Fighting games came of age in the mid-80s. Although several years from the genre-defining sophistication of Street Fighter II, the brawler matured from the sprite-bops-sprite primitivism of the 70s with a trio of now-classic martial arts games. The first of these, Karate Champ (Data East, 1984), was a Japanese arcade game that established the template of two fighters, a selection of available moves and a points-based scoring system, and this was swiftly followed (and improved upon) by Yie-Ar Kung-Fu (Konami, 1985).
As a kid, Yie-Ar Kung-Fu was the game for me. Unlike Karate Champ, it was ported quickly from the arcade to the home computer and I had it for the BBC Micro. The game pitted its Bruce Lee-alike hero Oolong against a series of bizarre baddies with nasty weapons, magical powers and gaudy outfits. I played it for hours on end, entranced by its weird wild world of flying sumo wrestlers, deadly pink ladies and moving statues. Each level advanced Oolong to his new opponent and it was all pleasantly challenging until the part when he squared up against a dude called Feedle. In the arcade version, Feedle could multi-locate and attack from all directions at once. In the BBC one, Feedle took on even more mysterious forms including an array of Phantasm-esque spiky balls. Put short, he wasn’t fighting fair. Feedle obliterated me and my meagre child skills. One day I played the game for so long trying to beat him, the computer overheated. All the sprites’ shoes turned red and the blue sky backdrop went multi-coloured. At least I hope it was the computer although in hindsight, I could’ve just been hallucinating. Either way, it was time to quit.
But I had the martial arts bug by now. I wanted more. There had to be life after Feedle. So I saved up my pocket money for months and bought the third of these epoch-defining games: Way Of The Exploding Fist (Melbourne House, 1985). The front cover illustration was glorious. Some dude so angry he looked positively demonic smashing up a kanji-coated block of wood with his fist. Even the title. Exploding… Fist… It was going to be off the chain brutal, right? However, when I took it home, the game was a disappointment. None of the bad guys did the kind of crazy shit they did in Yie-Ar Kung-Fu. It was just two chaps in karate suits and the controls were impossibly complex.
Although designed primarily for a joystick (which I didn’t have), the keyboard controls simulated this in a square pattern (Q,W,E,A,D,Z,X,C) which would give you eight ‘moves’ and then eight completely different moves if you pressed the keys while holding down 1 (the fire button surrogate). It was a little much for me as a kid and I think I ended up swapping it with someone at school for another game more my pace in the end. However, revisiting these fighting games as a (still-martial-arts-obsessed) adult, Way Of The Exploding Fist stands out as not just the best but easily the most innovative, ahead-of-its-time and realistic of the lot.
The setup is simple. The player has to fight their way up through the ranks of karate, starting at Novice then First Dan, Second Dan, etc, until they become Grand Master. The way the bouts work is based on a points system just like real karate tournaments. You only need to land one punch or kick for your opponent to go down and the judge (a bald, bearded monkish character who sits in the background) gives you half a point for the knock-down or a whole point if it was “perfectly executed”. The first fighter to reach two full points (or the highest score before the timer runs out) wins.
Although complicated to master, the controls actually wind up giving gameplay a natural, human feel. Some moves take longer to execute than others (you’ll have to hold the key down longer for a roundhouse kick than a jab, for example) which gives your opponent time to trip you up or whack you in the face while you’re busy trying to co-ordinate a graceful manoeuvre. This is what gives the game its appeal and also what makes it harder to just mindlessly button bash. It’s not about duffing up another dude with as many blows as you can until his energy bar goes down. It’s about mastering the moves so you can deliver each one at the moment that’s perfect. The scoring system makes you concentrate more on form than on violence, which is true to the spirit of martial arts (albeit less so to the chaotic spirit of little kids’ minds).
The AI is surprisingly tricksy for the era, both in terms of how each opponent responds to your moves and also how the judge scores you. While playing, I don’t think I had a single moment where I thought ‘that was a perfect move’ and he didn’t give me a full point. Likewise, he always handed out the half-points where I knew I’d chanced it and got in a lucky shot. It feels fair and just ups the excitement when you do manage that perfect combo of blocking the other guy’s shot then spinning round and delivering the perfect Norris-esque roundhouse kick right to his jaw. The playability and enjoyment factors are – even now – very high.
For the last week, I’ve played Way Of The Exploding Fist on the Torinak.com Spectrum 48k emulator every night and I still can’t get past Fourth Dan, which shows the game has meat on its bones even now (or, as I’m sure someone will point out, that I’m still not very good at computer games). However, I’m informed that, if you do reach the final level, the little judge guy gets up and you have to fight him in order to achieve full Grand Master status. Alas, I may never find out if this is true…
The man to ask and the one responsible for this enduring classic is Gregg Barnett, an Australian programmer working for Beam Software, the wunderkind group who gave us the Hungry Horace series (which no 80s gamer kid can say they didn’t adore, even if may not have admitted it at the time). Barnett channeled his love of karate into the game (the first he’d programmed from scratch, having previously worked on conversions) and this knowledgeable, enthusiastic approach reaped big rewards. Not only was it a smash hit with critics and consumers but it won the prestigious Golden Joystick Award for Game Of The Year.
Barnett released a sequel – Fist 2 : The Legend Continues (1987) – a couple of years later which swapped Japanese for Chinese martial arts and incorporated a more RPG-style approach to storytelling. In Fist 2, the hero’s quest was to locate I Ching scrolls at a variety of temples and meditate to gain new skills that will allow him to progress to the end. Barnett was happy to play down his programming abilities (in a 1986 interview he describes himself as “reasonably competent”) but, while never prolific, his legacy is clearly a cut above the average. A third Fist game, Exploding Fist Plus (1988), was a riff on the insanely popular International Karate game (itself a riff on the original Exploding Fist proving that gaming – like everything else – eventually eats itself) and took the IK motif of three fighters at once instead of two, transposing it to a modern urban setting. It’s a fairly lacklustre beat-em-up, to be honest. The loss of Barnett and his understanding of fighting is very much felt, as is the lack of originality (something that, then and now, sets the first Fist apart).
Oh, and in case you wondered what the “Exploding Fist” of the title actually referred to (since this pre-dates the era of supernatural special moves ushered in by the Street Fighter series), it is of course the feelings of burning, cramping pain you’ll feel all over your hand if, like me, you spend hours smashing away at your keyboard trying to reach Grand Master level (and then make it doubly agonising by typing up a whopping great article on the subject). My fist is well and truly exploded. But, y’know what? It was worth it.
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