Friday, July 1, 2011

East vs. West: The Kung Fu / China Warrior (1987/1989)

When the PC Engine was in development, somebody at Hudson Soft realized that showing off its graphical abilities might be a fine way to move some machines.  And thus, I speculate, was The Kung Fu born -- it's Volume 1 in Hudson's own numbered series of games for the machine it co-created with NEC, a premier title in both senses of the word.  It debuted as a launch title for the PC Engine in 1987, and when the console came to the US as the TurboGrafx-16 in 1989, it was used to launch the system in North America as China Warrior.

The title screen underwent more than the usual amount of modification for its US release, though with no apparent reason -- here's the Japanese original:

The US version contains almost exactly the same elements, but for some reason has been rearranged quite a bit:

The gameplay is otherwise identical in both versions, with the same sprites and background music.  Even the slightly graphic wear-and-tear as our hero's health gets worn down is retained for the more squeamish (at the time) US market -- note the bleeding about the eye, mouth, and abdomen:

The big attraction here, obviously, is the very large character sprites -- these guys stand more than half the screen tall, with detailed and colorful artwork depicting the hero's rightward journey as he battles the left-leaning forces of evil.  The game's definition of "forces of evil" is, apparently, broad enough to include tossed bowls, rolling rocks, moths, and sticks.  Most of our "enemies" are passive, hooded monks who seem to walk right into the Kung Fu master's fists; more powerful versions duck or survive for more than one hit, but I always feel bad about beating them up, as they seem more like innocent pedestrians than actual foes.

The big drawback here, obviously, is the very large character sprites -- there's not much room for actual gameplay left over, as these monstrous figures lumber across the screen, obscuring the background and anything like an interesting or varied objective.  The Kung Fu ultimately plays like Irem's Kung Fu Master, without the fluidity and fun.  The main character punches and kicks, but with limitations -- when jumping, he can only kick, and when kneeling, only punches are available.  He's also not very maneuverable -- he's forced to march along at a steady pace, and while we can move him from side to side within the scrolling screen, he resolutely faces rightward and has no ability to attack anything that gets past him.  Fortunately, the bounding box of his attacks is fairly generous -- he can appear to miss a moth visually, but knocks it out with what seems to be the sheer force of the wind generated by his fists.

At least, and at last, at the end of each substage we get to face off against an enemy with a greater degree of enmity, like Mr. Mustache Camo Dude:

And there are bonus rounds at the end of each three-stage level, where we get to attack innocent pottery, using a weapon that would be awfully handy if it were available during the game proper:

With the big sprites to deal with, this HuCard-format game doesn't really have enough space for varied graphics or smooth animation, and it's painfully clear that graphical horsepower without the storage to support it makes for a poor result.  The game's background music does not change from level to level, and many "new" enemies are just palette-shifted versions of characters we've already dealt with many times:

When this game came to the US, I recall that video game critics were pretty lukewarm about it; the novelty of the graphics was clearly compromised by the limited gameplay.  Still, those big sprites looked mighty fine in the marketing materials, once upon a time, and the game is fairly common today.  A lot of people must have bought The Kung Fu or China Warrior despite the middling reviews, just to show off what their new console could do.  Mission accomplished for Hudson Soft!

The Kung Fu is pretty easy to find -- it sold well to the early adopters, those folks anxious to show off the new machine's capabilities even if they weren't really having much fun with it when their friends were not around to ooh and aah.  You may be able to pick up a copy of the Japanese original here.

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