Genre: Beat-‘Em-Up Developer: Never Ending Soft Publisher: Never Ending Soft Players: 1-2 Released: 1999
Anyone of you who know me knows that I love obscure games, the weirder the better for me. I go out of my way, almost masochistically, for obscure games even if they’re crappy and bad. I just love having them in my collection and reviewing them and sharing my thoughts with the masses. Beat-’em-ups are also one of my top genres of gaming, so when I got the chance to pick up a few obscure Chinese brawlers, I obviously jumped at the chance. I didn’t even know how they played; I just wanted to have them, and I happened to get a copy of Shui Hu Feng Yun Zhuan, a name according to one of our readers roughly translates to “Water Margin Wind & Cloud Chronicles.” Unlike many of the other Chinese games, this one is actually quite good and a heck of a lot of fun to play, especially in multi-player.
I’ve heard way too many people complain and say that this is just a rip-off of games like Streets Of Rage, Golden Axe and Knights Of The Round. That may be true to a certain extent, but it takes the best of all of those and other games and blends them together into one great beat-’em-up. I don’t read Chinese whatsoever so I have no ideas towards the plot, but it takes place in feudal China. You get to choose between three characters: a slow bearded axe wielder (recommended for the experienced only), a balanced sword wielder and a very fast but incredibly weak female. There are three difficulty settings and options to change lives and continues. There are a total of seven stages but you can only see past stage four if you play on normal and hard settings.
The gameplay is just awesome! There are more moves at your disposal than most beat-’em-ups of the time. You have the standard combo by mashing the B button, there are jump attacks, and you can double tap forward to run and attack that way. You also have a very powerful overhead slash that will bat enemies off of the screen by pressing down, up, A and B. It’s pretty hard to successfully pull off, but it will save you many times over if you can master it. The special attacks are also really unique this time around. They attack every enemy on screen like in Golden Axe, but instead of them growing stronger by picking up magic you get to pick up different items and can hold five in your inventory. You press A to highlight your magic then A once again to use that attack and they all arrange in power. The only thing this game lacks is mountable creatures, but it was a minimal issue for me.
There’s a short intro before the game starts and a story screen between each stage. The stages can sometimes seem too similar to one another and get a bit dull to look, but all seven stages introduce new enemies so the game never gets boring. Let me tell you, some of the later enemies get pretty hard to kill and really require you to get used to attacking them. The bosses can sometimes be a bit generic and are not very creative, but again, it’s a minimal point. Each stage is generous on health and score items. You can attack the food and treasures to split them up and share them with the second player and believe, me you’ll need to learn to do it to survive on the hardest difficulty.
The backgrounds are bright, colorful, and really nicely detailed here. All of the character sprites are very fluid and have a ton of frames of animation. There are a few times when they seem to move a bit jerky, but it’s pretty rarely. The game handles two players and four enemies on screen at a time with almost zero slowdown and flicker, so that’s another merit. The spells also look really cool, and all are different. The enemies also have a really cool and trippy look to them when they’re hit by a spell, and honestly it’s one of the best parts of the game.
If there was one area where Shui Hu Feng Yun Zhuan is weak, it’s with the audio. It seems to borrow the voice samples from Streets Of Rage 2, and they’re muddy sounding at best. The rest of the sound effects are actually pretty good though and fit the mood of the game pretty nicely. Overall though, the music needs improvement, to put it nicely. The intro piece seems to be borrowed from the Final Fantasy VI overworld theme, but it doesn’t sound that good this time around. The rest of the music isn’t that bad, but it just lacks the polish that the rest of the game has. On several stages (notably stage two), the music is too loud and drowns out the sound effects and becomes grating. The notable themes in this game, at least for me, are the boss theme and the ending theme. I really wish they had a decent sample of the ending theme on YouTube, as it’s pretty good.
Shui Hu Feng Yun Zhuan has a pretty good ending. It shows you what happens to each of the characters and then has a nice credits roll. I was impressed, but as a whole, this game is really impressive. It has its faults, but Never Ending Soft did a commendable job with this game, and it’s all the more impressive when you look at the quality of the rest of the games that Chinese companies produce. It’s pretty hard to find a legitimate, non-bootlegged version of Shui Hu Feng Yun Zhuan, but even those will suffice as this game is really worth getting, especially if you’re a fan of the genre. Honestly, this is one of the best beat-’em-ups on the system, surpassed only by the Streets Of Rage series and Final Fight CD, so you owe it to yourself to play this great game!
UPDATE: In 2015, after acquiring the rights to the game, Piko Interactive released a localized version of the game, now titled Water Margin: A Tale of Clouds and Wind. Though the production quality isn’t the best, the game itself has received a commendable overhaul. Not only are bugs fixed and the text translated, but content previously “borrowed” from other games have been replaced with original material as well. The “Terra’s Theme” (from Final Fantasy VI) rip-off in the intro for instance, has a new pumping and atmospheric track, which sets you in the mood for some fighting action. The battle cries from Streets of Rage II are updated as well, and while not as good, being original is better than stolen, right? There seem to be some traces of other games left, such as redrawn enemy sprites from Final Fight, but all in all it’s fair to say Piko has done a great job in making the game as legal as possible. Water Margin still plays the same and is now easier to get at a (probably) better price. So if you like brawlers, this a fine chance to update your Mega Drive/Genesis library with a previously lost gem.
SCORE: 8 out of 10