Shui Hu Feng Yun Zhuan 水浒风云传

Some people online distribute the rom to this impressive post-mortem (released in 1999!) Genesis/MegaDrive beat-em-up under the title “Beneath the Clouds.” I’d guess that these people got that from putting the Romanized characters into babelfish. If you’re sort who reads my blog, you might recognize Shui Hu Zhuan as one of the great literary accomplishments written in the classical Chinese vernacular, or you might better recognize it under its English title, The Water Margin. You might also recognize "Feng Yun" as the Chinese title for the comic book/film series we English speakers call "The Storm Riders." What does any of that trivia have to do with the game? Nothing, really. Maybe I’ll email Lightwing23’s wife and beg her to translate the title into something that makes sense, then lord it over the rom distributors and reviewers who have referred to this game as “Beneath the Clouds” for about three years.
I love beat-em-ups only a bit less than I love console/computer role playing games. The two genres seem diametrically opposite in terms of design, and might really have been back when the side scrolling beat-em-up was a viable genre, munching up quarters in arcades and pizza parlors and Wal-Mart lobbies. But I also know that you can beat Kingdom Hearts 2 by pressing the “X” button over and over again, at least according to RockManXZ24, who claims to have done that (and he actually likes the Kingdom Hearts series), which puts it in the same vein as the more mindless beat-em-ups. In fact, I think that the recent, torrid affair between Japan and Capcom’s Monster Hunter shows the greatest marriage of the two forms. There’s no lock-on feature for combat, the games really don’t play well outside of co-op, and the difficulty can be utterly insane. At the same time, the amount of equipment and customization rivals that of Diablo 2, the champion of grindfests.

One could also point to small games like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (both of which feature character levels and inventory systems) as more likely successors to the beat-em-up -- they undoubtedly are -- that also adopt conventions from the broader role-playing genre. But I think these are too clever for their own good. "Scott Pilgrim," though I liked the movie and what little I’ve played of the game, is overexposed, and watching the animals crapping in Castle Crashers is only funny until, like, the 9000th time you see it. I miss the earnest goofiness of the fantasy themed brawlers from the late eighties and early nineties.
I also love kung fu movies, but the Chinese themed brawlers made by Capcom (Dynasty Wars, Tiger Road) just aren’t as good as their later games, like the immensely goofy Knights of the Round. The good thing about the recent proliferation of unlicensed Chinese game ROMs is that they developed beat-em-ups that directly imitate the better Japanese games, sometimes competently, while adapting historical events and pulp literature. Shui Hu Fung Yen Zhuan apes Knights of the Round, with similar characters, animations, enemies and gameplay. The player can hit treasure and health power-ups to split them into smaller pieces, as in Capcom’s Arthurian brawler, and the there is a balanced broadsword wielder, a speedy fighter who uses a saber, and a battle-axe brandishing tank. The characters walk from left to right, beating whatever enemies get in the way, then fighting an end boss.
Shui Hu Fung Yen Zhuan provides only a few levels, but they’re long, and the game adds some inventory management in the form of Gaunglet-esque magic items that the will do massive damage to all enemies on screen. Cut scenes in between levels tell a story in early Tecmo style, which I couldn’t follow because I don’t know Chinese. I breezed through the whole game rather easily (the game gives nine credits and extra lives come easy), but the animation and graphics being a cut above, for example, The Yang Warrior Family made for an enjoyable, if mindless experience.
The real fun of beat-em-ups is their complete lack of fairness. Unlike a rougelike, which screws with the player’s expectations to the point that it’s unfair, the beat-em-up is unfair in spite of being straightforward, making progress its own reward. Of course the constant flow of enemies will kill the player, and of course the items that can save him or her from certain death will be scarce. If the game doesn’t offer cool graphics and enemies it doesn’t work -- the player needs some motivation to continue walking right and pressing “a” -- but this one actually offers some of the best looking environments on the Genesis, rivaling the SNES ports of King of Dragons and Knights of the Round, and the boss sprites are huge, detailed, and also ripped off from Capcom games.

This is not the pinnacle of the genre on consoles, that honor belongs to Treasure’s Guardian Heroes for the Saturn. This is still a really fun game. It’s hard to believe that it was released the same year that the Dreamcast debuted and a real shame that there are so few of its kind developed these days.

1 comment:

  1. Scott pilgrim and castle rasher succesor of beat' em up?? The style portrayed on those games is NOT new, you didn¡t know that River City Ransom did the same about 20 years ago??