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Comparison: Hokuto no Ken vs Black Belt

by Kurt Kalata - March 4, 2008

Hokuto no Ken (北斗の拳) / Black Belt - Sega Mark III, Sega Master System (1986)

American Sega Master System Cover

Japanese Mark III Cover

You know how Japanese games are all filled with girly men and everything? I have this theory that the bishounen craze is really the fault of Fist of the North Star (Hokuto no Ken). The manga (and anime) features the manliest man in existence, a dude named Kenshiro who can use his martials arts to make practically anyone more or less explode. There are muscles and dudes screaming at each other and tons of blood and very, very little dialogue. Every page oozes massive amounts of testosterone. I once knew this girl who refused to read it because she was afraid she'd get pregnant. This enourmous amount of masculinity undoubtedly provoked a nationwide backlash, which is why the country still thinks that glam rock is cool and most of today's video game character artists are just biding their time until they land their dream jobs as fashion designers. So far, America has fended off the metrosexual plague, mostly due to the commendable apathy of the average male. But after so many years of bald space marines, it's only a matter of time until the tables turn.

Hokuto no Ken

At any rate, Fist of the North Star should have made for some awesome video games, but like most licensed properties, it didn't. The recent 2D fighting game - courtesy of Arc System Works, the same guys behind Guilty Gear - is pretty okay, and the 3D brawler for the PlayStation is surprisingly fun (if a bit simple), but the earlier Nintendo games for the Famicom and Super Famicom are nothing but tragedy after tragedy. In the early days, the only decent game was Sega's own Hokuto no Ken game. It was one of the first games that involved Yuji Naka (famous for leading Sonic Team and being a jerkass), and although though it's little more than a rip-off of Irem's Kung Fu Master (aka Spartan X), it controls much better. It also has some fantastic graphics, especially the one-on-one boss battles, which feature huge character sprites that look totally amazing for an 8-bit game. Plus, whenever Kenshiro hits an enemy, they shatter across the screen. Not exactly the blood and gore of the manga, but close enough.

The manga was unheard of in the States during the mid-80s, so Sega decided to change around all of the graphics, and rename it Black Belt. Black Belt was a very special game for me, because it was one of the first games I got for my Sega Master System when I was five years old. It made me want to take karate, so my parents enrolled be in a course at the local high school. I was massively disappointed when I couldn't make things explode when I hit them. Also, during a sparring match, I accidentally whacked some kid in the face. He started crying. Then I started crying. I never took karate again.

So in Black Belt, the player controls a karate master wearing a gi, fighting in modern-day Asian landscapes to fight evil and rescue your girl. In Hokuto no Ken, the player controls Kenshiro, fighting through post apocalyptic wastelands and beating up characters from the manga. Some (but not all) of the music is different. The only major change is that Black Belt gives you health restoration power-ups (usually in the form of sushi flying through the air) while Hokuto no Ken gives you almost none. Strangely, the invincibility power-up in Hokuto no Ken is a letter "P", while it's the Japanese symbol for "strength" in Black Belt. Here's a level-by-level gallery detailing the changes. It's especially to cool to see how they changed the iconic Fist of the North Star characters into regular schmucks.

The first level is Southern Cross Town in Hokuto no Ken, but appears to be some kind of stadium in Black Belt. Note that many of the midbosses are the same in both versions. The final one before you proceed to the boss is the infamous fatty Mr. Heart.

Whenever the player kills a boss, there's a cinema of the hero pummelling the enemy into submission. These are generally awesome. Hokuto no Ken features the name of the attack during these scenes, while Black Belt keeps them but alters them to use different symbols. The first battle in Hokuto no Ken is against Shin. After the battle, Kenshiro discovers the fake Yuria and heads to the next stage. This is absent in Black Belt.

This level, God Land, is the only one that's really different in Hokuto no Ken. Both the player and enemies can jump on barrels and ledges, making this the only area that has platforms and isn't just a straight line. There's none of this in Black Belt, where the stage is just an open field against the background of a waterfront.

The Colonel is a master of boomerangs. In Black Belt, he was changed into some dude named Hawk.

The third stage is kinda cool - in Hokuto no Ken it's just a palette swap of the first stage (it's called Devil Rebirth), but it has whole new graphics in Black Belt, and takes place in on a Japanese farm. I always thought the tiny little guys in the red outfits had funny looking heads.

This is the only boss that's different. In Hokuto no Ken, Kenshiro faces off against a fire breathing monstrosity named Devil. This wouldn't fly given Black Belt's modern day setting, so Sega turned him into a sumo wrestler, removed the fire attack, and slightly changed his attack pattern. Also notice how Hokuto no Ken uses the small Kenshiro sprite for this battle instead of the large one normally used for boss battles.

The fourth stage in Hokuto no Ken is the Legend of Cassandra. The midbosses are the the whip wielding Wiegel and those two turban clad guys with swords. In Black Belt, the level was changed to a Japanese garden, and the axe wielding warriors were changed into ninjas.

This boss is really strange in both versions. The only way to beat him is by exchanging blows until he dies. In Black Belt, he simply disappears into thin air, leaving only his mask on the ground. It was really creepy and kinda poetic, or at least it was back when I was five. In Hokuto no Ken, Kenshiro faces off against Toki after he's been rescued. After the fight, Toki simply walks away and says something before you continue to the next stage. (This fight doesn't happen in the manga - I had originally thought this was a misplaced battle against the fake Toki, but that was before the Cassandra Level chapter.)

This is a palette swapped retread of level 2 in both versions. It's supposed to the Tombstone of the Holy Emperor in Hokuto no Ken.

Thouther/Souther was changed into a girl named Rita. This character looks pretty mannish, even with the long hair they slapped on her. I don't think they ever explain who the random dude in the portrait is.

There's no stage in level 6, just a boss battle. When Riki defeats Wang, he stumbles into the middle of the screen and then... stretches? The score is then totalled, which apparently means you beat the game. This makes a LOT more sense in Hokuto no Ken, where, after Kenshiro defeats Raou, he points towards the heavens, proclaims that "I have no regrets!" and kills himself by turning into stone - this is one of the most iconic moments in manga history. It's weird that they'd change the event programming for Oni/Toki back in the fourth stage, but not for Wang/Raou here.

The hero gets the girl. Black Belt has an extra screen of text congratulating the player before it shows the "end" screen. The symbol near the top of the screen means "love".

This game was remade in 3D for the PlayStation 2 under the Sega Ages label. It's pretty bad, but it includes the original Mark III version of Hokuto no Ken, so it's not a bad deal overall. It was only released in Japan though.

View all "Black Belt" items on eBay

Shin Seikimatsu Kyūseishu Densetsu Hokuto no Ken (新世紀末救世主伝説 北斗の拳) / Last Battle - Genesis (1989)

American Genesis Cover

Japanese Mega Drive Cover

Sega made a Hokuto no Ken sequel for the Mega Drive, which was one of the first titles out for the system. Despite the larger characters, it's a substantially worse game. It was released in America under the name Last Battle. Unlike Black Belt, most of the game is pretty much the same. However, in the Japanese version, ever character killed would have their head explode into a mess of bright red blood. In the American version, they simply fly off screen.

The characters names were all changed to avoid association with Hokuto no Ken - Kenshiro became Aazark, Bat became Max, and Rin became Alyssa. Hilariously, the English translation is pretty spot on in the last case - the writing was just as bad in the original version.

The color palette was changed, and while the alterations are minimal is most circumstances, some of the bosses look drastically different. One of them has been given green skin, which was maybe done to make them look less human?

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