Unlike some other games based on enduring animes from the 90s, Fist of the North Star might not be immediately familiar. Initially conceived as a collaboration between writer Sho “Buronson” Fumimura and illustrator Tetsuo Hara, Fist of the North Star was definitely the kind of thing that made my parents associate anime with violence and over-sexualisation long before Ghibli’s “My Neighbour Totoro” could smooth things over.
Its eventual release overseas always seemed like an experiment, based on the immense success the title had in Japan and the lack of a clearly defined audience for anime and manga in the west. Since Fist of the North Star lacks the humour of a series like Dragon Ball however, audiences didn’t quite know where to go with it.
In a way, Sega’s decision to release Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise in the west suggests a similar experimental approach, born from the bafflement of having struck gold with Yakuza. Fist of the North Star was developed by the same studio and uses the same blueprint, so it stands to reason that Yakuza fans might enjoy it just as much.
Fist of the North Star shares a lot of Yakuza’s mechanics, but none of the humour. That’s a bit of a gamble, since the Yakuza studio arguably created an enjoyable game despite the often repetitive gameplay. Fist of the North Star looks and plays like a game that didn’t have the same resources as Sega’s crime saga, and thus overly relies on these elements.
In Fist of the North Star, the world has turned into a desert wasteland following a nuclear holocaust. A handful of masters of secret martial arts techniques protect ordinary citizens from gangs roaming the wastes. Protagonist Kenshiro is one such master. He wields Hokuto Shinken, the “Divine Fist of the North Star”, which allows him to instantly kill his foes in a spray of blood by hitting certain pressure points.
This idea has been made to fit Yakuza’s combat mechanics. You press square for a light punch and triangle for a more weighty kick, until you have worn down your enemy enough to unleash one of Kenshiro’s iconic secret techniques, such as the Hokuto Kyosatsu Shitotsu Ken (North Star Chest Stab Death Fist) or the Hokuto Kouretsu Ha (North Star Steel Shredding Clench). As in the anime, Kenshiro announces these attacks each time. Seeing him unleash a special attack in the series is a momentous occasion – in the game you do it every other minute via a sequence of QTE prompts, both in regular combat as well as boss fights. The first few times it’s a rush, then repetition sets in.
Like in Yakuza, you fill a burst meter that, once filled, makes you stronger for a short while and allows you to use some special attacks, but even with these and the new attacks you can learn via the skill tree, your options are quickly exhausted. Some of the boss fights mix up the formula in entertaining ways, but in exchange for that you get the type of boss that blocks every attack, has a huge health bar and is always able to break your blocks for some magical reason.
Kenshiro is looking for his fiance Yuria in the city of Eden, one of the last proper cities on earth, but keeps getting held up by large groups of identical thugs in need of a battering. So he punches things. Often. He punches his way out of prison. He punches thieves. He punches escaped prisoners. He punches people to prove his innocence in a court of law. Despite instances in which he heals people via martial arts acupuncture, he is mostly a hammer in a world full of nails, and since Kenshiro hardly speaks, he can hardly grow on you if you don’t know him yet, either.
So much of the enjoyment of Fist of the North Star relies on familiarity with the source material. The game takes place in an alternate reality that accommodates popular characters and plot strands as well as new ideas. Much of it harks back to well-known encounters, and a lot of love went into making everything easily recognisable to fans, including several catchphrases. Everything has been dubbed into English, once again showing off the high standard of localisation at Sega. None of it is beginner-friendly however, so most of what is happening is bound to go over your head if you’re not familiar with the anime. While introducing characters and their history with Kenshiro some more would have gone a long way, the plot isn’t exactly intricate: Fist of the North Star is mostly about making people explode from within, and the narrative reflects that.
In such cases, gameplay has to do the heavy lifting, but the usual Yakuza mechanics are simply not the best fit for a game so focused on combat. In an attempt to provide a bit of variety, several mini games are on offer. There is the aforementioned healing of people via Hokuto Shinken, a cocktail mixing game, hitting raiders on motorbikes with a giant pole in an approximation of baseball and more. Full ROMs of old Sega games are included, too: you can also play Hang On, OutRun, Space Harrier and Fist of the North Star for the Sega Master System. Additionally, there are 80 substories to complete. Some of them are mandatory, which feels like an attempt at artificially lengthening the game, especially if you’re asked to go to a casino and play Blackjack while you’re in the middle of chasing down a thief.
The mini-games invite another inevitable Yakuza comparison. Especially the more complex games like hostess bar management were such fun because they brought a distinct anime flavour to a very serious genre, and because you knew that straight-laced Kiryu was a big softie at heart. The same trick won’t work in an apocalyptic wasteland. While I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that humanity would make hostess bars their first priority when people are dying of thirst on the streets, it doesn’t fit Fist of the North Star’s lore.
So much of Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise is wasted potential. In a sea of badly realised anime license games, among them previous adaptations of this very series, it stands out as the one of the best attempts to date. As it falls short of the game it’s so obviously modelled on however, it will most likely only satisfy hardcore fans of the anime who have either never played Yakuza, or have yet to tire of the formula.