Not too long ago I covered the Master System’s first beat-em-up title, My Hero, and now here we have the second brawler on the SMS, which I imagine was released to be a somewhat-competitor to Nintendo’s Kung Fu. Interestingly enough the original Japanese version of this cart was actually based on the anmie/manga series Hokuto No Ken, better known in the West as Fist of the North Star. Sega eventually decided to bring it across the Pacific, but since the series wasn’t well known outside of Japan at the time (plus anime wouldn’t be popular in the States for another decade), they changed the graphics completely to strip any reference to that anime for the U.S. version, and we’re left with a slighty generic-looking brawler. On top of that they saddled it with perhaps the laziest box art possible, which consists entirely of a guy’s kicking foot and nothing else. But while it may not look like anything special up front, how it plays may be a different matter.
The storyline is pretty much just like any other brawler as it involves a martial artist (in this case Riki), a kidnapped girlfriend (Kyoko) and an evil rival (Wang). The gameplay is pretty much lifted from Kung Fu Master and other similar titles as Riki walks his way through six single-plane stages which have their own theme such as an American coastline, a ninja palace and so on. You have a given time limit to reach the end but as you might expect an endless army of thugs stand in your way and you have to use your punching and kicking moves to get them out of your way, and occasionally you can shoot fire out of your hands or feet. Unlike most other brawlers, when you defeat foes they explode instead of just dropping off the screen or blinking away, though it’s not as graphic as the anime. During you travels power-ups will often float by in the sky, such as Japanese food to regain your enery and kanji symbols to make you invincible for a short time, and you need to super-jump (push down then up) to snag them. Also at certain points in the level a sub-boss will come forward to challenge you and you need to dispose of them to continue on. The controls are easy to use for the most part and pulling off the attacks is no problem, though jumping can a little stiff at times, especially in the heat of battle. However the game doesn’t feature anything outside the basic beat-em-up action; you just punch and kick the thugs out of your face and that’s pretty much it.
Now any good beat-em-up needs a few end-level boss battles and Black Belt doesn’t dissapoint. Once you reach the end of each level Riki moves on to square off with the guardian one-on-one, and you get a nice close-up view of the battle. The thing is you can’t just walk up and punch and kick them into oblivion; each boss has a different attack pattern and requires a different technique to defeat them, adding a nice bit of strategy to the punch-kick formula. Thankfully your energy is refilled before the fight begins. In another cool moment once you manage to deplete your enemy’s lifebar, Riki batters his foe with a flurry of punches and kicks, acting as a finishing move or something.
While game sports a decent difficulty curve, there are also couple of frustrating cheap spots, such as the whip-toting ninjas in the fourth level that can whip you into oblivion with no chance to counterattack. In addition the difficulty level is a bit inconsistent with the bosses; the first and fourth bosses are quite hard to handle while the second and third bosses are much easier than them, and the fifth level boss is a real pain to deal with. You do get extra lives from scoring enough points but there’s no continues to be found after you lose your last life. Also with only five stages and a final boss battle, this is a game you can beat in an hour with enough practice, after which there’s nothing else to see, though on the other side it has an actual ending instead of simply making you do it over indefinitley like the other titles I mentioned.
Black Belt does a good enough job in the visuals department for the most part. The main scenes have some solid-looking backgrounds and decent spirtes for the characters, each of which fits the theme of each level nicely. The drawback is that most of the thugs in each level look the same with very little variety outside the mini-bosses, plus the fifht stage seems too much like a pallette swap of the second. The close-up battles are also pretty well done with well-defined characters and some solid animation. The sound features the standard Oriental music you might for this type of gameplay, and it’s the same tune for each level but is pretty catchy. Also as expected the sound effects are pretty flat (not to mention a little disturbing given how defeated foes break apart).
So Black Belt isn’t quite the karate master its name might suggest but is still a solid and enjoyable fighter, certainly miles better than My Hero and it even outclasses Kung Fu in several aspects. Its basic gameplay can’t match the action found in later beat-em-up titles and some of the difficutly issues may be a turn off but it’s easy enough to get into without too much trouble and provides some nice short-term excitement. Definitely check this one out for a playthrough or two.