The Forgotten Bruce Lee Video Game From the ’80s

If he were still alive, Bruce Lee would be celebrating his 75th birthday. We take a look back, in pixels, at the Bruce Lee computer game.

Although only in the public eye for a few years of his lifetime, Bruce Lee left a cultural legacy so rich, it’s hard to even know where to begin in looking back at it. So I thought I’d start at the beginning.

No, not the famous story of how he was born in the hour of the Dragon in the year of the Dragon and went on to become the most influential and revered martial artist of the 20th century. Instead I’m going to look at the less well-known (and altogether more trivial) story of how he first entered my life.

I was maybe five or six years old when Bruce Lee appeared to me as an 8-bit sprite. Two arms, two legs, a head; a crude white shape on a plain black backdrop, only a pixel or two away from Jet Set Willy or Hen-House Harry. He was the titular hero of Datasoft’s Bruce Lee game for the Spectrum 48k (and systems like the Commodore 64), created and programmed by Ron J. Fortier with art by Kelly Day.

If you’re not of a certain age, the graphics probably look primitive to the point of being unplayable but, back then, a big part of the fun was using your imagination. Spectrum games had simple stories and even simpler visuals but they were like portals to whole other worlds for kids at the time.

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Quite often, all you had was the box to help you get an idea of what the little sprites were really supposed to look like and the Bruce Lee game had a particularly striking cover painting. Whoever this ‘Bruce’ character was, he was clearly a badass, from his smouldering stare and bulging muscles to the way he was kicking the crap out of ninjas and dudes with green skin. The backdrops of ancient temples and mountains were enticingly exotic too. As a kid whose only prior exposure to any kind of Chinese culture had been the local restaurant, these images didn’t just spark something in my imagination, they set it on fire.

Inspired in the loosest possible sense by the legendary pagoda scene in Game Of Death, Bruce in the game has to fight his way through the various chambers of a wizard’s tower. Unlike in Game Of Death though, Bruce starts at the top and must head downwards, picking up lanterns that unlock doors to yet more rooms full of tricky platforms and deadly traps.

It’s not always clear what some of the traps are meant to be but as a rule, if it moves, it will probably kill you. When the levels get tougher, even if it doesn’t move, it will probably kill you. There are a lot of ways to die and, once your five lives are expended, you have to start from the beginning all over again.

In a notably radical move, these platform elements are combined with a basic beat-em-up game as well. There are a couple of irrepressible bad’uns chasing Bruce around the temple who will duff him up at any available opportunity. One is an unnamed black ninja who runs about with a bokken suspended in his hand and the other a sumo-style character called Yamo who, in many versions of the game and on the cover art, has green skin (he – and everyone else – is plain white on the 48k version).

Admittedly, these villains are hardly the sharpest knives in the drawer (although there is a two-player mode where a second person can play as Yamo, if you feel like you need the extra challenge). By 1983 AI standards, they’re pretty cutting edge but that doesn’t mean they’re above wandering off in random directions during a fight or that they stand any chance of understanding the tower’s more complicated traps.

A way to increase the game’s fun factor is to stand somewhere safe on the far side of a room and watch as these two goobers get suspended helplessly in waterfalls; set off booby traps and stand around waiting to be vaporized; run crotch-first into pits of knives; or just impale their skulls by jumping up into the ceiling knives (one of the Fire Wizard’s cruellest interior design choices). Luckily for Yamo and Ninja, they respawn seconds after every death so pose a threat mostly through sheer tenacity.

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Bruce Lee may not be the hardest game of its era but it manages to stay just the right side of challenging. Like many of its time, the trick is not that it’s an intricate narrative with a huge map (there are only 20 chambers to the temple). It just takes ages to master each room. Every time you play, you edge an inch or two closer to the end and this is what keeps you at it. There’s a belief that it is possible and the next time you’ll get there although, alas, as a child, I never quite managed to beat it…

So, as preparation for this piece, I went over to the Spectrum Emulator at torinak.com and decided to have another crack as an adult. I’m not sure how but I found myself totally sucked in to the game and refused to quit until I’d won, even though my hands were cramping and my eyes were burning. Some five hours of solid – maybe even frantic – gameplay later and I finally finished what I started 30 years ago and completed the game (proof in the screen capture below).

I defeated the Fire Wizard and found my way to the chamber of treasures. It didn’t take much after all that effort to get to him – I just had to nick his special lantern and he exploded. Honestly, I nearly injured myself from jumping up and cheering so hard at this point.

As a kid, Bruce Lee was one of my favorite games just because it was fun and looked cool but, as an adult, I can appreciate just how well-constructed it is. The platform challenges vary from problem-solving/puzzle style to reflex tests. The fighting, even though you only have two moves (a jab and the famous Bruce flying kick) is engagingly tense at times.

Even the frantic music by John A. Fitzpatrick that plays on the menu is enough to set the scene but doesn’t repeat incessantly throughout the game (where it would’ve driven everyone madder than, say, the Repton music – which still haunts my dreams all these years later). Although other fine martial arts games would follow in its wake, like Way Of The Exploding Fist and Yie-Ar Kung Fu, the crossover style of Bruce Lee made it the most enjoyable one by far.

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Bruce himself would perhaps be baffled by this particular part of his legacy. I mean, for one, home video games didn’t exist in his lifetime but even if they did, this is a fairly surreal depiction of the man. It plays less like anything in Bruce’s films or life and more like a psychedelic mish-mash of tropes from the more flamboyant Shaw Brothers stuff. The Yin Yang insignia everywhere, the talking cow statues (that look more like hippoes), the giant fire wizard, the magic lanterns; it definitely captures a distinctively 70s Wuxia vibe and, as daft as it sounds, is probably a big part of what led me down the road of loving martial arts and Chinese culture.

You can’t beat what Bruce himself left behind – a string of timeless films, reams of philosophy and a whole new style of kung fu that’s still widely practiced today – but even the quality of licensed (and unlicensed) merchandise he inspired over the years was frequently high. From the Bruceploitation boom of the 70s (which I wrote about on this site) to the official range of teas, all kinds of good stuff has been made in his name.

Datasoft’s peculiar little game – as well as being my introduction to the Dragon – remains a personal favorite and looking back at it feels as fine a way as any to remember him on this special day.