Monday, October 14, 2013

NES Replay: Kung Fu

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: October 1985
A lone man enters a dojo and fights his way through wave after wave of bad guys, climbing the stairs en route to an ultimate showdown. What am I describing? Game of Death? The Raid: Redemption?

Actually, I'm describing Kung Fu for the NES.

Kung Fu is one of the earliest beat-em-up games, if not the first. In a "beat-em-up" game, the character walks from screen to screen, fighting different opponents and knocking them senseless before continuing on to the next bunch of enemies. The emphasis in this genre is on timing and positioning while being aware of what enemies are in your surroundings.

This particular game was designed by Takashi Nishiyama, who eventually designed Street Fighter for Capcom. Later on, he left Capcom for SNK and developed their very successful fighting game division that remained the gold standard in fighting games for years. While Kung Fu is a beat-em-up game, you can clearly see the basic building blocks that would form the fighting game genre within. The player ducks and jumps to dodge attacks. By pressing the A or B buttons, you can kick or punch, and by pressing down while attacking, they can deliver low kicks and punches too.

It's a pretty solid little game, if a little difficult. In the first level, you have your basic cannon-fodder enemies that require one kick or punch to defeat and a few more difficult enemies. In the second level clay pots will drop from the ceiling and unleash small snakes or fire breathing dragons while you still have to fend off enemy attacks. You can leap up and kick the pots in midair. That's about as far as I could get.

As with most beat-em-up games, this is the kind of game requires a lot of time and practice to get right. That's a very good thing. It may be a little challenging, but once you get the timing down it feels pretty awesome blowing away a room full of kung fu goons with nothing but your flying fists.

The beat-em-up genre has fallen into disrepair, but for a while it was one of the most popular genres in gaming. What happened?

Beat-em-up games provide something very simple: A power fantasy. In a beat-em-up, you're one man (or woman) walking around a city and beating every single person in that city into submission without hesitation. They take a lot of practice, and they’re not easy, but with dedication and hard work you can obliterate an entire urban area. With punches.

The possible reason that this genre has fallen out of favor with gamers is because there are new power fantasies now. With the advent of the first-person-shooter genre, there's a new power sheriff in town, and he has giant guns and rocket launchers. Why punch something to death when you can perforate it with holes, then blow it up?

However, the beat-em-up isn't entirely gone, as it's been subsumed into different games and game genres. For example, fighting games have a healthy dose of the beat-em-up genome embedded in them, albeit on a one-on-one fashion. The Batman: Arkham series of games and Sleeping Dogs have taken the beat-em-up genre and absorbed it into action game trappings.

Still, let's remember games like Kung Fu. As we look at the beat-em-up genre throughout this series, we'll trace its path and see if we can figure out what future developers learned, and how the genre developed and changed over the years.

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