Upon the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the mid 80’s, one thing that stood out about the early games on the console was the box art for the games. Drawing upon box art on previous consoles such as the Atari 2600 which had realistic graphics on the box but differing wildly to what the game actually looked like, the NES games used an enlarged pixelated graphic of the game you were going to play. Looking at the box you would know to some level the game you were about to play and not be disappointed that the box art that offered so much in reality gave so little. There were at least 20 games released on the NES that had this type of design for it’s box art and one of these is the subject of today’s review – Kung Fu which was a port of the arcade game Kung-Fu Master. Looking back now, how does this game hold up, is it more chop kick or more chop suey?
Kung Fu is a side-scrolling beat-em-up game released in 1985 with which you take control of a fine young gentleman (presumption is the key here) named Thomas, who has to rescue his very own Princess Peach named Sylvia who is locked away. You’d think that there would be other places to lock up princesses such as garages haunted houses or disused factories but in the world of video games, if you’re going to kidnap a princess, do it somewhere fanciful at least such as castles or temples. Following this lead, in the gorgeously named Devil’s Temple Sylvia is locked high up on the 5th floor and it is your job to rescue her. It would be too much to ask to press for the lift to go straight up there and if that were the case we wouldn’t be experiencing this video game and not have a good challenge. To get to Sylvia, you’ll need to look deep within, focusing with all your might and use your kung-fu skills for good, encountering a differing smorgasbord of enemies, finishing as per traditional video game lore with the final boss, the mysterious Mr. X.
Upon booting up the game you have the option of choosing Game A or Game B, for either one or two players. The only difference between games A and B is that with game mode B, there are more enemies making your journey to Sylvia more perilous and dangerous. It is good that there is a two player option, so you and a buddy can get in on the action but unfortunately this mode is utilised in the same way as Super Mario – you individually take it in turns to complete the level and not co-op on the screen at the same time. Although a teeny bit disappointing, it is good to have had this feature included especially in an early NES game, and it is nice to have that bit of rivalry and competition to see who can get to Sylvia quicker. As well it is noted when you boot up the game, with other black box games on the console your ears are treated to some short jovial intro music, and Kung Fu…..is different. No music on the main menu, just the title screen. How does this bode for the remainder of the game? Never fear, for having chose the game mode, as a reward for no music on the main menu you get a short piece of music in the opening intro and then off you go.
In Kung-Fu, the aim of the game is to go from one side of the screen to the other, making your way through each level killing enemies who stand in your way who alas get progressively more difficult the further into the Temple you get. For instance, the opening level you are greeted by thugs seemingly wanting to give you a nice cuddle and knife-wielding maniacs that cause the energy bar on the top left of the screen to deplete. Later on in the Temple, you encounter snakes and dragons that seem to come from everywhere – up top, down below (for yours and Sylvia’s sake don’t be slow). Having ploughed your way through the level showing the enemies who really is the man, you get to the level boss. One thing to note is that it isn’t always obvious on how to defeat the boss, not all of them can be defeated by mashing the attack buttons constantly in their direction. A good example of this is in the third level where you need to find his weak spot to defeat him – regular attacks as such don’t work. It does make a refreshing change to think how to defeat a boss rather than hammering the buttons away and contemplating paying over the odds for a turbo controller from your favourite auction website…
Speaking of which, the controls are simple for Kung Fu – A button is to punch and B is to kick. The d pad makes Thomas move, in particular the up button makes Thomas jump. If you try and attack whilst jumping, Thomas then does a jumping punch or kick (dependant on the button you press) which packs a more powerful punch than normal, that may or may not come in useful especially with previously mentioned third level bosses, *ahem* that you didn’t hear from me. Pressing the down button makes Thomas duck, with which again you can punch or kick whilst he is crouching. It is impressive that Thomas has these range of attacks when you take into consideration the NES controller only had had the d-pad and two buttons to move and attack, so you’re not stuck for choice with how to attack the enemies and feel tight and responsive throughout. Audio-wise, the theme is of an Oriental-style and fits the game perfectly, setting the mood well. Coupled with this is the sound effects that enhance the playing experience, with a different noise for when you punch and when you kick and on the whole will make you want to keep the volume up on your TV and your vinyl turntable down. In terms of the graphics, through the game it feels well-defined with bold colours, enemies that look detailed and the backdrop presented well enough to make you feel immersed in the Temple and sets the scene well throughout.
They say (whoever they are) that good things come in small packages, and Kung Fu is no different – according to Speedrun.com the game can be completed in 3min and 34 sec. However don’t let this detract from the fact that Kung Fu to this day is one of the best black box games that was released on the NES, and if you do have a spare 15 minutes to play casually, is one of the better experiences to enjoy. This is helped by the responsive controls, music that fits well with the theme of the game and enemies that are fun to take on. It does give a sense that you work your way through Devil’s Temple in order to save the love of your life. Although the game has criminally not been released on the Nintendo Switch Online Service or on NES Classic models, copies of the game in its original cartridge-based form are cheap enough and well within the budget of the discerning retro gamer. It is easy to think about Super Mario Bros as the most popular launch title and black box game on the console but personally, Kung Fu rides high up there as well and is well worth a look if you haven’t done so already.
All screenshots taken from Moby Games.