NES Retro Review: Phantom Fighter

I first played Phantom Fighter when I was about twelve years old. At the time, I thought the graphics were great, the setting was interesting, and the challenge was just perfect. It was a weird and unknown title, but one of my favorite games growing up. For today’s retro review, I thought it would be fun to give this childhood favorite a new look. Though I loved it as a kid, is Phantom Fighter actually any good?

In many ways, Phantom Fighter is a primitive fighting game, pitting you one-on-one with enemies called kyonshies, based on the jiangshi of Chinese folklore. These enemies exhibit zombie-like traits, always moving towards you with their arms outstretched. Their behavior is usually limited to simply hopping towards you. Bosses are slightly more complex, and high-level kyonshies can vary the distance of their jumps to throw off your spacing.

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And Phantom Fighter is a game that’s all about timing and spacing. Fights are mostly centered around predicting the movements of your opponent, kicking them when they jump into range, and then retreating. As simple as it sounds, success requires a level of precision, as well as knowledge regarding the speed and range of your enemies. None of this forgives the fact that the AI is brain-dead simplistic, but it works better than it probably should.

The stiff controls often prove just as dangerous as the kyonshies. Jumping and changing direction are substantially delayed, due to an animation that precedes each. For example, when you try to retreat in the opposite direction, you first have to wait for your character to spin around in place. Each time you perform one of these actions, you need to factor in the delay.

The fighting mechanics are enhanced by an upgrade system that allows you to improve your punches, kicks, jumps, and movement speed. Upgrades are purchased with scrolls, which you earn throughout your adventure by defeating enemies. The scrolls must be taken to a training hall, but before you can use them, you are forced to answer a bizarre, irrelevant question, such as how many stars are on the United States flag.

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A training hall appears in each town, as does a temple where you may restore your health. The towns serve as Phantom Fighter’s stages, and there are eight in the game, each with a boss. Towns may be explored freely, and you may enter any building at will, except for the last one which houses the boss. Most buildings are infested with deadly kyonshies, and at the end of each, you are awarded a prize, either in the way of scrolls, an item, or one of three red orbs that must be collected to unlock the boss room.

This mechanic ensures that many of Phantom Fighter’s battles are optional, and allows players to tackle the game in any number of ways. Most buildings can be entered multiple times, allowing you to farm scrolls or earn back items that you’ve lost. Early in the game, each building will have only one or two enemies, but later levels consist of more fights which must be completed consecutively and with a single life bar.

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Even with these restrictions, Phantom Fighter is not a particularly difficult game, especially by NES standards. Enemies are basic and are limited in type, so once you get a knack for how to play the game it becomes second nature. Unfortunately, the game is too repetitive to stay fresh throughout its run-time. By the halfway point, you’ve seen about everything that the game has to offer.

Phantom Fighter’s gameplay is middling, but its presentation is surprisingly solid. The graphics are decent, with a nice variety of temples, graveyards, and gardens to serve as battlefields. Each location has an Eastern style, providing atmosphere that can range from quaint to creepy, depending on the backdrop. An Asian inspired soundtrack enhances the action and appropriately conveys the right emotions for each scenario, from training hall to battle to boss fight.

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There’s a lot to like about Phantom Fighter, but its most important aspect, the combat, is at the back of that list. The stiff controls will deter some players from the start, while others will lose interest in the repetitive gameplay before the end of their adventure. That said, the game has value for successfully integrating interesting mechanics, such as a great upgrade system and non-linear stages. It’s not a hidden gem or an unearthed classic, but Phantom Fighter provides a unique experience with great presentation and a personality unlike any other.

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