Review by xenodolf
"Despite being one of the earliest beat 'em ups - an original concept of combat mechanics and addictive game-play have kept it feeling fresh."
Kicker (more commonly known as Shao-lin's Road) is another old-school beat 'em up I never came across back in the era of the arcade, but managed to play via its re-entry into the gaming scene through several ports (the most recent and populous being it featured on the Xbox 360's Game Room).
If there is a story to this game I have entirely ignorant of it. There's no mention of a plot that I have come across in the game, and if any of the older ports came with a manual detailing it - I am without their knowledge.
For such an old game, Kicker looks quite well in terms of graphical display and variety of enemies. The animation is what I suspect was above average for a 1985 beat 'em ups (which was an incredibly tiny genre at that time). There are a handful of different backgrounds (temples, dojos, the rock-face of a cliff) which are all rendered rather well.
There is different music for each level, and it all sounds good enough for the limited hardware it is built upon. The sound effects work well, although there aren't any battle cries or death rattles (which could be a good thing considering how many people you defeat in rapid succession).
The controls seem a bit off in terms of precision, but it usually works in your favor. Wielding the spiked ball (or whatever that's supposed to be) can make jumping attacks difficult to properly and consistently land. I also wish you could do more with the dual-direction fireballs, which while useful for tight situations - only offer 200 points a KO and trying to jump-kick while its still active results in an akward inaccurate projectile that often got me killed.
With Kung-Fu Master inventing the beat 'em up genre the previous year, Konami could have easily cashed in a wannabe product that rode Irem's coat-tails all the way to the bank without adding any kind of innovation or modifications. Instead, they took the route of capturing the fast-paced kung fu action of the aforementioned titled, but instead of a scrolling environment - Kicker takes place in multi-tiered arenas similar to the versus mode in Super Mario Bros. 3. The game-play has you jump up and down from these tiers, with enemies spawning out of doorways or holes - filling the screen with about a half-dozen opponents at once. You can defeat these foes with standard fast-firing kicks, or put more effort int landing jump-kicks (which while more difficult to use, result in more than twice as many points per KO as a normal kick). Killing multiple enemies in a single attack causes your score to bulk up considerably, so while it may be easier for you to dispatch foes quickly and while they are isolated from their peers - corralling bad guys into groups for a single assault is the only way to climb the leaderboards. I suspect that Kicker is the first beat 'em up to include power-ups and weapon pick-ups into the game-play, and they all have their various uses. A spiked ball allows you to score long-range KOs, or extend your hit-box a bit while performing jump-kicks (which is tricky, I usually just allow the spiked-ball to disappear if I'm trying to earn 500+ points per kill in a level). A green revolving ball that acts as a kind of offensive force-field is my favorite power-up, netting you 500 points with each KO and protecting you against attacks nearly every angle (certain jump-kicks or leaping upward may result in an enemy breaching the perimeter). The final power-up allows you to shoot out several fireballs from either direction of your character, which clears away enemies in desperate situations but makes it hard to earn decent points as the KOs they render score a mere 200 points. Each level is split up into two stages - the first with a bunch of cannon fodder you must defeat and the second introducing boss characters. The bosses take a number of hits to defeat, and have more advanced attacks like fire-breath, a ball-and-chain, or a more effective jump-kick than the regular enemies use. Unlike most beat 'em ups, these bosses appear at the start of the round and the round doesn't end with their defeat (it continues until all the enemies, boss and cannon fodder alike have been KO'd). It is a good idea to take out these bosses as soon as possible, as their aggressive tactics and tendency to sandwich you between and regular enemies means every minute they're out and about is one you have the odd stacked against you. After a number of different levels, the game cycles through the stages again - only the enemies become more dangerous and new threats (like those irritating birds that drop boulders on you) ramp up the difficulty. It seems the game expects you to lose eventually, and the entire thing is basically an endurance challenge of how long you can last until you run out of lives, which works out well due to the game being so fast-paced and free of having to trudge through dialogue, cut-scenes, or any loading screens longer than a few seconds. About the only complaints I have with the game are that sometimes enemies seem to stall or twitch in their movement patterns and throw your timing off, resulting in cheap damage to your character. The other thing I wasn't fond of is that while on the upper tiers of a stage, if you walk past a ledge of a roof or take a hit while near it - you'll lose your balance and tumble down to the ground, resulting in a loss of a health shard. You would think such a martial-arts master would be able to regain his composure in mid-air and land on his feet unaffected or at least merely stunned without getting hurt. Despite this slight hiccups the game is easily one of the best-aging games out of the first generation of beat 'em ups. Out of the initial batch of 30 titles that were available with the Xbox 360's Game Room, I would have to say Kicker / Shao-lin's Road is my favorite.
Replay value 7/10
Kicker has no co-op player, no alternate characters, and nothing in terms of a plot you can change from your actions. However, it is a fun game to play (especially on the Game Room version with its achievements, medals, and leaderboard positions) and you can hone your abilities to their finest by playing this many times through to maximize your potential and learn from your mistakes.
One of the founding members of the beat 'em up genre, Kicker to this day is still an engaging venture that doesn't require nostalgia goggles to enjoy. It has been ported or adapted to consoles a few times now, but I must say that the version featured in the Xbox 360's Game Room virtual arcade system offers the best experience (and it only costs $3!). Konami clearly showed creative vision and quality game-making ability early on in the vein of beat 'em up action, and while they haven't kept much of that luster as of recently, Kicker is as good as any place to pick up that trail into the golden age of brawlers.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 03/29/10
Game Release: Kicker (US, 12/31/85)
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