Genre mixes are a hard thing to pull off in games. Whatever genres you choose have to make sense together, and they have to feel like they work together rather than being two separate games glued together. Otherwise, what’s the point? No game demonstrates this better than Bishin Densetsu Zoku, an odd fusion of Outrun-style racing and Final Fight-style beat-em-up. Although that sounds like an interesting mixture, the game never bothers to reconcile the two kinds of games in any satisfying way. Instead, it settles for a confusing Frankenstein’s monster of a game.
Many of the game’s problems come from the driving sections. Not in how they play, mind you; that part is relatively solid. The driving sections all share a simple premise: navigate from point A to point B in a set amount of time. Along the way, you have to avoid cars and motorcycles trying to run you off the road, and getting lost in the labyrinthine mess that is the Japanese expressway system. It’s a very difficult task, but fortunately, that works in the game’s favor. Zoku somehow balances the quick action you’d normally expect of a racing game with a slightly more cerebral navigational challenge.
I’m more concerned with how the racing fits into the bigger picture. Or rather, how it doesn’t. The (highly repetitive) story sells a sort of Mad Max-esque future where biker gangs have taken over Japan after Mt. Fuji’s explosion. But you rarely see that side of Japan while driving through it. In fact, the scenery is downright pleasant, with vibrant city backdrops and lush greenery adorning your trips. Areas like this clearly have no place in the downtrodden world that Bishin Densetsu Zoku’s story tries to depict. The same applies to your fellow motorists, who look less like a deadly biker gang and more often like they’re going out for a relaxing drive.
All of this feels like it’s from a different game altogether. While that should ideally be part of the game’s charm, it’s only dissonant and contradictory in practice. The closest the game ever comes to merging the driving with the atmosphere is in mechanical accidents, like cars/motorcycles crashing into you, or the confusing, zigzagging roads littered with potholes. I highly doubt a futuristic biker gang would have the power (much less the interest) to redefine Japan’s expressways to their liking.
Notice how most of my problems thus far have been with how the game handles the racing. That’s because the beat-em-up sections are just fine on their own. After each racing section (or when another car has run you off the road), you’re transported into a Final Fight-style beat-em-up section. You punch everybody senseless, only for the game to return you to driving shortly after. True, the mechanics in these sections are shallow and repetitive. You have to fight all the enemies with just one attack and not many ways to use it. Yet given how much less time they take up in the game than the racing sections, this isn’t as much of a problem as you’d think.
More important, these parts sell the game’s central fantasy far better than the racing could ever hope to. The world actually looks broken down and decrepit, like it’s been taken over by reckless criminals. And the gameplay backs that up, too. Solving your problems with brutish violence is exactly what you’d expect to find in a world like this. Obvious an approach as they might be, the fighting parts of Bishin Densetsu Zoku do far more to engage the player than any part. So why the game chooses to present racing as its default mode of gameplay is beyond my understanding; as is its decision to represent the on-the-road beat-em-up sections as a sort of fail state.
All the game has accomplished thus far is putting itself into needless conflict. Both the racing and the combat have to work together. They’re too simple to survive on their own, and I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t work as part of a greater whole. Yet some important framing issues prevent Zoku from ever realizing that whole. We instead get the middling game that is Bishin Densetsu Zoku.