Here’s what you need to know about Fist of the North Star, if you’re unfamiliar with the concept: It’s based heavily on the Road Warrior/Mad Max movies. And it’s written by a guy who adopted the nom de plume Buronson. Yes, that’s how you write “Bronson” in Japanese. As in, Charles Bronson.
In other words, Fist of the North Star is steeped in a veneration for Western clichés of rugged machismo that remains prevalent in Japan even today, 30 years after Fist made its debut. It’s the same fascination with American tough guys that causes Boss Coffee to line an increasingly haggard Tommy Lee Jones’ pockets with advertising cash, the same fascination lampooned in the “Lat Pack!” commercial shoot scenes of Lost in Translation. It’s funny, as they say, because it’s true.
Fist of the North Star basically works like this: In the year 199X, humanity all but destroyed itself in a nuclear war, one that left the Statue of Liberty’s head buried in a desert. Years later, clusters of survivors cling to what resources they can scrounge, but the wilds are ruled by thugs and gangsters who prey on the weak.
Enter Kenshiro, a stoic man with scars in the shape of the Big Dipper on his chest. Kenshiro is one of three master-level practitioners of a secret killing art that causes its victims’ bodies to explode from within — a power demonstrated early on in one of anime’s most iconic scenes as Kenshiro rapidly punches a massive thug who laughs at his attack only to burst like a blood balloon as Kenshiro admonishes, “Omae wa mo shindeiru”: “You are already dead.”
OK, yeah, it’s badass. But it’s also hilarious for how seriously it takes its over-the-top presentation. Like Dragon Ball and countless other martial arts combat manga tales, Fist of the North Star pits Kenshiro against endless waves of tough guys who woefully underestimate his talents and die violently as a result, punctuated by ever-escalating threats who pose a true challenge to Kenshiro.
So, wandering fighter battles through waves of mooks before taking on a string of bosses who know powerful special techniques. You better believe this makes a perfect video game setup, and Toei Animation was quick to seize on that fact. Fist’s run as an anime and manga phenomenon spanned the ’80s, meaning that (again, like Dragon Ball) its greatest popularity neatly coincided with the rise of Japanese console games. The Famicom saw no less than four Famicom titles based on the property, and plenty of other platforms saw their share as well.
In fact, Fist of the North Star was the second game based on a manga or anime property to make its way to the U.S. with the license intact, the first being Golgo-13. Just a few short months before Toei’s Game Boy take on the property hit Japan, Taxan published Hokuto no Ken 2 for Famicom in the U.S. under the name Fist of the North Star. This coincided with Viz Comics’ first of several failed attempts to localize the manga in the U.S. — not unlike Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode, which followed on the heels of Viz’s brief run of Golgo 13 two-episode graphic novels.
The ’80s were a weird, pioneering time for manga and anime localization in America. Fans flocked to small conventions, circulated third-generation video cassette tapes subtitled by amateurs with access to expensive titling machines, and obsessed over whatever Viz and Antarctic Press managed to produce. We hadn’t yet witnessed the baffling glory of Akira, nor the inspirational and fashionable shenanigans of Sailor Moon. Nerds hadn’t yet been forced to question their sexuality for finding Ranma-chan sexy, nor were we yet willing to admit the fact that the term “Japanimation,” though clever, also lent itself to an unfortunately racist reading.
Anime was about to E-X-P-L-O-D-E in America in 1990, when Fist of the North Star: 10 Big Brawls for the King of the Universe debuted on American Game Boys, but it wasn’t quite there yet. So the fact that published Electro Brain made no effort to obscure the game’s decidedly foreign nature makes it stand out. The usual airbrushed art of muscle-bound 40-year-olds that replaced manga-style box art in the U.S. was nowhere to be seen; instead, Kenshiro and his nine foes appeared as themselves, faithful to their animation model sheets.
It didn’t hurt, of course, that Fist’s art style was of a decidedly different form than the stereotypical big-eyed waifs that decorated most Japanese 8-bit game boxes; being a violent seinen manga, Fist presented its characters with lanky proportions and eyes narrowed in grim seriousness. It was Japanese, but it wasn’t, you know, JAPANESE.
Which means, in its small way, 10 Big Brawls for the King of the Universe (or 10 Big Brawls for the King of Universe — the box says the former, the title screen the latter) helped to precipitate the coming anime boom that slowly spread across America in the ’90s.
That being said, there was nothing particularly manga-ish about the game itself. It dispensed with anything resembling story or context, stripping the Fist of the North Saga down to its bare minimum: 10 big brawls, as indicated in the title, against the various high-powered foes Kenshiro faced throughout the series. Gone were the levels packed with pointless weaklings; instead, 10 Big Brawls took the form of a fighting game, pitting Kenshiro — or any of the bosses! — against nine sequential opponents in single-screen backgrounds that nicely recreated the iconic artwork of the manga. From dojos to bizarre rock outcroppings to outlandish futuristic fortresses, the background helped set the scene for the fights.
The characters didn’t look too bad, either. 10 Big Brawls was developed by Shouei System, the same studio responsible for the NES and Famicom games, and it carried across the same lean, stylized sprite art. Unfortunately, it also carried across the same crappy physics and controls and collision and AI as well.
10 Big Brawls was Game Boy’s first anime-based game as well as its first fighting game, and it didn’t exactly set a high water mark for either category. Characters had a limited repertoire of moves — punch, kick, charge attack — and some fighters lacked even that. While you could technically take on the world with your choice of fighter, playing as any character without a projectile move was a shortcut to failure.
Combat in 10 Big Brawls essentially boils down to two strategies. If you’re facing off against a melee-only fighter, you keep your distance while charging attacks, leaping over them and drawing them forward while tossing projectiles their way. If you’re up against a projectile user, you just need to get them into a loop where they try and charge up their own attack from the other side of the screen. In almost every case, if you toss a projectile from across the screen when the enemy’s charge meter is between 2/3 and 3/4 full, their AI will have locked them into a commitment to use their ranged attack, so they’ll toss their wave fist or whatever while taking a faceful of your own attack.
There’s some small variety in enemy patterns — some guys like to throw projectiles while ducking, while others prefer standing — but basically combat is essentially impossible to win without cheesing it. And yet, god love ’em, Shouei System tried. They incorporated an experience system and a password scheme to allow you to level up any of the fighters to level 16, giving them greater strength and endurance. And the multiplayer options are fairly rich, allowing you to go up against another player with as much as a five-on-five tournament.
But honestly, that’s about all the good I can say for 10 Big Brawls. It’s a historical curiosity, and for kids who were into the idea of fighting games before Street Fighter II came along to show us how to make fighting games good (that would happen a year later), Fist of the North Star was about as tolerable a choice as any other. And yet, thanks to its place in history, it’s regarded fondly in certain quarters; many gamers experienced their first taste of anime courtesy of 10 Big Brawls. And best of all, there was nowhere for them to go from here but up.
Fist of the North Star: 10 Big Brawls for the King of the Universe
Japanese title: Hokuto no Ken: Seizetsu Juuban Shoubu • 北斗の拳 凄絶十番勝負
Developer: Shouei System
Publisher: Toei Animation
Release date: 12.22.1989 [JP] | 4.1990 [US]
Super Game Boy: No enhancements
Previous in series: Fist of the North Star/Hokuto no Ken: Seikimatsu Kyuuseishu Densetsu [Shoei System/Toei Animation/Taxan, 1987]
Next in series: Hokuto no Ken: Shichisei Hakenden: Hokuto Shinken no Kanata e [Shoei System/Toei Animation, 1991]
Similar titles: Street Fighter II [Sun L/Capcom/Nintendo, 1995], Samurai Shodown [Takara, 1994]