Kakuto Chojin -- Game Review

Kakuto Chojin didn’t get a fair shake from the video game press when it came out. It doesn’t come close to being the game that its developer, Dream Publishing, obviously wanted it to be. In fact, rumors persist that the game shipped more or less unfinished, and that it started as a tech demo to showcase the Xbox’s impressive graphical capabilities didn’t much allay that suspicion. The actual reviews are far more forgettable than the actual game, but one of the common complaints was that the game was simplistic. According to the websites that still have their old reviews of the game available, Kakuto Chojin is simplistic, derivative and boring; they usually compare it to Tekken -- the first Tekken. It's understandable if you look at the cover art.

It means little now to say that they by-and-large misunderstood the game. The really impressive combos require split-second timing (literally, they are frame specific, and the game runs at 60 fps) and generally accomplished through juggling. There are two methods of playing each character, the second being unlocked after completing the character’s story mode, which means another set of combos. Rather than being too simplistic, it is brilliantly simple, rewarding the skillful use of a few moves rather than including tons of moves to keep button mashers happy. It is the same approach of that many of Dream Publishing’s members used for the development of Tobal No. 1 and Tobal 2, when they were known as Dream Factory.

In fact, they would return to that name, developing various games based on anime and manga for the PS2 and a couple of UFC games for the Xbox. But Dream Factory is no longer a fanboy darling as they had been when “GameFan” trumpeted the virtues of Tobal 2 for months, and then lamented the lack of any publisher interest in the US. The landscape of gaming has changed much too, with a recent resurgence of interest in fighting games led not by the 3D gameplay of Tekken and Virtua Fighter, but tried and true 2D seen in Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue. Microsoft’s sharing a larger part of the console market actually coincides with console gamers’ new found appreciation for Western developed shooters and sports games and such. So why is it, when nobody is interested in such a game as Kakuto Chojin, that I cared enough to spend twenty dollars for used copy of it?

It’s because the Muslims don’t want us to play it.

Well, that and other stuff. Kakuto Chojin perfectly captures everything that is the early Xbox game library, in that it practically screams “we don’t know how to appeal to this market!” Its characters look like plastic (oily plastic, in this case) and the environments sport all sorts of now commonplace effects like lens flare, real-time shadows, and colored lighting effects as though they were the most interesting thing anybody had ever thought of putting in a video game. Furthermore, the actual aesthetics reek of trying-too-hard, as every attempt is made to make essentially rote character designs and environment seem “edgy.” The Bruce Lee clone looks emaciated, the Muay Thai fighter is a heavily tattooed Somali, and the American street fighter looks very much like a pink-haired Brad Pitt from Fight Club. Microsoft clearly wanted the game to appeal to the same players that liked games like Tekken and Dead or Alive, and Dream Factory’s usual style of anime style character designs probably didn’t seem fitting on the Xbox, which at the time already had a weird mix of platform games featuring mascot-characters, action RPGs developed from PC franchises or tabletop gaming, sports games, and shooters.

Just looking at Azurik should illustrate how strange the Xbox was for its first years. While you’re at it, look at Blinx: The Time Sweeper, Dead or Alive 3, Panzer Dragoon Orta, Halo, and Nightcaster. Microsoft either published almost all of those titles, or they were exclusive to Microsoft’s platform. Obviously, Kakuto Chojin belongs with Blinx and Azurik and Nightcaster as a game that exudes the stench of Microsoft’s desperation to bait the previously Nippon-centric console audience into playing with American toys.

Looking at Kakuto Chojin with the unfair authority of hindsight makes it even funnier. I popped it in after I bought it and looked at the character select screen, and saw that there was a Norwegian Tae Kwon-Do fighter, named Vegard. My brother, who was as amused by the ridiculous character designs as I was, thought that he was named Varg, which caused even more laughter as we now thought of a buff, anime helmet wearing, blue tattooed Tae Kwon-Do fighter as representing Varg Vikernes. I found out that I could actually play quite well with him, of which my brother observed “the CPU’s not having much luck against Varg.” To which I replied, “That’s because Varg’s opponents have nowhere to pray after he burnt down their churches.”

Another exchange: “Hey, what’re those pouches on Varg’s belt for?”

“Oh, probably material for arson, knives, pens that drip with the blood of Christian enemies. The usual.”

Much enjoyment was had by all until I fought against Asad, the previously mentioned Somali Muay Thai fighter. Varg was apparently so busy being a TR00 KVLT WARRIOR and burning down churches that he forgot all about Asad’s mosque, because Asad pretty much owned Varg’s face. And this is where the most amusing part of Kakuto Chojin’s history becomes relevant.

As many of you know, fighting games typically feature theme music for either the characters or the levels. Kakuto Chojin’s theme music for Asad, who is identified as a Somali and makes references to God in his pre-match speech, utilizes passages from the Quran that aren’t meant to be used lightly. In the defense of Dream Factory and whoever it was that wrote the music, it’s actually a pretty cool track. Nevertheless, it apparently caused the government of Saudi Arabia to protest, and the game was recalled, never reissued, and more or less stricken from Microsoft’s software release records.

I don’t intend rant about this issue. On the one hand, I might find it worthwhile to remind Muslims that many of us tread lightly around their culture out of courtesy, not obligation. On the other, Dream Factory should have known better, and Microsoft too.

But I’d like to finish this review smiling, not angrily pounding my keyboard. Thus I point out the silliness of the video game industry, and especially that of Kakuto Chojin. Has anything really changed for the game industry and the nerd-culture that surrounds it? Admittedly, certain elements are different -- there are far fewer ‘tude filled mascots than even the last console generation -- but the difficult questions of where games overlap with politics and religion and when such things become relevant to gaming persist. Recently, a game called Shadow Complex has renewed such a discussion over at Gamasutra. Frankly, I can’t believe anybody actually manages to take games seriously when the most polarizing issue gamers are dealing with is Orson Scott Card and his unfettered homophobia that said game has little to do with.

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