|| Kyonshies, the Chinese hopping zombies (you know, like Darkstalker's Hsien-Ko, only without the rosy cheeks and exaggerated cleavage), are attacking villages around China, and it's up to our hero, Kenchi, and his bumbling sidekick to pummel them until they tip over and burst into flames for some reason. It's no Street Fighter 2 (heck, it might not even be a Mortal Kombat 4), but it still makes for one damn good game.
Phantom Fighter contains RPG elements (and I use the term RPG elements very loosely; think RPG elements to around the extent that Pocky and Rocky 2 or Zelda 2 had them), but is mostly concerned with Karateka-style beat-em-up-ness. You usually have to take out more than one enemy before you're given a chance to refill your life, but the enemies you fight come one at a time. Fighting starts when you enter an area from the map screen. After you've defeated all the enemies in the area, you're given a reward, which is either the liberation of a life-refilling temple from its zombie captors, a number of Ancient Scrolls (the game's currency), an orb (after collecting three orbs, you can fight the boss of the town), or any number of other items or events. It sometimes gets repetitive fighting in the same area over and over again to get enough Scrolls for you to afford that shiny new special technique you so badly need, but it's never too bad, and the password system keeps the game from getting too long (the passwords are very simple compared to most other games on the console).
Being dead, Kyonshies are very stiff. So, their only mode of transportation is to jump around. This requires you to use hit and run tactics in almost every battle in the game. However, enough variety is put into the game to keep it interesting. Kyonshies come in a huge variety of strengths, speeds, and sizes (not to mention that some of them have extra abilities like throwing knives), and learning new moves gives you new strategies to fight them. For example, tall Kyonshies can't bend over to attack you while you are ducking, so after learning Mirage Punch (the ability to punch while ducking), you can crouch near them and punch them in the groin repeatedly while they spin in place trying to figure out where the attack is coming from. In fact, all of the special moves greatly affect the way you fight, whether they allow you to jump 20 feet into the air or simply increase the damage you dish out. All the items are fun to use too (although they're for the most part useless); the bell even allows you to play as a Kyonshi. The only real problem with the gameplay mechanics is the life system; difficulty-wise it's very well balanced, but you literally have to go back to the temple to heal every 3 minutes. Thankfully, collecting the orbs you need to get to the boss refills your life, but running back and forth from the temple can get annoying while you're collecting Ancient Scrolls.
The graphics in Phantom Fighter are incredibly good by NES standards. While the resolution and colors are limited by the NES's graphics processor, the characters are large and detailed, and the animation is smoother than most fighting games for the SNES. The music is catchy, but not annoying, and the designers wisely chose to put in more than one tune as the "normal" battle music to prevent the repetition from becoming unbearable.
Phantom Fighter has its flaws, but not nearly enough to keep me from recommending it. It's the best game of it's type that you can get hold of easily; well, at least until the MAME guys figure out how to emulate "Last Apostle Puppet Show". But until then, don your house-hat and get ready to kick some Kyonshi groin.
Rating: 3.9 out of 5
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