The Karate Kid (NES, 1987)

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The Karate Kid was one of the most memorable movie franchises of the 1980’s. Although it didn’t break any new ground with it’s story of an underdog with a good heart that overcomes the odds, it did tell the tale exquisitely. Ralph Macchio did an excellent job portraying the likeable main character Daniel LaRusso, and his on screen chemistry with Pat Morita is very apparent. Although some may consider Morita to be the true star of the movie, it’s the interaction between the two actors that really shines and sells the story more than any singular performance.

Daniel LaRusso is a teenager from Newark, New Jersey who moves across country with his mother to Reseda, California. Anyone who has ever moved at a young age can attest to the difficulty in readjusting to your new surroundings. Unfortunately for Danny a group of local karate students that call themselves Cobra Kai are put off by his advances towards Ali Mills, a school cheerleader and ex girlfriend of the leader of Cobra Kai, Johnny Lawrence. The group viciously attack Danny every chance they can until an older gentleman named Mr. Miagi intervenes. Initially the group is unimpressed by the maintenance man, but he manages to single handedly defeat all five attackers chasing them away. Dazzled with what he has witnessed, Daniel requests that Mr. Miagi train him in karate to defend himself from future attacks. Throughout the course of the training, Mr. Miagi becomes a true friend and mentor of Daniel’s, giving him advice pertaining to much more than just martial arts. The film ends with Daniel earning the respect of Cobra Kai by defeating several members including Johnny in a tournament.

The Karate Kid is a movie that nearly everyone from the 80’s is sure to have viewed on at least one occasion. If you haven’t seen the film for some reason or another I would highly recommend it. It’s one of those stories that manages to amuse and move the viewer at the same time. Morita does such a splendid job playing Mr. Miagi that by movie’s end, not only do you love the character but you wish you had him as a mentor yourself. The scene where Mr. Miagi reveals to Daniel that his seemingly menial chores were a part of the training process all along is superb. It’s one of those scenes that I can watch over and over again and feel impressed and satisfied after each viewing. See for yourself:

Since the movie was such a success and because the premise revolved around karate, a video game adaptation was a guaranteed seller. Karate and ninjas were popular themes in the 1980’s on the big screen, the TV screen, and on video game consoles. This game had everything going for it, except for one thing. LJN bought the rights to produce it. NES players are very familiar with this troubled publisher. It seemed that every big license was bought by LJN. They knew that popular licenses were usually sure sellers as games so they snapped up as many as they could. If only they had sunk some of those resources into development they may have actually released some good games. It’s become popular on the internet to bash LJN over the past decade or so but trust me, they deserve every criticism they have ever gotten. Countless birthdays and holiday’s around the world were tarnished by their shitty games.

The Karate Kid for the NES loosely follows the plots of the first two movies. The entire game is comprised of only four stages so the developer felt it necessary to make the title extremely difficult to prevent the buyer from feeling ripped off by purchasing such a short game. This tactic of artificial length was used by several developers in the NES days in an effort to rush a game to market as quickly as possible. Instead of being disappointed by a short game, players were instead angry and disappointed by a crappy game that was too hard and ultimately too short. As I discussed in the Nintendo Power #1 post, Nintendo Hard became a descriptive phrase because of games like this.

Stage one is a short throw away level that is far too easy. Don’t worry, the rest of the game will make up for the ease. The objective is to win the All Valley Karate Tournament seen at the end of the first movie. The player’s task is to defeat four opponents to win the tournament. When I first played this game I thought this would be the premise throughout; a tournament fighter that increased in difficulty as you progressed. This stage is not bad and can be rather enjoyable to play but it is entirely too brief. I’m fairly certain I blew through the tournament mostly unscathed the first time I played the game. All that is really necessary to win is to keep mashing the kick button as your opponent keeps marching into you. The whole level can be beaten in less than a minute. Had it been developed a bit more and lengthened some while toning down the difficulty of the ensuing stages I think this game would be recalled more fondly by gamers the world over.

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Stage 2 is a side scrolling beat ’em up, which is what the game is from this point forward. You control Daniel in Okinawa moving from the left of the screen to the right kicking and punching everyone you see. You punch with the A button, kick with the B button, jump by pressing up, and crouch by pressing down. It was always frustrating to me when game developers made the up button the jump button. It never felt natural and it seemed like you would inadvertently jump during intense action because you were trying to rapidly change the direction of your on screen character. There are a few special moves in the game. If you stand still and kick this executes the crane kick while standing still and punching executes a drum punch. These moves are not available freely at your disposal however. Throughout the stage you collect C and D icons that accumulate on a counter at the top of the screen. Every icon you collect allows you to execute a special move one time.

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So you’re walking from left to right through Okinawa punching and kicking everyone in sight and collecting C and D icons. Fortunately the designers did give you some more things to accomplish. As you’re trudging through the stages you’ll come across supporting characters from the films such as Mr. Miagi. What’s he doing there? He’s just a power up actually. Jump into him and it restores your health. Throughout the stages there are also doors and windows that you can go into that activate one of three bonus games. The bonus games give you points and special moves. 20,000 points and you get an extra life, and you will need them because there are no continues. Let’s take a look at these bonus stages.

First you have the chopstick game. There was a memorable scene in the first movie that revolved around this premise. Daniel entered Mr. Miagi’s house and found him sitting at a table with a pair of chopsticks, clasping at the air. There was a fly buzzing around the table that Mr. Miagi was trying to catch. Daniel of course inquired about the use of chopsticks rather than a fly swatter. The response was that a man that can catch a fly with chopsticks can achieve anything; an endeavor in which he had never succeeded. Daniel tries and succeeds almost immediately, frustrating Mr. Miagi to which he remarks that it was nothing but beginner’s luck.

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In the mini game version there are a total of six flies on the screen and you move Daniel left or right and the chopsticks up and down trying to catch the six flies before the timer runs out. Catching all six gives the player 5,000 points, 3 crane kicks, and 4 drum punches. This was actually a pretty fun mini game that I recall fondly.

The next mini game involved the player trying to break through blocks of ice. There were six blocks of ice on a table and a power meter that moved up and down. Time it so that you press the button when the meter is close to maximum power and you’ll blast through all six blocks of ice to get the same reward as the chopstick mini game. This one isn’t bad but it’s too short. There are no second chances so essentially you push one button and the mini game concludes.

Speaking of short mini games, the final one is some kind of bizarre hammer dodging contest. Daniel is on a platform in the middle of the water with a mast behind him. Attached to the top of the mast is a rope with a hammer that looks like an anvil tied to the bottom of the rope. The hammer then begins swinging back and forth. By pushing the button at the precise nano-second Daniel dodges the hammer as it swings past him. Dodge it six times and you win the maximum bonus. More often than not the hammer will swing down and knock you off the platform immediately ending the mini-game before you even know what happened. I always dreaded seeing this game come up.

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In between the mini games you continue to slog through the level hitting every flunky that walks towards you delivering one hit deaths. Eventually you reach the end of the level where you fight against Chozen, the nemesis of the second movie. Chozen’s AI is identical to that of every other enemy you have faced thus far as he simply rushes at you. The only difference is that he has an energy bar. Kick him a few times and the level is over and you’re on to stage three.

Earlier in the post I complained about how difficult this game can be and yet so far we are halfway through the game and I’ve discussed how easy things have been. Well stage three is where the scales tip in the other direction. The setting is Okinawa yet again but this time during a typhoon. Lightning strikes continue in the background while a constant wind pushes the player backward throughout the entire level. In addition to fighting against the wind, birds and sticks will come flying at you from off the screen impeding your progress. Although they will not deplete your energy bar they will cause you to be tossed backwards in the same style as the Castlevania games. Just like in Castlevania, there is quite a bit of water in this level and landing in the water is an instant death. You have wind pushing you back, birds and sticks blowing at you knocking you backwards if they make contact, and a steady stream of fast moving enemies that will also cause you to fly backwards if they strike or even touch you. Paired with all of the gaps you must jump throughout the level you have a recipe for a slew of cheap deaths. Being struck by a bird and getting tossed backwards into the water while you have a full life bar is one of those frustrating game moments that is difficult to describe and must be experienced to understand fully. It would be like handing in a quiz in school where you got every answer right but since you didn’t write your name at the top you get a zero. The lost life music is ingrained in my head to this day because of this level.

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If you manage to avoid all of the obstacles and get to the end of the level you will come face to face with the next boss: Chozen. Yes, the same boss you conquered in the first level reappears here. He’s not much more difficult the second time you face him so at least this fight provides a respite after the obstacle course you just endured. After defeating him you climb up a pole to rescue a girl at the top. You can actually bypass fighting Chozen entirely and just climb the pole to end the level. These boss battles are pretty uninspired.

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You’ve made it to level 4, the last stage of the game and if you thought the typhoon provided some cheap deaths you haven’t seen anything yet. Daniel is clad in red now and marches through some rocky terrain which is presumably still in Okinawa. At least this level looks different after playing back to back levels that were virtually identical in appearance. Throughout the stage you’ll have enemies coming at you with spears, enemies throwing boulders at you, and rocks rolling at you from behind. The goons now take two hits to defeat rather than just one, and the rocks will actually roll up hill to get to you. Apparently the game designers had never taken a physics class because the only time I’ve ever seen a rock roll up hill was when I was rewinding the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark on VHS. Another issue with this stage is that almost nothing is on even ground. The enemies seem to always be approaching from above or below which hinders your ability to strike. Hopefully you’ve been saving up all your special punches and kicks for this final stage. If you can make it to the end you jump onto an island where Chozen is holding some girl hostage. Yes the final boss is the same guy you’ve beaten at the end of the last two levels only this time he has a hostage that plays an active roll. If the fight gets to close to her she will crawl backwards and right over the edge into the water resulting in a lost life. So you need to make sure you keep to the left of the platform to prevent her from crawling over the edge. One hit from Chozen however will send you over the edge and into the water. Beat Chozen one more time and you’ve beaten the game and are greeted with this:

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So your reward for all of the frustration and cheap deaths is Mr. Miagi proclaiming you a martial arts master and winking at you. At the least they could have given you a cool credits montage or even a special fanfare tune for beating the final boss. Instead you get the same theme from the start screen playing in the background while Mr. Miagi delivers his message. Most NES endings were garbage so I guess I can’t fault them too much here.

So that’s the game. Four levels; two that a novice could beat with ease and two that will test your patience to its absolute limits. Keep in mind that this game was released in 1987, whereas Super Mario Bros. which was a 1985 release featured 32 stages that were generally vastly different from each other as well as a second quest with more difficult enemies. Comparing The Karate Kid to a classic game like Super Mario Bros. isn’t entirely fair but the point is that gamers were already used to longer games with more variety. If the developer had bothered to put in just 8 stages and tone down the difficulty some, the game would still only be a quarter of the size of Super Mario but I think most gamers would have been satisfied.

Despite the cheap gimmicks to achieve the unfair difficulty in this game, it’s still so short that it isn’t insurmountable. This was one of the first video games I beat as a kid. In the winter of 1991 a snow day kept me home from school and gave me time to play this game. After an hour or so of repeated failures I made it to the final battle with Chozen and won. Instead of being satisfied by completing the game I was shocked that it was already over after only four stages. I’ve seen youtube video’s where people who have taken the time to perfect their skills at this title have beaten it completely in under ten minutes. That isn’t by taking warps or using codes or even trying to beat it as quickly as possible. It’s simply someone who has gotten good at avoiding the pitfalls of the later two stages going from the start to the finish while still playing the mini-games. Keep in mind that when this was released it was likely in the neighborhood of $50. Nobody can blame a gamer for feeling ripped off if they had just paid that kind of money for a release with so little content.

Unfortunately that was the risk you took with NES games in those days. Without the internet or magazines that reviewed games it was really a crap shoot as to whether or not the $50 you had just spent was worth it or wasted. All we had to go on was the box art, a title, and sometimes word of mouth. Developers would take advantage of this by churning out terrible games with recognizable licenses and raking in cash. Fortunately by the 16 bit era things began to stabilize and today bad games can be avoided completely by doing a little research.

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