In our Final Round series, we take an in-depth look at as many fighting games as we possibly can!
In part 25, Shaun Eddleston takes a look at 1984’s KARATE CHAMP…
Year of Release – 1984
Developer – Technōs Japan
Publisher – Data East
Platforms – Arcade, NES, Apple II, Commodore 64
Before I kick his entry off properly, please let me clarify something.
Yes, I am fully aware that the subject of this week’s FINAL ROUND article is technically not the very first fighting game ever released.
1976’s Heavyweight Champ from SEGA predates Karate Champ by almost 8 years, but it’s now considered a lost video game (and the re-release in 1987 is much more like the “over-the-shoulder” style of the Punch-Out series than it’s original incarnation!), so I won’t be covering it in too much detail!
With that out of the way, this week we’re taking a look at the de facto grandfather of modern fighting games, 1984’s Karate Champ!
Released in Japanese arcades under the name Karate Dō (which, when translated from the original Japanese, reads as “The Way Of The Empty Hand”), Karate Champ sees players take control of a karate competitor (clad in a white gi) as he takes on an opponent (clad in a red gi) in a series of martial arts contests.
There are no health bars in the game, so players must instead aim for scoring points against their foes by successfully connecting with strikes/defending against their attacks, of which there are seventeen individual moves to choose from. The three-round system that would become the norm for pretty much every fighting game since this one also makes its first appearance here.
Another interesting deviation from the formula is the fact that there are no buttons to press during the game’s fights. Instead, Karate Champ utilises two joysticks; the left side controls a player’s movement, while the right side determines which moves are executed. This, paired with the more realistic scoring system, makes the game feel like a whole different type of tactical duel than the brutish pummeling that Street Fighter would help to popularise a few years down the line.
Later in 1984, Karate Champ received an upgrade (Karate Champ – Player vs. Player) that would allow an extra player to join in on the action, as well as add to the story (the fighter are now fighting for the affection of girls across the world). While Data East published this version, it’s unclear whether it was the work of the development team. This version also provided the basis for the handful of console ports that found their way into homes a couple of years later.
The promotional flyers for the game’s initial release are CRT scanline heavy for the most part, showcasing some photos of the arcade screens.
The two player version’s promotional material is more geared towards the “if you kick ass at karate, then you’ll win the hearts of girls across the world” aspect of the upgrade, and also teaches you how to pull off specific moves. Handy!
The home releases of Karate Champ uses completely new artwork, and is pretty simple for the most part.
While the single player version of Karate Champ only has a couple of levels to fight in, the two-player version throws in an impressive amount of extra stages to win over the ladies in. These ten new levels range from the mountainside, the beach and the docks, to onboard a ship, on top of a precarious-looking log and in the Netherlands(?).
It’s an intriguing mix of locations, with some that are more successfully executed than others, but it’s still a surprise to see so much content added to an arcade game of this type in this era.
After each fight, players get to play a bonus game to try and add some more points to their high scores.
The first of these sees players have to kick a charging bull in the head at the right time. If successful, the bull gets a comically large Looney Tunes-style bump on the head and the round is over. Should you miscalculate your timing, the bull rams you off the stage, and you fail the round.
Another bonus game that pops up sees players have to deflect oncoming projectiles (such as bottles, food and all sorts of other stuff) that are being thrown in from both sides of the screen. Players must time their strikes to hit each item.
Finally we have a mini game that no self-respecting martial arts game would be without; board breaking. Players must time their strikes perfectly in order to break as many of the boards as possible that rest upon the table in front of them. Simple, yet iconic.
Despite which version of the game you play, there’s no “real” ending to Karate Champ. However, the ensuing outcome of each fight are different in each case. In the original version, a fight would end with your fighter standing over his beaten opponent, then his head inflates and gurns hellishly.
In the two-player version, the lady (actually, unless she’s really short, then this could look incredibly suspect!) you’re fighting for slowly shuffles towards you, declare your fighter as her hero, then his head inflates and gurns hellishly. Again.
Should you lose in the original version, you’re sent away from the dojo, complete with the famous Charlie Brown walk in motion. It’s not as harsh as some of the game over screens that we see in later fighting games (not by a long shot!), but I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at this one for some reason.
Karate Champ is one of the most important games in the fighting game genre, and is still surprisingly fun to play. It offers a scaled-back, more tactical gameplay approach than the lightning fast games that would appear many years later, and it’s for that reason that it still feels unique when compared to the waves of fighting games that it influenced. The graphics, while understandably basic, are charming and vibrant, and give this martial arts experience a distinctive look that pretty much trumps its peers from the era.
While this piece of gaming history’s innovative control scheme, interesting bonus games and refreshingly responsive gameplay are all aspects that deserve high amounts of praise, Karate Champ probably won’t appeal to every fighting game fan. Its pace, which I personally love, might put off players who are more accustomed to the “turbo” style of fighting games, it lacks music for 99% of the game and the single player version of the game gets frustratingly difficult very quickly.
So, overall, Karate Champ is well deserving of its place in the timeline of fighting games, and definitely one to check out, just so long as you find a two-player version!
Have you played Karate Champ?
Let us know in the comments below, or send a tweet our way!