As far as classics go, Kung Fu is one high up there in terms of leaving an indelible impression. Even if you’ve never played the game itself, you’ve doubtlessly played a game inspired by its elementary concept – punch and kick through armies of martial arts foes, and fight a boss with a life bar at the end. “Hurt bad guys” is like the rice or wheat of the gaming industry, and this game first presented the idea of Hong Kong kung fu action flicks in videogame form.
This is an arcade port of Kung Fu Master. In Japan, it was apparently tied in with a Jackie Chan chop-saki movie release, but the game appears to take only the names of the film’s protagonists, and the hitting people, from the movie. The result is a fairly simple scroller where you climb up five levels of a pagoda, fighting various foes and a diminishing timer, with a boss blocking your way to the stairs. Success means repeating the five levels over again with increased difficulty.
Luckily, the game’s simple nature is its strongest point. Kung Fu can be surprisingly addictive, as it does one thing, sticks to it, and does it well. You’ll be moving through levels, punching or kicking human and supernatural enemies. Being a martial arts master, you can punch and kick swiftly, and both attacks knock enemies off screen in one hit. The punch has a shorter range but gives more points. The kick has a longer range and is better for lines of charging foes. You will also encounter enemies that will throw knives or breathe fire, usually resulting in having to quickly jump-duck-jump your way through the later levels.
There are no level hazards per se, like open pits or falling pillars, but the dragons in particular act as stationary hazards that require you to stop for a moment and deal with them before moving on. That’s about all there is to the game. There’s not much challenge involved, and the human enemies will rush at you like zombies, throw themselves on you in groups and literally squeeze the life out of you. There’s… a lot of love in the pagoda, shall we say. The supernatural enemies are much more difficult, but more of a timing challenge than a fighting one.
Snakes and bees make appearances to shake things up, and to provide enemies with different movement patterns from the standard humans. As a badass kung fu master, you’ll deal with them just the same. I apparently am one of those people that taste delicious to all manner of insects, which always causes trouble on vacation. So I would gladly travel to the highest mountains of Shikoku and dedicate years of my life to refining and harmonizing my body and soul, if it would result in the ability to punch a mosquito right the fuck out as featured in this game. Kung Fu, like Total Recall, also has a fascination with dwarves. Why this is, or what this has to do with kung-fu, I don’t know. But these leprechaun-looking fellows can offer some… amusing situations.
The game’s graphics are unsophisticated but still sharp. It’s actually a rare NES title that doesn’t drop much quality from its arcade source. Characters are smaller here, as usual, but the colors are identical. Not much detail is lost either, mostly because the arcade version doesn’t have terribly detailed art itself. The sounds are very basic but unique and classic (“kyup kyup hiii!”). The music will be memorable long after playing the game. It’s not orchestral or elaborate, but it does fit the game perfectly, and to my knowledge, has never been used again in another game.
The controls are not really varied or complex, but are very accurate and responsive. If you’re timing is good, you won’t have trouble fending off your attackers. If it sounds like there’s not much to this game, that’s because there really isn’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s worthless either. It’s a great time-waster, and replaced Solitare for me for a while. If you’ve got five minutes with nothing to do, fire up the game and see how far you get. A dedicated attempt to beat the game will probably only be worthwhile once, but the game’s style ensures you’ll be having fun even at the first level.
It’s a fun game for certain, and a good choice for the NES’s opening round of titles. It’s a fantastic example of arcade fun without the quarters, and doesn’t even lose much on the conversion to the weaker console processor. Today, it would still be little more than an afterthought in a bigger game – like an arcade cabinet in the corner of Shenmue, and would be hard to justify as a full title that you’re going to play happily all the way to the end. But it is what it is, and what it is is a pretty solid classic title.
Fun title that influenced decades of games to come.
Fights boredom skillfully, but for only a limited time.