The world of gaming -- especially "hardcore" gaming -- is a strange and often fickle place. Favored developers are quickly forgotten, and if not forgotten, often maligned. Arguments between fanboys rage all over the internet, debating PC gaming versus consoles, Xbox 360 versus Playstation 3, JRPGs versus Western RPGs, games as "art" versus games as games, and (my personal favorite) hardcore versus casual gaming. One might see a member of youtube or GameFAQs praising Bioware and Bethesda as though they were their first sexually active girlfriend, and then return a week later to find that same user derriding them as if they were their first sexually active girlfriend that gave them monthly sores and violently burning trips to the restroom. Of course, you're still alowed to like Baldur's Gate -- heaven help us should popular opinion ever turn against that game the way it has with others -- but bringing up Jade Empire or Mass Effect is just asking for trouble. And I hate Mass Effect.
Which is why I avoid those discussions, or try to. My opinions on anything doubtlessly annoy somebody, possibly anybody, even more likely everybody. Fact: I don't like Might and Magic. Another fact: I do like Ys I&2. Fact 1 + Fact 2 = somebody calling me "fag," or one of the many variations, like "newfag" or "console fag" or "weeaboo." (I don't know why this terminology has caught on in seemingly every geek-centric hobby that has a presence on the internet, but it has. I blame 4chan, like we all should.) It's inevitable, but that only makes me want to avoid it. Because of this, I've sought out territories of video gaming that are so stupidly obscure that the interested parties don't really have any reason to start inane fights with each other. Some of these are arcade games -- because nobody ever has a major debate on which 2D beat-em-up game is a "true" or "hardcore" example of the genre -- and truly obscure Japanese RPGs -- and I don't mean stuff like Etrian Odyssey, I'm talking about games like Sorcerian. But that's not what this review is about. This review covers pirate software developed by Chinese programmers called The Yang Warrior Family.
A couple of points need to be addressed before I get to the review of the game. First off is the state of consoles and console games in China. It's easy to laugh at the developers of the People's Republic and their attempts to make Final Fantasy 7 into a Famicom game, or any number of the strange and badly programmed games linked to developers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, like the Famicom Chrono Trigger port and the oft-ranted-over Somari. But beyond the weeaboos crying out "Kusoge!" at badly dumped roms on their youtube channels, there are some genuinely interesting, and sometimes even fun games that have been made by Chinese developers. Outside of the badly programmed and designed ports, there have been several very impressive RPGs for both PC and the console. (and even in the sucky ports, brilliance occasionally can be found, occasionally) One of the first unlicensed games developed originally by Chinese developers (ie not a hack, pirate, or port of a Japanese title) was an RPG called Tale of the Holy Flame, released in 1991 and based on a Jin Yong novel (a movie based on it is reviewed here). There are even people devoted to getting these games released in the US. Which is another point that needs to be made: not every Chinese developed game is/was a pirate. The Genesis was released in Taiwan, and that's the origin of Legend of Wukong and Beggar Prince -- the Genesis games now being released on cartridge in the US. All this is to say that while I think The Yang Warrior Family is a pirate, I can't honestly say that I'm sure it is.
The second thing that needs to be explained is the backgrounds in which many of these games are set. Legend of Wukong is a very loose and intentionally weird rendering of The Journey to the West, and there are games based not only on the pulp novels of Jin Yong, but on the classics of Chinese literature, including various RPGs and strategy games adapting The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, and The Creation of the Gods. Now, Koei has also made games based on all three of those Chinese classics, but they have yet to adapt anything by Gu Long, JinYong or Liang Yusheng. (A brief aside: we should also be thankful that Koei shut down their "eroge" branch, otherwise we might have ended up with an unfortunate Jin Ping Mei or Yu Pui Tsuen based strategy RPG) What you get when you play a Chinese game is an example of how the Chinese repackaged popular stories and gave them back in a new format. It's one of the few ways in which games legitimately transcend their status as play things and time wasters, and that alone makes these somewhat interesting.
Which brings us to The Yang Warrior Family. Based on the same folk tale as Shaw Brothers classics The 14 Amazons (Cheng Kang and Tung Shao-Yung, 1972) and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (Lau Kar Leung, 1984), this game recalls the brave Yang nobles as they defend Sung dynasty China from invading Mongolians. This translates into gameplay that's basically Final Fight, but this time in China instead of America, the future, or Camelot. Much like those Capcom brawlers, The Yang Warrior Family uses only a few buttons: one to attack, one to jump, and one to do a more powerful attack that drains health. The characters are a bit unusual. The main protagonist is a young guy in blue with a sword -- all signs of the "balanced" character. There is a female who wields tiny daggers, finishing her two hit combo (lol) by throwing at a pathetic trajectory that makes it look like the little knife must weigh a good thirty pounds. Still, the range is a huge bonus. There's an old guy who -- by the fact that he's old and that he wields the famous Yang family halberd so often depicted in films and television -- I assume to be the Yang patriarch. He has range, but his attacks are boring. He just jabs. My favorite character is the one that doesn't fit. He's a big brute that fights bare handed and has a pro-wrestler drop kick as his jumping attack. Of all the characters, I've gotten furthest in the game with him.
The game scrolls from left to right and your character beats on fat guys, sword and spear carrying soldiers, muscly Mongolian wrestlers, metal clawed lizard men and bomb juggling, sexy ladies. The AI isn't anything special, so as long as you're capable of controlling your character, you'll be capable of avoiding most of the enemies. An amusing aspect of the combat system is knocking enemies into each other. The second hit of your character's two hit combo (lol) always sends the enemy flying, and you can grab enemies by walking into them while they're not attacking, allowing for a throw. This means you can toss enemies into each other and keep from being surrounded rather easily, and it also means that you can take out enemies quickly if you find them grouping together. At the end of the level, you fight a boss (surprising no? /sarcasm) and while the first one is a push over, the rest have four health bars, making it an almost ridiculous challenge to beat a boss if you don't have full health and all of your lives by the time you make it to the end of the stage. I was also slightly disappointed that there are no power ups. Sure, you can eat food that's lying on the ground to regain health, and there are a (very) few items to pick up to add to your score. These are a paltry pittance compared to the wealth of mounts, extra weapons, magic potions, and miscellaneous score boosters to be found in superior examples of the genre, like Sega's 1989 arcade game, Golden Axe.
The graphics are decent. The Genesis doesn't have the most expansive color palette (at least not compared to the SNES) but compared to the Famicom pirates, these Genesis games look brilliant. The backgrounds are repetitive, and the animation is stilted, which really makes it seem less impressive, almost like a botched arcade port. And that raises another question: why an arcade style beat-em-up? The game only has five sprites on screen at any given time, although that might have been a wise decision since there's rarely any slowdown. The Yang Warrior Family throws enemies at the player like an arcade game trying to eat up quarters, and allows the player three lives and three continues. As far as I know, this isn't an actual arcade port, so I'm flummoxed as to why the developers chose not to take advantage of the console's sit-and-play nature and give a bit more thought to stage design and combat system beyond imitating Capcom's arcade beat-em-ups. Because when you get right down to it, the fun of a beat-em-up wanes rather quickly, especially outside of the atmosphere of a dimly lit, smelly arcade.
That said, this is a decent Final Fight knock-off with a fun theme and mediocre graphics. Since practically nobody owns these games and the only people who play them do so in emulation, it would probably be fun to speed through with a friend over netplay. Still, this is a good example of the kind of quality that Chinese developers were capable of outside of really awful Pokemon and Final Fantasy themed hacks and pirate games and multi-carts.