Release date: 1984

Systems: Arcade, NES, Atari 2600, Atari 7800, Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Commodore 64, DOS, ZX Spectrum

Last week we dealt with player vs player beat em ups’ inauspicious beginnings in the form of the dire Karate Champ. Today, we look at the considerably less turdy first flourish of the side-scrolling beat em up, Kung Fu Master.

Also known as Spartan X and Kung Fu, the game sees a martial artist called Thomas fighting through five levels of ‘unknown guys’ in a pagoda to rescue his girlfriend, Sylvia, from the clutches of Mr X. Wikipedia claims it’s based on the Jackie Chan movie Wheels On Meals, but as a diehard Chan fan I don’t see the resemblance. I refuse to accept any game as Jackie Chan inspired unless it is at least 30% ladder-fights.

Unlike Renegade, Kung Fu Master takes place on a 2D playing field – you can jump, duck, punch and kick. Punches lack the range of kicks but you get double points for each kill.

Your enemies’ chief weapon is the hug – let the standard bad guys get too close to Thomas and they grab him by the hips, draining his energy with their clingy, insecure co-dependency: do you love me? Do you promise? Why didn’t you answer my texts? Are you angry with me? Are we breaking up? Cue frantic joystick waggling to detach them. Other opponents include knife throwers, fire-breathing Chinese dragons, exploding lanterns and little people. At the end of each floor, bosses mix things up a bit, coming at you with things like a staff or a boomerang. Wallop them enough times and a staircase appears, allowing you to climb to the next level.

Kung Fu Master is pretty great fun. It’s not easy, but it feels fair – unlike its unofficial sequel, Vigilante (which we’ll look at next week), it never puts you in impossible situations. You always feel that, if only you had the skill, you could deal with anything the game throws at you.

The levels are varied and demonstrate solid game design – the opening of the second floor, for example, demands very different skills from you than anything that has come before. You have to make some split-second decisions about whether you’re going to attempt to kick a bomb out of the air, or run away before it explodes, and tiny, invincible snakes run along the floor, forcing you to dodge by leaping over them.

Kung Fu Master

Some of the home ports are a bit bum, especially – somewhat predictably – the Speccy version. However, I’d argue the NES port is better than the arcade. Sure, the graphics aren’t quite of the same standard, but they look great, and the gameplay feels tighter, the controls that little bit more responsive. It’s a game that feels solidly within the machine’s capabilities, and a real unsung classic of the 8-bit era. I’ve included footage of the NES version after the arcade portion of the video, so you can see for yourself.

If you get a chance to play Kung Fu Master on Live Arcade, I heartily advise you to invest. Unlike so many early attempts at the beat em up genre, it has aged well. There’s a purity to the gameplay that got lost in later years, and far from being a cautionary tale, it represents so much of what early video games did well – using technological restrictions as a spur to create lean, pacy titles that push every pixel to its fullest.

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