Review: Johnny Kung Fu (3DS eShop)

Like a punch to the Wang

We're on to you, UFO Interactive. You've released these side-scrolling action games every few months now and, we'll admit, each one has had a fairly interesting premise — a samurai slicer with RPG elements and a zombie-flavored rhythm game? We can dig it. Now you roll out what seems like an ode to LCD handheld games wrapped in a kung fu theme, and we really want to get behind it this time.

But we can't. We just can't.

Johnny Kung Fu's premise is the best thing going here: An evil organised crime group (as opposed to a benevolent organised crime group, like... the X-Men?) known as Mr Wang, led by the nefarious and possibly brain dead Mr Wang, targets Johnny's girlfriend — for video game reasons we presume — and it's up to Johnny to climb the tall Wang building and punch thugs along the way.

Remember, the premise is the best thing going here.

Johnny has an hour on the clock to reach the top of the tower and rescue his lady. Progressing upstairs involves cycling through a handful of scenarios until you reach the next floor in what feels like an earnest attempt at forcing a narrative around a collection of minigames. Losing a stage knocks five minutes from the countdown, and the remaining time at the end of it all acts as a high score. Some stages have you punching Wangs left, right and center, while others replicate the crude but charming look and style of old LCD handheld games, which can be unlocked for high score play as well.

These LCD-style games seem to be the keystone to Johnny Kung Fu, and while they capture a certain specific nostalgia with well-executed presentation they aren't elegant or strong enough on their own to keep that retro flame burning for very long. Nor are they particularly original — one of them is a straight-up copy of Game & Watch: Ball but with bomb sprites, another a lesser version of a Donkey Kong Jr.-style obstacle course. These games may look the part but their behaviour is cheap and rote while lacking the charm that made Nintendo's simplistic Game and Watch line work so well, pitting them more in the realm of the inexplicably popular workmanlike Tiger handhelds of yore.

The rest of the stages are made up of Wang rumbles and boss battles confined to one room. UFO tries to open up the brawler space by allowing characters to jump between planes forward and back, but the combat hasn't evolved much from their first eShop outing Samurai Sword Destiny — in fact, we dare say it's devolved some. Johnny could stand to do some warm-up exercises before going into battle because combat is very stiff and rigid, almost forgetting that what makes group fights fun in the first place is being able to swiftly change direction to counter attacks from all sides. Here, though, enemies are content to just run at you in one big bunch that can be taken out by spamming an attack button. The closest Johnny Kung Fu comes to combat tactics is trying to not get stuck in an animation before an enemy's locked animation collides with your proverbial face.

Combat diversity is criminally poor as well; while it's possible to unlock new moves over time there is no retention between games, so every time you boot it up you have to slug through the same dozen or so stages until something moderately interesting happens. There really isn't any good reason either why Johnny can't perform an uppercut from the get-go — it's not like he has to lobotomise a Robot Master to figure out how to punch in an upward trajectory — and while withholding serves its purpose of maintaining a sense of progression, ultimately it just gets in the way of the long-term game.

Conclusion

Johnny Kung Fu is about as proficient at its craft as that guy who accidentally nunchuk'd his face on the internet. Playing it is a lot like shuffling between a bunch of terrible Tiger LCD games at a rapid pace: sure, you get some gaming diversity, but at the cost of a miniature existential crisis. It's entirely possible that one day UFO Interactive will crack the code of a genuinely interesting game, but with a sense of humor about as basic as its mechanics — which is to say incredibly so — Johnny Kung Fu still has a ways to go.