Before they renamed themselves Ninja Theory and produced hits like DmC: Devil May Cry and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, developer Just Add Monsters sought to revive the multiplayer fighting genre on the original Xbox.
Kung Fu Chaos was their debut effort: a Power Stone style romp where colourful characters fight in spectacular stages and compete in frantic mini games. It’s also inspired by ‘70s cinema, with playable fighters being the actors in a low budget martial arts movie featuring overblown plots and hilariously shoddy special effects.
That’s no exaggeration either. Whilst Kung Fu Chaos is visually impressive at times, it uses screen filters to give the impression players are watching a battered VHS tape; all blotches and scratchy lines to infuse that old school flavour. It’s delightfully authentic, though it’s let down by a strict 480i presentation that has aged horribly on modern televisions.
If you can stomach its sketchy video, Kung Fu Chaos is a mostly entertaining game. Every stage has multiplayer support, with the nuanced combat system demanding players learn when to attack or throw, when to block or taunt, and when to unleash their deadly super move that murders anyone it touches.
Similar to Power Stone 2, the brawling stages are visually exciting. Each one is a movie set where players are railroaded through interactive scenes. For instance, the journey to rescue a kidnapped princess gets tense when poison gas fills the arena and forces the combatants to flee to higher ground. A Jurassic Park parody has an awesome T-Rex chase scene, and another has players fleeing a capsizing cruise liner whilst dodging cheap-looking wooden standees — sorry, “extras!” — that slide across the deck towards them.
The developers made all this as hokey as possible. Every spoken line is poorly dubbed on purpose and when the actors leap across buildings during the alien invasion stage, you can see wires holding them up! These charming moments are Kung Fu Chaos at its best. Microsoft even licensed the song Kung Fu Fighting and the theme from Enter the Dragon to top it all off.
The solo campaign has a player battling evil ninjas (naturally) on a quest to make the world’s greatest action movie. It’s a linear path where the big levels are broken up by imaginative mini games and challenges. One asks players to munch dots in a ghost-infested maze (sound familiar?) whereas another wonderful example has players jousting on a slippery glacier. Achieving a 5-star review on these chapters is a much longer and harder task, but just reaching the end is otherwise pretty quick and easy.
This is where the game falls apart somewhat because it lacks substance. Not all modes are worth playing and some of the unlocks like character profiles and movie clips are just filler. Even then that content is locked in the campaign mode, meaning one player has to earn everything on their own. It should have supported 2-player at the very least.
Enemy behaviour in the campaign is also a tad annoying as gangs of ninjas are always stun-locking players with their cheap hits. New players can get hammered quite badly if they don’t absorb the tutorials, which highlights an unfortunate dilemma for the experience as a whole.
Kung Fu Chaos has a combat rhythm where players must knock down their opponent and taunt at the right moment to stun them. Stunning opponents is vital for scoring kills, so new players who come expecting a casual party game where they can just bash buttons and smash scenery are likely to get stomped.
The game’s brawling may be slightly too advanced for some newbies, but it’s not deep enough to engage fighting game enthusiasts either. This is arguably the worst failing here: the fact that the playable fighters aren’t very different from each other. Concepts like toughness, speed and finesse simply don’t apply to this roster of goons that all possess the same basic move sets and play patterns.
The brawling stages also lack the degree of interactivity that Power Stone 2’s stages had. In that game players could vault off poles, ride vehicles, and manipulate all manner of booby traps and other gadgets. Kung Fu Chaos is much simpler in this sense, so the surprises dry up quicker. Like Deathrow, it’s yet another multiplayer-centric game whose longevity would have benefited from Xbox Live support.
One final sore point concerns the game’s tone. Whilst the developers wanted to create a light-hearted homage to cheesy cinema, there’s no defending their use of problematic stereotypes. Reviewers were quick to criticise this in 2003 and playing today does prompt a few moments where it’s easy to think “yikes!” at how politically incorrect things are.
Character names like Xui Tan Sour and Chop & Styx make a poor first impression. Although, the most divisive character is easily Shao Ting; the frustrated movie director whose exaggerated Asian accent and constant ranting has rankled many players. It’s a weird one because his risqué commentary can be disabled in the options menu, which implies the developers knew how polarising he would be.
Thing is, Shao Ting pervades every corner of the game’s presentation. He has a deep sound bank of quips and insults that must have earned his real life voice actor a fortune. He screams “Action!” at the beginning of every level and he also narrates the replays and the entire Ninja Challenge campaign mode. Getting rid of Shao will placate some people, but it’s astonishing how lifeless the game feels without him considering the other characters barely speak or show any personality.
Despite it not getting the best reviews during release, Kung Fu Chaos is still remembered fondly by Xbox fans. The fact that it never got repackaged or re-released makes this more than understandable, as a certain mystique has grown around its old school charms.
I like the game, but it’s also one I tire of quickly. It’s a title that perfectly suited a weekend rental back in the day; a fun enough time that’s a bit too shallow and short-lived for me to consider it a forgotten classic.