Release date: 1984
Systems: Arcade, Nintendo, C64, Apple II
You know those movies that are ‘important’, because they gave birth to a new genre? You know how they usually suck? Yeah.
Karate Champ is one of the earliest beat em ups, the foundations upon which such vertiginous edifices as the Streetfighter and Tekken franchises were constructed, and yet – playing this back in 1984, if someone told you this title would spawn decades of copycats, you would have been forgiven for smothering the infant genre in its crib.
Karate Champ is so bad. If you ever wandered into a smoky seaside arcade in the 80s you probably saw this machine on attract mode somewhere – I don’t ever remember seeing someone actually playing it, and now I understand why.
The game uses a cumbersome double-joystick control system to allow you execute a range of punches and kicks. Look, I don’t have a problem with two joysticks – Robotron: 2084 remains one of the most elegantly designed games ever and I applauded the appearance of the double-thumbstick on the upgraded Playstation Dualshock controller, which allowed for intuitive movement in 3D space (the Ape Escape series is an unsung highpoint in platforming) – but Karate Champ has one of the most opaque, unresponsive control systems of any game I’ve ever played.
Bouts are over after a single successful blow, which reduces play to a choppy, tedious, stop-start-athon. Again, I don’t have a problem with player-vs-player beat em ups that allow victory in a single or small number of hits – Barbarian and Bushido Blade both brought a real sense of tension to proceedings, that sweaty-palmed feeling of a proper duel. Fall for your opponent’s feint, lunge and miss, and you risk being decapitated in one strike. It’s an exciting – if limited – variant on the standard battle of attrition.
But with Karate Champ it feels less like a knife-edge duel, more like a blindfolded pillowfight taking place across a football pitch. The only kind thing I can say about it is that the Game Over screen is rather sweet: a single leaf falling from the tree outside the dojo as your dejected character trudges away, the little speech bubble sighing ‘GEE’.
If you watch the video, you can see the NES version too, which, transposed onto the simple NES pad, handles more intuitively but is still a horrible, horrible game. The digitised speech is so estranged from the words it purports to represent that I suspect even diehard EVP investigators would dismiss it as meaningless noise. There’s a versus mode, so two people can share the misery.
Pioneers rarely get it in the middle of the bat. But this is no reason to forgive Karate Champ its transgressions. It’s not a game whose qualities have faded over time. It was always a festering bum egg, and it remains a festering bum egg. I expect 2D fighting games would have happened without this abysmal cautionary tale, and I would quite happily see it obliterated from the history books, never to darken our d-pads again.
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