If you're lucky and up late enough, you might catch an English-dubbed kung fu movie from the '70s while surfing through the channels on TV. While a few of Hong Kong action cinema's greatest performers have burst into worldwide superstardom--guys like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li--there's an untold number of chop-socky kung fu flicks starring no one in particular, featuring cheesy English dialogue, having no real pretense of a storyline, and shot on film stock that looks as if it were developed in muddy water. These movies are really just an excuse to present two hours of martial arts brawling for your viewing pleasure. Microsoft and developer Just Add Monsters' new party game, Kung Fu Chaos, draws on '70s kung fu movies as its source material, poking fun at while still trying to pay homage to this unique material. It also has low aspirations similar to those of the sorts of movies it's mocking. The core gameplay of Kung Fu Chaos is a simple but visually impressive beat-'em-up for up to four players, reminiscent of Capcom's Power Stone series or Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. games, though with a less distinguishable cast of characters and with a few minigames thrown in. Kung Fu Chaos probably won't keep you occupied for long, especially if you're not playing it with a rowdy group of friends. But it can make for some good, silly fun in short spurts.
There's an old, politically incorrect joke about how some Hong Kong kung fu movies are so cheap, their directors can't afford any special effects whatsoever. So you know all those guys you're seeing get beat up, or stabbed, or what have you, all for your viewing pleasure? They're actually getting beat up, or stabbed, or what have you. That's the premise of Kung Fu Chaos, in which you play as one of several different wannabe kung fu heroes and will have to take on droves of ninjas bent on killing you--all while the cameras are rolling. Much of the game should actually be pretty funny for kung fu movie fans, though the movie director who narrates the game's main mode of play is really awful, a hyperactive fountain of stereotypes with a shrill, irritating voice and bad dialogue.
The playable characters aren't particularly satisfying, either. The better ones include your gratuitous kung-fu-fighting old man and a samurai styled after the hero of the famous Japanese comic Lone Wolf and Cub. But the other characters include a Mexican wrestler, a blonde on roller-skates, and a sassy shotgun-toting Pam Grier knockoff--characters with no business being in this game. Meanwhile, kung fu movie archetypes like the kung-fu-fighting chef, the kung-fu-fighting monk, and the kung-fu-fighting cop are all glaringly absent from the character roster.
Most of Kung Fu Chaos' features are initially locked but can be made available if you perform well in the "ninja challenge," the game's main single-player mode that puts you in numerous brawls and minigames in six different movie sets. You can finish a level in the ninja challenge without much trouble, but getting a full five-star rating in some of them can take some practice. The other gameplay options include battle, which is a single-session brawl that can be played by one to four players; championship, which is a series of battles; miniseries, which are single-player character-specific scenarios based on the ninja challenge; freestyle, which is one continuous fight; and rehearsal, which is a training mode. There's also a special-features section in which you can view replays of your battles, convincingly done up with a grainy filter to make them look like old kung fu flicks. This may sound like a lot of stuff, but you could easily unlock a majority of it in a sitting or two. Then again, that's probably a good thing, since Kung Fu Chaos is better suited as a multiplayer game anyway.
All the characters basically play the same way, which is too bad. They can use several types of normal attacks, throws, and slow but unblockable strikes and string these together for different combos. Characters can also pick up and throw objects (including prone opponents), jump around like crazy, and taunt each other--this powers up their unique super move, but other characters can taunt it away, making for some interesting tug-of-war situations. There's a decent variety of moves and combos in all--enough that the game loses some of its pick-up-and-play appeal as a multiplayer game, while the few types of enemy ninjas you'll face in the single-player modes are susceptible only to very specific types of attacks, making the gameplay here more about memorization than about reflexes. Meanwhile, combos involving unblockable moves can be used to dominate multiplayer battles, which--true to the name of the game--are often highly chaotic. It can be difficult to tell which character is yours and what exactly is going on, so you'll likely resort to mashing on buttons and hoping for the best.
Actually, the environments where the battles take place are often the greatest danger in Kung Fu Chaos. Various traps, breakaway floors, and other perils will be constantly getting in your way, and you'll often be able to dispose of your enemies not by beating them senseless, but by knocking them down and then tossing them off of ledges, into piranha-infested waters, onto spikes, and more. The brawl stages scroll automatically and will really surprise you when you first see them, since they look great and feature some genuinely funny moments--for example, you'll see your character blatantly being hoisted on wires as he or she supposedly makes a death-defying leap across a chasm. But the stages are identical each time you play them and may soon wear out their welcome.
The minigames are amusing. One has you toting a trampoline back and forth, trying to save as many stuntmen as possible as they go flying out a restaurant window--just be sure to watch out for the cows that occasionally fly out, too. Another has you tossing life preservers to drowning ninjas, as mean-spirited sea mammals pop out and try to knock the preservers back in your face. The best one has you and your foes slipping and sliding around on an icy platform, trying to knock each other into the icy water below.
Kung Fu Chaos looks terrific for what it is and features a perfectly smooth frame rate, lots of action onscreen, and dynamic, surprisingly impressive environments--too bad there weren't more of them. The character designs unfortunately are rather ugly, and while they're meant to be comical, the effect is just that they appear to be made out of Play-Doh. Kung Fu Chaos' awful director/commentator can fortunately be toggled off, leaving you to hear the authentic kung-fu-movie-styled sounds of people getting beat up and things breaking. The character voices aren't that great, though. You can barely hear a soundtrack beneath all the clamor, though the game's opening intro and title screen respectively feature the oldie favorite "Kung Fu Fighting" and the terrific theme to Enter the Dragon. You can also rip your own soundtrack if you want.
If you don't take your gaming too seriously and have several other friends who feel the same way, then you could have a good time with Kung Fu Chaos. It's probably not a game you'll be coming back to months later, but much like with that kung fu movie you've had your eye on at the video store, you could do a lot worse than giving it a rent. The game's got great graphics and responsive controls, and it's good for a few laughs.