Remember the good ol' days when four-hour games cost $50? Remember playing the same level over and over again, not because you were a masochist, but because you simply had nothing better to do? Remember when you got to the end of Metroid, but you were too scared of what might happen if you failed the escape sequence at the end? So you went outside and made your dad do it, partly convinced that your house would actually explode if Samus didn't escape in time?
Yes, we've all experienced each and every one of these things. And it's in that spirit that I'll be taking us back to a simpler time, exploring the old NES games that you may never have played before. And what better way to kick off a new series on GameLuster than with the Kick Master himself?
Kick Master is a side-scrolling action game played across eight stages. As the title so eloquently implies, players attack by using a variety of kicks, many of which are learned during the course of the game as the player gains levels. Kick Master is primarily combat orientated, intermixed with platforming sections and lots of boss fights. Magic spells can be found throughout, offering a wide range of effects that include healing, flight, shielding, and several forms of attack.
The enemies are simple but diverse, mixing standard fantasy tropes such as skeletons and zombies with more unusual monsters, such as that purple blob featured in the image above. Each stage presents new creatures and challenges, and does so across unique and memorable settings. Backgrounds feature solid attention to detail, with cool imagery and unique color schemes that give every area a personality of its own. I particularly enjoyed the aesthetic of the game's swamp stage. Here, a shimmering orange pond sits below a crimson sky. You traverse the tall green grass in the foreground, battling hordes of demonic creatures. The atmosphere is striking, with a forlorn beauty that's uncommon for an NES game.
This personality bleeds into the mechanics of Kick Master, which are complex and unique for a game of its time. When enemies are killed, they drop up to three collectibles, such as health, experience points, and magic points. These items leap and fall across the screen, forcing you to quickly decide which ones you need most. This mechanic injects a surprising amount of pressure into the experience, keeping players on their toes from start to finish.
The controls are tight and intuitive. Attacks are easy to execute, both on the ground and in the air. You're afforded a lot of control when you jump, making even precision landings easy to perform. That said, as your arsenal of kicks begins to grow, it becomes increasingly easy to accidentally use the wrong one. These mistakes are usually harmless, but can be critical when working around death pits or lots of enemies.
Bosses and mini-bosses appear frequently throughout the game's eight stages. These fights range in quality, with many proving to be overly simplistic. Too often, you are able to stun-lock bosses or camp in specific corners and wait for them to reach the vulnerable parts of their patterns. Fortunately, bosses are diverse, with a handful of memorable encounters, including a giant octopus and a woman riding atop a pack of wolves. The best bosses are large and grandiose, requiring multiple strategies to bring them down.
Technical issues crop up from time to time, marring the otherwise slick action. Hit detection is often shaky, resulting in phantom damage for both you and your enemies. At times, enemies can spawn on top of you out of thin air. Other times, they fail to spawn entirely.
There is also a peculiar case of two enemies with distinct behaviour that look identical. One charges directly at you at high speed and can be killed in one hit. The second moves more slowly, leaping around and kicking you while throwing ninja stars. The second enemy has more health, dying in two to three hits. It's curious then that the two enemy types use the exact same character model. Is it a design choice to increase difficulty, or is it an oversight? Only the folks who worked at Taito 25 years ago know for sure.
Kick Master isn't an overly difficult game, owing to the fact that it boasts unlimited retry's and a password system. There aren't any time limits to worry about, and the game's magic spells give players numerous ways to tackle challenging areas. A lot of the bosses follow simple patterns, and there are often safe tactics that can be used to dispatch them.
Even so, Kick Master has its hair-pulling moments, hitting a crescendo during the last half of the final stage. Here, you must hop up a series of platforms while avoiding obstacles. Death occurs anytime you fall beneath the bottom border of the screen, and there are times when you can trap yourself with no way to go back down. Deadly bubbles rain from the sky, enemies teleport and fire projectiles at you, and certain platforms spring spikes that damage you and knock you down.
That aside, your absolute worst enemy in this section is yourself. By the end of the game, you're likely to have learned flying and sliding kicks that send you careening across the screen at high speed. It is exceedingly easy to trigger these attacks by accident and go darting off into the abyss. You can avoid this catastrophe if you mindfully plan every single attack, but it's easier said than done.
The game ends with a tough boss fight that can border on ridiculous if you don't plan for it. In its entirety, the last section of the game is gruelling, preceded by stages that are only easy in comparison. Still, overcoming the odds and beating the game provides the type of satisfaction that few games do. And isn't that one of the best things about old NES games?
Kick Master is a fun and competent action game without the polish of larger, more well-known titles. Playing requires skill and persistence, making it a great little game for people who enjoy a challenge. A fine array of features such as learned skills and magic spells speak to Kick Master's depth, while a password system keeps it from becoming too frustrating. Though a few technicalities keep the game from reaching greatness, it is a true hidden gem of the NES library.