Release Date: December 1984
Genre: Side-Scrolling, Beat ‘Em UP
Publisher: Irem (Japan) Date East USA (North America)
Kung-Fu Master was my first lesson in corporate ambition. This game was hard; nigh-on impossible for any coin-loaded juvenile with a pixelated glare.
I must have been five years old when I first laid eyes on it, and King Kong couldn’t have dragged me away. Remember, this was the 80s, and Kung-Fu Master was quite the novelty, a complex and fluid side-scrolling beat ’em up which was as addictive as it was infuriating. So difficult was the coin-op version that I had to wait for the much easier NES port before finally defeating it. It brought me pleasures and pains that were indivisible.
Many sleepless nights I would spend wondering what exactly happened beyond that impossible second level. I mean, if the first level went from karate fighters to poisonous butterflies and fire-breathing dragons, what was next? Tanks? Aliens? Giant monsters? Having played the coin-op version since, I now know it is nothing that extravagant, but that didn’t stop me from drawing possible versions of later levels when I got back to the holiday apartment. How an old school game’s limitations could inspire one’s imagination!
The game’s premise is very simple. Thematically based on the Bruce Lee movie Game of Death, your goal is to defeat a stage of bad guys before ascending to the next tier, each staircase protected by a final boss. Once you complete all five levels, you are sent back to the beginning for a more challenging run. The game was initially released in Japan under the title Spartan X, as a tie-in with the Jackie Chan movie Wheels on Meals, but the fact that it had no similarities beyond the names of its protagonists meant that they were able to export the game without license with a simple name change.
Released the same year as John G. Avildsen’s cultural phenomenon The Karate Kid, karate and ninjas had peaked in popularity around that time, and kids were drawn to this machine like moths to the corporate flame. What initially drew you was the game’s sounds. The hero’s soundbites consisted of ‘Ha-da!’ and ‘Wi-ya!’, the very sounds you made in the playground while doing your best Michael Dudikoff impression. On the surface of things, the game was deliciously simple, giving you the illusion that you would master it sooner, rather than later, but don’t be fooled by the gloriously fun controls. This is about to get hard, and fast.
Playing as Thomas you can move left and right. You can also duck and jump, performing sweeps and jump kicks, manoeuvres that will prove essential when you come up against the game’s dreaded knife throwers, who can either go high or low, or even both at the same time if you become trapped on both sides by two of them, which will happen more and more frequently. And those knife men are a clever breed. Walk towards them and they’ll walk away, keeping just enough distance between the two of you to avoid being hit. Kicks will get you 100 points a kill for a standard enemy, with the shorter range punches landing you 200 points, as will jump kicks, although points will be higher when defeating more difficult opponents.
Other enemies include little green leprechauns which somersault and bounce off your head when you try to sweep them, snakes, poisonous moths and fire-breathing dragons, while exploding Chinese lanterns will shoot pellets at you from across the room. Mostly, you will be attacked by purple fellows known as Grippers, who initially prove a walkover, simply marching into every satisfying punch or kick you care to dish out. Later, when the screen gets more frantic and these little bas@ards reach you, you’ll realise just how frustratingly deadly they are as they cling onto you and drain your energy, or simply hold you in place while a safely placed knife man uses your head for target practice.
Then you have the game’s real draw: the end of level bosses. Here is where the game hits its creative zenith and begins to pack a real punch in the addictability stakes. The problem is, it’s an incredible drain on your juvenile finances to reach them, and when you finally do, they can dispose of you in a couple of hits, a fact made all the more frustrating when you realise you probably don’t have enough credits to reach them again, maybe until the next time you went away on holiday, and that’s assuming the next resort you visited even had that particular machine.
These were frustrations that would haunt you long after you wasted that final credit.
Most Frustrating Opponent
Which opponent isn’t frustrating when it comes to this game? The exploding balls which you can’t escape because of the veritable snake pit unfolding beneath you, the knife men who come in two and correlate their knife throws, leaving you with absolutely no way to survive, but in the end it just has to be those pesky grabbers. At least those other opponents have the good grace to let you know they’re tough from the very beginning. Contrarily, grabbers are lying bast@rds who rely on others to finish you off by holding you when they can’t get the job done themselves.
For me it has to be level 2. The end of level boss is nothing special, but you just do not expect what’s coming after the vastly more basic level 1, and by the time you’ve figured out that a whole new approach is in order if you are to make it to the next tier, you are already dead, and you’re gonna need a whole lot of credits if you are to figure it out.
It has to be the simian looking creature from level 4. Not only is he nigh-on invincible unless you hit him at just the right time, he can make clones of himself that appear, which means whichever of the two you choose to strike, their doppelgänger will be lurking behind you to stick it in. Talk about having the odds stacked against you!
My first glimpse into the insidious marketing strategies of coin-ops, Kung-Fu Master made me dream as much as it did give me nightmares. Tough for any youngster with vicarious kung-fu ambitions, but as addictive as they come, and quite the landmark for its time and place. A seminal side-scroller which still holds up today.