Kung Fu Master originated in the arcade way back in 1984. It had numerous ports on several Atari consoles, even the first few home computer like Commodore 64 and the Apple II. In fact its probably the first computer game that I’ve ever played back when i didn’t even know what a computer was.
Since Kung Fu Master had taken so many consoles by force, it was only a matter of time before it kicked out a cartridge and into the Nintendo Entertainment System. The “Master” name was dropped like Barr from Roseanne and Kung Fu was born. Not to be confused with the television show, Kung Fu is based on a Jackie Chan movie that predates Jackie Chan’s success here in America. Kung Fu was just ahead of its time. An unsung pioneer that helped usher in the NES in 1985 as one of the black box games. These were the first games for the console that didn’t feature fantastic art like Atari games had, these covers were real sprites from the game that showed people what they were getting. While these boxes can’t hold a candle (and shouldn’t) to the Atari artwork, they all have a sort of simplistic charm to them.
As for the game itself, its a 2D fighter in the ilk of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan. I’m not sure if I can call it a beat’em up since enemies just take one punch. You’re not really brawling either. Kung Fu is a martial art not some sloppy street fight.
You move in one direction and use A to punch and B to kick. You can crouch with down and jump with up. Think of it like Mortal Kombat, but with more people on screen at once. The attacks are quick and rapid fire, Thomas will attack as fast as you can mash. As for the jump and crouch, they feel a little stiff if not mistimed. Its a very simple, bare bones sort of game, but at the time it was ground breaking. It felt different than anything else.
You walk through a single building taking out bad guys. For the most part, one punch or kick is all it takes. The only real reason to even turn around is when enemies come from behind. Just turn, smash them in the face and keep walking. Its simple and with only five brief levels, it goes by quick, but if you think you’re playing to save a damsel in distress named Sylvia, you’re sadly mistaken. No, Kung Fu is an arcade game.
After you complete the game, you start all over again, with more aggressive enemies. Your goal is to survive and get a high score. There’s an interesting dynamic when it comes to the points. A kick has longer range, but it gets you less points than a punch. Both punches and kicks are lighting fast, but punches do more damage since they’re such short range. That’s where the game can have a subtlety, are you going for survival or points? The longer you survive, the more challenging it gets.
If you’re looking for diversity, you won’t find it in Kung Fu. All of the levels literally look the same, there’s a very limited array of enemies except for the second and fourth levels have a different mix of foes. Kung Fu is about your reflexes over and over again. Letting enemies catch up to you, so you can attack them. You’ve got standard grapplers that are just goons that will hug you to death. There are short women, children or little people that you’ll need to duck attack, but if you duck to get in position too soon, there’s a chance they’ll jump at you. Then you can just fly in the air and kick them down. Finally, there’s a knife thrower that adds some interest to the mix of enemies that appear in every level. These knife throwers throw either at your torso or legs. They’ll even run away and get distance from you when they approach from behind.
Then there are the strange enemies, pots that drop from the ceiling with snakes. These snakes can only be low kicked, and they’ll quickly drain your health. Eggs drop from the ceiling, hatching enemies and you need to time it just right to let the dragon hatch and before it spews fire, you need to punch it for big points. If you hit the ball its little points. Next there are wall bees or moths that come at you from odd angles, so you’ll need to dodge or attack them.
The only real diversity are the bosses. These big guys stand out and they’ve got their own health bar. You’ll face such classics as a man with a stick, a guy with a boomerang, a giant strong man, a magician and a sort of clone of yourself named Mr. X. He can block and attack like you can. Rapid punching them all can drain their health easily, but your punches will push them away, so you’ll have to get in close again, which gives them a shot at sweet revenge. The most interesting boss in the game is the magician. If you kick him, you’ll literally kick off his head that will then reappear. Its interesting to see from an old NES game. A decapitation.
There’s not much going on in the game, you’ve got a few lives and a death will restart the level. The fourth level is laughably short, but then the second time playing through its a lot more challenging. You’ve also got a two player mode that lets you and a friend take turns. If the game is too easy for you, there’s a mode B that amps up the challenge and enemies. Its nice to jump start the challenge for experts. In the game you’re treated to two cut scenes that explain why you’re playing. All in one scene, you see Sylvia tied to a chair and she’s crying out for you “Save me Thomas!” That’s right, you’re a Kung Fu Master named Thomas. I know why Thomas had to take up Kung Fu with a name like that. It just feels so out of place in an action place and it feels more at home when it has six wheels and a smoke stack.
You don’t only see this cut scene once, you see it a second time, just in case you had forgotten why you’re playing. Its tough to forget though, since you first see the cut scene at the third level and again after the fourth. I suppose this was a way to keep from boring fans by having it kick off the game. After you complete the game and defeat Mr. X, you’re treated with her warm embrace. That’s when for the first time my childhood was hit with a cold reality as the game told me “But their happiness does not continue long.” Now that’s a crouch punch to the crotch. Its all a setup to start the game all over again.
The music is good, if not iconic and it’ll stick in your head. There’s a good sense of victory when you climb the steps to each new floor. Your time whittles down and you’re awarded with bonus points. Its that happy congratulation music and the sound of the points accumulating that gives me a buzz and puts emphasis on the score. The sound design stands out as a high point. There are unmistakable sound effects that make the game stand out from others of its time. There’s a simple charm to hearing a little ding dong door bell when you get a 1-Up from your score. The horrific cackle AH HA HA HA HA HUH -AH HA HA HA HA HUH from Mr. X always gets a laugh or an eye roll out of me.
Kung Fu is still a NES classic and its not any longer than it needs to be, which is around 10 minutes or more. That’s why you need to go for the high score! The fighting is pretty one dimensional and more environments would have helped the game. Its a fun to play quick romp that will stick with you for its music, sound and laughably bad cut scenes.