Post apocalyptic ultra violent 80s manga and anime series Fist of the North Star, created by Buronson (yes that is a Charles Bronson reference) and Tetsuo Hara became hugely successful in Japan short after its first volumes hit the shelves. Centered around the post apocalyptic adventures of seemingly unstoppable martial artist Kenshiro, it took a while to find an audience in Western countries. Or, well, at least in North America, in Europe the series found success relatively quickly, especially in France and Italy, where Kenshiro was already huge in the mid to late 80s. Or, well, more… huge than he already is.
The original manga already looked to be perfect video game fodder: each volume had a huge number of fights where Kenshiro just obliterated all of his opponents. The anime would just up the ante even more, despite production problems and a limited budget. In a world disfigured by atomic explosions and the few survivors try to scavenge what food they can while being hunted by violent gangs, Ken is very much like the second coming of Jesus. Only more muscular and less willing to forgive and forget. He is the true heir of the Hokuto martial art style which allows defeating the enemy with just a few touches, by striking the so called “vital points”. After that, their bodies will literally explode and, obviously, 80s kids loved that.
Hokuto No Ken is undiluted machismo extravaganza, along with a celebration of Western cultural references like Mad Max, the Death Wish series and punk fashion, filtered through the lens of classic tragic manga stories. The original anime ran for two seasons, the first centered around the Shin and Raoh arcs, while the second took place several years after the original story. In the first two arcs, Ken was going against the people who wronged him, rescuing his girlfriend and then taking back the Hokuto martial art from Raoh. It was a pretty satisfying conclusion to quite the epic saga, while the second season took place years after the original, taking Ken on a journey to rescue a city from its evil tyrant and save his longtime friends Bat and Lin.
Anyway. It would be easy to think that a game starring the Fist of the North Star protagonist, which replicated part of that first season story, would receive huge attention by Western publishers. Especially since most of the early games seemed to feature sidescrolling fighting action which was perfect for the series. But that’s not what happened, as basically 90% of the few Ken Shiro games that reached Western shores were modified, often beyond recognition, losing the license that would have easily made them top sellers. Let’s try to understand what was going on.
The 8-bit games
The first Ken Shiro game, Hokuto no Ken: Violence Gekiga Adventure, is a 1986 graphic adventure developed by TOEI for the NEC PC-88/PC-98. Japanese adventures were very much their own thing, especially those early 80s examples, being text heavy with also some light form of action gameplay. It was a take on the genre that did not really appeal to Western audiences. The adventure followed the plot of the Shin arc in the manga, but also quite loosely and, to this day, it has never been translated in English. Using a list of eleven verbs, the players has to explore different locations and use objects to proceed, there are also a few fight sequences where, by targeting specific parts of the body, enemies have to be vanquished.
Again, there was little possibility to see this game in the West, since very few Japanese adventure games were ever ported to Western computers.
TOEI would go on developing another Ken Shiro game, this time simply titled Hokuto no Ken, despite having no relation with the Sega Mark III game of the same name (see infra). It is a 1986 sidescrolling beat em up exclusive for the Famicom, which was never officially ported anywhere else. Covering the original Raoh story arc, the game sees Kenshiro going around beating up several henchmen and then several of the series’ bosses: Heart, Shin, Jagi, Souther and finally Raoh.
The game wasn’t overall terrible, but it suffers from several classic mid 80s design decisions which end up clearly making it a product of its time. Especially the labyrinths were particularly dreadful. Luckily, there is a patch/hack developed by Rani Baker which overhauls the game, making it significantly better along with featuring a full English translation.
Indeed, the first game to reach Western shores ended up being the second, again titled Hokuto No Ken, it was originally released in Japan for the Sega Mark III (Master System) in 1986. Developed by Sega, this was interestingly among the the first commercial games developed by Sonic the Hedeghog creator Yuji Naka. A classic side scrolling beat em up, the player must control Ken as he goes out to rescue Julia from Shin, then continues going after Raoh, defeating all the enemies on screen and a boss in each level. Keeping true to the source material, the defeated goons explode in a mess of body parts as well. Sega would, later, also remake the game for its Sega Ages 2500 series on the Playstation 2.
Since this was quite a pretty decent classic beat ’em up and, also, easy to translate for Western audiences, Hokuto No Ken was indeed brought to both Europe and North America, but with a different title and overall feel, retitled Black Belt.
Sega changed basically everything from the original, gone are all the references to post apocalyptic scenarios, Kenshiro and the various classic bosses he has to defeat. Even the music was changed, for some reason. Since the overall plot could not really be changed (well it could, but that would probably be too much work), Riki still has to save his girlfriend, Kyoko, from the clutches of Wang. As per the title, the beat ’em up now has more of a classic karate feel, even though I’d be hard pressed to think of a martial art where it is possible to make the enemies explode with a single punch. Going for “realism” wasn’t really the brightest idea to modify a Fist of the North Star game.
The various story cutscenes in the original were just removed, with no attempt whatsoever at trying to work in a different story (like they would do later with Last Battle). Since, as mentioned, the story of Hokuto No Ken continues after saving Julia from Shin, shown in a little cutscene after beating him, Black Belt just ignores it. The scene with Ken talking with Julia is removed, the only narrative cutscene left is right at the end. After Riki saves Kyoko from “a beautiful Japanese mess” (so says the manual), he picks her up and carries her away. That’s the end of the great emotional story of the first unofficial Hokuto No Ken non-game that we got.
The final 8 bit Famicom game with the Fist of the North Star license was also the first RPG in the series (which would later become a trilogy), also published by TOEI and developed by Shouei System. This first game, released in 1989, follows the original story arc of the manga, right up until the beginning of the second season. Titled Hokuto no Ken 3 (or Fist of the North Star 3: The Creator of the New Century – History of the Dreaded Fist, quite the mouthful), it was another game which would only stay in Japan.
It is a pretty classic 8 bit Famicom RPG, with the usual team of characters and turn based battles, the player controls Ken as they progress through the story. Interestingly, the introduction of the game seems to refer to 1999 as the year when the nuclear war started, instead of the usual generic “199x”.
The first official Fist of the North Star game: a US exclusive
The second First of the North Star game (Hokuto No Ken 2) developed by TOEI for the Famicom actually got an official US release which, interestingly, was the first time a Western game kept the original license intact. My guess is that this was made more to cash in on the popularity of the NES in the country, rather than the success of the anime or manga in the United States. Sure enough, Viz Communications was translating the manga in the United States back in 1989, but TOEI had not realized that at first, since the game was originally presented with its marketing title “Ken the Great Bear Fist”. Later, they changed it to Fist of the North Star.
First released in Japan in 1987, this was another classic sidescrolling beat ’em up which came almost two years later to Western shores and was never officially released in Europe at all. The main problem, except for its lackluster gameplay, is that this was being developed before the second season of the anime was even completed. It vaguely follows the story of the Hokuto Army and the four Generals of Gento, but has really no plot to speak of, nor an ending except a single credits screen, after the final boss fight. Also, the Western version was flipped so that Ken walked from right to left, instead of the usual other way around, for some reason.
Something similar had happened with Vic Tokai and its Golgo 13 NES game, also licensed and localized to coincide with the manga adaptation by Viz in the US. Still, it was probably for the better that Europe never got the first official Kenshiro game, since clearly no one was paying much attention to see if the story even made sense for the fans or the console audience.
As far as I know, the show in the US was only shown with English subtitles in the 80s, with a full dub to come only much later, in the late 90s. While TOEI did do their homework with the English translation, which more or less seems to follow the original names and plot, it’s fair to say that few people were paying much attention in 1989 and, even if they would, they’d be in for a world of confusion (and spoilers as well). It would be like releasing today a Attack on Titan game that spoils the story for everyone that hasn’t watched the original Japanese dubbed anime. For all intents and purposes, the game bombed in the US. Interestingly, just a few months later after Fist of the North Star on NES, a new 16-bit Ken Shiro game was being released in the US but, again, without a license.
The last battle of Ken Shiro
In 1989, Sega was developing their second (and final) Hokuto No Ken game for the Sega Mega Drive, designed as a direct sequel to the original, another side scrolling beat ’em up. Originally titled Shin Seikimatsu Kyūseishu Densetsu: Hokuto no Ken, it follows the story of the second anime, with Ken going to wage war against the forces of the Imperial army. As mentioned, the second series is, overall, slightly less interesting than the original Shin story arc, but it is a solid anime. Still, while I don’t have clear memories or facts about this, I’m pretty sure it was less well received both in Italy and other European countries. While it perhaps wouldn’t have been a fantastic idea to market a Kenshiro game in Europe on the strength of the second season of the anime, it would have at least got the game noticed. As a matter of fact, several magazines seemed to think the game would be released with the license intact.
In 1989, marketing for Sega was going strong, it would not have been impossible to imagine the company deciding to use the license. But that did not matter since, again, they stripped the game of the original license for its Western (both Europe and North America) release.
In an interesting move for a company that will later be known for keeping the violence in Mortal Kombat, Last Battle censors blood and exploding heads, with enemies that now simply fly off the screen. Ken became Aarzak (perhaps inspired by Moebius?), a Jet-kwon-do specialist (again!), some bosses were recolored green along with their blood, in the few instances where it was kept. Unfortunately, no code to bring back the original red color. Then again, 1989 Sega was a quite a different company from the 90s “in your face” Sega that we’ve all grown to love, they were also making an important licensing deal with Disney at the time, so it made sense for them to try and keep up a family friendly image.
Unfortunately, while the game was impressive graphically, the repetitive difficult gameplay and nonsensical modified plot did not help at all. To make matters worse, Last Battle was among the few launch titles for the Sega Genesis in the US, also probably the weakest next to Altered Beast and Thunder Force II. Probably many people were forced to play it, since there was no great choice of titles, and few seemed to like it. Frankly, it is not surprising that the Genesis did not fly off the shelves when it was launched in the US.
Still, considering the success of the original Hokuto No Ken anime series, it would have been a great idea to, at least, market the game with the official Ken license, both in Italy and France. As mentioned, several Italian magazines did not seem to hide the obvious fact that it was a “Ken il Guerriero” (the Italian anime series name) official game. Considering that the same company distributing Sega in Italy, Giochi Preziosi, was also behind Saint Seiya figurines, it definitely would have made sense for them to take advantage of it. Imagine a TV commercial with Ken shiro advertising his own game? It would have been a smash hit to make advertisements more specifically catered to kids and young adults: Ken would be finally starring in its own game, with no “karate artist” in the way.
But, that would require someone that actually cared about this product, and clearly – at the time – this wasn’t happening.
I remember very clearly that everyone at my school knew that Last Battle was clearly a Kenshiro game, but beyond that, there was not really much that we could do with it. The artwork was different, there was no blood nor violence, the story in the game made little to no sense without the overall arc of the second season to go along with it (and even then, the names were mangled beyond recognition). But, above all, the home computer conversions were not pretty good to begin with.
While the Amiga version was at least graphically almost on par with the Mega Drive, several levels were cut and the sound, especially for a computer that in that regard was way superior to the Sega console, is quite awful. The Commodore 64 version does not fair much better, especially because of the lack of music. At least, it was reprogrammed to better fit the inferior capacity of the computer and, as a beat ’em up, at least it does not play bad. Now, what possessed Elite to license the game from Sega to release two different home computer versions, as late as 1991, I have no idea, especially since they showcase the very same story and nonsensical dialogue (“Now you have the look of a hero!”).
Still, that wasn’t the end of it. As much as it might sound strange, in the space of a few months North America ended up getting three different Hokuto no Ken games, for three different consoles, two of which were officially licensed.
10 Big Brawls for the Game Boy
Looking back now, it is definitely time to rebrand 1989 as the year of Kenshiro. The fighting game Hokuto no Ken: Seizetsu Jūban Shōbu was officially licensed, again exclusively in North America, and released under the title Fist Of The North Star: 10 Big Brawls for the King of Universe. While it has the honor of being the first 1-vs-1 fighting game ever released for the Game Boy, it also meant that it was quite primitive in its mechanics. The characters have basically no special moves – quite strange for a series that is based on fantasy martial arts – along with a quite limited set of attacks. Also, strangely enough for a Hokuto no Ken game, there is little to no violence involved, censorship be damned.
Interestingly enough, for a country such as the US which had little to no previous contact with Japanese anime, this was a title which made no effort in hiding its origins, right from the cover which presented Kenshiro along with its ten opponents. It came out right at the cusp of the anime craze in the United States and, perhaps, we can imagine that it also had a hand (or fist) in giving the young audience a taste of things to come.
Clearly, publisher Electrobrain was trying to bank on the (limited) success of the comics being localized by Viz (which would quickly phase out by 1990) and, with the NES game already being distributed, they were at least safe that Fist of the North Star was a franchise somewhat known in the country. But, well, the fact that 10 Big Brawls features no story to speak of did not really make for quite the exciting title for fans. It was possible to choose among nine different fighters (let’s admit it, everyone has dreamed to play as Falco once in their lives) and fight all the way through to the end, via 1-vs-1 matches or also play via game link against a player opponent… if one could find another Game Boy owner who decided to buy this.
Success of the game in the US was surely limited, but, ironically, the popularity of the license was such that I saw many times the original Japanese cart imported in Italy by several game shops. Indeed, another wasted opportunity to market the anime directly to their fans. The Game Boy title would end up being the final Fist of the North Star title to reach Western shores, for twenty long years.
The Super Nintendo battles of Ken
The success of Hokuto No Ken in Japan would continue throughout the 90s, with Toei going on to develop several officially licensed games exclusively for the Super Nintendo. Hokuto no Ken 4, Shichisei Hakenden: Hokuto Shinken no Kanata was the first, released in 1991 as a Japanese exclusive, again published by TOEI and developed by Shouei System. The new plot, which sees a new hero (the player) following in the footsteps of Ken Shiro, was written by Hiroshi Toda, author of some of the episodes of the anime series, and supervised by Buronson.
Hokuto no Ken 5 : Tenma Ryūsei Den: Ai Zesshō in 1992 was the sequel, another RPG with an original storyline also written by Toda. In the future, a new hero – again the player – sets out to reunite the Hokuto, Nanto and Gento successors in order to fight a common enemy. It features turn based battles with special moves and the usual mechanics one would expect from a jRPG. Interestingly, Kenshiro gets killed by a boulder at the start of the game, which is a choice that, reportedly, many fans disliked (for obvious reasons…!).
The other two titles for SNES (Hokuto No Ken 6 & 7) would ditch the RPG mechanics and go back to the classic one-on-one fighting style which does seem to better suit the tone and style of the Fist of the North Star series. They were also all published by Toei and developed by Shouei System, with the last being released in 1993. All of the SNES games never reached Western shores.
But that was not the end of it. Sega Saturn and Playstation got an entirely new game in 1995, developed by Banpresto and simply titled Hokuto No Ken again. The game brought the series back to the its origins, with Ken trying to rescue Bat and Lin from a tribe of violent punk scavengers. Overall, it definitely plays like another classic Japanese adventure game, only with with the graphics and gameplay brought up to date for 1995. It also featured all the original voice actors of the anime series reprising their roles.
Unfortunately, while this would have been am interesting game to adapt for Western audiences, it was still too much catered to tastes of Japanese players so it wouldn’t work. The next game that Western audiences would see, as mentioned, would be in 2010: Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage. It was an okay title, with gameplay in the classic Dynasty Warriors fighting style that would be released all over the world for both Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Was Ken in 2010 more popular than 1990? I would guess no, but then again, none of these marketing choices we have seen so far seem to be very much logical.
A lost marketing opportunity
The Hokuto No Ken case is a pretty peculiar one to look at. Out of the fourteen (!) games that have been developed in the 80s and 90s based on the license, only four managed to reach Western audiences. Out of those four, as we’ve seen, only two managed to keep the license intact and, rather inexplicably for a franchise that was big in Europe, they were released only in North America. It would be possible to say that they also ended up probably being the worst choices, since the two Sega beat ’em ups were clearly superior titles (while probably not by a whole lot).
Overall, it is fair to say that marketing, in this case, definitely lost several good opportunities to serve a game directly to its fans which would have gobbled it up. Or well, at least, I sure would have! While I’m not familiar with the costs involved for Sega (or TOEI) to bring a game with the license intact over to Europe and the US, I’m fairly sure it would have been worth it, at least for France and Italy.
But, truthfully, Kenshiro was not alone in having these licensing issues. The same problems would end up also affecting many other franchises. Several anime/manga licensed Japanese games never reached Western shores at all, like Fushigi no Umi no Nadia (The Secret of Blue Water), Saint Seiya (one game reached France in 1987), Sailor Moon (only a single game managed to reach Western shores in the 90s). The Dragon Ball series at least got a game (Dragon Ball: Shenlong no Nazo in 1988) which retained the license in specific markets, like Spain and France, but that was a one shot kind of deal. The same game was also mangled for its North America release, losing the license, instead being released under the title Dragon Power.
Ranma ½ suffered a similar fate with a fighting title (Ranma ½: Neighborhood Combat Chapter) for the Super Nintendo coming out without license under the ultra generic title Street Combat, with Ranma being replaced with a blue haired man called Steven. Just the year after, in 1993, with Viz translating the comics, they would indeed license Ranma ½: Hard Combat, for both American and European audiences. Things changed in the 00s, for sure, with Sailor Moon even getting an exclusive Nintendo DS game only released in Italy.
But it is interesting to find out how many official games we never got as kids, because no one seemed to want to take those extra steps to market to us this stuff. Clearly, the problem was that, being that most of these games were for console, the marketing was still being controlled by companies still very much focused on marketing toys to children. They weren’t used to market videogames, at least not outside of those that they knew to be surefire hits (Mario, Sonic). So with no one in management or marketing caring about licenses like Saint Seiya and Fist of the North Star in Europe, they ended up on the backburner. Potentially big hits that were never considered for release or were just wasted by modifying them without recognition. It would have been relatively easy to pick up some of the Japanese exclusive games and tailor them for the market, perhaps not the RPGs, but surely some of the Super Nintendo fighting games, for example.
Score zero for marketing. They don’t know it, but they’re already dead.