PUBLISHER: Hot-B (JP), Sage’s Creation (US)
RELEASE DATE: 04/26/91 (JP), 06/1991 (US)
From 1990 to 1992, Sage’s Creation were the B-game publishers for the Genesis and Game Gear. Their titles are off-kilter and often play like they’ll fall apart at any moment, but unique design choices always lurk within their madness. Shadow Blasters, for example, is a sloppy beat-em-up with large empty stages, hilarious cutscenes, overwhelming boss battles, and… a character upgrade system? In 1990?! Not even the mighty Streets of Rage series incorporated character upgrades. Similarly, Super Golf is a generic non-licensed golf game with eighteen very short holes, but your character roster – both players and caddies – is bizarre and inspired.
Ka-Ge-Ki: Fists of Steel is peak Sage’s Creation, a shoddily assembled fighting/beat-em-up nightmare, starring ugly characters with huge heads and grotesque faces. You play Kei, a nice guy who – you guessed it – also happens to be a top martial artist. One day, the boss of the Kageki gang approaches Kei with the offer to be his right-hand man. Kei refuses the boss, and not long after, Kei’s brother ends up in the hospital, badly beaten and close to death. Desire for revenge overwhelms Kei and he vows to make the boss – and the entire Kageki gang – pay for what they’ve done.
Each of the game’s nine rounds involves roughing up a couple lackeys (punching bags, really) followed by a proper boss fight, all at Kageki headquarters. Sounds simple enough, but the fighting mechanics are plops. Kei has two attacks, a fast jab that does very little damage and a slow punch that hurts more, but is difficult to land. He can also duck oncoming attacks and jump across the arena if need be. That’s it. No special moves. No combos. Some of the thugs have special weapons and stamina boosts, but not our beacon of virtue, Kei. He’s stuck with his basic skills, no shirt, and the occasional can of beans that someone throws to him from the crowd.
The fights themselves are tedious, repetitive, and slow, particularly the later ones where the enemies have more health. When Kei or his opponent are hit about five times, they get knocked down for a few seconds. You wait while they struggle to get up. Every. Single. Time. Tapping buttons won’t bring Kei back faster, either. Just sit there and watch him (or your opponent) struggle on the ground. Kei’s adversaries always regain a little health when they get back up as well, making for even longer bouts. Drain their health bar to nothing, then knock them down to advance the round.
That said, if you’d like to win at Ka-Ge-Ki every single time, play defensively. Let the opponent get in your personal space, then punch as much as you can while backing up. Then when you’re in a corner, jump in the opposite direction, and repeat until the dude can’t stand anymore. It takes time and your fingers will probably hurt, but it gets the job done.
Interspersed through the stop-and-go punching are shrill voice clips that are both obnoxious and hilarious. The quotes “Let’s Fight!,” “Is that all?,” “He’s not bad,” and this bizarre Frankenstein’s monster groaning sound, like “Unnnhhh unnnhhh unnhh” will forever be associated with Ka-Ge-Ki.
Ka-Ge-Ki is a hideous experience. The whole game feels ugly, like the code itself is covered with some black grime and needs to be thrown into a pit of fire somewhere. But in lieu of rounding up every Ka-Ge-Ki cartridge on the second-hand market and Doing What Must Be Done, I confess: punching the crap out of the Kageki gang provides some relief from the game’s repulsiveness. I’m not sure how that works – playing a terrible game makes the terrible game slightly better? What? – and it doesn’t excuse the game’s many sins. Still, despite the awful mechanics, the fights are surprisingly therapeutic and addictive. Kudos to Sage’s Creation for once again publishing an abominable game that I wanted to continue playing.