Retro Respawn – China Warrior and Knight Rider Special on the PC Engine

This week on Retro Respawn, I’m going to be looking at the PC Engine, known as the TurboGrafx-16 in the West, for the first time. Jointly developed by Hudson Soft and NEC (a company all Evertonians from the 80s will warmly recall, as it was our shirt sponsor), the console saw a Japanese release in 1987 before reaching American shores in 1989.

The console enjoyed far more success in Japan than it did in the West, with a contributing factor being that there were close to 200 more games released in Japan than there were elsewhere. The console ultimately lacked third-party support, and this caused it to flounder in the USA, despite an initially positive start.

Of the two games I’m looking at today, one was released in all regions, whilst the other was released in Japan only. The former is the game “China Warrior”, which hit Japanese stores in 1987 before coming over to America in 1989. As the name would suggest, you take control of Chinese Bruce Lee lookalike Wang and side-scroll your way across China punching and kicking anything that moves.

China Warrior plays like a less polished version of Altered Beast, in that you walk forward taking out every enemy that gets in your way. However, whereas in Altered Beast you can face in different directions and get interesting power-ups, in China Warrior you can only face in one direction and there are no real power-ups to speak of. It makes the game far more one-note than its SEGA rival, as consequence.

Wang saunters forward and has to punch away the evil intentions of humming birds, disconcerting druids, boulders and even random sticks being thrown from off-screen. You do have the option to duck or jump to dodge these obstacles, but it’s advised to try and kill as many of them as possible, as if you grow your point tally, you’ll occasionally be rewarded with some extra blocks on your health bar. Humorously, Wang can even punch knives and fireballs out of the sky as they fly at him, which raises two key questions. Firstly, where are all these things coming from? And secondly, how are poor Wang’s fists not reduced to melted burning stubs?

Graphically, the game isn’t that bad with big sprites and a lot of vibrant colours on display. One downside of such big sprites is that they take up most of the screen, thus giving you a relatively small surface area upon which to play. In a nice touch, Wang will actually start to noticeably bleed a little bit as his health decreases. The music is generic arcade-styled pap, but it does the job required.

Annoyingly, it’s very easy to die, and you are given a paltry amount of lives before seeing the game over screen with no option to continue from the level you died on. I managed to get about halfway through the game, but then the difficulty ramped up considerably and I got sick of having to do the first set of levels all over again to get back to where I was.

Overall, China Warrior is a limited game that looks nice enough but soon wears out its appeal. Not surprisingly, its re-release to the Nintendo Wii virtual console a few years back saw it get absolutely skewered. I can’t imagine dropping £40 on a game like this back in the day, I’d be bloody livid.

Whereas China Warrior saw a release on both sides of the ocean, “Knight Rider Special” was a game released for just the Japanese market in 1994, which is kind of odd when you consider that the original TV series the game was based on ended all the way back in 1986. Despite this fact, Pack-In-Video decided it would be worth releasing the game 8 years later. Maybe Knight Rider was enjoying a lot of success in mid-90s Japan?

Pack-In had released a Knight Rider game to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, but where Special differs is that you get a third-person perspective in comparison to the NES version’s “behind the wheel” viewpoint. To those not au-fait with Knight Rider, it was a show starring David Hasselhoff as Michael Knight, a man who drives a talking car called KITT. KITT is self-aware and, pardon the pun, kitted out with enough firepower to conquer a small country. Episodes of the show centred around Michael and KITT trying to solve crimes, which would often lead to KITT driving around and blowing stuff up, because the 80s.

As you would imagine, this isn’t the worst scenario for a video game, as it sets the stage for high speed driving antics and plenty of action. Indeed, simulating high speeds is probably what Knight Rider Special does best. Oddly, you push up on the D-pad to accelerate as opposed to pressing one of the two face buttons, with those being reserved for shooting and jumping, accordingly.

Oh yes, KITT can jump if you press one of the face buttons. If, like me, you didn’t have access to an instruction manual for the game and also didn’t (and still don’t) speak Japanese, you probably mistook the jump button for the accelerator, only to recoil in horror as KITT jumped about 20 feet in the air and flew off the road!

Getting used to the controls isn’t too difficult once you get used to what everything does, but sadly, Knight Rider Special isn’t a particularly enjoyable game, nor does it offer much in the form of variety either. Levels involve you racing against a time limit, with the occasional checkpoint replenishing your time, and shooting at enemy cars until you reach a boss at the level’s end. This soon gets tiresome.

The game is also ludicrously difficult, with the timer being ridiculously low and leaving practically no room for error. I wouldn’t mind later levels getting eye-wateringly difficult, but Knight Rider is rock hard from the very first level onwards. Ultra-difficult games can be fun if they have an enjoyable challenge that makes you want to keep coming back to give it another go. Knight Rider Special, unfortunately, just isn’t fun to play for a prolonged period, which in turn makes its difficulty frustrating as opposed to engaging.

Plus sides for the game are that it looks nice graphically, with the sky changing colour as each level progresses and the colours looking generally quite nice. When you die, which will happen often, you can at least restart the level you were on without having to go all the way back to the start of the game. The classic Knight Rider theme is also included, so fans of the show will at least be contented with that.

Overall though, I’d struggle to recommend either game that I played this week. Both of them are absolutely nails but not in an enjoyable way, and both games are pretty limited from a gameplay perspective. Both of them do look nice graphically though, so they do have that going for them.

I concede that both of these games may not have been the best introduction to the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16. If you are a fan of the system and can suggest any good games for it, then please feel free to stick them in the comments and I’ll give them a goosey gander.

Thanks for reading

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