When playing a game, do you ever feel like you don’t quite get it? That there’s just something missing that would make the whole thing make a lot more sense? That was me this morning with Karate Champ, an early fighting game from Data East. There has to be some kind of hidden depth in this game, but it basically amounted to button mashing and praying.
The set up for Karate Champ is pretty simple. Two karate guys are having a karate match. There’s a judge who awards points for different kinds of hits, and you have a limited amount of time to land a hit before the judge will simply pick a winner. Some hits are worth one point and some are worth a half a point, and the first to get to two points wins the round. Win two rounds and you win the match. Simple right?
The problem is actually getting those hits. You and your opponent walk towards each other and then begin punching and kicking. It’ll almost always look like every hit is connecting from both you and your opponent, but weirdly the fight will just keep going. Then, suddenly, a hit will land and a point will be awarded. Other times, the first punch I throw will hit my opponent square in the jaw and I’ll be given a point immediately. I never figured out what resulted in a hit or a miss.
There’s actually a surprising amount of options available to you. Hitting the B button causing you to attack behind your character, and the A button is forward, similar to Double Dragon II. I assume, that like that game, if you turn around, those button commands will be reversed. Unfortunately, I never figured out how to turn around. But I did figure out that simply pushing the forward attack button will cause your character to punch, while holding forward while pushing the same button will make him kick. Holding back while attacking makes you kick towards your opponent’s ankle. Holding down makes you duck, which you can then perform a foot sweep by hitting the forward attack button.
All of these options are pretty impressive for an NES game with its very limited, two-button controller. This is a lot of why I’m sure that there’s more to Karate Champ and I’m just not getting it. Why would you be able to perform such a wide variety of attacks if it just boiled down to button mashing and hoping one of our attacks lands before one of your opponents? If I had to guess, there must be some kind of elaborate rock-paper-scissors style of attack pattern, but I never figured it out.
After you’ve won a match, your character does a silly little celebration. They jump up and down and clap there hands above their head. It looks ridiculous, but I’m alright with that. What I’m not as all right with is what comes after. Next you have to take part in a bonus minigame, where things fly at you from one end of the screen and you have to hit them before they hit you. I never managed to hit a single one. It was a nightmare. But thankfully, it’s just a bonus and you still get to continue even if you fail.
From a visual perspective, Karate Champ is fairly crude, but get’s the job down. Every character is very blocky, which is fairly common for earlier NES titles. What’s cool however, is the size of your characters. While not as big as the characters in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out or the “Big Mode” in Predator, they are much larger than typical NES sprites. This makes the details of each attack stand out much more than they would in most games of this era. It might not impress now, but seeing distinctly different kicks and punches is a pretty cool thing.
The environments also look pretty basic, but are distinct and interesting. Your first match is on the side of a cliff, with the judge hanging out on some slightly more elevated rocks. This is a pretty cool place to have a karate match, if you ask me. Each match will have a different place to fight. One of them was an alley on some street. The kind of place you’d expect to get into a street brawl, not an officiated karate match. Kind of weird, but I like that the mood changes as you continue through the game.
There’s not a lot of music in the game, but there’s some digitized speech, which is a neat touch. When it’s time to start attacking, the judge will say “begin”, and then when a hit lands, he’ll say “point”. Yes, it sounds like a muffled, stereotypical robot voice, but that’s fine with me. It was very rare to hear even attempts at spoken words on the NES, and I think that helps Karate Champ stand out a little bit.
Karate Champ is kind of a baffling game. On one hand, it looks good and gives the players plenty of options. On the other hand, those options don’t seem to matter since every fight ended up just being wailing on that A button and hoping to hit something. It’s very possible that I’m just missing something, and I hope that I am. Karate Champ has too much potential to be wasted being a simple button-masher.