Phantom Fighter (NES)

Qing of the hill, baby!

Phantom Fighter is a 1988 title from obscure developer Marionette and publishers Pony Canyon and FCI. It’s a side-scrolling beat-’em-up action game based on the 1985 Hong Kong horror-comedy film Mr. Vampire. The movie, about a Taoist priest named Master Kau and his bumbling assistants battling a type of Chinese “hopping vampire” known as jiangshi or kyonchi, was a huge hit and touched off a bit of a hopping vampire craze throughout East Asia. Think of it as the Ghostbusters of its milieu. The game was retitled and Master Kau was renamed Kenchi for the North American release in 1990.

In Phantom Fighter, you guide Kenchi and his trusty assistant through eight stages, each representing a different town under siege by kyonshi. Each town contains a variety of buildings, parks, graveyards, and caves where you’ll battle the undead and be rewarded with scrolls (currency used to purchase new kung fu moves at training halls), special weapons such as a magic sword and mirror, and the three jade spheres that you must gather in order to open the way to each town’s final boss.

Fights against kyonshi are always one-on-one, reminiscent of those in games like Street Fighter, although Phantom Fighter is strictly a single player experience, so perhaps Konami’s Yie Ar Kung Fu is a better comparison. You and your foe each have a health bar on the side of the screen and whoever runs out of health first loses. Dying will result in the loss of all special weapons acquired and half of your total scrolls, but continues are unlimited and you are given passwords whenever you run out of health or complete a level, so there’s no need to worry about losing your progress. Kenchi starts the game with only the most basic control options: Punch, kick, walk, jump, and crouch. All of these capabilities can be upgraded multiple times at the training halls, however, and it’s satisfying to see Kenchi’s feeble starting punch grow to take the form of a lightning-fast flurry of blows that can drain a kyonshi’s health bar in an instant by the game’s end.

Each building you enter will contain one or two kyonshi to defeat at the start of the game, but that increases to a maximum of five by the time you reach the final stage. You’ll need all the attack upgrades you can get because you can only restore lost health by leaving the building you’re in and visiting a temple. This means that you’ll need to defeat all of each building’s kyonshi occupants in one go to reach the end and claim your reward, since destroyed ones will respawn each time you exit and return.

Those are the basics but Phantom Fighter does have a couple very odd gameplay quirks. The strangest is the fact that you have to successfully answer a trivia question each and every time you want to enter one of the training halls to learn new moves. That’s right: This is a fighting game with quiz show elements. That’s got to be a first. Even the questions themselves are weird. Half of them are related to the game’s premise and involve the various strengths and weaknesses of kyonshi as derived from Chinese folklore. This makes some sense at least but then the game starts asking you things like “What’s the name of George Bush’s dog?” All the questions are multiple choice and there’s no penalty for getting them wrong, so if you pick the incorrect answer you’ll just have to try again until you get a question right and are allowed into the training hall. This element of the game is just baffling to me. I honestly have no idea what it was intended to add to the experience. It’s not challenging, interesting, or even funny. What were the designers thinking? Is it just pure padding? I suppose I’ll never know.

There’s also the matter of “Conshi the baby kyonshi.” This diminutive vampire is non-hostile and you can recruit him to join your fight by using a special item, the bell. Once you recruit him, Conshi will replace Kenchi as your playable character in the fighting scenes for as long as you can keep him alive. This sounds pretty promising until you realize that Conshi really, really sucks. Like every other kyonchi in the game, he can only hop around slowly and jab with his outstretched claws for very little damage. It’s awkward and ineffectual and seems more like a bad joke than anything else. I suppose if you find the game to be too easy and want an extreme challenge, you might appreciate the chance to try to win with Conshi. In any other circumstance, you should avoid this little dope. It’s just not worth the effort to get him on your side.

Phantom Fighter is a true mixed bag in terms of graphics and sound. Kenchi and his foes are large and animate very smoothly for an 8-bit game. The character sprites do suffer a bit from a lack of color and detail, however. This is likely due to the backgrounds, which are highly detailed and clearly where most of the NES’s limited on-screen colors were utilized. The music has a very stereotypically Chinese vibe and is decent while it lasts. That is to say that the tracks are short and there aren’t very many of them. You might enjoy them for a bit at first but they’ll probably wear on you over time.

Control is mostly functional but has some serious problems. Attacks seem to have a slight delay to them. This can be adapted to but remains consistently obnoxious throughout. Jumping and jump attacks in general are also poorly implemented. It’s tough to get off the ground when you want to and to get your air attacks to execute on cue. Thankfully, there are only two airborne enemies in the entire game, both bosses, so I suppose it makes sense that polishing the aerial combat wasn’t a big priority.

I had a little bit of fun with Phantom Fighter but I can’t recommend it very highly due to its one fatal flaw: The overwhelming monotony. When you get right down to it, there’s only one enemy in the entire game that you’ll be fighting over and over and over again. There are different flavors of kyonshi with varying degrees of speed, health, and damage output but they all fight the same way: They hop forward at you with their arms outstretched comically. That’s it. All you have to do is avoid their claws (the only parts that will damage you) and employ some basic hit and run tactics to take them down. Either anticipate the arc of their hop and let them jump right into your punches and kicks or run up to them as they land, smack them, and run back. Then do it a couple hundred more times. That’s the entire game right there. I understand that fighting kyonshi is game’s main draw, but surely the designers had no shortage of other creatures from Chinese myth that they could have used as inspiration to spice up the gameplay. Unfortunately, they didn’t make that effort and no amount of trivia questions or grinding for scrolls can disguise the sad fact that this title plays more like a proof of concept or a demo for a full game than a finished project. It’s also overly long given its lack of real content. Eight levels is far too many when you’re tasked with fighting the same foe the same way the entire time.

Much like mediocre Chinese takeout, Phantom Fighter will hold you over for a short while, but you’ll likely find yourself craving something more substantial very quickly.

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