When we first caught a glimpse of Kung Fu Chaos (at last year's E3?) our eyes glazed over with the kind of passing disinterest born out of witnessing 400 sequels and me-too titles. The sight of a comedy cartoon beat 'em up in the vein of Powerstone did little to hold our attention. With Microsoft-published titles of the era falling into two distinct categories (Genius - Halo, Gotham, and Rubbish - Azurik, Nightcaster) we hastily confined it to the latter category and thought nothing more of it.
When you get to see and play almost everything of any worth, it's easy to make rash judgements. It takes a lot to convince our poor, hardened, cynical brains that the latest amazing new game isn't, in fact, a worthless, crushingly derivative cash-in. We were still very much in this thought mode when Kung Fu Chaos arrived in the post. The fact that Microsoft hadn't (and still hasn't) even pushed the game itself tended to reinforce this. When a game's a bit of a stinker, publishers and PRs go all quiet, and slip out review code hoping that you won't notice. When it's an absolute disaster, they don't send them out at all. At least Kung Fu Chaos couldn't have been that bad.
Booting it up dutifully, the Just Add Monsters logo appeared. Hmmm; it's that ex-Sony breakaway bunch that Argonaut bought a while back. Maybe it had potential after all. Then the impressively kitsch and amusing intro kicks in, complete with the Kung Fu Fighting and Enter The Dragon theme tunes. The feel good factor never lets up from that moment on.
Let's make love….I mean 'good job'
Despite the wealth of options, this is fairly standard beat 'em up territory. Various single, multiplayer (up to four players) and practice modes allow you to play the game pretty much however you fancy. But in order to unlock everything in the game, it's well advised to plough headlong into KFC's Ninja Challenge mode. This is the main event, and seamlessly acts as means of learning the game's intricacies, while giving you an opportunity to progress.
There's no pointless back story as such to ramble our way through. Essentially, you've been hired as an actor by the excitable director Shao Ting to star in his latest action blockbuster. After selecting one of the eight available characters (two of which are locked to begin with) you'll only have one level, or 'scene', to battle through, and the aim is to reach a three star rating before the director runs out of film. As you'd expect, a whole host of extras appear on the set, and it's your job to kick the crap out of them in as spectacular style as possible to earn your 'stars' up to a maximum of five. But for the purposes of unlocking the next scene a three out of five rating is enough.
Throughout the bouts, the insanity of the director never lets up, and he'll be barking orders at you at every turn, coming out with all manner of barking mad quips that had us cackling in appreciation.
Each of the 27 scenes can be unlocked on either your first or second go (apart from the last two bonus scenes), and they vary from simple 'repeat after me' tutorials, to immensely entertaining mini-games, and full blown scrolling levels which take place across lavish film sets, culminating in the obligatory boss encounter.
You're good, like two shoes
At its core, the moves set is fairly basic, with combos adding layers of combat underneath. Hit X to perform a basic attack, A to jump, B to trip/pick up/throw, Y to counter, R to block, L to taunt, and L with R to launch a 'smart bomb' Super Attack. Within a few levels it soon becomes apparent that there's far more to the game than initially meets the eye.
Key to KFC's combat is its amusing taunt system, which allows players to build up the aforementioned Super Attack. By tapping L immediately after a successful attack, your character will deliver a humiliating put down, which serves to stun your foe even more, allowing you time to pick them up and throw them off into the abyss. After three successful taunts you can then launch a smart bomb-esque Super Attack to clear the screen of anything giving you hassle for a few seconds. Mistime your taunts, however, and the game takes an opportunity to take the piss out of you, with a poor "you're so stupid" taunt emanating, closely followed by Donkey noises, as if to prove the point.
Progress through the Ninja Challenge is both swift and immensely enjoyable. Levels rarely outstay their welcome, thanks to the 'against the clock' mechanic, and thus failure can quickly be rectified. As we mentioned, attaining three stars on any of the scenes is quite straightforward, but getting four or five will take some doing, as it requires a more intimate knowledge of the combo system. Killing groups of enemies quickly is the key to getting a higher rating, but the rewards are numerous. Just Add Monsters has clearly worked hard at creating incentives for the player to replay the game, and such is the fun factor, you almost certainly will.
If KFC was merely a succession of battles, then it would all get quite boring, and quickly. But the proliferation of imaginative mini-games adds an extra dimension to the game, and elevates it above the usual po-faced beat em up fare. In many senses this is the Super Monkey Ball of the beat 'em up arena. The mini-games are instantly playable, delightfully presented, and furiously addictive. Reminiscent of Nintendo's Game & Watch efforts of the early 80s, 'A Few Good Stuntmen' has you attempting to bounce falling Stuntmen to safety while avoiding the Cows (much like Fire), 'Water Whirl' has you avoiding a rapidly rotating pole while three players attempt to smack it back in your direction, 'Four Poles And A Princess', bizarrely, has you throwing a Princess at your three opponents in an attempt to knock them off their pedestals, 'Tomb Robber' is a straightforward Pac-Man clone, while 'Invasion Of The Brain Snatchers' invites you to chuck aliens into a crate….the list goes on and it's always amusingly bizarre.
In terms of all round presentation, Just Add Monsters deserves much praise for bothering to create a unique looking game with a level of individuality and polish so lacking from many games. The squat, cartoony characters may not appeal to everyone's taste, but the level of detail, animation and charm are top notch. Even more impressive is the scenery and background detail - something not immediately apparent. The director saves the bulk of his budget for the later scenes, which include a comical Dinosaur chase sequence (Enter The Dino), culminating with the UFO-laced Revengeance Day. As a result, these often-spectacular set pieces act as a bizarre backdrop to some already fairly insane action.
Outside of the single player-only Ninja Challenge, there are plenty of other modes to get stuck in to. Battle Game is a straightforward bout on any of the game's six main sets for up to four players, which can either be played as a free for all match or in teams, with bouts winnable based on various different rules. The same applies to the Championship mode, which allows players to take on one or more opponent across all of six of the sets, with points awarded depending on your final position. If you can get enough mates around your Xbox, the potential is there to have an enjoyably insane and irreverent beat 'em up experience. Shame it's not Live-enabled, as this is the perfect kind of game to take advantage of the service - and it's especially puzzling when the dire Whacked! has Live.
A cult classic
As long as you're not expecting a serious Soul Calibur-esque beat 'em up, then there's so much to admire about KFC; it's huge fun from the word go, has an absolute shedload of unlockables and has a style all of its own. Compared to its more serious competition it's fair to say that the combat can feel a touch lightweight, but the comic touch and the taunts work extremely well in balancing up the game's pick up and play shallowness. It's virtually impossible to play KFC without sporting a stupid grin on your face, and it has all the hallmarks of becoming a cult classic.