KickMaster
  • Genre:
    • Platformer
  • Platform:
    • NES
  • Developer:
    • KID
  • Publisher:
    • Taito
  • Released:
    • US January 1992
Score: 80%

This review was published on 12/15/2016.

KickMaster is a side-scrolling platform video game developed by KID and published by Taito Corporation for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was originally released in North America in January 1992. Strangely, the game didn't make it to anywhere else, being one of the few NES titles exclusive to that region. The NES came out in the 8-bit era during the early-to-mid 1980s, and by the early 1990s, it was superseded by 16-bit consoles like the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Genesis, and TurboGrafx-16. Despite that, there were still NES games being officially released until around 1994. A few of these late era NES releases turned out to be some of the best games on the system, but due to the popularity of 16-bit consoles at the time, they went largely unnoticed by the gaming public. Along with Shatterhand, Vice: Project Doom, Little Samson, and Kabuki Quantum Fighter, KickMaster is one of those lost gems. Outside a tiny bit of coverage in issue #28 of Nintendo Power, KickMaster got no real attention back in its heyday, which is a shame, because it's pretty darn good.

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Set in a dark medieval fantasy world, the story begins with the invasion of the once peaceful Kingdom of Lowrel by the evil Belzed's monstrous forces. The Kingdom is completely destroyed in the attack, the King and Queen are killed, and their only child, Princess Silphee, is kidnapped. All of the King's guards have been eliminated, except for the powerful knight Macren and his younger brother Thonolan, who's an aspiring martial artist. The two heroes quickly set off on a lengthy journey to rescue the Princess, but during the trip, Macren is killed by a skeleton soldier from Belzed's army. Now it's all up to Thonolan to avenge his brother and Kingdom by taking down Belzed's forces and rescuing the Princess. It's time to kick butt, quite literally, for Thonolan is the legendary Kick Master. As you can see, the story's pretty cheesy, but it has a certain charm to it. All of this is shown off in the game's opening scene, which takes a page out of Ninja Gaiden's book by depicting characters with larger artwork. It's a snazzy way to kick a game off.

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From the moment you start the game up, KickMaster demonstrates its visual prowess with a neat squishing and expanding effect on the title screen. Graphically gorgeous, this game fully takes advantage of NES hardware to output some of the system's best visuals. It's one of the most colorful games on the NES, getting as much as it possibly can from the system's limited palette. Environments range from bright and cheery to dark and gloomy, providing a great amount of color variance. One particularly impressive area is a dreary cave that has an eerily glowing background with skeletons tied up to stone pillars. Another location has a pleasant sunset cast across water with surprisingly fluid wave effects. All the sprites are splendid, as well, being large, highly detailed, and well animated. The wonderful animation is demonstrated when the basic skeletons swing their swords at you in an absolutely smooth motion. You'd be hard pressed to find a better looking game on the NES. The music is no slouch, either. From jaunty tunes to dark and foreboding ones, this game's soundtrack has it all. It also makes excellent use of percussion on the NES' sound chip, which sounds quite nice.

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You take control of Thonolan, who is completely unarmed and fights his foes mostly with his feet. Movement is handled by the d-pad, the A button allows you to jump, and the B button attacks, usually in the form of a kick. Whenever you kick an enemy to pieces, they'll explode into three random goodies that'll fly upwards for a short distance before falling back down and disappearing off screen. Getting all three goodies before they fall off screen is tough, so you'll usually have to prioritize one or two of them. These goodies include HP restoring hearts, magical bottles that replenish MP, crystals that give extra points, damaging skulls that should be avoided, and shield-like items that grant juicy experience points. Yes, that's correct; this game has a leveling system. Thonolan becomes stronger every time he levels up, increasing his overall life bar and maximum MP. The maximum level is seven, which you'll likely reach before the end of the game without any grinding. There's one other major benefit to leveling up, as well.

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In the beginning, Thonolan only starts with three moves: a basic standing kick, a crouching sweep kick, and a vertical press kick. However, as Thonolan levels up, he'll gain additional moves, mostly of the kicking variety. There's one technique per level, with level one granting the knee drop, a fast and furious downward strike that'll make you feel like Super Mario as you smash foes from above. After that, level two gives you a grounded sliding kick similar to Mega Man's, level three is a double front kick that hits twice in the air but is difficult to set up, level four upgrades your default attack into a roundhouse kick that does more damage in a shorter span of time, level five is a flying kick that propels you forward in the air for a short distance, level six upgrades your default attack yet again to the double butterfly kick, and level seven is an ultimate kick befitting a master. By the max level, Thonolan will be a highly versatile fighting machine. All the moves are fairly easy to execute, too, typically being done by pressing the B button while holding a direction on the d-pad.

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By pressing the start button, you'll bring up a menu that'll allow you to switch magic, and the currently equipped spell is used via the select button at the cost of some MP. At first, your list of magic will be empty, but you'll gain new spells as you progress through the game. Most spells are rather easy to obtain, as they're usually placed directly in your path or given to you after beating a boss, but a couple are discretely hidden. As for their effects, spells do a wide range of things, such as shoot lightning to damage foes, cause earthquakes to temporarily freeze all enemies, put up a force field to protect you from projectiles, use healing magic to replenish life, and there's even a spell that lets you fly, oh my! Definitely the most useful spells are the ones that heal you, because your life meter isn't refilled between stages, and health items are scarce. This magic system is simple, but it adds even more depth to an already deep game.

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Most stages are comprised of linear paths that are rather flat in nature. There's occasionally some verticality, but you're usually on level ground. Some stages do contain split paths, too, but that's the exception, not the rule. As a result of that, the stages focus on enemy encounters instead of hazards. It's a good thing, then, that there are a large variety of enemies to encounter, such as lizard men that use their tail as a weapon, zombies that shoot goop out of their chest cavity, ninjas that throw shurikens, and even silly armadillos wielding swords and shields that roll around. Almost every stage brings with it new enemies. The bosses are pretty solid, too, and not just because you can physically touch them. The two most notable bosses are a woman riding on a bunch of hellhounds that jump around the screen to attack you, and a giant octopus on a pirate ship that assaults you with its treacherous tentacles. Bosses don't just appear at the end of stages, either, as they could potentially surprise you anywhere. Sometimes you'll even fight several bosses back-to-back! This constantly keeps you on your toes.

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Similar to the first Super Mario Bros. and perhaps to discourage grinding, you can't scroll the screen backwards. This definitely adds to the challenge, because you can never run away from whatever's in front of you. In the rare occasions a stage becomes vertical, falling off screen will count as an instant death, which can be a bit frustrating. For the most part, the game's difficulty is fairly balanced, but it does get stupidly hard near the finale. It's technically easier than the typical NES game, as there are infinite continues and a password system to ease the pain, but KickMaster still requires mastery to complete. Like Castlevania, the game gets harder each time you beat it, for a maximum of up to three times, but it's honestly hard enough the first time around. If you manage to beat it a third time, you'll get to see the real credits. While the game is good, this is hardly worth the trouble.

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While it didn't get much recognition back when it was new, KickMaster now has a cult following. That's a good thing, because this is one of the best games on the NES by far. The graphics and music are superb, the game play is perfectly solid, and kicking monsters in the face is extremely enjoyable. Combining the intensity of a side-scrolling action game with the leveling system of an RPG is a bold choice, but KickMaster manages to make it work. Besides how frustrating the game becomes towards the end, there's plenty to love about KickMaster. You could say this game has some real kick to it.

Word Count: 1,585

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