In the interests of keeping things fresh and innovative here at VGJunk, I present a game about ninjas. They use ninja magic and hit things with their ninja weapons. Also shurikens. No wait, come back – did I mention it’s an unreleased ninja game? That’s right, you might never have seen this one before. It’s the mysterious arcade prototype Hangzo!
You might notice that there are no developer credits on the title screen. That is, you might notice it if you’re more observant than me. Personally, I couldn’t stop looking at the ninja on the right who’s horrified that he’s picked the claw out of the big sack of ninja weapons. He really wanted the nunchucks.
So, who did make Hangzo? Apparently it runs on Data East arcade tech, but some places list Hot-B as the developer. A collaborative effort that didn’t pan out, possibly, and it doesn’t feel like the work of a top-tier developer so Hot-B seems as reasonable an option as any other.
Hangzo has a story, but I can’t read it because it’s in Japanese. That said, if the story isn’t “city is taken over by an evil dictator and only the three ninjas of the Hangzo Squad can save the day” then I’ll eat my Shinobi cartridge. Just once I’d like the story to be “why are we taking orders? We’re ninjas, we can conquer the city ourselves and transform it into a paradise of endless shurikens and katana polish!”
There are three playable ninjas to chose from: big blue Hanzo (the veteran of the team at the ripe old age of 20,) Kotaroh with the vertiginous hair on the left and Kasumi, the lady ninja. Naturally I assumed these three characters would fall into the usual arcade game spectrum of the fast but weak one, the slow but powerful one and the average all-rounder, but Hangzo neatly sidesteps this cliché by having all the characters be essentially interchangeable.
And away we go, taking the fight against the evil “Mr. K” onto the city streets. Hanzo uses his sword to cut down the gun emplacement ahead of him and for a moment I’m confused, because I was certain that Hangzo was going to be a typical side-scrolling beat-em-up. It isn’t. It’s a single-plane run-n-slash adventure with some light platforming, much more akin to Ninja Gaiden than Golden Axe. As well as using your sword to attack nearby enemies, you can use the other attack button to sling a shuriken for ranged damage. You can also hold the shuriken button down, and I thought this was Hanzo “charging” his shuriken attack but the projectile doesn’t seem to do any extra damage. Holding the button can still be useful, though, because it allows you to keep a shuriken at the ready so you can release it when an enemy hops into your path.
Oh, and you can jump, too. However, if you double-tap the jump button…
...your character produces a rope from somewhere and proceeds to swing across the screen with their foot extended. A dangerous, deadly foot that can be used to kick enemies to death. With this simple addition, Hangzo has already begun to endear itself to me because I’ve played so many games where the supposed ninja characters play more like people who attended an online ninja school which supplied a diploma, ninja suit and headband all for the low, low price of $899.99 per semester (throwing stars sold separately). I know it’s only one move and swinging into a fight like goddamn Tarzan is the conceptual opposite of the mysterious, shadow-clad assassin, but it feels right.
I mentioned Golden Axe earlier and now you know why it was on my mind: Hangzo offers you the chance to ride these guardian lion / komainu creatures. They look cool and their ability to fire large projectiles out of their mouths definitely comes in handy, but at a terrible cost – their slightly ungainly movements and the vague collision detection on their feet makes it more than likely that you’d ride them straight down one of the bottomless pits that litter this section of the stage.
And so goes the fighting, sometimes against demonic warriors and sometimes against fire-breathing fat blokes. In this case we’re battling in front of a boutique specialising in those hot Blade Runner fashions, and because Hanzo is surrounded I’m going to press jump and attack at the same time to activate his limited-use, screen-clearing ninja magic attack.
Did I mention the overweight chaps who breathe fire? Hangzo feels like it’s suffering from something of an identity crisis, as though it really wants to be a side-scrolling beat-em-up but accidentally became a hack-n-slash platformer instead. It’d score quite highly on the beat-em-up bingo sheet, I know that much. Given that arcade brawlers are one of my favourite genres I’m naturally a little disappointed that Hangzo isn’t that kind of game, but I’m having a good time with it so far. Ninjas in a scuzzy cyberpunk future is a theme that’s always welcome here at VGJunk, and while the action does have problems that we’ll get into later it’s all hanging together quite well in the early going.
Inevitably, there are bosses at the end of each stage. The first one is an enormous mechanical kill-bot whose imposing air of menace is undercut only slightly by it having the same wheels as a shopping trolley. Oh, but it’s got lasers, plenty of ‘em, and most of the fight is spent dodging said lasers and throwing shurikens back at the robot when you get the chance. Eventually the robot will become frustrated with using futuristic lasers that travel more slowly than even the most primitive solid-projectile technology, and it’ll try to punch you. That’s your cue to stab the robot’s hands. It’s not the most complex boss battle.
Moving onward to stage two – the “Disposal Plant” - and it’s Kasumi’s turn to flex her ninja muscles. As mentioned earlier, there’s little difference between the three characters. They all seem to move at the same speed and their attacks do the same amount of damage. They have aesthetic differences, of course – they have unique sprites and while each character’s limited-use super move simply covers the screen in damage-dealing magic, Hanzo summons a whirling wall of flame and Kasumi creates a rain of deadly flower petals, that kind of thing. The only truly unique feature of each character seems to be a special “command” move activated by pressing up and attack at the same time. Hanzo swings his sword in a wide overhead arc that hits enemies both in front of and behind him, whereas Kasumi attacks while backflipping away from whatever you’re attacking. Sadly these attacks are a little too slow to be much use, but Kasumi’s is the best of the bunch as it overs a bit of extra mobility. I’d say Kasumi is my favourite character overall, but that’s almost entirely because she looks enough like Blaze from Streets of Rage that I can pretend Kasumi is one of Blaze’s descendants, carrying on the family tradition of pummelling villains on the mean city streets.
After the relatively standard “dystopian cyber-city” of the first stage, Hangzo moves into a globby, goopy biomechanical flesh-hell vibe with stage two. Gigeresque resin growths coat the walls, multi-eyed slimes patrol the sewers and a distant relative of Zantar the Gelatinous Cube (literally) drops in to exercise his powerful digestive enzymes. I love it. There’s a part of this stage where you’re riding down an elevator and – obviously, because Hangzo is 95% a scrolling beat-em-up – enemies fall into the lift while you’re travelling. One of those enemies is a clump of brightly-coloured pustules that can reform itself into a demonic creature, and if there was ever a monster I wanted to fall into a beat-em-up elevator it would be a vicious puddle of transmogrifying boils. That’s just my kind of thing.
Also my kind of thing – this boss, a hideous fleshy mound so abstract that getting a handle on what it’s supposed to be is nigh impossible. This stage takes place in the sewers, so it’s probably for the best that we don’t know what this thing is. Besides “angry” and “murderous,” I mean. What I will say is that I once had a sinus infection so bad it gave me nosebleeds, and I’d create a clone of this boss every time I sneezed.
Moving on to stage three, where the “elevator that keeps filling with enemies” concept is taken to its logical extreme – it’s an entire stage of elevator that keeps filling with enemies! Okay, so there are actually two elevators and you ride on top of them, and the elevators move up and down independently as the stage goes on. This does help to keep the action more interesting than it might have been otherwise, because you have to move between the two lifts in order to get into advantageous robot-stabbing positions, but after the dripping, ichorous stink-scape of the last stage it’s difficult to get excited about Stairs: The Next Generation.
Oh, and I’m playing as Kotaroh now. That’s not very exciting, either. His basic attacks are slightly more vertically oriented than the other character’s horizontal slashes, maybe? I know, it’s not the kind of thing you’d splash across his advertising blurb, is it?
After that disappointingly mundane stage comes a boss that isn’t bad, per se, but doesn’t really interest me as much as a boss that looks like a verruca you’d catch in Hell’s changing room. It’s a robot dragon / griffon thing, and that’s fine. It attacks pretty much how you’d expect it to (lots of projectiles and swooping) and that’s fine too. I like its very fancy wings. And the actual battle itself was, you know, fine. My major issue was that this boss was reminding me of something and my brain kept trying to tell me I was thinking of the Dinobots from Transformers, particularly Sludge, the brontosaurus Dinobot. You can see why I was confused, because this boss is definitely bird-like and not a dinosaur. I think what it is is that the original Dinobot toys had the same silver and gold colour scheme, and when combined with the four legs and the long neck my brain’s going “I’ve seen enough, that’s definitely Sludge the Dinobot.” Screw you, brain, now I can’t judge this robo-griffon on its own merits and I’m boring anyone who’s reading this.
Stage four is another relatively bog-standard videogame location – the “factory” that builds nothing but electrical death traps and moving platforms – and once again I’m left wishing that Hangzo’s developers had gone all-out on the weirdness front instead of having yet more elevators. It’s very colourful, at least, and I’ve come to the conclusion that whoever did make Hangzo, they were (unconsciously or not) aping Konami’s nineties arcade style. The whole game feels like the first draft of a Konami arcade game, especially the visuals. The neon ninjas that are very reminiscent of Mystic Warriors, or the Contra-esque “robots and Aliens” vibe of some stages.
This stage does feature these impressively strange creatures, enemies so weird that they totally make up for the slightly bland stage design. They’re… gladiators, I think? Those helmets and loincloths are definitely making me think of Roman gladiators, but these enemies also to appear to be moulded from play-doh and they have chainsaws, which would have made the “gladiators versus lions” fights a lot more intense.
Then you hit them a few times and they inflate into grotesque humanoid balloons, with the extra-disturbing detail that only their stomachs are inflated. The rest of their bodies dangle from the back. You might be wondering what advantages this offers over “hitting people with a chainsaw” in combat, but think about it: would you want to keep hitting them in this state? There are only three possible outcomes in that situation. They either revert back to hitting you with a chainsaw, they keep expanding or they burst. None of those options are especially appealing, so you’ll be pleased to know that these enemies can do both the first and last things on that list.
The latter half of this stage features a lot more platforming, and that’s a bit of a problem. Not because the level design is bad, because although it does tend towards the blander side of the spectrum it’s certainly not infuriating or anything. In fact, Hangzo is surprisingly easy-going for an arcade game, with lots of power-ups floating by and the ability to always be throwing shurikens across the screen. No, the problem here is with the grappling and swinging abilities. Portions of this area are set up so that the best way to make progress is to swing between the dangling electric cables, timing each swing so you pass the wires at the lowest point of your swing’s arc. There’s a chance to revel in freedom of movement here, but unfortunately it’s hampered by the actual swinging. Firstly, launching your rope can be a touch fiddly and often resulted in me not swinging when I was sure I would. However, the biggest problem is that it’s very difficult to tell if you’re taking damage while swinging, because you can’t be knocked back and there’s no sound effect, so you might swing your way through an area thinking that your glowing ninja foot is clearing a path through the bad guys, only for you to land on the other side and realise you’ve lost three-quarters of your health bar. Hitboxes feel especially ill-defined when you’re swinging, and because you travel quite a long distance when swinging it can be impossible to avoid enemies that appear when the screen scrolls.
It’s a real shame, because the swinging mechanic is so close to being a lot of fun, but the frustrations and niggling awkwardness of it means that taking things slowly and picking off enemies from a distance is by far the more efficient method of making progress.
Now this boss I do recognise: it’s Final Fantasy V’s recurring superboss Omega! Or a distant relation thereof, at the very least. They get together at murderbot family reunions, which this boss hates because all the other murderbots keep saying things like “Did you hear about your cousin Omega? He’s in them Final Fantasies now! The big time! His parents must be so proud. And how are you doing, Hangzo Boss Unit 04? Still working on that novel about the young college student who falls in love with her older professor who is also a cycloptic murderbot? Well, good for you, buddy.”
The final stage is President K’s Room, and it’s a bit of a cop-out, what with it just being a flat corridor where our heroes are attacked by conveyor belts and the Google Chrome logo. The backgrounds are nice, at least, as they have been for the majority of the game; well-drawn even when they’re just elevators or factories.
President K has an appreciation of fine art, at any rate. Ancient samurai armour is reverently displayed, a calming bamboo grove breathe life into his mansion and he’s even got a Playmobil horse over there on the left.
Go on, admit it. The first thing you though of was Sagat’s stage from Street Fighter II.
The final stage has a “boss rush” feel to it, even though mostly you’re fighting regular enemies, and as the lead-up to the cataclysmic clash of good and evil it’s about as exciting as folding laundry. The swinging mechanic is now totally redundant, the fights are all things you’ve seen before and it feels very rushed and unfinished, which is presumably the reason Hangzo never received a full release.
President K, then. President of what? The United States? His local wine club, which he hates running because it’s all become so pretentious? Who knows. He’s got a big steampunk thing behind his desk that’s making me remember The Chaos Engine and he flaps around the screen, lazily throwing projectiles like a cheap Halloween decoration that had to be recalled because it put some poor kid’s eye out.
After a few hits, President K reveals his true form: a hideous demon with wings, dragon heads as supplementary wings and the furry underpants found on most He-Man action figures. Again, he does little but flap around throwing projectiles only, you know, more dangerously. Not that dangerously, though, and I have to say that Hangzo’s bosses are strange in that they seem to get easier as the game progresses. In my experience, President K just kept trying to summon lightning bolts that you could easily position yourself in between while jumping up to slash at him, so he must have become president thanks to his business and political acumen rather than raw fighting power.
And that’s your lot. Hangzo ends as it began: with the same artwork from the intro of the heroes standing on a rooftop, only this time K’s tower is collapsing. Then you get a brief piece of text and Hangzo is over.
Despite there being a high score table during the attract mode, I was not allowed to enter my initials so obviously Hangzo isn’t worth bothering with.
I’m kidding, of course. Hangzo is worth bothering with, and the fact that it’s available in a playable form at all is fantastic. It’s hardly a fantastic game; it’s a bit too obvious, a touch ramshackle for that, but I reckon all it needed to be a genuinely good game was a bit more time in the proverbial oven. With more time spent on buffing out the problems with the swinging and the hitboxes, a little more care poured into fleshing out the game’s short run-time with more engaging stages and a final level that’s not a flat corridor, I reckon Hangzo could easily fall into the “hidden gem” category. As it stands, it’s simply a fun little romp with some excellent enemy designs that I would recommend playing through with a friend if for some insane reason you’re bored of Capcom’s Alien versus Predator.
P.S.: as I'm in the middle of the miserable experience that is "looking for a job" I hope you'll forgive a rare reminder that you can donate to VGJunk if you like the site. Please only do this if you are an eccentric millionaire.
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