Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Closer Look at the Karate Kid for the NES

 It has been far too long since I have sat down and written a good ol' Closer Look on a NES game.  Long time masochists will recall that is how this whole thing got started.  However, a few weeks ago I broke down and bought the Karate Kid for the NES.  With LJN's reputation for crap games (some of it earned and some of it unjust, but that is a tale for another time) and my fear of ruining a childhood admiration for the Pat Morita classic film, I have passed over this game many, many times in the past.  However, like the daft fool I am, I have the delusion that I can one day own all of the NES games made (for North America anyway...), so it is inevitable that this was going to be in my collection at some point anyway, so much like Ezal, I saw an open window...

To be honest, I expected the six dollars I chucked down for Karate Kid to have gone the way of the six dollars I spent on Total Recall, Wayne's World, and so many other movie-based games in the past.  But damn it, I just keep playing it!  And it's not like the game is exceedingly long or difficult, but I keep playing it!  I beat it like last week and yet I keep playing it.  I checked, it was released by LJN.  So what is going on?  How is this possible?  This, my friends is why the Karate Kid for the NES is getting a Closer Look (and now that I think about it, Back to the Future, the first game to get a Closer Look is also an LJN title, I think someone is spiking my Shasta...).

So what is is about this game that makes me keep playing it?  Is it the adaptation of the story?  Not even close.  And by "not even close" I mean the adaptation is not even close.  One might go so far as to say that this game has been entirely mis-titled, and not in that "tossing bowling balls and Guidos" kind of way that Back to the Future is mis-titled, but in that "hey, this game is actually the sequel" kind of way.  You know the type.  I'm not kidding.  The "plot" for the NES Karate Kid game is actually the plot of the film, the Karate Kid Part II!!  What the what?  Exactly.  And here's the kicker, it is actually very, very faithful to that plot.
You start the game at the pivotal tournament from the climax of the first film.  From there you travel to Okinawa where you do battle with Sato's thugs outside the Miyagi dojo.  Then the typhoon hits and you must battle your way through the storm to save the child atop the bell post (shocking level of detail!).  Finally, you must make your way to the festival where your new girlfriend is being menaced by Chozen.  Defeat Chozen and keep Kumiko from killing herself (more on this in a minute), and Miyagi will honor you with great praise (perhaps too great?).  See, pretty much just like the second film.

So why is this game, for all intents and purposes the Karate Kid Part II, in a Karate Kid case?  I have no idea.  Logic says maybe they felt odd about releasing a "sequel game" for something that had no foundational title, but that didn't stop Konami for hitting us with Goonies II.  Maybe there was a Japanese release of a game based on the original film and this was the sequel game, but we only get the sequel game because back then America only got a portion of the kick ass games from Japan?  Honestly, I have no idea, and the research that could confirm that last one really stretches outside the scope of this article, so I am happy to chock this one up to a mystery. Either way, the curious mismatch of title and game content is not the reason I keep playing this game.  It is however a really nice bit of icing on an otherwise unexpectedly moist and delicious cake.

Perhaps what makes this game so much fun is its sheer simplicity.  As previously stated the game isn't terribly long.  Four total levels and only three of those are actual platforming levels.  The first part of the game is the tournament where you face off against four opponents in single elimination bouts.  Four fights, that's it, and to top it off they are easy, really really easy.  The remaining levels are of moderate length, but all in all the game only takes about 20 minutes to complete.  Yet I keep playing it, and here's the biggest shocker, particularly for you younger audience members for whom the next statement may have little meaning at all:  I'm playing for score!  Yeah, that's right.  If you have ever asked yourself who the loser is who has been beating Karate Kid for the NES at least once a day for score, the answer is this guy:

Now the question to ask is why?  Why would anyone do such a thing?  I own a shameful amount of NES games, and this is how I spend my time?  Something must be wrong with me or very right with the Karate Kid.  The answer might be a little of column A and a little of column B (see picture above).
My personal idiosyncrasies aside, there are some very right things about the Karate Kid.  It's not without its faults: comparatively short levels, unfair stuck points where the enemies can drain your health to zero in seconds, fairly uninspired level design, but it manages to overcome those things with an almost ridiculously simple formula of uncomplicated game play, short play time, charming theming, and just enough challenge to keep things interesting. Not surprisingly, this is the exact same formula that makes Jackie Chan's Action Kung-Fu a sleeper hit of the Konami library (the only real difference in the games is the theming and game length, JCAKU takes almost an hour to beat).
(Dude, I go on FOREVER about this game, but keep reading, I promise it is worth it...)

For all of its shortcomings, the Karate Kid is just fun to pick up, play for fifteen minutes and then move on.  You get back just about as much as you invest in it.  While the actual platforming levels are somewhat mundane, they are punctuated by three "hidden" mini-games scattered throughout each.  The manual claims these levels can be accessed through doorways in each area, but I find the collision detection for activating them to be a little tricky, so it is much more like they are hidden.  Either way, while Daniel-san is punching and kicking his way across the Far East, he can occasionally take a break and dodge swinging hammers, break blocks of ice with his fist, or catch flies with chopsticks.  Hey, wait!  That last one actually is from the first movie!  So that's how they settled on the name!  Continuity notwithstanding, these mini-games provide a different kind of challenge and a break from the formulaic "walk right and kick" routine of the main level.  You can also haul in major points and pick up extra special moves (crane kicks and drum punches) by doing well at the games.  Somehow, the Karate Kid manages to strike the right balance of "walk right and kick," find the secret mini-game, execute the mini-game, "walk right and kick," fight the boss, to keep the game interesting and replayable.  I venture to say that if the game had been much longer, this balance would have become very tedious and the whole thing would have collapsed.

In the sections below, I will take an even closer look at each level and provide some helpful tips for getting the most out of your Karate Kid experience.  But before we get there I would like to honestly and sincerely implore you to give this game another look, or a good hard first look and not be so quick to dismiss it as just another LJN movie adaptation that makes a great drink coaster.  There is something here that a lot of video games lack and, however unlikely, this game manages to execute it very well.  Replayability is a tricky, tricky monkey, but one of the keys to making it work is finding the perfect balance between difficulty, challenge (note the two are not the same), reward, and play time.  Somehow, the Karate Kid for the NES manages to strike that balance and because of that overcomes its foibles and in the end be a very fun game.

Closer Look Breakdown
In lieu of a Tips and Tricks section for this game, I'm creating a new feature called the "Breakdown" where I will take the game apart, as much as that is possible, and examine the inner workings of what makes it so compelling.  Along the way, I'll still provide the occasional tip or trick to help you get even more out of your gaming experience.  So without further ado, let's breakdown the Karate Kid!

Level 1
The first level of the game is actually much more of an interactive cut scene than an actual level.  Set at the tournament that concludes the first film, you will face off against four members of the unscrupulous Cobra Kai Dojo.  The duels are single elimination, so if you cannot make it past these fights, you might want to take the game out of your NES and take up golf or something.  While a very nice tribute to how the second film starts, this "level" is pretty cheap.  To succeed, all you need do is advance left and kick at rhythmic intervals.  Your opponents will fall easily beneath your legs of fury.  Should you get in trouble, you can blow one of your four crane kicks, but there really should be no reason to do so with just a bit of timing.  Despite the blatant lack of difficulty, this level survives on its charm alone.  Somehow you know that if they have the story figured out enough to start you here, they are going to keep things interesting going forward.  There will be no "sweeping the leg" here.

Level 2
Flash forward a bit story-wise and now Daniel-san is in Okinawa, seeing the sites of Mr. Miyagi's tiny village, Tome. However, Chozen's gang has other plans.  They beset Daniel as he tries to make his way back to the Miyagi Dojo.  This level is a true side-scrolling platformer where you will guide Daniel through the village as gang members attack from all sides.  Apart from the obvious enemies, you will also have to avoid falling in the water.  The platforming isn't terribly difficult here, so you have time to get used to the controls and strategies.  A couple of things to remember for initial combat:  kicks are better than punches, they have better range and cannot be dodged as easily.  Punches are good if enemies are in the air or if you are lower than they are on the playfield.  Sometimes just jumping into an enemy will deal damage, although sometimes this can hurt you as well.  And finally, a quasi-cheat strategy is to get the enemies behind you.  Since they move at the pace you do, they cannot catch up and they will follow you unable to attack until you scroll them off the screen.  It's kind of cheap, but it can be the best way to get out of stuck points or other tricky areas.  All of this is general wisdom that applies going forward.  You'll not encounter too much difficulty in this level, although there are a couple of points where you can get stuck and drained.  This is a good level to ferret out the mini-games and earn some points and special moves.  The first mini-game is in the open doorway as you pass the first building.  You will need to jump into it (as you will with pretty much all the trigger points for the mini-games, jump or fall into).  

The first stuck point can occur right after that building when you are higher than your enemies.  It is very easy for them to get in sucker punches to your knees and duck your crouch attack.  Should an enemy come up from behind, they can really get you in the old "dutch door" (ask your mom if you don't know the term) and take you out fast.  This is the most common way to get lost in a stuck point in this game.  It is most important to keep moving to avoid this.  If  you do get totally caught, fire off a few crane kicks.  That usually clears out the bad guys.  The good news is only two bad guys can be on the screen at once, so if you can clear one, you can usually get unstuck.  However, there are a few spots that are trickier than others and I will try to point those out.
Miyagi to the rescue!
As you progress, be on the look out for little "C's" and "D's" that appear after vanquishing a foe.  These are special move tokens that also replenish HP.  They tend to spawn in the same parts of a level, so if you are low on life or need more moves, and you see a token appear, hang out a bit and take down a few extra bad guys to bulk up. Mid-level, Kumiko will also appear to restore a great deal of your HP.  Somehow she appears in mid-air so you will have to jump to activate her abilities (I am trying really hard not to objectify the woman as an "item" or "power-up" in a game where that clearly is going on.  To be fair Miyagi servers the same function...)  When Miyagi or Kumiko appear like this it is almost always in the same part of the level so remember where this happens so you know to be on the look-out.  They come in handy.
As you move along, each darkened doorway will yield a mini-game.  The fourth door is a perfect example of a tricky trigger point.  To access the mini-game you will need to jump into it from the higher ledge to the right, jumping back left.  Either that or get knocked into it by an enemy attack.  Soon you will approach the Miyagi residence (look for the bonsai trees in the garden, again very cool attention to detail!).  Here there are bigger doorways, but most of them yield mini-game triggers.  As of this writing, I have found six mini-game triggers in the first level.
The boss fight in this level is against Chozen in the Miyagi dojo.  Two good crane kicks take him out, no problem. 
Check out the awesome detail in the Miyagi Dojo!
Use the first level's fairly low difficulty to practice your moves and get familiar with how the game works. The next two levels will ramp the difficulty considerably and you'll be better for the practice. Since the difficulty will ramp and the controls aren't the tightest, it goes a long way to keeping the balance of the game for this area to be rather simple. The small details like the village layout, the bridge into the village, the Miyagi bonsai garden, the fairly detailed dojo, provide a big reward for fans of the movie and create a more immersive experience than a generic "Japanese" background would have.  This is pervasive throughout the game. 

Level 3
The third level is much like the second, but now you have the typhoon to contend with.  In addition to taking out Chozen's thugs, you'll also be tormented by flying debris from the storm.  The debris doesn't do much damage, but it can knock you back a considerable distance and compound a couple of crucial stuck points.  An in the not helping matters department, the wind will also push you back as you progress and there are now more opening in the ground for you to drop into.  Punching is generally more effective against the debris.
Early on in the level you will find Sato trapped under the rubble of his home. Save him and your HP will max out.

About midway through the level you will hit the first truly evil stuck point.  There is a house high up, the highest house you have seen, and three wooden steps leading up to it.  Because of the debris pattern and the enemy generation it is very, very easy to get stuck on those steps and be killed.  The debris knocks you way back and the enemy attacks are rapid.  The trick is to use the punching strategy, since the enemies are higher, and to punch the debris.  Jump straight up the steps and then press forward.  There is a mini-game in the open door.  Generally, if you can get to it, you are clear of the stuck point.  Keep working at it.  It can be frustrating at first, but not nearly as bad as some of the stuck points later in the game. 
Getting up those three steps can be murder.  If you can make it to the doorway, you are usually safe.  Keep punching and jumping until you make it.

Here is the trigger just above Daniel
The second stuck point comes shortly thereafter.  As you cross the bridge, you will see a doorway below that holds a mini-game trigger.  Most likely you'll be down there anyway, after exiting the mini-game, enemies will pounce upon you from above.  It is very, very easy to get knocked into the water at this point.  Jump and punch and keep moving.  Time it right and the enemies will either miss you and fall into the water, or they will fall to your fighting fists.  You are not clear of this stuck point until you ascend the stone steps at the end of the bridge.

Just past that point there is a pit that holds a secret mini-game trigger.  Access it by jumping or falling through the gray stones in the center of the pit.  Climb out using the wooden steps.  There is a potential stuck point as you come out of the pit.  Enemies are generated in the bonsai garden just ahead, and they all throw potted plants at you.  The barrage of plants and typhoon debris can pummel you into submission if you cannot kick your way to freedom.  Luckily, Miyagi appears just past this area in a clearing as you descend the steps.  He won't be easy to pick up, but you'll probably need him.
And here is the stuck point

At the bottom of the steps, you'll encounter another boss fight, again with Chozen, I think.  Do not know him off the screen or his health will fully regenerate.  Just keep him in the middle of the screen and crane kick him until he goes down.  You can mix in some drum punches if you like, but do not rely on regular attacks or he will maul you.  He hits hard and does not like you.

To finish the level, climb the ladder and rescue the bell ringer girl.  Whose idea was it to have her be the one ringing the emergency bell anyway?
The difficulty in this area ramps pretty steeply, but not so much so that you'll throw your arms up in despair.  The debris gets a bit tedious at times, but learning to punch it out of your way becomes rewarding and racks up points.  This level also adds a bit of exploration with at least seven mini-game triggers and a couple of them pretty tricky to activate.  So as you battle along you'll also be poking around for mini-games.  Again, the theming is exception with Sato and the child at the bell tower trapped by the typhoon and the consistent village layout.  The balance continues to be maintained.
Daniel-san for the WIN!
Level 4
This is it.  You must travel across the rocks to the ancient castle and face Chozen at the Bone Dance.  Getting there however is a long and difficult journey.  The level itself is comparatively pretty long and there are lots of thugs to contend with.  To make matters worse, nearly every enemy you will encounter will take at least two hits to take down.  Up to this point a single kick usually did the trick.  Also, this level will feature thugs carrying spears (something that would have been a bit more appropriate at the end of the Miyagi Dojo area...) and they are almost impossible to take out without using a crane kick.

The entrances to mini-games are now found in caves as well as doorways and the first one you encounter will be immediately after the start of the level.  You will see a pot sitting outside an alcove.  Fall into the alcove to trigger the mini-game.  Be careful, because coming out of that alcove can get you into a stuck point where the enemies force you back into the alcove and beat the snot out of you.  A crane kick or two is very useful in clearing a path.
The good news is that there are several spots along the rocks where power-up tokens will appear so you can farm for HP and special moves a bit if you get into a jam.  There are also two points where Miyagi will appear to help you, one in the rocky area and once in the castle.
Early into the level you will find a small hut.  There is a mini-game inside, but you'll need to be up on the platform with the doorway, then jump in to activate it.  There will be a second place like this later.

Soon you will approach the castle.  It is best to jump up onto the castle wall and take your beating there.  On the lower level you can fall into the water and the thugs rain down on you.  At least on the wall you have the higher ground.  When the wall raises up a bit, there is a nasty stuck point where enemies generate throwing pots, much like in the bonsai garden in level 3.  The constant barrage of pots and enemies can force you into a loop of getting your ass beat, so be careful.  Enemies can also jump up from below and knock you back.  Jumping a lot can help.  Don't be afraid to blow a few special moves to get out of a jam, you are almost done.

The final showdown with Chozen is a two part battle.  You must defeat Chozen and avoid being tossed into the water, and you must also keep a panicked Kumiko from scuttling off into the water.  As the battle between you and Chozen rages on, Kumiko in her frightened state (Chozen did hit her pretty hard, remember) will try to stay out of your way.  However, she is a bit heedless in her fear and will back herself right off the platform into the water.  If that happens, you lose even if you win.  Your best strategy is to keep the battle on the left side of the platform so that Kumiko never has to move.  Chozen will appear from the right so you can decide where the battle takes place.  Chozen is no more difficult here than in level 3, but I recommend drum punches if you want a quick win and if you want to stay authentic to the film.  Take out Chozen and victory is yours!
Take out Chozen, but don't scare Kumiko into the moat!

This level maxes out the difficulty of the game without going to the extreme.  With less mini-games (four I count) and more powerful enemies, you'll have to step-up your game a bit.  There are a few unfair stuck points, but they can be overcome with awareness and practice.  What the game really misses here is an epic boss fight.  The Kumiko dynamic is cool, but standing in one place and landing four or five drum punches ends the game far too easily and is a little bit of a letdown.  This is one place where the balance of the game is off just a tad.  With better boss fights in general and a real showdown here at the end, this game would almost be perfect.  Yeah, I said it.  I don't need to tell you the theming continues to be exceptional.  Daniel-san and Miyagi both change outfits for the final level (this makes the second wardrobe change for Daniel).  The castle is cool and the platform with the two dragons where the final battle takes place is totally sweet!  Check out those lanterns in the water!  If there had been a collapsing bridge as you enter it would have been too much!

The Karate Kid features three mini-games you can trigger by jumping or falling into the right spots during the last three levels.  These mini-games are taken straight from the film(s) and add just the right touch of variety and flavor.  Which mini-game you get appears to be random and you'll occasionally repeat the same mini-game several times, but chances are pretty good you'll see them all before the game is over.  My NES loves the Swinging Hammer for some reason so I see it 60% of the time or more.  Go figure.
The easiest of the mini-games is the Chopsticks Fly Catch.  In this game you must catch six flies with your chopsticks (after that you can accomplish anything. Miyagi-teach).  The flies buzz about in predictable circular patterns.  You can raise or lower your chopsticks to catch them.  With the set patterns and the reasonable time limit to catch them in, you should have no problem mastering this game.  Big hint: you can catch two immediately just by pressing the button rapidly when the game starts.

The next mini-game is the Ice Block Break.  Here you will have to focus (breathe Daniel-San, I got six hundred dollars riding on this) and punch at just the right moment to break all six blocks of ice in a single stroke.  A meter at the top gauges your level of focus.  When the gauge is at its fullest your focus is tightest and you stand the best chance of breaking all six blocks.  Timing is obviously the point of the game.  How much the focus meter will fill varies from game to game and sometimes you'll get hardly any focus at all.  I have even had games where only one bar on the meter lights up and it flickers so fast there is virtually no way to succeed. Break enough blocks and you will be rewarded.  Break no blocks and a fly from the chopsticks game will land on your nose.  It is almost worth blowing a game just to see!
No winner!

The final mini-game is the cast-iron bitch known as the Swinging Hammer (be happy, in the movie it was a fishing spike!).  Here you are on a platform above the water.  A spiky hammer will swing back and forth like a pendulum.  You must execute a drum block (press the button) to dodge it as it comes at you.  Fail and you will be tossed into the water, mini-game over.  Succeed and it will swing back again faster.  You must survive six swings to earn a perfect score, however you will get rewarded for dodges in excess of three.  This game is hard.  Again timing is key, but the window for blocking is very small.  I'm not sure it makes a difference, but I try to always face the hammer when blocking.  Apart from that, the best tip I can give is to execute your dodge just as the hammer leaves the apex of its ascension.  Good luck.
Harder than it looks, trust me!

So now that we have broken the game down, let's bring it all back and take a look at how the balance works:
Length of Game: with shorter levels this game takes about 20 minutes to take down, max.  Some may say this makes the game too short and I suppose if you are looking for an immersive experience that will eat up most of an afternoon, this ain't it. But if you are looking for a fun diversion from the tedium of your mundane existence, then the length of this game hits the mark.
Level Design: While the basic structure is unimpressive, there is enough variety thanks to the mini-games and their hidden locations to keep the game going without bogging it down in details.  Some of the later Mario games suffer from over-complication by asking you to backtrack in levels to find certain items or unlock hidden passages.  A little of that is fine, too much and you are playing an RPG.  The Karate Kid keeps it simple and succeeds.
Mini-games:  The mini-games are fun and short, so you'll not be spending a lot of time on them, but they take a second to master, especially the Swinging Hammer.  They also provide just the right touch of variety to keep the platforming levels interesting.
Difficulty: The game isn't terribly difficult, but it does have its challenges.  The mini-games provide different challenges than the main game and the main game is just difficult enough to not be a cakewalk.  Overly difficult games breed a lot of frustration and tend to generate an unsatisfying experience.  Games that are too easy have the same problem in the other direction.  Make no mistake, you will beat the Karate Kid with a little practice, but you'll not beat it on the first sitting, most likely, and once you do beat it, you'll probably go through it again at least once just to make sure it was not a fluke.
Replay:  Since the game is on the shorter side the addition of a scoring system gives you plenty of reason to blow another twenty minutes on it.  Once you get good, you can run through it in a relatively short amount of time with the goal being bettering your score.  And sure, there are plenty of point-scumming opportunities in the game (no time limit in the main levels), but that is not in the spirit of playing games, so you'll only cheat yourself if you partake.  So trying to beat your best score in a single run through is plenty incentive enough to play this game through more than once and the shorter beat time means you'll not waste your life doing so.
Theme:  All of the elements above are tied together surprisingly well by the excellent attention to source material detail.  While the game is based on the second movie and not the first, the level of faithfulness to that source is very impressive.  Staying so true to the film creates an environment that is specific and accurate and engages the senses on a higher level helping to maintain interest and involvement.  This game succeeds in so many ways in this capacity.

Final Look
So there you have it.  It may have taken some time to get here, but I have just proven to you that the Karate Kid for the NES is actually an amazing game that demonstrates one of the key features in what makes classic gaming great: balance.  While not 100% perfect, the game comes pretty close to keeping all of the elements of a great game in play.  Right game length, variety of experience, progressive, but not prohibitive difficulty, and an immersive environment all contribute to the greatness of the Karate Kid.  If you own this game and have never played it beyond making sure it worked, or if you have given it a miss because of LJN's reputation for being morons, it is high time you gave it a longer and closer look. I think you will find it is actually a hidden gem in the NES's vast library.  Hey, I wouldn't have believed it either!
Well, "master" might be going a bit far...


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  2. Nice post with usefull information! I hope you write more on this subject! I must say,
    I thought this was a pretty interesting read when it comes to this topic. Liked the material

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