I’ll do whatever you say, man. Just quit looking at me like that.
This little oddity is 1990’s Kabuki Quantum Fighter. If you’re looking for a game that combines gameplay and visual elements from a good half-dozen of the greatest NES action-platformers with one of the most forehead-slappingly stupid plots ever conceived, then you’ve come to the right place, my friend. Welcome.
The year is 2056 and some unknown party has inserted a super advanced virus into the world’s computer network. All conventional efforts to halt its spread have failed and it’s only a matter of time before the unknown invader gains control of the systems controlling all of earth’s nuclear weapons, dooming everyone. The last hope of humanity is 25 year-old badass soldier/computer expert Colonel Scott O’Connor. A colonel at 25? What is this, the Civil War?
Anyway, Scott volunteers to be hooked into an untested machine that will translate his mind into binary machine code so he can battle the virus on its own turf. Nobody is sure whether the device will work or what form Scott might take in the computer world.
So far, you’re probably thinking this just sounds like normal science fiction stuff. Sort of a cross between Tron and The Terminator. Well, as it turns out, our all-American soldier boy Scott’s disembodied mind coalesces into the virtual form of…a superhero kabuki dancer who whips enemies to death with his waist-length crimson hair and tosses computer chips like throwing stars. Supposedly, this is because his great grandfather was the famous kabuki Danjuro (O’Connor?) and the computer somehow keyed in on this.
It’s just so beautiful. Words can’t express how much I love this game’s mad storyline. The fact that it’s all played totally straight, with support characters glaring intently at computer monitors while the threat of imminent nuclear armageddon looms overhead, just renders it even funnier somehow. I’m not sure how much of this (if any) was intentional, but this is a game from Human Entertainment, makers of Monster Party and the Clock Tower series, so who the hell knows.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering if the story makes more sense in the original Japanese, the answer is “not particularly.” The game was originally called Jigoku Gokuraku Maru and was a very loose tie-in to the 1990 samurai fantasy adventure film Zipang. Instead of Scott O’Connor, the protagonist is a teenager named Bobby Yano and he takes on super kabuki form due to being a distant descendant of Jigoku, the hero of the film. Other than that, it’s just about equally crazy.
Once you start the game proper, Batman will probably be the first thing that comes to mind. The color palette and the designs and proportions of the character sprites are very similar to Sunsoft’s take on the Caped Crusader. Beyond the visuals, Kabuki Quantum Fighter’s sub-weapon system also mirrors Batman’s. Scott has a selection of projectile weapons he can utilize in addition to his primary hair whip attack. You cycle between these using the select button and they all consume varying amounts of ammunition (“chips”) from a shared pool. One last similarity is in the nature of the platforming itself. Most of the challenge involves grabbing onto the underside of ledges and platforms scattered throughout each level and then deftly vaulting off of them to progress, similar to how Batman’s platforming was built around wall jumping.
Next, you’ll likely notice the Ninja Gaiden and Contra elements. Stage backgrounds feature giant beating hearts, pulsating lengths of intestinal tract, deformed faces, alien fetuses, the whole H. R. Giger back catalog. Enemies are no picnic, either. You have detached heads shooting fire from their exposed brains, weird dog-frog hybrid critters, and more. While representing the computer virus you’re fighting with this kind of gruesome techno-horror imagery is rather cool, it’s also quite derivative of Capcom and Tecmo’s work.
Each boss you defeat earns you a new weapon to use? Mega Man. The whip-like reach and windup delay on your main attack? Castlevania. Notice enough of these similarities and you might start to think Kabuki Quantum Fighter doesn’t bring anything new to the mix. In fact, there’s a couple little twists to the formula I really like. For starters, your health and ammunition aren’t automatically refilled completely between levels. You do get some back, but if you just barely defeated the boss of the last stage with a tiny sliver of health left you can look forward to starting the next one with 50% health at most. This means precision really matters. The fewer mistakes you make in a given stage, the more you’ll be able to make in the subsequent, more challenging one. It’s a great way to reward mastery.
You also have the interesting ability to exchange health for ammunition (and vice-versa) when the game is paused. This only works during boss battles, but it can be a true lifesaver if you happen to find yourself down to your last bit of health and sitting on a big stockpile of chips. If there’s another action game that uses a similar mechanic, I’m not aware of it.
Despite this, though, Kabuki Quantum Fighter just isn’t a very original game. I am 100% okay with that, because when it’s running on all cylinders it provides some of the best pure platforming moments on the system. There may be only five levels here, but each one is a gem. What this game really amounts to is a series of intricate obstacle courses where you’re vaulting from outcropping to outcropping through a gauntlet of hazards, including enemies, spikes, slippery ice, rushing water, treadmills, and a strict time limit. The controls are so precise and the flow of the game so smooth that you just naturally fall into a Zen-like groove as you get a feel for each level. Even when you have plenty of time, it still feels so good to keep up that forward momentum as you flip and climb all over the scenery on your way to the next boss. It’s all about the flow.
The bosses themselves are another highlight. They’re all completely distinct from one another and very exciting to fight, with relatively complex attack patterns for a game of this type and vintage. The plant monster from level three and the spider robot from level four are definitely highlights. Beating these guys, especially without using your special weapons, is extremely satisfying.
The graphics and animation are excellent overall. I’ve already praised the bio-mechanical art design. Beyond that, humanoid characters like Scott himself and several of the bosses animate beautifully by NES standards. The music is also interesting, although it might be more interesting than memorable in the end. It’s very experimental, with sharp, mechanical percussion over oddly-arranged blips and beeps. While it’s suitably up-tempo for the action on screen and fits with the whole computer horror theme of the game, you probably won’t still be humming it after you switch the console off.
If I have any complaints about Kabuki Quantum Fighter, they mainly come down to the length of the game. Five levels, even if they are five of the best, can’t help but leave me wanting more. The combination of poor sales on release and Human Entertainment’s eventual bankruptcy in 2000 pretty much guarantee that our favorite Irish-American cyberkabuki won’t be making his promised comeback. Kabuki Quantum Fighter may be doomed to permanent obscurity, but it’s still one hell of a sweet, trippy ride for the lucky few who find their way to it.
With October almost upon us, I somehow don’t think we’ve heard the last from the ghost of weird old Human Entertainment. Stay tuned to find out exactly why you never run with scissors….