Kung-Fu Master (Irem)

By Mark Nobes

Irem's hard-hitting, side scrolling martial arts beat 'em up from 1984, is both an awesome game and a terrible one, depending on which platform you played it on! If you played Kung-Fu Master on an arcade cabinet or NES console, then congratulations - these are regarded as the very best versions. However, ZX Spectrum and Atari 2600 owners might think differently, as these ports were not so well-received!
Designed by Takashi Nishiyama (who was inspired by the Bruce Lee movie Game of Death), the colourful, detailed graphics with gorgeously big sprites, and realistic sound effects, set the standard for future fighting video games. The vocal sound samples actually sounded pretty crisp for the time, and the fast-paced music soundtrack playing in the background also helped to create a sense of excitement. Add to this a decent storyline, and all of these elements combined certainly helped the game to attract lots of attention in the arcades, fun fairs, motorway service stations and pubs.
The game inspired Nishiyama to create the games Trojan and Street Fighter for Capcom.
Ports were also made for the C64Atari 7800, Amstrad CPC, ColecoVision, Apple II and in 1990 for the Game Boy, and they all varied greatly in quality. I'll be taking a closer look at some of these further down the page.

Arcade Version

The original arcade version features five levels, set in The Devil's Temple, and the player takes on the role of Thomas (the Kung-Fu Master). His ultimate mission is to rescue his girlfriend, Sylvia, from Mr. X, and evil crime lord. I always thought that Thomas was a highly unusual choice of name for a martial arts expert, but also quite amusing.
The cabinet included a four-way joystick which had two attacks buttons for punch and kick. The player can also use the joystick to crouch, jump and perform a jump kick. This broad choice of moves was pretty unique at the time, and first time players would need to quickly get to grips with the controls to avoid getting a ribbing by their mates for a terrible performance!
Kung-Fu Master Gameplay screenshot from arcade version by Irem.
Players who want to achieve the best high score, will quickly learn that punches award more points than kicks and caused more damage. It's wise for the player to keep their beady eye on the health gauge, as receiving too many blows will lose you a life. 
The human enemies are armed with weapons, such as knives or sticks, and a lot of crouching is required to avoid them. It pays to be very observant, avoiding airborne weapons whilst engaging in a fight with the enemy.
Enemies include henchmen, midgets, knife throwers, snake pots, confetti balls, dragons and moths. I'm pretty sure they wouldn't get away with using the term "midget" in a video game in today's PC world, though!
Each of the five levels takes the player to a different floor, and each one features a different boss at the end, who the player takes on in a one-on-one brawl. After defeating the boss, Thomas climbs the stairs to the next level.
The bosses are Stick Fighter, Boomerang Fighter, Giant, and Black Magician, with Mr. X himself being the final boss of the game to defeat. Once he is defeated, Thomas can rescue his girlfriend. However, as with many arcade games in the 1980s, the game does not end and plays on a loop - the player starts over again but with a higher difficulty level. This enables players to achieve huge high scores - any 80s gamer will know that seeing your name or initials on the high score table on the arcade machine in the local chip shop, certainly boosted your street cred! 
On achieving 50,000 points, Thomas is awarded an extra life. The game continues until Thomas loses all of his lives.
In Japan, the game was known as Spartan-X, and became one of the top-grossing arcade games of 1984. The game was also hugely successful in North America, becoming the No.1 game for a time, but it wasn't released in Europe and the UK until 1985.

Famicom/NES Version

The release of the NES version (in 1985) also helped to boost the popularity of Kung-Fu Master in the arcades, ensuring it remained popular throughout 1985. Around 3.5 millions NES cartridges were sold worldwide, and it became the No.1 home video game in the U.S for a time in 1985.
The conversion by Shigeru Miyamoto is near perfect and received high praise from reviewers in the popular video game magazines of the time. It's just as responsive as the arcade game, with smooth side-scrolling, and it also includes vocal sound effects. It's definitely a winner!
The game inspired Miyamoto to create another classic side-scroller Super Mario Bros.

C64 Version

The Commodore 64 port is above average, although doesn't quite match the finesse of the arcade and NES versions. It's not as colourful for starters, although that's the fault of the VIC-II chip and its limited 16 colour palette, and the side-scrolling isn't quite as smooth. Nonethless, it looks and plays better than many of the other conversions such as the Apple II and Atari 2600. It has a great kick sound, although no voice samples. The music is adequate but the SID chip is capable of something much better - they should have roped in the legendary Rob Hubbard!
Zzap 64! magazine awarded a score of 79%, and the reviews were generally favourable in other magazines, with Commodore User awarding four stars. It's definitely a game I would have been happy to receive in my Christmas stocking!

ZX Spectrum Version

I'll get straight to the point here - this port is a complete and utter mess! It was awarded just 30% by Your Sinclair magazine, and quite rightly so! It's so poorly programmed that Thomas becomes the colour of his enemies whenever he gets near them - colour clash to the extreme!
The highly irritating bleepy music track sounds like a wasp in distress and the crunchy punch and kick sound effect is erratic, not always sounding when you perform a blow. 
The weird nature of the side-scrolling means that it's all too easy for the player to accidentally find themselves walking into an enemy. The scrolling takes place in sudden bursts when Thomas reaches a certain point of the screen, rather than a continuous, smooth process, which interferes with the gameplay. 
U.S. Gold version of Kung-Fu Master for ZX Spectrum. Cassette and inlay cards

Amstrad CPC Version

This is a decent port and it plays rather like the C64 version, although visually it's more brightly coloured (some would say garish), as are most Amstrad games, but the sprites look pretty similar in design. Amstrad ports are often half-baked, but some effort has been put into this, at least, to make an action-packed game, although Thomas walks like he has a broken leg.
Unlike the arcade version, this features an elevator instead of stairs, and it's quite a nice touch. The collision detection is a little dodgy at times, but overall it's a pretty enjoyable gameplay.
The sound effects are adequate, but nowhere near as realistic as the C64, NES and arcade versions. On the plus side, there is no annoying music playing in the background, as with the ZX spectrum version.
Kung Fu Master Amstrad CPC 464 gameplay screenshot
One graphical flaw with the Amstrad CPC version is that the main fighter characters are sometimes hard to view due to the strong background colouring.

Atari 2600 Version

Given the limitations of the 2600 console, it's pretty amazing that Activision even considered creating a port of Kung-Fu Master, but it looks very impressive graphically and not that far off the arcade version. However, that's where the similarities end, and it's the gameplay that lets the game down badly.
The main problem here is the control system, and this port certainly doesn't feel like the arcade version at all whilst playing it. Because the Atari joystick has only one button, this is used for both punching and kicking, and there are no jump kicks in this version, and this all has a big impact of the playability. The knife throwers are a law unto themselves and are sometimes incredibly difficult to defeat, coming towards you at great speed. Overall, the game is just awkward to play and too difficult, which makes it no fun at all.
Kung-Fu Master gameplay on ColecoVision

Screen grab from the very decent ColecoVision version of Kung-Fu Master