Kasumi Ninja

Kasumi Ninja
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Game Name: Kasumi Ninja
Platforms: Jaguar
Publisher(s): Atari
Developer(s): Hand Made Software
Genre(s): Tournament Fighter
Release Date: 1994

Kasumi Ninja is the Jaguar’s first, and much-derided, 2D fighting game. I try to avoid reading reviews and opinions of titles before I write my own, but it’s hard to do any kind of Jaguar research without finding some podcaster or blogfly hating on this game. It’s somehow come to represent the quality of all games you’re going to see on the system, or the albatross that drags the value of the Jaguar down simply for existing. Please. Even Prince didn’t sing a hit every time he got on stage.

Kasumi is an arcade-style fighter with digitized characters. Many commenters feel this makes it an automatic ripoff of Mortal Kombat. I do agree that the combat engine and the special moves are a little uncomfortably similar, and the entire game does feel a little like someone didn’t get the license for MK and decided to make their own Rodex or Gucii version. On the other hand, Kasumi is about dead-ass even with the arcade version of the original MK, in terms of gameplay and graphics. An arcade-level version of any game for a home console was a huge achievement. I remember how that was the golden goal for almost a decade, and how other “arcade-perfect” home ports fell way, way short of expectations.

Looks better than it plays, but it looks pretty damn sharp.

Now this is where the praise for Kasumi will end. I’m impressed that it’s mostly equal to the cabinet version of Mortal Kombat. But MK1 was NOT a fantastic fighter, and its gameplay was not something you would want to emulate – especially considering that the world had since moved on to the justifiably-awesome Mortal Kombat II. It’s not the totally incompetent game you might have heard about, but it’s quite fair to say that Kasumi Ninja comes to the party wearing a cheap version of last year’s dress.

The game takes place on the sheltered isle of Kasumi, where a portal to the demon world has been opened. You have been tasked by the gods to battle the souls of eight historically diverse combatants, absorbing each’s powers until you are strong enough to defeat Lord Gyaku, who has several unpaid parking tickets. There’s no tournament ladder – you can pick your next opponent at will. Defeating all eight makes up the 1-player story mode, and all characters are available for instant use in a 2-player quick battle. The only other option of note is a new parental lockout feature, complete with a secret passcode you set with the Jaguar’s numpad. We’ll talk about what kind of gore this potentially locks out in a bit.

The soul-stealing deal is not as cool as it originally sounds. It just means you have to fight a character before they become available for selection. It also means that you always start with the same character, and must “earn” your favorite before you can use them. You technically start out with two characters, but they’re palette-swapped carbon copy “brothers;” the Ken and Ryu of the game with identical moves. I honestly don’t even know why they bothered, especially when the one you don’t pick disappears from the character select screen.

Unlocking fighters is an original enough idea, but not so hot in practice. It requires you to first use and learn a lesser character you probably aren’t that interested in. If nothing else, I’ve never seen a fighting game that requires you to play as one of the “selectable” characters. If you don’t want to take the time to build and maintain skills with this introductory ninja character, then you’ll need to figure out some kind of progression pattern that works for your playstyle, like finding a tougher enemy you can beat easily, whose power you can use to beat a faster character, whose speed you can use to defeat the character you actually wanted to play as all along.

Character design is a low point, but frequently was for games of this time. The movie star? The gargantuan Russian wrestler? The special forces girl in spandex and 80s sneakers? But even considering such ridiculous fighting game characters fucking up the grade curve, Kasumi’s characters do make the mistake of falling into camp. You have two that are just average enough to escape serious scrutiny – the undefeated kickboxer Chagi, and Alaric, the King of the Visigoths. I’ve already covered the two ninja brothers. The remaining four are embarrassments.

You have Danja, the assistant district attorney who dons a Catwoman outfit to fight nocturnal crime. You have Thundera, the Amazon queen who wears a black bikini from the racks of K-Mart – a ploy to show some skin. You have the Comanche warrior with a propensity for scalping – oh, PERFECT… And finally, the character you’ve been waiting for if you’re familiar at all with this game, Angus: the kilted, drunken, brawling, caber-tossing Scotsman who, along with his ability to shoot fire from his balls, has come to symbolize this game and everything wrong with it.

Digitzed voices appear, prominently from the announcer, who provides a highly caricaturized Asian voice. Worse than Mickey Rooney as the Japanese neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I think it’s supposed to make the game campy – I hope it wasn’t a legitimate attempt to make the game and tournament feel more “Oriental.” Other effects are standard grunts, groans, and whacking whatever objects sound like punches hitting chests. They’re not quite as bassy as you would hope, but they work. Background themes are light and forgettable.

Kasumi suffers badly for coming in the initial wave of Jag titles, and well before the 6-button Pro Pad. This is a three-button fighter, really turned into a two button fighter for no good reason whatsoever. A punches and B kicks, with D-pad combinations determining the limited variations. Diagonal presses make a big difference, as down delivers a different kick than down-toward, and up-toward is required for uppercuts. The quality of your pad will directly determine the amount of control you get here. The condition of my standard controller was no good for this, and the Pro Pad was able to keep up, but still had trouble accurately coordinating those diagonal attacks. Blocking is handled by pressing back – I hate this system; too loose and imprecise.

The remaining C button must be held down to trigger special attacks and fatalities. The moves are still performed with the same standard joystick rotaters, but they only work with C held down. I have no idea why someone thought this was a good idea. I’ve never had trouble accidentally triggering a special attack, and later thought I could benefit from a separate dead-man’s switch to “arm” them. Maybe they were trying to do something new and different, maybe they couldn’t figure out what to do with that extra button, who knows. The system works, barely, but is overly convoluted. You’ll also desperately miss a joystick when you’re trying to do “half-circle towards” kind of moves.

Characters are supposed to have different fighting styles and techniques based on their historical period and upbringing. Nothing about this really comes through. The Amazonian “feral” style still throws uppercuts, shin kicks, and rapid one-two high punches like every other fighter does. Special moves are about as generic as the characters, and you’ll see some favorites return from classic fighters, like Raiden’s flying leap, Scorpion’s side-screen teleport, and a weak “real life” approximation of Ken’s hurricane kick. Fights are generally determined by who can get their opponent in the corner and keep them there. Changing the difficulty level only increases the contrast between damage you give and damage you take, and you must play at the Ninja God level (where you have 1 credit and can only survive about six good hits) to see the “true” ending.

Fatalities won’t blow anyone away either, but then how can you really rate these? Absurd amounts of gore? Realism? Length and horror of torture? Creativity of the kill? There’s only so many ways you can blow up or rip out someone’s head, torso, or limbs, and how you get there is rarely as interesting as the results. Here you’ll get head stomps, explosives planted in mouths, kicks through chests, but nothing the likes of which you cannot possibly imagine, and nothing that isn’t shown a medium distance with medium detail. No “Golden Shower” kind of infamous fatality either, not even from poster-boy Angus. Nothing you absolutely must see to believe.

Compared to previous home fighters, Kasumi Ninja looks fantastic. Direct comparisons are difficult since the game was never on arcade hardware or released to other systems, but the difference should be immediately clear. Characters and backgrounds have higher-resolution, more detailed images than similar games on other consoles. Compare MK1 on the Genesis’ single blue-sky screen to the bitmap photographs of Kasumi’s Scotland or American West levels. Different layers scroll independently to suggest depth, and though they sometimes jerk or jump, they generally pull the effect off nicely.

Blood flows a little too freely – kicking someone in the foot will spurt just as much as a punch to the head. But it is impressive that all the blood stays on the ground throughout the match, never disappearing, never shrinking away as new blood gets dropped. A basic 3D character select screen is unnecessarily choppy though, and all animations sport limited frames for each character’s moves. I attribute this to the period limitations of snapping digital photos of characters in action. They stitch together well enough, but frames that would smooth out the animation are obviously missing. Of course, this was a common limitation for these kinds of games, even in the arcade. I don’t feel it makes the game any less of a graphical powerhouse.

The major trouble I have with Kasumi goes back to how well this game compares to the original arcade version of Mortal Kombat. Neither game is particularly fast, fluid, loaded with fighters, filled with moves, or has even heard of a combo system. Both games have easily-exploitable special moves (namely, projectiles) and AI opponents ready and willing to cheat you. Both games have nary an enemy that can’t be defeated by jump kicks. This was fine enough for MK when it was fresh and mildly revolutionary. Kasumi Ninja doesn’t lose points for not being Mortal Kombat. But the original Mortal Kombat wasn’t a great fighter itself, and Kasumi pulling the same racket years later, regardless of how close it looks to arcade hardware, isn’t overly special.

 

The Good

Arcade graphics on a home console. Playable, basic tourney fighter.

The Bad

Lags well behind genre advancements that were standard by the time of its release. Impressive to look at, but not much going on under the hood.

 

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