Retro Review: “Karate Champ” (NES, 80s August Special)

Welcome back to 80s August, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of the greatest decade since the first belly dance!

Today we’re going to take a look at Karate Champ, a one-on-one martial arts fighting game released by Data East on the Nintendo NES.

So how does one of the earliest fighting games hold out?

NotRyu faces off against NotKen

Based on the 1984 arcade game by the same name, Karate Champ predates the fighting game craze by several years (Capcom’s Street Fighter II wouldn’t hit arcades until 1991). Karate Champ is a much more trimmed-down experience. There are supernatural abilities, no smokin’ hot Chun Li-esque babes (no notable character designs at all, for that matter), and no bosses to fight.

Instead, you will play as one of two palette-swapped martial artists: white gi guy or red gi guy (whose getup looks more pink than red to me). Your fighter can still jump and has an array of punches and kicks at his disposal. Despite the game looking primitive by today’s standards, there are honestly quite a few different attack combinations to master. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get in tune with all of these techniques, and many of them are pretty difficult to pull off in a pinch. This is in part due to the fact that the original arcade game was controlled with two joysticks per player, and the NES version tries too hard to replicate all the techniques using only the A and B buttons. Something as simple as turning around seems far too complicated than it should be. In any case, my guess is that you’ll likely have to put in more time than you’ll really want to in order to learn it.

See? Two joysticks per player. Wild.

Unlike later fighting games, there’s no energy bar. Instead, each match is decided like a real karate tournament match where you earn a point with each hit you land. If time expires without either player scoring a hit, then the judge will assign a winner for the round. As I mentioned above, the move set is difficult to master, and countering your opponent’s attacks seems imprecise at best, almost to the point of being random. I personally had the best results being ridiculously aggressive, admittedly to a “button pushing” degree.

The input list looks like Cliffs Notes for Virtua Fighter

As you complete stages, there is a bonus stage where you can earn extra points by smashing a flurry of flower vases being thrown at you. You can dodge the vases rather than punching or kicking them, but there’s no reward for doing so. It’s pretty tough, but it’s all just for bonus score, anyway.

With a 1986 release date, Karate Champ is a fairly early NES game, and the game’s aesthetics reflect that. The characters are blocky, but larger than typical 8-bit sprites. The stages are a single screen and don’t scroll, but the change in backgrounds was nice. There are 10 repeating backgrounds, including a cliff, desert, a silhouetted jungle, pier, factory, and more.

Pound sand, NotRyu!

There’s unfortunately no in-game music in Karate Champ, and it needs it. A set of catchy tunes would have gone a long way in holding my interest. The judge actually has a voice, though, and when he calls out “Point!” or “Begin!”, it actually sounds pretty clear.

Remember when I said that the ten stages were “repeating?” Yeah, I don’t think there is an actual “end” to Karate Champ. If you are determined enough, you can keep playing for better and better scores, but that’s it. There’s a two-player versus mode, too, so that provides a few minutes of fun, but finding one modern gamer interested in spending much time with Karate Champ is probably hard enough, much less two.

The jungle actually looks really cool, but why the holy hell is the judge on top of the palm tree?

Overall, Karate Champ is certainly a pioneer title in the history of one-on-one fighting games, and it should be respected as such. However, despite some decent backgrounds and voices, the NES port is a clunky game with a rough control scheme. As such, I can only recommend it to those with a keen interest in the history of fighting games pre-Street Fighter, or hardcore NES collectors. If that’s you, then the good news is that Karate Champ is a fairly common, inexpensive pickup on the secondary market, with loose cartridges regularly selling at less than ten bucks. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to snag my copy as soon as I drop it on eBay.

Don’t blink, or you’ll miss that trash can in the shadows

Thanks for reading!

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