If there’s one beat ’em up that every modern version today can trace their roots back to, it has to be Irem’s Kung-Fu Master in 1984.
Considered by many to be the very first, and most influential, beat ’em up to hit arcades, Kung-Fu Master’s elements set the benchmark from which things like bosses, a story, stage progression, a variety of enemies, and fast action would become staples in later titles from Seibu Kaihatsu’s Knuckle Joe in 1985 all the way up to Capcom’s magnum-opus, Battle Circuit, in 1997 during what felt like the twilight years of the arcade scene.
Kung-Fu Master also came out in the same year that Technos Japan (Renegade, Double Dragon) had also released Karate Champ to the arcades — a martial arts, head-to-head fighting game allowing players to go up against the computer or each other using moves grounded (mostly) what you would find in a tournament. It was a huge hit and martial arts were a hot topic to build games around.
Irem, who shmup fans might know better for their R-Type shooter series which they later started in 1987, decided to go a different route with their martial arts game. Instead of a slower, more deliberate contest between players or the computer, Irem seemed to have taken hints from cinema legends like Bruce Lee and his incomplete 1973 film, “Game of Death”, which features a mysterious pagoda with floors protected by a series of martial arts masters.
Kung-Fu Master’s storyline is based around the usual “damsel in distress” trope that titles from Capcom’s Final Fight to Technos Japan’s Double Dragon would reuse as if it never went out of style. This time, a mysterious “Mr. X” has kidnapped Sylvia (as shown in the attract mode) and it’s up to our hero, Thomas, to go through five floors, each end guarded by one of the five “Sons of the Devil”, to rescue her.
Things played out as a side-scrolling brawler starting right-to-left on the first floor and alternating with every floor after that (the steps to the next level were always at the end, so that makes sense). Enemies came from both ends of the screen and the player could move left or right. Thomas, our Kung-Fu hero, has only two fighting moves — punches and kicks. He can also jump straight up and with a little effort, jump forward in a short hop. He can also do a jumping kick, crouch and do crouching kicks or punches.
Enemies consisted of a huge amount of purple clothed bad guys that just run up to Thomas and grab him — draining his strength — unless the player can break free. There are also shorter fighters that somersault into the air and do damage that way. Knife guys also show up and take two hits (most everyone, outside of the bosses, are knocked off the floor with only one) and even step back a bit to try and keep away from Thomas.
Then there are the traps that a few levels start out with from pots dropping from the ceiling releasing snakes that speed along the ground to deadly butterflies that damage Thomas by flying into him. These tend to be a bit predictable allowing the player to memorize when they would come out to cause trouble. The enemies that rush Thomas from the sides of the screen, though, can tend to randomly mix things up a bit with regular thugs and then a few knife guys, for example, as the player tries to make it to the end of the level before their health is gone. They didn’t have to worry about the clock, either — it was really, really generous though it was easy to stay put and just keep kicking enemies.
Thomas does have a health bar which allows him to take a few hits — or last a bit longer while trying to break out of being bear hugged by the cannon fodder. He can also punch projectiles if you can time his moves just right. Level progress is also indicated along with how many lives the player has and, of course, there’s the score. The dragon head icon shows how many times the player has rescued Sylvia after clearing the temple.
You’ll also notice a purple health bar — that’s for the boss, and the bosses in the game are a lot more varied than the enemies.
There are five of them and they get tougher. There’s a stick guy that swings high and low guarding the end of the first floor. A guy that throws boomerangs is on the second floor and players will need to jump and duck to avoid them. A huge muscle guy is up on the third floor. The fourth floor is guarded by a magician who flings fireballs, can summon a doppleganger of themselves from time to time, and has a head that you can knock off — but grows back. His only weak point is his body which you have to crouch and punch because of his size.
The final level is guarded by a martial artist master who guards against your attacks and whose only weakness is when he opens himself up for a split second before throwing a punch or kick.
Thomas has no blocking — he can only move away from enemies or jump or duck over their attacks adding to the challenge. But if he makes it to the end and beats the final boss, Sylvia is rescued and the player is treated to an actual ending screen.
For the time, the colorful graphics and fast paced animation went well with the action along with the music. The game also incorporated digitized voice samples from Thomas’ kung-fu yells every time he throws a punch or kick to the echoing groan of defeat when he’s finally knocked off the floor. It was an exciting game in the arcade and players flocked to the cab and its brutal difficulty. This was a game where practice made perfect in a distinctly old school way.
That also meant that people wanted ports of it, and ports it had from the Amstrad to the ZX Spectrum and even the Atari 2600 (in 1987!). The NES would also get a port (which was only called Kung-Fu) that was very close to the arcade version complete with a few voice samples, though it was slightly easier than the arcade version but still a lot of fun.
If Bruce Lee were ever to have an arcade game of his own, Kung-Fu Master would probably have been it. Was it the greatest beat ’em up ever made? That depends on who you talk to. Some hated it for its repetition and the difficulty — others laud it for the same. It could be repetitive, but the levels and pacing were both short and fast enough to keep things moving. And by its arcade nature, it had to be hard — something had to keep feeding it tokens.
But it broke a lot of new ground with staples persisting through nearly every beat ’em up since its debut — health bars, enemies that take multiple hits to take down, bosses, stages, and even an arcade-thin story to give motivation to the player. Irem bundled a lot of neat ideas into one game that beat ’em ups in general would draw from and dramatically expand upon as the technology got better.
Irem would come out with Vigilante in the arcades in 1988 as a sort of follow-up and in 1990, the Game Boy received Kung-Fu Master — but it was actually more like a sequel than a straight arcade port. In 1991, a Japan-only sequel came out for the Famicom called Spartan X 2 and, unfortunately, never made it over to the West.
Kung-Fu Master came out as part of the Irem Arcade Classics collection in 1996 alongside 10-Yard Fight and Zippy Race (Kung-Fu Master was called Spartan X and and Zippy Race was called Motorace USA). Unfortunately, the collection never came out over to the West and despite Kung-Fu Master’s huge popularity and its influence on beat ’em ups, it never made it out to modern platforms. But no one really has to go too far to experience the things that it kicked the genre off with, either.