Thursday, December 9, 2010

At Random: Phantom Fighter (NES)

Once again I close my eyes, point blindly at the shelf and pull something random out of the unexplored reaches of the Gaming After 40 collection.  This time, I've come up with FCI's Phantom Fighter for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, published in 1989.

FCI (full name Fujisankei Communications International) never had a major hit in the US; the company's best known titles were NES and Game Boy conversions of Richard Garriott's classic Ultima RPG series.  Many of FCI's titles were developed by its much-admired music division and much-reviled software arm, Pony Canyon, and the box copy for Phantom Fighter provides a few clues about the game's limited entertainment potential (edited here for clarity and hilarity):

Wacky Chinese phantoms, Kyonshies, are on the loose. Phantom Fighter and his incompetent assistant are the only ones who can save the villagers from these zombie ghosts. Chop and kick your way to victory!

The bullet points that follow this thrilling description include (with my comments):
  • Over 15 types of powerful enemies (so, 16, then?)
  • Exciting full sound effects (unlike those partial sound effects  and lengthy silences sported by inferior games)
  • Fun-filled dialogue and bonus quizzes (yay! tests!)

We play the hero, Phantom Fighter (a career-limiting hero moniker if ever I heard one), and must set out to fight the evil zombie ghosts (so do they have flesh, or don't they?  It seems that there should be a pretty clear distinction between the two.)  The screenshots on the box promise what looks like a hybrid of Castlevania and Zelda II, but this is an FCI/Pony Canyon title, so we can guess that it will actually feel more like Hydlide.

The title screen features a miniature figure kicking the F out of the logo:

Beyond the main menu, the gameplay at least tries to do a few things right.  The animation is actually fairly smooth, displaying a small Phantom Fighter (and assistant) sprite in the exploratory village maps, and a larger and more detailed one during the interior fighting sequences.

There are, as promised, several different types of enemy Kyonshi sprites.  But every phantom fights in more or less the same way -- hopping back and forth, and leaping at our hero to deliver a clumsy blow now and then; never mind that these are supposed to be ghosts, they seem to have no supernatural attacks at their disposal.

Mastery requires little more than learning to time each enemy, rushing in to strike a blow at the right moment; the only variations in difficulty derive from how much damage each enemy's attack deals out to our hero and vice-versa.  At least we have two different attacks -- a short-range punch and a longer-range kick -- but the fights are one-on-one, so we're never dealing with a barrage of enemies and the game's rhythm is pretty consistent.  The AI and attack patterns are not terribly varied, either, so these battles grow old quickly.

There are also dialogue sequences between the fights, mostly conversation with grateful villagers offering thanks and healing services; we can adjust the message display speed to speed things up, but only at the risk of missing important information, as the scrolling does not pause for player acknowledgment.

We can also acquire special items from successful battles, although the menu system isn't smart enough to keep track of which items we actually have available.  Thus, our assistant can ask us which item we wish to use, and we can pick, say, the Sacred Sword, after which we are informed that we do not in fact have the Sacred Sword.  Methinks the "incompetent assistant" gag was invented to cover for the "incompetent design team":

We can also pick up ancient scrolls that enable us to learn new fighting moves (sort of) at the Training Hall.  To enter, we must answer a multiple-choice quiz question, usually about the phantoms or martial arts in general.  In at least one case, all the answers are correct, because as a bit of cunning product promotion we are asked to identify another FCI product, and can select from Hydlide, WCW (World Class Wrestling), or Ultima.

The dialogue in the dojos is occasionally awkward, due to the naming of the leveled-up basic moves -- we might prefer that the upgraded punch attack was called Thrust 2 instead:

The Game Over screen is also the continue screen, but the lengthy game-closing text is repeated every time, and takes forever to scroll past at the default message speed.  Our primary motivation to play well is that every time we die, we have to watch our assistant drone on about how he's going to be the new Phantom Fighter, then joke about how he didn't really mean it, then present the password.  Finally (about 30 seconds later) we can revive ourselves and choose to either Go back into battle or Rest our weary heads for a while:

At least we can adjust the message speed to reduce the pain of the continue screen.  And the continue lets us restart with our leveled-up abilities intact, so we have some hope of collecting the three dragon tears needed to break the local cave's seal, and learning enough moves to take on the boss of Town 1.  The boss fights pretty much like all the other enemies we have faced so far -- he just inflicts (and takes) a lot more damage and has a trailing-sprite effect that looks marginally cool but actually makes his movements easier to predict and gauge:

After defeating the head phantom, we go on to Town 2, where we find, to our dismay, more of the same kinds of phantoms to deal with.  Young, short, old, large, they all behave in pretty much the same way, and the action is accompanied by the same musical themes we've already grown weary of while cleaning up Town 1.

I understand there are 8 towns in total that have been infected by the wrathful zombie ghosts.

I have forwarded my regrets to the residents of Towns 2-8.

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