Best Games - Karate Champ
Now hear me out. What if a game could be one of the best games ever made while being completely broken in very fundamental ways? What if a game could have innovative, even revolutionary, controls while being terrible to play? What if a game could represent a tectonic shift in what multiplayer games could be, while mostly coming down to random chance?
Without Karate Champ, we don’t get a Street Fighter or a Street Fighter 2. Without Karate Champ, there is no Mortal Kombat. Karate Champ represents a fundamental shift in how arcade games could, and would, be made.
If Karate Champ didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.
Karate Champ (or Karate Do in Japan) is a one on one fighting game released in 1984, well before fighting games were a genre.
It is a game that aims to be as much a simulation of a sport as it does a martial arts fantasy. In the single player mode, the player alternates between rounds of one on one fighting with computer opponents, and challenge stages where you have to break pots or bricks or fight a charging bull. It’s weird, but it all works as a piece. All at once, regional Karate tournament and martial arts action movie.
In the versus mode, you use all of those same Karate skills against a real live human on the same cabinet. It can make for very fast, fun, and dynamic matches.
The innovation in Karate Champ is, without a doubt, the control system. Most arcade games in 1984 used one joystick and one or two buttons. Any layout that varied from that template usually meant you were in for a wildly different game.
A couple years earlier, Robotron: 2084 operated with two joysticks. That game was a fairly standard move and shoot type game, but the two joystick control scheme allowed players to move in one direction while shooting in another. It was the game that created the twin stick shooter genre.
Karate Champ used that same control system, but combined the stick movements together in a sort of macro. The left stick was primarily used for moving your Karate combatant around, but when you chained movements on the left stick with directions on the right, you could pull off all sorts of authentic looking Karate moves. It introduces pull back to block. It includes high, middle, and low attacks. If you pull down on the right stick and up on the left, you can do a forward flip that can put you on the other side of your opponent. There are moves that attack behind you. There are jumping kicks. Link all of this with the ability to fight a real human opponent and, make no mistake, Karate Champ is a fighting game.
Karate Champ, out of the gate, incorporates so much of what would become the core of modern fighting games. It was an arcade hit, but it could have been massive. A cultural totem. It comes up short in one area, otherwise we would probably be playing Karate Champ 8 at EVO now. It’s the one thing that fighting games wouldn’t get right until Street Fighter 2. It’s really hard to hit anything.
The collision system for Karate Champ is odd. Often, your fist or foot will pass harmlessly through your opponent. Then, every once in a while, a strike that seemed to end a few pixels before them will land. In a game where it only takes two solid hits to win, it feels far too random. The hits, when they land, are solid and satisfying, but it could be anyone’s guess whether they will land at all.
Street Fighter 2 is far from any sort of simulation of fighting. There are a lot of strange impact shenanigans that happen every match. It is also extremely rare that a punch that looks like it hit, will whiff. You can always be reasonably sure that your range is right for a particular attack. It feels like what you try to do, you can do. Karate Champ is just too much of a constant dice roll. The same kick at the same range may or may not hit depending on the frame of animation your opponent is currently in.
If you played some chess, but on every turn three of your pieces went into a quantum superposition between two other pieces, it would become impossible to play. You wouldn’t know, until you made your move, if a piece was a pawn or a rook. If you lost, it wouldn’t feel fair. If you won, you would have no idea how to repeat it. That’s what playing a lot of Karate Champ feels like. A constant game of guessing if the thing you are doing with your hands will have the desired effect on screen.
I’m certain that there are people out there who have become deft at playing Karate Champ. Not nearly so many as there are for Street Fighter 2. It’s a matter of expectation and consistency. If you swirl the controls in a certain way in Street Fighter 2, you can be pretty sure what will happen. Not so for Karate Champ.
This is another one of those almost games. Arcade experiences that point the way to huge things in the future. I think it’s fair to say though, without Karate Champ, we may never have developers explore the one on one fighting space. It does so much right, and it is still fun to play. It came up inches short of being revolutionary.
Maybe it’s only for historical reasons, but Karate Champ is one of the best games.