SYSTEM: PC-FX | GENRE: $900 ANIME BATTLE ACTION
Pia Carrot is the PC-FX classic that you play at home, by yourself, naked. Kishin Douji Zenki FX: Vajra Fight is the mouthful of a game you play at retro slumber parties for 20 minutes to make your friends go "WHOA THAT'S AWESOME" before moving on to a hundred consecutive sessions of Black Ops 3 . . . which isn't retro at all, but that's how these things go.
Due to NEC's strict guidelines, there were only three straight-up action games released for the PC-FX. Sony wanted 3D, whereas NEC wanted . . . anime FMV and digital comics. How did a 2D fighter-platformer hybrid actually get released? Simple: it's based on an at-the-time popular (but long since forgotten) anime series.
The TV show's repetitive "monster of the week" nature is appropriate for a fast-paced battle action game. Priestess Chiaki, the granddaughter of high priest Something-Or-Other, is out to beat a bunch of demonic monsters, most of whom have spiky bodies and serrated claws (they just wouldn't be demons otherwise). They weren't born this way; the diabolical devils are actually humans possessed by wicked seeds and, in nearly every episode, Chiaki offs some random beast and collects their tainted heart, which her servant Zenki happily eats. Hudson cleverly ties this into the game by making each boss's demon seed (which look like a giant winking eyeball) an edible health restoration item.
Although she can shoot zombie samurai and muck monsters with her psychic Shinto powers, Chiaki's most powerful weapon is Zenki: strongest of all demons. Voila! Two characters for two-player simultaneous action! As the story goes, Chiaki's grandfather sealed Zenki a long time ago, but now there's an even greater evil and Chiaki needs Zenki to help her save the earth. The catch is that Zenki's trapped in the body of a little boy. Only our perky priestess -- with her magic bracelet -- can restore Zenki to full manly size. Although this would be a great setup for a porn game, Zenki FX is an Altered Beast romp with Street Fighter attacks and a dozen bosses. It's barely long enough to even be called a complete game, but what's there is pretty damn cool.
VAJRA ON, VAJRA ON, VAJRA ON!
(you got the thunder)
From the full-blown and high-quality anime introduction to the anime ending that skips and chugs like crazy, Zenki FX plays out like an unusually elaborate episode from the show's second season. The big villain is the Prince of Death's son, who's out to collect demon seeds to feed his pet dog spirit (which will grow up big and strong enough to take over the world if it eats enough). The game's big villain plays no role whatsoever in the game, except to show up at the very end and feed the last boss's demon seed to his dog. Then the credits roll and you get pissed that the game is already over.
Now that I've spoiled Zenki FX's downer of an ending, there's some good news: the rest of the game is really cool and actually has a decent storyline (and fear not, I won't spoil that). The control's not that great, the music's only okay, but the graphics are RADICAL MAXIMUS. That's right -- hardcore gamers drove the price of Zenki FX up to $900 because it has sweet graphics.
The adventure starts when Chiaki and Zenki respond to a desperate phone call to save their (cute) friend Nozomi from the wolf-like demon Nanashi. That no-good cur! The shrine looks pretty cool -- kind of like Guardian Heroes with big talking faces overlaid on the action -- but the clunky control doesn't come close to matching Treasure's masterpiece. If you've chosen Zenki, the game feels like an updated Altered Beast (especially when Zenki grabs the special icon that makes him POWAH UP to full size). If you've chosen Chiaki, the game's reminiscent of Mystic Defender, because close-range attacks are abandoned in favor of well-timed spiritual shooting. It's even got Mystic Defender's charged shots.
But no matter who you've chosen, you're in trouble once Malbas the Maleficent arrives! From this point on, Zenki FX is a wild ride atop rendered planes and haunted trains, speckled with electrically-charged fights against demonic automobiles! It's all so fast-paced and it all looks so cool that it's easy to get lost in the fun and forget the game's shortcomings. Malbas himself kicks the adventure into high gear with Zenki's first badical graphical:
1: The Psychedelic Hell's Gate effect
Like the famous hyperspace scenes from every 16-bit shooter (and Splatterhouse 2), the background shimmers in waves of acid-tripping fluorescence. This is basically just a blisteringly out-of-place showcase of the PC-FX's ability to seamlessly splice FMV into the middle of any game. It looks cool, but the real purpose of the Psychedelic Hell's Gate effect is to let gamers know: Zenki FX is about to kick some ass!
2: The Eerily Illuminated Dust effect
Moments after the trippiness ends, your chosen character (for me it was Chiaki) wakes up in the shrine, alone. Through a hole in the ceiling, a sunbeam illuminates the darkened room . . . and dust particles are visibly drifting in the air, like dust particles do. This almost absurd attention to something so minor (but awesomely realistic) carries through the entire game. Whether it's the lights flickering in an abandoned parking garage or an injured Nozomi wincing as she tries to push herself up off the ground, Zenki FX nails even the smallest visual details.
3: The Sevenfold Parallax Clouds effect
When the frog-like demon Razurou zooms by on his personal jet and the fast-paced battle music kicks in, it's hard not to be distracted by the ridiculous number of clouds scrolling through the sky, and that's part of what makes the ensuing battle so dangerous.
The other thing that makes it tough is that the demon is fast and quick to strike. Since many of Zenki and Chiaki's best attacks -- such as Guile-style somersault kicks or rising uppercuts -- require inputting complex directional motions, I often found myself outclassed. Performing "fireball" motions just doesn't work when harpies aren't bound by such constraints. Fortunately, by setting Mode 1 to "B" on the controller, these special attacks are assigned to the top row of buttons. With that easy fix, the control starts to feel a lot smoother and the fights become a lot more enjoyable.
4: The Swirling Scary Skulls effect
As the plane crashes to the ground, I fell through the Sevenfold Parallaxing Clouds . . . and landed on top of a speeding train! One of the coolest things about Zenki FX is that it's not divided into easily discernible levels. One stage links to the next without interruption, so it's hard to tell when to expect another boss fight or when to expect a quick romp through some brainless minions.
The train episode includes a bunch of the aforementioned brainless minions, but it's also one of the game's coolest segments. Occupied by skeletal passengers, just pissing the night away, this haunted ride through dark tunnels is accompanied by one truly eerie melody. Undead cooks hurl cutlery, ghastly stewardesses push carts of imperishable canned goods down the aisles. Hit them once, hit them twice -- they get knocked down, but they get up again!
It'd be easy to stroll through the cabins, leisurely shooting the skeletal passengers, if the GRIM REAPER HIMSELF weren't chasing you through each car! Pouring psychic firepower into the grim reaper temporarily stops Death, causing him to burst into a flurry of swirling, translucent skulls. But don't relax . . . given enough time, the skulls glom back together into the scythe-bearing specter.
5: The Demonically Enslaved Tokyo effect
Running from the reaper is exciting, but even more exciting is the part when you run from a demonic raging automaton, similar to the tank pursuit scene from Contra: Shattered Soldier.
Keep running and you'll dash outside into an all-out beast brawl in the city streets. The vocal title song wails as you pound a crowd of ghoulish samurai, wasps, and muck monsters, but coolest of all is the Demonically Enslaved Tokyo effect. Above the urban battleground, the PC-FX pumps a smoky FMV pattern across the city's skyline! It's possibly the game's coolest graphical effect, and a great way to end an exciting adventure.
But let's be honest. Cool as all of these things are, they're still just visual effects.
From start to finish, Kishin Douji Zenki FX: Vajra Fight looks awesome but plays sloppily. It's still a fun game . . . but at thirty bucks per flawed minute, I simply can't recommend it. Not when bigger and cheaper gems (Nier Automata, yo) are sitting on store shelves RIGHT NOW. But if you've got a grand to burn, it's a retro anime gaming fix that you can't get anywhere else.
--- Emerald Rocker