Friday, February 19, 2010

Kaze Kiri

Naxat Soft
Super CD-ROM

Old martial arts sidescroller Kung Fu, which many NES veterans look back on fondly (if never wish to revisit), was more a display of primitiveness than an instance of effective concept implementation. The simplicity of the affair worked in the game's favor, as it gave the repetitive beat 'em up ("beat 'em up" used in the loosest sense) a certain charm that fancier visuals may have negated (try to paint a prettier picture of the third-stage behemoth and you'll wind up with a generic Final Fight big man, while the wily old magician may have seemed more laughable than elusive had he wielded "Mode 7 magic"). Most subsequent punch-and-kick affairs traveled the correct route by surrounding their violence with adventures that went beyond Kung Fu's "walk down the hall" layout; those that chose poorly and polished the surfaces of KF's remains are widely looked upon as fighting-game laughingstocks (think Vigilante). Naxat Soft's Kaze Kiri, a Super CD adventure that has wrongly garnered the reputation of being a Shinobi slayer, stands as the exception to the rule, advancing the premise of single-strip, platforming-devoid action with elements of speed, technique, and aural excellence.

Begin with what's old and reliable and build from there: human devastator Kaze invades his enemy's lair in order to rescue a typical damsel in distress. Forget those dusty wooden planks from Kung Fu, and erase all memories of Joe Musashi's goofy "jaunt through enemy lines in broad daylight" approach in Revenge of Shinobi; Kaze launches his raid in the pitch-black of a stormy night, quickly and quietly making his way through underground tunnels and torch-lit corridors, evading the core of the opposing force by sticking to rain-drenched ledges and neglected outer walls. Of course, the most brutal of his foes' ranks must eventually be confronted and annihilated in battles that will make Kaze witness to the fiercest and most bizarre brands of attack that old man Musashi never needed to face. The game has a suitably grim and gritty feel about it, even to a greater extreme than does its companion in elements of darkness and the supernatural, Ninja Spirit.

Kaze himself is portrayed as a scarred and grizzled warrior, an embattled champion who earns our confidence merely with his aura of "I've been through it all before." There's more to him than just cuts and bruises, of course. The man boasts incredible proficiency with blades and ferociously slices through his enemies with a sword that emits a cool-looking green arc in the spirit of Strider. Shuriken, of course, are part of his repertoire along with an array of leaping kicks and holds, flips and throws, slides and swipes--all of which he uses to batter his foes before bewildering them with his ability to vanish into thin air at a whim's notice. Watch him dart across the screen with phenomenal speed and grace, hand reaching over shoulder and gripping sword all the while. Realize that this is the one ninja who stands on equal ground with Shinobi III's super-slick Joe Musashi.

Unlike Shinobi III, Kaze Kiri actually forces you to master and utilize all of the wonderful moves at your disposal, as your enemies themselves are no slouches in combat. Sure, there are generic foot soldiers to be encountered, but even the meek are capable of parrying your blows, striking back viciously, and dealing a good strong foot-to-the-ribs when necessary. Slice through spear-wielders whose range of attack far exceeds your own; and step outdoors into the pouring rain, where shuriken hurlers board kites and soar through the storm to hunt you down. (Smack down their projectiles with a CLANG! That awesome sword you wield can be used for defensive purposes as well!) Archers remain at a distance and let loose with dead-on shots while armored, mace-wielding hulks do their damage in close, and a vicious tiger hungrily awaits your arrival. Things sure have come a long way since the "midgets and grabbers" of Kung Fu, haven't they?

Be warned that the competency of your opponents and their tendency to attack in groups can lead to lengthy mid-stage battles; it may prove frustrating to find yourself surrounded by four warriors who are all adept at parrying your slashes. Kaze Kiri is a long game extended by the fact that a certain number of standard soldiers must be beaten before a stage can conclude or a boss can appear. Reach the end of a strip without having defeated the requisite number of villains and you'll need to turn tail and enter the melee again. This can certainly be annoying after bevies of foot soldiers have already been slaughtered, but it's a necessary evil in light of the structure of the game and Kaze's ability to outrun and leap over many of his opponents.

Should the thrill of playing as such a skilled and speedy character not stand as sufficient reason for proceeding with the required ravagings, then the brilliant soundtrack will undoubtedly keep you hooked for a good long while. Kaze's music is of the same Asian essence as the tunes found in ninja-featuring brethren Shinobi and Ninja Spirit, although it shuns the sharp, intense riffs found in those games in favor of deeper, richer melody lines. Atypical for the sub-genre, this aural approach grants Kaze an aura of beauty that transcends the bloodshed while maintaining the dark (and sometimes mournful) atmosphere of the adventure.

Even with technique, speed, and quality audio in tow, Kaze Kiri's calling card is its end-of-strip boss battles. Wars await you when ordinary combatants have been left for dead and the chilling boss track kicks in. It wouldn't be overstating matters to claim that no other action game boasts a cast of level leaders that combine uses of weaponry, wizardry, and pure physical skill in such effective, intimidating, and magnificent fashions. An iron-clawed giant tears his way across the screen as a fire-spitting hawk bombards you from above. A sorceress beckons a troop of white monkeys and sends them slashing their way toward you; slice up the nuisances before the true threat rises up amidst the pouring rain and unleashes her own brand of burning storm. A huge, staff-twirling monk enters the fray, preferring to dabble in supernatural attacks should he have time to work his magic but all too willing to hammer you with his heavy weapon should you become overconfident in your melee abilities. Dodge the double-bladed sword wielded by a particularly fast female opponent and be constantly wary, as she'll wait for just the right moment to let one side of her tool fly toward you and ricochet back via chain, the return trip typically made in blood-soaked fashion. (As an aside, the abundance of female bosses in the game is an unexpected and admirable twist.)

Kaze Kiri stands as the near-perfect result of an intriguing project. Naxat Soft proved with this CD that an antiquated idea that wasn't particularly exciting even to begin with can evolve into something brilliant. Throw in some impeccable ingredients--in this case, speed, technique, solid enemy design, memorable boss fights, and aural and visual excellence--and even a dog as wrinkled and gray as Kung Fu can eventually have its day. But...

I'm sorry. I can recommend the game without being content with what it is. I can't simply praise something great if it had the potential to be something special. I especially cannot do this when the required elements for making such a leap were staring a company right in the face when it decided to wrap up work on its project. Consider the following:

As Kaze makes his initial raid on the enemy's fortress, arrows with blazing tips rain down upon him. It makes for a neat scene visually, but just imagine if those missiles could actually strike and damage our speedy warrior. Instead, they simply fly straight through him and bury their tips in the ground. Later, as Kaze makes his way through an underground tunnel, loose stones fall from the ceiling. They work to create a neat scene when, if Kaze actually had to fear and dodge them, they could've made for an intense one. The monotony that the game ultimately treads through might have easily been alleviated.

We're eventually treated to a brief interlude that shows Kaze tossing up a rope and scaling a steep wall. Why not allow us to play through this scene rather than having us watch it? Have some of those kite-riding foes assail us. Diverge from the standard run-and-slash action.

Throughout the quest, doors in the background leading to adjoining corridors and openings in the ceiling leading to goodness-knows-where are clear in view, yet we cannot enter them. These images simply reinforce the desire to indulge in a little platforming and exploration a la Shinobi III and secret-laden Aladdin. How about a labyrinthine sequence reminiscent of Musashi's late-stage exploits or a few simple puzzles along the lines of the ones that Joe is typically forced to solve? (Heck, even Kung Fu forced us to think a little when the magician seemed impervious to our attacks.)

Kaze must duel with one particularly crafty ninja numerous times throughout the game. Mightn't some intermediary cinemas serving to explain and heighten the rivalry between the two have made the confrontations that much more dramatic?

You had to tease us, Naxat! I can't let matters rest at "job well done" when you had already thought of all the ingredients that Kaze Kiri needed to become the greatest ninja action game ever conceived yet failed to follow through on them. I do recommend the game, though--even at the high prices it typically goes for. Duo fans deserve the opportunity to acquaint themselves with its highly skilled protagonist, revel in its gorgeous soundtrack, and take part in its memorable boss battles. It's got technique accompanied by attitude--beauty with bite.

(But it could have had more!)

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