Now here’s another lost gem from an underrated publisher. During the NES era when the likes of Capcom, Konami, and Acclaim (for all the wrong reasons) dominated the headlines Taito released a slew of solid action games over the years. With the likes of Little Samson, Power Blade, and Cadash under their belt they should have been more popular. But life isn’t fair and so it’s up to sites like mine to extoll the virtues of underappreciated games like Kick Master.
The sorceress Belzed has attacked the kingdom of Lowrel, killing off its citizens with her hordes of monsters. With both the King and Queen murdered Princess Silphee is left to rule but is captured. The only two soldiers left to saver her are the Knight Macren and his brother Thonolan but Macren is killed, leaving the rescue to his younger brother and his awesome “kicking” power.
If you look at Thonolan as a monk then the story of an awesome martial arts warrior in a fantasy kingdom isn’t hokey. Kick Master was created by KID, a developer who supplied the NES with many splendid action games such as both G.I. Joe games, Burai Fighter and Kick Master’s closest counterpart, Low G Man. Actually the DNA of a lot of classic NES games is buried in here, from the Ghosts n Goblins style map to the fighting system of a Double Dragon or comparable beat em ups. However all these constituent parts combine to create one spectacular whole.
The similarities between this and Low G Man can’t be understated; the two games are so similar in fact that I wouldn’t be surprised if they used the same engine. They both use a similar art style, background tiles, and gameplay design in a few areas. With a 1 year gap between releases Kick Master is the far superior title with deeper gameplay and better presentation on par with some of the consoles finest. Despite a nice spread in Nintendo Power Kick Master flew under the radar. I suppose the generic title didn’t help matters but regardless that should not deter anyone from sampling this excellent action experience.
Kick Master, although primarily an action game also has RPG elements. Defeated enemies give experience used to level up. With new levels maximum MP is increased and one or two new moves are learned. Like Low G Man every enemy killed will drop (more like throw) 3 random items, from hearts to replenish life, potions for MP, or crystals for experience. There’s also the occasional one that will actually hurt you, the bastards.
Thonolan’s primary means of attack are his legs (duh). Initially you have very few moves but as you level up the arsenal of kicking techniques expands significantly. All told at max level you’ll have eleven techniques to use, all activated by different button combinations. I’m actually surprised they were able to cram so many different attack combinations on the NES controller and outside one or two outliers they are all easy to use.
Magic spells are learned after every level and cover a number of tropes such as healing and different elementals. The more esoteric such as Twin power and the ??? spell will rarely find use but I’m sure some creative gamer will find a use for them. Enemies drop potions frequently enough that don’t need to be conservative with magic use but in my opinion the spells aren’t powerful enough to really have an impact.
Being forced into close quarters combat will really give you an appreciation for the game’s variety in mechanics. Nearly every enemy has individual attack patterns and you’ll need to use the appropriate kicks to walk away unscathed. There are always at least one or more kicks that will work; finding it is part of the fun.
Beginning with the second level the difficulty curve leans a bit on the steep side. Enemies begin to defend or curl up more often and take more hits to kill, forcing you to adapt. There’s a heavy emphasis on action and less so platforming; since you need the resources they drop once defeated avoiding combat really isn’t an option. There are frequent mini-bosses before the end level monsters and it tends to wear down your life bar pretty quick. It’s pretty fucked up that they don’t even have the courtesy to refill your life bar between levels but what can you do?
For the most part the controls do a suitable job of giving you a reasonable amount of control over your attacks but could be tighter. There are a few moves that are tricky to perform and never do feel as though you’ve unleashed them on purpose. While you might balk at a tutorial in an NES game some of the moves are too important to skip and won’t be learned through trial and error. The hit detection is also suspect at times which can be a problem in a melee focused game. It never truly becomes a major issue but it is worth mentioning.
Graphically Kick Master has its highs and lows. Some environments, the first level in particular rival Castlevania III in terms of the level of detail poured into the backgrounds. The fantasy aesthetic lends the game a unique look among other NES games despite the hokey story. There’s a frightening amount of “texture” to the game that really stands out. At the same time the color choices used at times are baffling, much like Low G Man. The dark pinks and purples really don’t gel well and can look ugly at times. However as a whole this is definitely a late generation title with parallax scrolling backgrounds 2 levels deep at times. The boss battles are also a graphical highlight with some truly inspired encounters; how many other games give you the chance to kick a kraken in the face repeatedly?
While its always enjoyable to shed light on an under-appreciated gem it does hurt to see games of this quality not find an audience. Kick Master resides in the company of NES greats like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden and should be played by any fan of old school action games.