s their entire raison d’etre. Monitor these two highly flammable pressurised containers, and make sure nothing untoward happens to them.

You had one job, you pair of idiots. It’s appropriate that you’re charred corpses now, because you’re about to get fired.

Getting into the action now, and Legionnaire begins in a fairly standard city streets / construction site type environment. There always seems to be some kind of construction site in these games, which makes sense to me. If The Sopranos taught me anything, it’s that organised crime are heavily involved with the construction industry. As for the combat, the basics are the same as in almost every other side-scrolling beat-em-up. You’ve got an attack button and a jump button, attacking repeatedly makes your character perform a combo, you’ve got a jumping kick and pressing attack and jump together performs a powerful attack that knocks down any nearby enemies at the cost of some of your character’s health.

So far, so extremely generic, then. It’s nothing I haven’t played dozens of times before, and the setting and characters aren’t doing much to elevate proceedings. Alfred in particular is a very underwhelming hero, being as he is a Bloke in a White Shirt and Blue Trousers who lacks the classic sense of “American” cool that you see in Final Fight’s Cody. The bad guys aren’t particularly exciting, either, with the usual mix of overconfident steroid abusers, sleeve-haters and the occasional smaller, weaker characters with some kind of gimmick like “exploding” or “owning a knife.”
The only thing in this early area that stands out as being even slightly novel are the gas canisters, which you can punch towards the bad guys for a free hit of explosive damage. They’re especially useful if you’ve bunched some of the goons together, which is not difficult to do when Alfred’s flying kick is so good at knocking people across the screen.

Later in the stage, you start to see a couple of more interesting enemy types - interesting in that they make you wonder how they reached this point in their lives, rather than because they’re interesting to fight. For example, there are these chaps who ignored all the lessons their mothers ever taught them and do nothing but run around holding sharp objects. That’s all they do, they run in a straight line, knives outstretched. If they run into you, hey, bonus, but they’re equally happy to run right off the edge of the screen and you get the impression that they’re doing the bare minimum required to be a Crimson Kings member. Were you ever playing football during a school PE lesson and you pretended you were playing defence, so you could hang around near the back and look involved without ever actually having to do anything? That’s what’s going on with these guys, except replace football with murder. This doesn’t explain why they seem to be beatniks wearing mustard yellow capri pants, but I suspect that’s something which cannot be explained.

Then there are these bouncing balls of baldness, claw-wielding… things that jump around the screen like a flea with restless leg syndrome, trying valiantly to insert their claws into Alfred’s skull. They only take one hit to defeat and their movements are fairly predictable, but they rarely turn up alone and so one of them will often manage to sneak through. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be shanked by a very angry baked bean wearing baby booties, Legionnaire can put your mind at rest.

It doesn’t take long to rattle through stage one, and soon you’ll be facing off against the first boss. His name is Bigman. Because he’s a big man, you see. He was the last one in the queue when they were handing out gang names, I reckon.
So, Bigman is a big man who acts the big man, but he’s very easy to defeat because he’s nothing more than a slightly larger version of the same grunts you’ve been fighting for the rest of the stage. Never attack him head-on – coming at him from “above” seemed to work very well – and you’ll have no trouble beating him.

I even threw in a few of my big-hitting special attacks, because why not? Bigman wasn’t taking any of my health, so I might as well. Plus it looks cool, although sadly all three character have the same special move.

Moving on to stage two, the Downtown area, and I’ve switched to Chris. She immediately became my favourite of the three characters, thanks to her incredibly fast kicks, which are perfect for dealing with the enemies that only require one hit to defeat and can really help you get out of sticky situations like letting yourself get surrounded. Plus, she boots people right in the chin from a standing start, that’s the kind of straight-forward violence I like to see.

It was around this point that I realised there’s more to Legionnaire’s combat than I first thought. As well as your normal combos and jumping kicks, you can also performing dashing attacks. The thing that threw me off was that you don’t dash using the method you’d expect – that is, by tapping the joystick twice towards your opponent, or even using a dedicated dash button. Instead, you double-tap jump to dash in the direction you’re facing. While you’re dashing, you’ve got two attack options. If you don’t hit the attack button but slam into a bad guy, you’ll grab them for a throw attack, as you can see above.

If you do press attack while dashing, instead of a grab you’ll use a powerful charging attack that sends any enemy it hits flying backwards. In Chris’ case, it’s a very “Blaze from Streets of Rage” style energy-punch attack. I’m more than okay with that. If you’re going to, erm, draw inspiration from another beat-em-up, it might as well be Streets of Rage.

I’m relieved I discovered these extra moves before I got much further into the game, because at this point Legionnaire is really making the most of the “gang” part of the street gang theme, and you’re attacked by loads of enemies at once. This is where the game starts to come to life a little: the mass brawls are fast, furious and fun. There’s plenty of fighting to be done, but your jumping kicks and dashing moves mean you’ve got plenty of tools at your disposal to stop the enemy surrounding you, and Legionnaire’s smooth controls means executing said moves is reliable and practical. You’re still going to get hit, especially if like me you repeatedly underestimate the range of those guys with the Big Van Vader hair and the croquet mallets, but it never feels unfair or overwhelming.

Here’s TAD Corporation representing a couple of their other games through the beat-em-up-appropriate medium of graffiti, with shout-outs to Cabal and (just off-screen) Blood Brothers. Plus there’s a Toki sticker up there, complete with a picture of the saliva-slinging ape himself.
In the screenshot above you can also see a wiry fellow with the look of a Tour de France racer to him. You know those little elves in the Golden Axe games? The ones that drop items when you whack them? These blokes are what those elves turn into if you wrap them in lycra and stretch them on a rack. They’re unthreatening, but they drop items when hit – usually point items, but sometimes they’ll dispense small health boosts. Another advantage to playing as Chris is that her kicks are so fast you can clobber these walking vending machines three or four times before they can get away.

Boss number two is the person who abducted Judy during the intro, an unfortunately-shaped individual for whom the low cut tank-top is doing absolutely no favours. Their name is Pretty Piggy, and I hate to break this to you, pal, but only half of that name is accurate.

You know what? That’s a fair response. I shouldn’t judge you on your physical appearance, Pretty Piggy. Instead I’ll judge you for being a kidnapper who works as a lackey for a criminal group. There, now I feel better about beating you up.
Piggy’s got two main methods of attack. The first is as straightforward as you like: he whacks you with a stick. Not a caveman club, not a baseball bat, but a regular ol’ wooden rod, a piece of dowelling he picked up at his local hardware store. The other is that he conforms to the weirdly specific brawler cliché of being a fat person who can breathe fire. I still have no idea why this is such a common theme in beat-em-ups. Did a famous troupe of especially corpulent fire-eaters tour Japan in the 1960s or something, influencing the game designers of the eighties and nineties during their childhoods?

Stage three takes place on a train, and it’s time for Frank to get his hands dirty. The stage’s early screens involve fighting the now-standard groups of musclebound goons, a process enlivened by the bad guys jumping out of crates in the background in what I can only assume was a ruse to avoid them having to pay their train fare by being sent in through post. There was a brief roadblock at around the mid-point, however, when I was beset by a kung fu master who really, really liked using his familiar hurricane kick attack. I kept getting kicked in the head, that was the problem. Then I realised that this Ryu-wannabe is extremely vulnerable just as he lands, so in this instance Frank’s most devastating technique was a small amount of patience.

Speaking of Frank’ powers, I have to say he doesn’t really feel like the slow one of the group. Sure, his individual attacks are slower than Chris and Alfred’s, but his standard combos only include three hits as opposed to the others’ five or six, so he ends up needing the same amount of time to do a similar amount of damage – he just needs less punches to dish out that damage.
I noticed something else about Legionnaire’s standard combos, too: normally when you land the final blow, the enemy is knocked down and they land pretty much where they were standing. However, if you hold up or down on the joystick while doing a combo, your character’s final blow is different and rather than knocking the enemy down but keeping them nearby, it punts them all the way to the other side of the screen. This can be an extremely effective tool for managing the positions of your foes so they can’t surround you, plus you get the satisfaction of kicking people forty feet across the play area. The only proviso on this is that this system only works as described above for Chris and Frank. In Alfred’s case it’s reversed, so his default combo sends enemies flying, but holding up or down makes your combo keep the enemies close by.

Apparently this train is of huge strategic importance, because it has two bosses: a pair of martial arts masters called Dragon and Tiger. Which one is Dragon, and which one is Tiger? I don’t know, I don’t care and it doesn’t matter because they’re both identical. They’re a lot like the kung fu fighter from earlier in the stage, with a lot of spinning aerial kicks. It’s a good job I learned how to deal with that attack earlier, huh? Their only other gimmick is that if you give them some breathing space, one of the pair will form a step with his hands, giving the other boss a boost and throwing him to the air for a faster, more powerful diving kick attack. This can be rather difficult to avoid and the bosses like to get into a pattern of using it over and over again, but the simple preventative measure you can take in this case is to be always punching one of the bosses.

Once they’re dealt with, Rugal from The King of Fighters appears in a helicopter, carrying Judy under his arm. Then he flies away. Okey dokey then, I guess I’ll see him later.

The next stage takes place on a military base, and there’s not much new to see. Lots of fighting the regular grunts you’ve kicked a thousand times before, except with more chain-link fences in the background. That might sound like a complaint, but it isn’t really. Okay, it’s half a complaint – these stages could have benefited from taking place in less generic locations -  but the actual fighting? That’s fine, and I’m having a good time with it. It’s fast, the dashing moves add a little flair to the combat and Legionnaire rarely bogs the player down with waves of enemies with enormous health bars, which is one of my pet peeves about the genre. You do have to fight two Pretty Piggies at once, but they’ve had their maximum health reduced to prevent the above scenario from happening, so I’m not too annoyed to see bosses being recycled.

There are still a few new enemy types being added as the game progresses, which helps. Here, for instance, you’ve got a different kind of kung fu master who is equally vulnerable after missing with his flashy jumping kicks. He’s got a kanji on his back that translates as either “evil” or “misfortune,” and I’m going with “misfortune” because as soon as Alfred gets up from his power-nap this kung fu bloke is going to taste the furious justice of the Legionnaires. “Just five more minutes,” Alfred mumbles, but righteousness is his alarm clock and soon he will answer its call.
There are purple chaps, too, and they finally answer the question of why some many dystopian street gang types wear shoulder pads: it’s because his main attack is to charge into you with his shoulder, gridiron-style. That’s not a very interesting fighting style on its own, but these guys put so much heart and drive into their attacks, bellowing like a lunatic whenever they dash towards you, that it’s hard not to warm to them. They’re giving it their all, and if this was a kid’s TV show rather than a game then these would be the guys who realise they don’t want to be working for a bad guy and switch allegiance halfway through.

Then there’s this guy, who is the hardest (or at least most annoying) boss in the game despite not even being a boss. You’d think that after playing Hokuto no Ken 7 for the last article I’d be well-versed in the power of the Hundred Crack Fist, but apparently not because I kept walking into the bloody thing. That attack is bad enough, but the real trouble starts when you land an attack of your own. Rather than standing there and taking the full combo like every other member of the Crimson Kings, he backflips away while throwing a bunch of grenades at you. Someone didn’t get the memo about beat-em-up etiquette, and as a result this amalgam of Guile and Rolento takes longer to beat than the rest of the stage combined as you land one punch before running away from his grenades.

Frankly, it was a relief to reach this real boss of the stage. His name is General the Hellarm, which makes him sound like a later addition to the Sonic the Hedgehog universe. Don’t worry, I know he’s not really a later addition to the Sonic the Hedgehog universe. I can tell, because he appears in a game that’s not rubbish.
Anyway, Hellarm’s got two tricks, one of them being literally up his sleeve. He can extend his mechanical limbs, and he can create two clones to follow him around. Only the real Hellarm takes damage, naturally, but you can eliminate the clones with a single hit, so it’s easy enough to get him in a loop of waiting for him to create his clones and then picking one to hit. You’ll either batter the real Hellarm before he can react, or you’ll eliminate his clones and reset the whole procedure. Oh, and he can take his hand off to reveal a sword sticking out of his elbow stump. I suppose you’d count that as a trick, too.

We’ve reached the final stage: the Seclet (sic) Area, and Chris is doing an excellent job of holding off about three football teams worth of bad guys on this narrow bridge. You might notice that the guy in the orange seems to be ignoring the law of gravity by not standing on the bridge, but I’m going to put this down to an emulation error. It was pretty much the only error I noticed, but enemies would sometimes walk right into the background or foreground where they shouldn’t be able to go, and once or twice they managed to get themselves stuck. Usually they managed to wriggle free either under their own steam or with the, ahem, gentle persuasion of special attack, but during this stage someone got trapped underneath the bridge where I couldn’t reach them, preventing me from either killing them or moving forwards. Bear that in mind if you’re thinking about playing Legionnaire for yourself.

Other than potential glitches, stage five has a little of everything. More bosses return as regular enemies, small men covered in dynamite fall from the sky and blow up, there are lots of densely-packed enemy groups to battle through and then there’s this, a section where the knifemen run back and forth along this narrow bridge for a while, trying to perforate you more through luck than by design. It’s kinda ridiculous, but in the best possible “dumb arcade game” way. Plus you can take out, like, ten guys with a well-timed special attack, which is satisfying in its own right.

After a while of that, you’re pitted against the leader of the Crimson Kings – Mr. G. My entire being is crying out for me to make a House of the Dead joke, but I’m not going to. I don’t want you to suffer like I did.
Mr. G is, to be blunt, a complete pushover. He’s got barely any attacks and a very small health bar, as you might expect from someone who’s essentially a corporate CEO. The CEO of Evil, Inc., but still. Of course, what this means is that this isn’t even his final form, and I’ll be fighting him again after he transforms. I went through the motions, slapped him around a bit and then, once Mr. G had had enough, I chased him to his moon base using a nearby space shuttle.

That’s right, the Crimson Kings have a moon base. They’re rather more ambitious than your average videogame street gang, I’ll give them that. You never saw Mad Gear trying to colonise outer space, did you? Which is a shame, I’d have loved to have seen Mike Haggar throwing asteroids at people with only his moustache as protection against the vacuum of space.

After wading through a few more waves of goons, our heroes catch up with Mr. G again, but this time he’s serious. He’s wearing his special armour, he’s strapped on his stabbin’ claws and he can shoot blasts of electricity out of his fists or as a projectile along the floor. Unfortunately for him, he’s still a proper chump, and this is probably the easiest final boss I’ve ever faced in a side-scrolling beat-em-up (unless you count the completely defenceless scientist at the end of Crude Buster). If you just never attack Mr. G head on, there’s very little he can do to hit you. Wait for him to attack, come at him from above and smack him about. Repeat this for a while, occasionally using your dash to get in close or away from his projectiles, and he’ll soon be defeated. This might seem a bit disappointing, but personally I thought it made a nice change of pace. The Legionnaires have had a lot of practise at battering people by this point, it stands to reason they’d have little trouble with an old man in a cummerbund.

The game is over, and Blood City has been freed from the ruthless grip of the Crimson Kings. Now it can go back to being the number one tourist destination for vampires all over the world. “Where are our heroes now?” the ending asks, and happily it immediately answers that very question.

That’s it, Frank. You dream big, buddy. At least he’s happy. You have to wonder whether he ought to loosen his apron strings a little, mind you. If you can see your abs through your apron, you’re wearing it too tight.

Further proof that Chris is the best fighter of the three is provided by the ending, which shows her becoming the number one undisputed fighting champ in the world.

As for Alfred, he went home and became a family man. He and Judy are married with children, living in one of the log cabins you so often find in the suburbs. I’ve just realised that the white thing at the bottom-right is supposed to be a baby wearing a bonnet. At first glance I thought it was one of those Japanese snow monkeys that live near the hot springs. Sorry, kid.

Was Legionnaire everything I hoped for? Yes, it was, in that it was a very typical brawler that I’d never played before. Its biggest problem is definitely its lack of imagination, and it leans far too heavily on the oh-so-common beat-em-up themes and locations, particularly when it comes to the not-very-interesting playable characters. However, the gameplay and the flow of the action is very enjoyable. This also suffers from a lack of innovation on a basic level, but the addition of the dashing attacks gives it just enough spice to keep things interesting. It’s the controls are smooth, the bad guys come thick and fast but crucially it never gets bogged down. There are plenty of people to punch but you don’t have to punch them for long before you can move on, and the game’s five stages mean it’s just about the perfect length: any longer and it risked becoming a little tedious.
It’s also a rather easy game, for an arcade brawler. You’re still going to lose lives, but thanks to the many moves at your disposal that work well for keeping bad guys at bay (and I should give special mention to the little-discussed jumping kick here, because its enormous hitbox and high priority make it great for this) you’ll rarely get surrounded. Plus, none of the bosses are coin-gulping slaughter machines. Whether the difficulty level is a pro or a con is down to you, but like I said, it was nice to play something that felt a touch more relaxed than others in the genre for a change.
In conclusion, I’m really glad I played Legionnaire. I had a fun time with it, even though it’s unlikely to be something I go back to very often. Plus I helped a man achieve his dreams of owning a hot dog stand. What could be more rewarding than that?



Just in case you thought an over-reliance on sequels was a recent trend in media, here’s a game called Hokuto no Ken 7. To give it its full title, it’s Shouei’s 1993 Super Famicom game Hokuto no Ken 7: Seiken Retsuden – Denshousha e no Michi, which I think means something like Hokuto no Ken 7: History of the Sacred Fist – The Successor’s Path. I reckon I’ll stick to referring to it as Hokuto no Ken 7, thanks.

It’s another strong candidate for the title of “Most Boring Title Screen,” that’s for sure.
So, Hokuto no Ken. You might know it better as Fist of the North Star, the hyper-violent manga and anime about a man named Kenshiro who travels the post-apocalyptic wasteland righting wrongs in the only way he knows how: by slaughtering thousands of people using the ancient martial art of Hokuto Shinken. It’s a fighting style that allows Kenshiro to punch people so hard that they explode, or he can poke the “pressure points” on their body to compel them to die in other, more creative ways, like walking off cliffs or hugging each other to death (no, really). I went into a bit more detail about Hokuto no Ken when I wrote about the eponymous Master System game, so check that article out for more info. For now, though, just let it be known that Hokuto no Ken is an extremely gory, incredibly violent and utterly ridiculous series, and it’s also one of my all-time favourite media franchises.

As this is number seven in the series – not including a few other Hokuto no Ken games that weren’t part of this line, like the Japanese home computer game with the wonderful subtitle Violence Adventure Theatre – I suppose I should give a quick rundown of the others. Hokuto no Ken 1 to 4 appeared on the Famicom, with the first two being side-scrolling punch-em-ups inspired by Irem’s Kung Fu. Hokuto no Ken 2 was actually released in the west as Fist of the North Star, making it one of the first officially licensed HnK products to make it out of Japan. Hokuto no Ken 3 and 4 are turn-based RPGs in the Dragon Quest mould, and so was HnK 5, the first of the series to appear on the Super Famicom (albeit with a more Final Fantasy style of battle graphics). When it came to HnK 6, and no doubt influenced by the impact of Street Fighter II, they finally decided that maybe this anime about martial artists fighting each other to the death should be adapted into a one-on-one fighting game. Having played HnK 6, I can tell you it didn’t work out so great. Still, after all these previous attempts, Shouei must surely have a firm grasp on what it takes to make a good Hokuto no Ken game, right? Right?! Look, you can’t blame me for hoping, even if I know the outcome.

There are a couple of different game modes to choose from. Freeplay mode lets you pick two fighters, fiddle with various setting and have a punch-up, and that’s where you can get your two-player jollies. Battle mode is more of a standard arcade mode, where you fight all the game’s characters in a row, and we’ll get to that in a while. For the majority of this article, though, we’ll be looking at the story mode. That’s the mode that tells the story. The story of Hokuto no Ken, I assume. I can read enough of this Japanese to know it mentions both the location Southern Cross and the character Heart, so I reckon we’re going to be starting out by fighting Heart in Southern Cross.

Well, would you look at that, it is indeed a battle between Kenshiro – and you can only play as Kenshiro in story mode – and Heart. That’s Ken on the left, looking as ever like the lovechild of Mad Max and Bruce Lee, with his opponent Heart on the right. Heart’s an example of a minor character who somehow gains a major place within a franchise, and he appears in far more HnK spin-offs than other characters that enjoyed an equally small amount of screen time. Perhaps his fame is because he’s the first adversary in the show who gives Kenshiro even a moment’s challenge – Heart’s whole deal is that he’s so fat martial artists have trouble landing a killer blow. People tend to get their fists stuck inside his gut, you see. In the original material, Ken solves this problem by moving Heart’s fat out of the way by kicking it. Ken solves most of his problems by kicking them, let’s be honest. Sadly I don’t think that special technique is going to be available to me, the player, so I’ll have to go down the usual route of the one-on-one fighter.

Or maybe Ken will shift Heart’s blubber aside by rubbing his crotch against it. When you’ve mastered a secret assassination art with a deadly two-thousand year history, you’re bound to encounter a few moves developed by your weirder predecessors. Just imagine the weird squeaky noise of Ken's leather trousers rubbing against Heart's sweaty gut.

Hokuto no Ken 7 is a fighting game with many features that will make it familiar to anyone who’s played a fighting game before… but with enough of its own strange quirks that it feels rather unusual. You’ve got four attack buttons, a weak and hard punch and a weak and hard kick, you can jump and attack from the air, you hold back to block, and you can perform special moves using a combination of controller inputs and button presses. However, I’d say the special moves inputs have more in common with Mortal Kombat than Street Fighter II: for example, to perform Ken’s projectile attack you hit back, towards then punch rather than using the quarter-circle-forward motion you might expect. Also, and this is the one that really threw me for a loop, both characters’ health bars are constantly refilling. If you’re not getting hit, your health is coming back. It’s such an unusual, unexpected system for a fighting game to have that I didn’t even notice until after ten minutes of fighting Heart when I thought to myself “blimey, this fight sure is dragging on.”

In fact, I had a lot of trouble giving Heart the kicking he so thoroughly deserves. I’d land a few blows, mainly with Ken’s crouching hard kick which makes him fly towards his opponent feet-first like he’s been greased up and fired out of a cannon, but then Heart would retreat and keep me at bay with a barrage of open-handed slaps until his health had refilled. It was awkward, tedious and frustrating, which is not a great first impression for a videogame to make. But then I realised what I should have been doing: using Ken’s special moves. Specifically, using his projectile attack where he forms his spirit energy into the shape of a fist so he can punch people from across the room. That was powerful enough to break through Heart’s attacks and deal substantial damage, but there’s a problem. The controls for performing special moves are abysmal. Imprecise and unreliable, they make the simple act of throwing a fireball an absolute chore, and that’s one of the easiest special moves to do! Back, forward, punch, nice and straightforward, except I could only get the projectile to come out maybe once out of every five attempts. God help you if you want to try some of the more complicated moves. They might come out or they might not, and their lack of consistency makes the idea of reacting to the situation with the appropriate special move completely laughable.

The only move I could produce reliably was Kenshiro’s famous signature move, the Hundred Crack Fist. That’s because you just have to repeatedly tap punch to perform it. It’s a shame, then, that the Hundred Crack Fist is bloody useless. It’s got very little range, takes enough time to get going that the enemy will have moved out of the way and while you’re standing there punching over and over again the enemy will either stand still and get their health back or, more likely, completely ignore Kenshiro’s most iconic and lethal attack in order to jump-kick right through it and jam their ki-soaked feet right down Ken’s trachea.
I eventually managed to beat Heart by getting as far away as possible and repeatedly using the projectile attack. When I got lucky enough for it to come out three times in a row, an alignment of the fates akin to being struck by lighting while cashing the giant cheque for your lottery winnings, the fight was over. And that was only fight number one.

Fight number two is against Shin, Kenshiro’s former friend. I think it’s safe to say they had a falling out, given that Shin abducted Ken’s girlfriend Yuria and poked Ken in the chest seven times, giving him the seven scars for which he is famous, but they did used to be buddies. Not any more, though, and it’s a fight to the death: Ken’s martial art that makes people explode from within versus Shin’s style that focuses on chopping people up from the outside. They’re like chalk and cheese, if chalk and cheese were capable of destroying your body in a multitude of agonising ways.

After fighting Heart, I thought I was getting a handle on HnK7’s gameplay. Then this fight started, and Shin destroyed me in moments by repeatedly doing extremely fast flying kicks at me. I simply could not keep up with the relentless onslaught, especially because the CPU doesn’t have to worry about the special move inputs not working. I was on the verge of giving up entirely, but thankfully I figured out how to defend myself. You see, normal blocks will not defend against special moves. Instead, you have to press L to surround yourself with a magical aura that can block special moves, but the problem with that is your magical aura isn’t unlimited. You see that “OP” bar under the characters’ health? That’s your super bar, basically, and it also gradually fills up as the fight goes. Holding L to block drains this bar very quickly, but also prevents you from being immediately killed. So, block special moves with your special block. Makes sense. However, the OP gauge can also be used for special attacks of your own, which are executed simply by pressing R. The first section of the bar does nothing, but when you’ve got two bars you can fire a projectile without having to do the motion, and three and four segments of the bar being filled allows for even more powerful attacks which you can’t otherwise pull off.

In a better game, this system might add a bit of spice and tactical thinking to the gameplay. Do I use all my OP power to block specials, or try to save it up so I can use special moves that a) are very powerful and b) don’t require me to engage with the bullshit that is the game’s controls? Unfortunately, HnK7 takes this potentially interesting idea and chucks it to one side, because there’s no way you’ll get anywhere in the game if you don’t use all your OP for blocking the constant tsunami of special attacks that all of your opponents use, especially as one hit from a level three or four special can take off seventy percent of your health.

Now Ken’s fighting Rei, the handsome and graceful master of the Nanto Suichou Ken fighting style. In the show they are friends and allies, forced to fight against each other by villainous manipulations, but they get out of it by pretending to be dead. No one seems to have informed the videogame version of Rei about the “friends and allies” bit, though, and he’s just as relentless as everyone else in his desire to see Ken dead. Happily, things went a bit better than in the fight against Shin now that I know how to block special attacks

I even managed to avoid being killed for long enough that the OP bar filled and I could try Ken’s ultimate technique: the Musou Tensei, a move that you can only learn by being really, really sad. I know that sounds like the kind of martial art dreamed up by someone who spent too much time watching The Crow, but it does make Ken completely invulnerable while it’s active. I guess now we know why it’s called the “OP” gauge.

And here’s the man-mountain who forced Ken and Rei to fight in the first place, the king of the Fang Clan. He’s a non-playable character, and he’s unusual to fight against because he only has two moves. He can make his skin as hard as steel, which just means you have to spend more time than usual punching him, or he literally throws his tiny minions at you. That is the entirety of his fighting style; he grabs the smaller members of his bandit army and pitches them at you like baseballs. What the hell kind of scale are we supposed to be working at here? Is King Fang throwing babies at Kenshiro? Maybe that’s it. It would explain why using the Hundred Crack Fist didn’t seem to allow me to punch the mini-Fangs out of the air, because Kenshiro would never hurt a baby.

Next up is Shuu. Guess what? He’s a martial arts master! In the world of Hokuto no Ken, only three types of people survived the apocalypse: martial arts masters, enormous street punks with bodies that look like Conan swallowed the Terminator and impoverished villagers. If you were a middle-class professional when the bombs fell, you were shit out of luck.
Anyway, Shuu. He’s also a good guy, to the extent that he clawed out his own eyes in exchange for Kenshiro’s life when Ken was a little kid. Hokuto no Ken is not a series that does subtlety, as you have probably realised. Shuu’s favourite attack isn’t subtle, either – he pirouettes across the battle with one leg sticking out, spin-kicking anyone in his path. It’s as though someone saw Ryu and Ken’s mighty hurricane kick and though “yeah, but it doesn’t look lame enough.”

The goofiness of Shuu’s spinning kick is only exacerbated by the overall jankiness of HnK7’s graphics. The spritework is passable, but the backgrounds are ugly and when the game’s in motion it looks a real mess, with characters jerking around the screen and special moves that seem to simply shift the player from one place to another with no intervening movements. In fact, every animation in the game looks as though it’s missing about half the frames it should have, and as a result it’s a stiff, unappealing mess to look at.
On the other hand, at least the sound effects are good. There are plenty of “atatata” and “shou!” noises, and frankly that’s half of the appeal of fights in Hokuto no Ken. Everyone sounds like they’ve just had a shovel full of smouldering embers poured down the front of their trousers, and that’s as it should be.

After beating Shuu, it’s time to take on Souther. Souther mostly attacks with this flying kick, so, you know, the same as almost every other character in the game. Souther’s unique quirk – that the position of his internal organs is reversed, making regular Hokuto Shinken techniques ineffective  - is not mentioned, and in fact I think he’s actually an easier fight than Shuu because Shuu’s spinning kick is far more difficult to avoid. That’s not to say it’s an easy fight, mind you. None of the fights in this game are easy, thanks to the sluggish characters, merciless AI opponents and, worst of all, the frustratingly poor controls. This is especially true when it comes the special move inputs, because once you get past the first fight special moves become mandatory. Regular attacks simply don’t do enough damage, what with the refilling health bars. Fortunately, I harnessed my inner martial arts master and formulated an unbeatable method of attack that saw me through most of the game.

It’s simple, really. I used the hard crouching kick attack to fly towards my opponent, then feverishly mashed up and down on the d-pad and tapped punch in the hopes that would cause Ken to use his uppercut special move. Twenty-five percent of the time it did work, and I hit my opponent for big damage. If it didn’t work, or my enemy was pushed back or knocked down, I used the flying kick again and got back to hammering. And that’s the story of how I become the ultimate fighting champion. Hokuto Shinken may be a legendary martial art with a long and storied history, but my martial art can be summed up on the back of a postcard so frankly I think I win on pure brevity.

And now, the Earth-shattering final confrontation between Kenshiro and Raoh: Ken’s adopted elder brother, post-apocalyptic conqueror, horse-owner and bloke who thinks he should be in charge of all the punching of martial artists that needs to be done in this lawless world.

I think I may have built this fight up a little too much. It’s hard to be that impressed by a fighter whose go-to move is that awkward-looking sliding kick you can see above.
While I generally think of myself as a pessimist, I might have to revise that particular piece of introspection because even at this point in HnK7 I was still hoping that a good game – I’d have settled for a decent game – would emerge from the mess. Of course, it never did. There’s really nothing to recommend it, and it all feels unfinished and half-hearted. As well as the problems I’ve already mentioned, the pure core of the game is stodgy and unappealing. Characters get too close to be able to hit each other and then fly apart unpredictably, the hit detection is all over the place… I’m struggling to describe why it’s bad, but it definitely is. It’s one of those game that makes you thankful for the classics of the genre, your Street Fighters and your Kings of Fighters, and helps you appreciate just how hard it is to make a fast, accurate and balanced one-on-one fighter.

The ol’ slide-kick-uppercut strategy once more proved effective, and Kenshiro has finally defeated all of his enemies (and a couple of his friends). Raoh goes to his grave proclaiming that he has lived a life with no regrets. I think I mentioned this in the Master System HnK article, but that cannot be an accurate statement. He appeared in this game, for starters.

When you finish story mode, you’re treated to some credits with gameplay footage playing in the background, and then this: a final image of Kenshiro riding into the sunset on a horse. That’s Raoh’s horse. That’s right, the hero of Hokuto no Ken punches his brother to death and then steals his horse. What a bastard.

That’s story mode finished, but before I wrap this up let’s take a look at the battle mode. You can choose from any of the characters (except Heart and King Fang, who aren’t playable,) select a difficulty level and then fight through the game’s cast in a traditional “arcade mode” fashion. Above you can see Shin doing his best M. Bison impression as he takes on Raoh, so this mode at least lets you live out your burning “what if?” Hokuto no Ken fight fantasies.

The most interesting thing about battle mode is that there’s a whole new fighter hiding in there who doesn’t appear in the story mode: the free-spirited and roguish Juza. That’s him on the right, the bloke with the unfortunate trousers who is surely doing irreparable damage to Shuu’s nether regions with the energy radiating from his hands. Actually, let’s go back to Juza’s trousers for a second, because they look like someone made pants out of lobster shells and then stretched slices of American cheese over the top. Okay, yeah, time to stop looking at those trousers, that description is making me queasy.

The battle mode is a nice addition, I suppose, but it does confirm something I suspected while playing story mode: that some characters are simply better than others. There seems to have been very little effort to balance the fighters, and this was especially noticeable when I played as Shuu because Shuu’s spinning kick is ridiculous. It’s one of the few moves that I could perform reliably, it travels a good distance over the screen, it has very little start-up and deals decent damage. This meant that I rattled through battle mode simply by whirling around like a one-man recreation of Flashdance.

Not even having to fight Shuu’s lime-green doppelganger put the kibosh on this technique, because fake-Shuu made the mistake of trying to use other moves that weren’t spinning kicks.

There’s no ending or anything for clearing battle mode, so I think this is a good place to bring this article to a close – mostly because I’m fed up of thinking about this game. Hokuto no Ken 7 is a pretty crappy game all around, with almost every problem a fighting game can have bubbling away underneath a surface of ugly graphics and shoddy controls. I think I am perhaps being slightly too harsh on it because it’s based on a property I really like, but only slightly. Also, Jagi’s not in it, and he’s my favourite HnK character. If you’re determined to play it, try it in two-player versus mode, because at least then you’re both suffering together, but a better idea would be to take that friend and make them listen to the anime’s theme song over and over again. If they’re not willing to do that, then they’re not worthy of being your friend.

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