Hokuto no Ken

Hokuto-no-Ken - Title Screen
Mark III/Master System
07/20/1986 (Japan), 1986 (US and PAL)
北斗の拳
Fist of the North Star
Black Belt
Black Belt

It was the right time for the Hokuto no Ken franchise to be made into a video game: The manga and anime series had been popular for 2-3 years already. You could that Hokuto no Ken was made to be a video game since it involves copious amounts of violence. For those unfamiliar with the story, Our hero Kenshiro travels throughout the a post apocalyptic world overrun by gangs to find his kidnapped fiancee Yuria, utilizing his Hokuto Shinken to pummel enemies with fists and feet. This usually results in them gruesomely exploding from the pressure point manipulation that Hokuto Shinken is based around. If this wasn’t begging to be made into a side-scrolling beat-em-up, what was?

Luckily, that was exactly the type of game that Sega created. While this isn’t as historically relevant of a beat-em-up as Irem’s Spartan X/Kung-Fu Master (which was in arcades in December of 1984) or Technos Japan’s Nekketsu Kouha Kunio kun/Renegade (which was in arcades in May 1986), but it is the first one for home consoles that wasn’t a port of an arcade game. Hokuto no Ken definitely took more from Spartan X’s design then it did from Renegade’s, given that movement takes place on a single plane and regular enemies only take a single hit to vanquish. It also did something important to appeal to fans of the Hokuto no Ken franchise: When you strike one of the many enemies that runs or jumps toward you, they explode into pieces! The bodily explosions in the source material are not quite so instant as they are here, but this was still a wonderful touch for fans.

 Hokuto no Ken Enemy Explosion  The second level of Hokuto no Ken
When struck they explode quicker than Kenshiro can say “omae wa mou…shinde iru!” The second level: where the real challenge starts. Enemies come leaping at you like maniacs!

Unlike other anime and manga based games of this era, Sega stayed loyal to the source material in most ways. Locations such as Southern Cross Town, God Land, Devil Rebirth and Cassandra make up the game’s levels. The sprites do all of the characters justice, and the bosses include Shin, Toki, Souther and of course Raoh. For each level’s final boss you’ll be transported into a special area in which both of the character’s sprites suddenly shoot up in size. This really lets to appreciate how close they tried to get the sprites to the original character designs.

 Kenshiro performing Hokuto Hyakuretsu Ken on Shin  Kenshiro vs. Club, the 1st stage's 3rd mini boss
The Hokuto Hyakuretsu Ken attack being performed on Shin. One of the first level’s four mini bosses: Club. Did he originally have Wolverine claws?

Another key way in which this game remains true to the source material is this: If you attack each of the bosses in a specific way that is accurate to the way inwhich were defeated in the manga, you’ll deplete their energy more quickly. For example: Shin was defeated by Kenshiro’s Hokuto Hyakuretsu Ken attack, a series of rapid punches to the chest. Therefore Shin’s weak point in the game is his chest. Whether or not you take advantage of this you’ll still be treated to a scene in which Kenshiro actually defeats the boss using the same finishing as in the story, complete with the name of the move shown on-screen at the end.

 Hokuto no Ken Enemy Explosion  Hokuto no Ken Enemy Explosion
The game’s second boss is the Colonel of God’s Army in God Land itself! Pieces of the game’s third boss, Devil Rebirth after he’s been atatatatatatatata’d to death!

For as nice to look at and interesting as Hokuto no Ken is, it’s perhaps a bit too challenging. Though your energy does slowly replenish as you work your way through a level, energy and power-ups are very difficult to come by. This is due to the ridiculous conditions that must be met to obtain them. In Chapters 1, 3 or 4 you can only obtain energy by performing a super-jump kick when the time indicator reaches “80”. Power-ups can only be obtained in Chapters 2 or 5 by punching some dog-faced statues above gates. These sorts of stupidly obtuse conditions for obtaining bonuses are common in games of this era though. Apart from these cases, a power up will occasionally come scrolling across the top of the screen for you to jump up and grab. Another interesting secret is that the hidden 7th chapter can be accessed by entering a set of inputs when the ending message is displayed. This chapter is one of the earliest examples of a boss-rush mode, wherein you have to defeat all of the game’s bosses in a single life with no additional energy or power-ups.

 Hokuto no Ken Enemy Explosion  Black Belt's First Level
The awesome title screen for “Black Belt” Same fighting action, more generic Kung Fu sprites!

Some Western Master System owners may have played this game under the name “Black Belt”. All of the character sprites and backgrounds were changed from their original designs. A lot of the sprites were altered to be generic looking Kung-Fu characters (perhaps shooting for the same aesthetic found in Irem’s Kung-Fu Master), others to generic looking street thugs. Their names were changed in similarly ridiculous ways, to either a basic Chinese or Japanese name. The best examples are Kenshiro’s name being changed to “Riki”, and Raoh’s to “Wang”. This was probably all done to cash in on the cheesy martial arts movie craze that was in full swing in America at this point. The music was also completely changed from the Japanese version of the game, to no clear benefit.

 Kenshiro and Shin as Riki and Ryu in Black Belt  Black Belt's 3rd Level, now with a temple background!
Oh god Shin, what happened to you?! The backgrounds were changed to temples and slightly less ruined cities.

While few of the enemy or boss patterns were changed in Black Belt, the game is made much easier by power-ups appearing much more frequently. Such a simple change may make this version of the game more enjoyable to play, though don’t expect to get the full Hokuto no Ken experience by doing so. The small scenes that tell parts of Hokuto no Ken’s story were also completely removed here.

For those looking to pick this game up in its original form, you don’t necessarily have to invest in a Japanese Sega Mark III console. It’s available on the Japanese Wii Virtual Console as well as the Japanese PS2 remake of this very game “Sega Ages 2500 Series Vol. 11: Hokuto no Ken” in emulation form. There is one rather insignificant alteration to these re-released versions of the game that should be mentioned. After defeating Raoh in the original Mark III version, you’re treated to a spectacular display of rapidly flashing lights. For fear of causing another Pokemon epilepsy incident that would leave children having seizures in front of their TV screens, this was removed from the Wii Virtual Console and PS2 versions.

Many fans of the Hokuto no Ken games, as well as fans of the beat-em-up genre in general, consider this to be a pretty decent game. Considering this was developed by Sega (and programmed by Yuji Naka even, long before he had made name for himself at Sega), and some of the garbage that would be some of the next few Hokuto no Ken games, I would agree with that. It’s definitely worth playing, though I wouldn’t plan on getting very far into the game if you can’t take advantage of the infinite lives trick that requires the actual Mark III/Master System hardware. The only other chance you have is to possess a good eye for enemy patterns: button mashing will NOT get you through this. Regardless of the level of challenge, there’s no doubt that this game has some place in history since it ended up becoming a million-selling game.