Most of you who are reading this probably only have a passing knowledge of Fist of the North Star, if you have any at all. Although it’s a classic gekiga manga series, it’s probably about as contemporary and well-read outside of Japan as Takao Saito’s Golgo 13 (read: not terribly). If the name isn’t ringing any bells, you may actually be more familiar with the series by its other name: “that manga about the guy who makes people explode by punching them.”
Yes, in Fist of the North Star your enemies explode in a horrific eruption of blood and viscera when punchedâ€”not unlike if you were to pop a blood blister from the insideâ€”and that’s probably always been its biggest selling point. As far as ideas for video games go, the premise of the stoic manga (which follows series hero Kenshiro as he roams a Max Max-esque wasteland punching marauding gangs until the ground is stained crimson) is about as good as you could ask for. Punching punk biker bandits until they explode? How could you go wrong?
Though it may not seem like it, there is actually something to be said about Ken’s Rage, which takes you through the basic plot of the original series and then some. The post-apocalyptic world is a nice touch, and the game does a great job capturing the original series’ 80s aesthetic, which somewhat resembles Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure without all the psychotically creepy artwork. The terrible metal guitar-riff soundtrack somehow works with the combination of desolation and manliness. The game looks surprisingly slick for a title that will only appeal commercially to a pretty small niche outside its home country, complete with detailed character models and a destructible shirt for Kenshiro (his shirt always explodes off when finishing off a boss anyway). And yeah, let’s not forget about the over-the-top violenceâ€”not that you can. Tecmo Koei wants you to remember that above all else. It’s the pulse that keeps things going. They want you to think about this first and foremost, so you might remember Ken’s Rage as a good game.
Let me assure you: Ken’s Rage is not a good game. It’s stupid. But that’s half the point; I would argue that even if you’re a big fan of the manga or anime, at least a percentage of your positive opinion comes from its ridiculous bloodletting. But it’s regardless a game you may end up liking against your better judgment. The reasons for this are baffling. Aside from its wicked synthesis of testosterone and aesthetics, the basic mechanics at play here seem like they would be an able deterrent to keeping anyone playing for long. That’s mostly because Ken’s Hokuto Shinken, which makes his enemies puff up and burst like inflated ticks by hitting them at their acupressure points, is very simple. At the beginning of the game, Ken controls stiffly. He walks slowly, the exaggerated hulk of a man that was characteristic for manga at the time, and his attacks are very deliberate. As you might expect, Hokuto Shinken boils down to one major thing: punching. When Ken punches, he winds up. When he finished running through his basic punching combo, he closes out his fighting stance. And if you want to use Ken’s heavy attack, it requires a charge of at least half a second. You can also make Ken throw in kicks every now and then, but they’re secondary to what Hokuto Shinken is all about. Also, they are just as slow. Needless to say, the pace of the fighting feels odd for a brawler. In the time Ken takes to beat up one punk, Bayonetta could probably decimate half a room of angels (not to say that Ken’s Rage is anything like Bayonettaâ€”it isn’t). Nevertheless, the developers still throw hordes of brain dead enemies at you in every level. Granted, Ken’s special moves, which you can only use when you’ve charge up your special spirit meter enough, can take out a whole host of foes at once, but only after you unlock some of the more powerful ones. Simply put, the combat is incredibly repetitive. And yet its constituent parts seem to tap into a primal instinct that somehow keeps the game entertaining. (This is seriously the only explanation I can come up with.)
Naturally, when I started playing the game, I assumed that I just had to power-up Kenshiro to unlock more powerful moves. Killing enemies nets you experience, of course, so it had to be good for some kind of advancement. I soon found out that the leveling system in Ken’s Rage is pretty unorthodox. Set up in a fashion similar to the sphere grid or leveling boards in Final Fantasy X and XII, you use your points to gain access to new abilities in battle. But rather than beefing up Kenshiro’s moveset, you gain “innate abilities” like upgrades to your attack or defense power, as well as the ability to (at times) add some special flourish like a throw onto the end of (some) combos. As you “level-up”â€”Ken doesn’t actually gain levels in the traditional senseâ€”Ken’s attack speed increases, allowing for faster combos, as well as slightly longer ones. The move progression in the game has a mesmerizing effect; no matter how brain dead I felt playing the game, I had to see what I would unlock next. Eventually your charged-up heavy attacks will even have simple combos of their own, but the progression never really makes any sense or is explained very well, meaning that the endless punching in Ken’s Rage basically boils down to using variations on the same two or three combos in every level. It may as well be the Dreamcast’s Sword of the Berserk for 2010, though at least the developers have put a fair amount of polish into this one.
Occasionally the developers throw other things at you to break up the action, like throwing junkyard explosive barrels or discarded missiles at enemies. There’s also some simple platforming, but it’s actually counter-intuitive to Ken himself, who feels as though he’s made out of stone. Environments are, generally, incredibly bland and repetitive, because once you’ve seen one wasteland, you’ve seen ’em all. Much like Ninety-Nine Nights, enemies all look practically identical, save for the occasional fifteen-foot tall barbarian or jiggly, fat guy. As with any brawler, you can also expect the boss battles to get fairly cheap, though for the most part they aren’t too challenging. For fans of Fist of the North Star, though, it may be enough of a selling point just to see your favorite characters deliciously rendered with contemporary hardware, despite any shortcomings. They’ll also appreciate that you can play through the game as any number of unlockable main characters Ken encounters (how’s that for value?). Ken’s Rage is a basic game, and by all rights it’s not a terribly interesting one. The flaws and lack of popularity among any but the most hardcore fans make this ripe fodder for the bargain bin, where I suggest you pick it up. What Ken’s Rage lacks in subtlety or depth it makes up for with its addictively miasmatic cocktail of punching manly brute force.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.8 Graphics
Fantastic character models and animations (albeit a little glitchy ones), but so-so environments. Texture work is good, if overused. 3.0 Control
Kenshiro controls stiffly at first, then inexplicably becomes more limber as you progress. The variations on two or three different moves throughout the game gets repetitive, but you’ll probably want to keep playing anyway! 4.2 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Obnoxiously manly metal riffs and great voiceovers (I highly recommend you switch these to Japanese) make Ken’s Rage an aural delight. The squooshy sound of exploding guts could be a little stronger. 1.8 Play Value
Ken’s Rage is an atrociously repetitive game that bafflingly remains entertaining in spite of its best efforts at self-sabotage. But don’t let the low score fool youâ€”you should pick this up when it hits the bargain bin. Just be prepared for the video game equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. 2.3 Overall Rating – Poor
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.