Welcome To The Fantasy Zone Presents: Bruce Lee

Release date: 1983

Systems: ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro, C64

When I was growing up, we didn’t know much about the world, but a few facts were passed round the playground as inviolable truths: Michael Jackson was the coolest person in the world, Madonna was the sexiest, and Bruce Lee was the hardest. This was quite the achievement on Bruce Lee’s part, considering he had been dead for over a decade.

Still, I grew up in a world where Bruce Lee was revered as the first rockstar of martial arts. Amazing facts about his life mixed with childish confabulations and gullibility to create a legend that weaved in and out of fantasy: Bruce Lee could kill a man without touching him; Bruce Lee once punched a hole in a tank; Bruce Lee died because he was allergic to aspirin then took some aspirin for his headache. (the last one is even sort of true!)

As an owner of a secondhand rubber-keyed 48k ZX Spectrum, I was understandably thrilled to get my mitts on Bruce Lee, the game. I remember playing it with friends on the little black-and-white telly I had in my room – one you tuned in via a dial on the front. Eventually, after the cassette had shrieked and flickered through three or so minutes of data – it felt like an age – the equally-shrill, vaguely oriental title screen music started, and the game began.

In Bruce Lee, you must guide Bruce over pagodas, through tunnels, past spiked pits and mines and fireballs, collecting lanterns before his final confrontation with the fire wizard. He is pursued across most of these screens by a ninja (who I seem to remember the cassette inlay saying is armed with ‘bokken sticks’) and a sumo called ‘Green Yamo’. But being Bruce Lee – and this being a history of beat em ups – he need not merely run away! He can turn and use a combination of punches and flying kicks to pummel them unto unconsciousness.

Is it a platformer, is it a beat em up? Look, if I’m being totally honest, it’s probably more on the platform side of the border – some screens don’t have any foes to beat up at all, and it is pretty jump-intensive. Most damning of all, you can get through the entire game never throwing a single punch. On the other hand, the fighting side is pretty sophisticated for a Speccy game. The controls feel responsive – beating up the sumo and ninja feels fun! You can duck (this baffles them completely – they look around, confused, then wander off), punch, flying kick them – you can even knock them into traps.

The sumo and ninja reappear a few moments after you kill them, so it’s only ever a temporary solution. As the game goes on, their pursuit of you becomes almost melancholy. The AI is totally inadequate for the later screens, so they blunder into traps, get stuck, and generally pose no threat to you whatsoever. It’s like they’re running behind with a game leg, yelling: ‘Hey Bruce! Wait up! Hey… *pant, wheeze* hey Bruce! *cough* Buddy? Don’t leave us here!’

The game even boasts two multiplayer modes – one is the standard non-simultaneous take-it-in-turns pseudo two-player mode seen in a lot of games of the time, but the other, brilliantly, allows a second player to take control of the baddy sumo, circumventing the rubbish AI and allowing for a true battle of wits between the two players. True, Bruce totally outclasses him in every respect (being the hardest man in the world and all) but still – a really cool way to jazz up what is, in the last analysis, a rather short, rather too easy, but overall fun adventure.

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I had a go on the C64 version, right. Compared to the Speccy, it is murder. Oh my stars. The ninja and Green Yamo (you see now how he got his name) are fast and smart. Ducking until they wander off cuts no ice. Kill them, and they reappear almost instantaneously. The only thing in your favour is that they are now capable of injuring each other, resulting in a misguided flying kick from the sumo knocking the ninja flat on his backside. Ha ha. The physics of the C64 version feel solid, and it’s a lovely little title overall, but don’t expect the walk in the park the Spectrum offers. Part-timers need not apply.

I’ve come all the way back to 1983 – just as it looked like were about to start tackling the big hitters of mid and late period 3D side-scrolling beat em ups – to fill a gap in our knowledge: the bridge between flat-planed 2D side-scrollers like Kung Fu Master and Vigilante, and complicated melee brawlers like Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. Bruce Lee is one plank in that bridge – a beat em up that experiments with freedom on the vertical plane.

I want to look at a second title that skirts the boundary between platformer and beat em up next week – one that stands on the other side of the line to Bruce Lee, that puts the arse-kicking front and centre, that bids you jump, preferably delivering a foot into your opponent’s face.

Sorry about the lack of sound on the above video, by the way. I’m still groping my way through making passable gameplay vids on my slow-ass laptop.