Fist of the North Star, the western adaptation of the manga Hokuto no Ken, is one of those franchises that everyone knows about but few have actually followed it. For this reason, only a bunch of aficionados were looking forward to the recently launched Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise, mainly drawn in by the pedigree of the development team having worked on the Yakuza series. Many others are not exactly sure what the fuss is all about. That’s why we’re here. While in the U.S. Fist of the North Star did not get the huge following it has in Japan, here in Italy the anime became a cult hit for many children of the 90s. For this reason, as the only Italian in the TechRaptor family, I was tasked to enlighten my fellow American gamers on the beauty and melancholy of making people’s head explode with your thumbs.
First things first, let’s talk about lore. Fist of the North Star takes place after a nuclear holocaust left humanity scarred and the land inhospitable. The landscape and society is not much different than what you would find in a Mad Max movie (which the series takes strong inspiration from): everything is desert and marauders and barbarians band together to fight for the limited resources available while the few decent people remaining struggle to survive in the post-apocalyptic wasteland they’re forced to live in. All the rules of the old society are replaced by a strong versus weak way of living.
Enter Kenshiro, the hero of the series. Kenshiro is the 64th successor of the Hokuto Shinken martial art, making him the absolute master in the discipline. His way of fighting is a bit different from what you would in a kung fu flick, though. The Hokuto Shinken specializes in hitting the opponent’s pressure points (or tsubos) in order to trigger different responses from the body. The most common use of this technique is to make enemies’ heads literally shatter in a gory explosion of blood and bones. This peculiar way of fighting birthed Kenshiro’s trademark catchphrase: Omae wa mo shindeiru (you are already dead). Ken would press a specific point on the opponents head, say his catchphrase, and walk away, leaving his enemy exploding in the background because cool guys don’t look at explosions, even human ones.
What initially spins the whole story in motion is the kidnapping of Yuria, the love of Kenshiro’s life, by Shin, one of the masters of the rival Nanto martial arts dynasty. Shin, who also is in love with Yuria, left our hero at an inch of his life by carving the seven stars of the Ursa Major constellation (the symbol of the Hokuto Shinken) on his chest with his bare hands. He then proceeded to take Yuria to the city of Southern Cross, forcing our hero on a long journey. This is, of course, just the first arc of the story, but that should be enough to give an impression of what the show is about. Kenshiro will travel the barren lands of the post-nuclear planet meeting friends and fighting enemies, guided always by his sense of justice, love, and thirst for revenge.
The tone of the show is very serious and melancholic. While the main character may not appear extremely interesting at first glance, the world built around him feels alive despite death being an everyday occurrence. The ultimate message of Fist of the North Star’s comic is not of death but of rebirth. With all the motorized warbands going around, with all the martial art masters with superhuman capabilities wanting to govern and control what’s left of society, and with all the hardships people have to go through just in order to see the next day, there are still people that want to help others and resist this oppression. A clear symbols of this message are Toki, Kenshiro’s adoptive brother who travels the lands using the Hokuto Shinken to heal instead of fighting, and Shu, master of the South Star White Heron Fist style of Nanto, who devoted his life to sheltering and protecting the children from the fury of Souther (another Nanto master).
Like many franchises with a modicum of success, Fist of the North Star spawned a good bunch of video games during its 30+ years. Under the Ursa Major constellation, we have RPGs, a ton of arcade games, many fighting games, an MMORPG, the mandatory pachinko slots and, I kid you not, a whole series of typing games. Predictably, most of these titles have not been released outside of Japan, but we did get to play as Kenshiro in The West.
The game that most people remember is the recently released Hokuto no Ken: Ken’s Rage and its infamous sequel. Ken’s Rage plays like a Dynasty Warriors-esque third-person action game, with the player taking the role of the main characters of the series against hordes of weak enemies. The usual Musou cliches happen here. The core gameplay is fun but can get repetitive really fast and, especially with the second chapter, the simplistic fighting mechanics can feel really shallow. All in all, Ken’s Rage is a decent and enjoyable game followed by a much weaker sequel.
Aside from Ken’s Rage series, we have Fist of the North Star: 10 Big Brawls for the King of The Universe for the Game Boy and Fist of the North Star on the NES, which are respectively a fighting game and an action sidescroller. Both these games have been released in The West and both failed in making an impression on the international market.
Of course, there are some Fist of the North Star arcade games that received an international release. Among these, the one that most of you probably remember, is Fighting Mania: Fist of the North Star. Can’t blame you, as that game was a riot. For those who weren’t lucky enough to experience this goodie, the game was basically a 1v1 fighting game against the PC. The kicker was that the user didn’t input the commands by using buttons, but by physically punching six cushions attached to metal arms. Every time you punched one of the spots, the screen would show the image of your opponent being hit. The sensation of reaching the final combo streak in order to finish the opponent by hitting all the spots as fast as possible is something hard to find elsewhere.
There are way more games that never got to The West than ones that actually did, but few are worth mentioning. There are some unremarkable JRPGs set in the grim universe of Kenshiro, many bad old school sidescrollers, and a whole bunch of fighting games. One of these made it to American arcades with the title Fist of the North Star, and it’s apparently quite decent. Kenshiro also appeared in some crossover titles like J-Stars Victory and Jump Ultimate Stars.
It’s a shame that so many Fist of the North Star games have never left Japan but, at the same time, it doesn’t seem like we missed much.
The latest and greatest incarnation of Kenshiro in video game form is, of course, Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise.
When the game was first announced, my expectations were mixed. On one hand, the developers have a fantastic track record. On the other hand, I was concerned about how the “take nothing seriously” nature of the Yakuza games would mix with the “take everything extremely seriously” vibe of Fist of the North Star. The idea of setting the game in an invented setting (the city of Eden) and with a storyline that does not mix too much with the canon story allows Lost Paradise to get the best of both worlds.
While the game, and especially the minigames, are quite tongue-in-cheek at times, it is not done in a way that disrespects the source material. While watching Ken using his superhuman speed to mix drinks with names that remind of his martial art moves may appear weird to fans of the series, it does not feel like the character is diminished by it. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the minigame about playing baseball using a steel beam as a bat and bandit on motorcycles as the ball is taken straight from the anime, so no one can really accuse them of lacking respect for the source material there.
At the end of the day, the important part in a Fist of the North Star game is the combat. Lost Paradise managed to capture the spirit of the franchise, including the still frames with the narrating voice reading the excessively long name of Ken’s moves when he gives a killing blow, perfectly recreating the feeling of watching the anime.
Fist of the North Star has a long history and no one can be blamed for missing it. Luckily it’s never too late to delve into this interesting franchise and especially its games. Lost Paradise is a great gateway to the post-nuclear world of Kenshiro and friends and it doubles as a great game for fans of the saga that waited years to see a worthwhile incarnation of their hero in video game form.
What do you think of Fist of the North Star? Will you be giving it a shot if you haven’t before?