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Best of the Best: Championship Karate

Genre: Fighting Developer: Loriciel Publisher: Electrobrain Players: 1-2 Released: 1993

“Best of the Best…” … some fans of martial arts films might have snapped to attention after hearing that name. The 1989 movie of the same name was a sizable success and was part of the martial arts craze that saw a big rise in the mid to late ’80s and reached its peak in the ’90s, with martial artists like Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal reaching stardom as actors and the arcades being swept by a fighting game craze started by Street Fighter 2. The movie centered around a team of american Tae-Kwon-Do fighters facing of against a team of South Koreans at a tournament. A few years later, a game called Best of the Best: Championship Karate was released. Though its name may bring up comparisons with the movie, it’s subtitle suggests that it may not actually be about Tae-Kwon-Do. It’s not really about Karate either – it’s a kickboxing simulator! In fact, large parts of the game are aping a different movie instead. Confused? Well, strap yourself in then, because we’re only about to start…

When looking at still screens of this game, one might make the mistake to just discard this game as another Street Fighter 2 clone, but one shouldn’t make that mistake. Yes, it tried to profit from the aforementioned fighting craze. But then, there were the software houses that decided that in order to stand out, they needed a different approach to the genre, something that made the game more unique. Enter French software house Loriciel. SEGA gamers may not be that familiar with the name, as they hardly published any console-games at all (their SEGA catalog only has three titles for the Genesis and the Game Gear combined to their name, four if you count the unreleased Jim Power: The Arcade Game). However, like many other European software houses, Loricial was more firmly rooted in the home computer scene, and was fairly huge. Within 12 years of existence, the French company developed and/or published over 150 games, mostly for the Commodore 64 and Amiga platforms.

It was the latter that Loriciel first developed Best of the Best: Championship Karate for, a game that attempts to be a more realistic kind of fighting game. Even back then, that in itself wasn’t that much of a new concept, as games like Budokan: The Martial Spirit had tried that concept before. Nevertheless, the game was successful enough in its home computer incarnation that Loriciel tried to push it on as many platforms as possible, including the Game Boy, the NES, the SNES, and your trusted old Mega Drive. The push to consoles may have also come in an attempt to make the company more viable again, seeing as the game was released during the tail-end of Loriciels existence (the studio closed its doors in 1995). As the title (as well as my overly long introduction to this review) suggests, western producers thought that Karate could be used as an interchangeable term. The Japanese and Korean name of the release therefore is the more awkward but also more appropriate The Kick Boxing.

For the Mega Drive release, Loriciel tried a special approach. Best of the Best is actually one of the few games whose control scheme was created with the Sega Activator in mind. It makes sense, when you think about it, even more so than for usual fighting games. First, there are no special moves in this game, only a series of techniques, and it features  more then 50 different variations of punches and kicks. So on paper, it appears natural to execute these maneuvers by actually punching and kicking. And second, the Activator and Best of the Best have one major things in common: both feature control mechanisms that are completely, utterly broken. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

At a first look, the presentation of the game isn’t all that bad. You start out as a nameless Kickboxer and strive to become the number one fighter on the world ranking table. Before you face your opponents, you need to train your three stats (resilience, power and reflexes) to a comparable level in order to stand a good fighting chance. As I mentioned before, the game features over 50 different kinds of punches and kicks, though you’ll never utilize all of them in a single fight. Rather, you can switch out your move sets in between fights in order to find the ideal attacks to use against your different opponents. Per fight you have about 20 moves (plus the leg sweep, which as far as I can tell is the same in every move set) at your disposal. So there’s technically a certain strategic element to it. At least, there is on paper. A password system will save your progress and your stats in the game, though it won’t record your fighters name, appearance or nationality, so those are only for flavor. You can also set the number of rounds for each battle (default is three, but you can also go over five, seven, nine, 10 or 12 rounds), and you can also directly choose which opponent on the world ranking table you want to face next. Unfortunately, though your adversaries may look different on the main screen, this doesn’t reflect in-game. The enemy sprite, which doubles as the sprite of player two in versus mode, is always the same. The graphics, while not exactly colorful, are quite nice and have a good amount of detail to them.

You fight each opponent in a tournament-styled ring, with a set amount of rounds. Fights can be won by knocking out your opponent and him being counted out, or by referee decision after a battle went the entire length. There are also a few specific rules implemented in those fights: The referee interrupts the fight after one combatant goes down due to a leg sweep or if one fighter attacks the same way three times in a row, probably to prevent a player from simply spamming his favorite move. After defeating certain key enemies, you’ll also receive invitations to a secret tournament, the “Kumate.” This is obviously inspired by the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Bloodsport (though there it was called the “Kumite,” which unlike “Kumate” is an actual word; nice typo there, Loriciel!).: Here, there aren’t any referees, no rounds and no time limits, and fights can only be won by a KO. You also only get new passwords after ranking fights, not during the “Kumate.” Fights still get interrupted after leg sweeps though.

This may sound very complex, thought out and deep in terms of gameplay. Only, it isn’t. It’s a good concept, but the implementation doesn’t work. In theory, not being able to repeat the same attack three times in a row and having opponents with different fight tactics should mean that once in a while players would be forced to adapt their strategy as well. Only, there’s no real need to. The basic shin kick, while not the strongest of attacks, is very fast and can force an opponent into defense pretty effectively, so for most opponents it suffices to just kick their shins twice, use any other fast attack as third move, and then resume the shin kicking. Save maybe two or three characters, every opponent can easily be defeated that way given enough time. The AI isn’t that hard to trick, until you get to the two final characters in ranking mode. Then the computer suddenly starts to cheat: he starts interrupting your attacks with his own moves, which no other opponent had done before, and can take a quarter of your health away with a single hit, even if you got 99% on resilience, strength and reflexes. For a realistic fighter it’s pretty sad to see the game suddenly befallen by the SNK boss syndrome.

That is, it becomes easier once you get a halfway decent grip on the broken controls. Again, the theory is sound. Certain base attacks are simply executed by pushing a direction on the D-Pad, like lower left for a shin kick or straight up for a leg sweep. Pushing a direction and either A or B executes a different move. Here the home computer heritage of the game shines through, where the favorite control is a digital joystick with a single fire button. Also, you have three extra strong attacks per round at your disposal (or just three in total during “Kumate” fights). Here’s the problem though: the system doesn’t work because the control input only registers with a slight delay. You often need split second reflexes for blocks or attack into an opening, but can’t because the controls need you to perform your move slightly before it’s actually executed. Also, techniques which require the press of a button are very hit or miss. Sometimes they do work as intended, sometimes they don’t and result in a regular attack, and sometimes nothing happens at all. At first, I thought that this would fix itself once I’ve trained my character and maxed out his reflexes. But even with all stats at 99% the problem prevails. So you’re either wildly mashing buttons and directions hoping that anything will happen at all, or you’ll revert to the trusted old shin-kicking tactic.

Speaking of training, here’s another feature that sounds interesting in concept but is badly executed here. Only by training you can raise your stats. Perform bad, and you don’t raise your stat at all; perform well, and your stat can raise up to 4% at once for a maximum of 99%. Each time you train, you repeat the same three routines. First there’s a sparring match which helps you build up resilience. After that, you hit a sandbag as often as you can (by repeatedly mashing the C button as fast as possible) to raise your strength. Finally, you train your reflexes by hitting the right pas (up, down or middle) at the sound of a gong. This routine is by far the most irritating since due to the slightly lagging controls, it’s hard to react and hit the right target in the short amount of time the game grants you. What’s worse, there is no variety. If you want to stand a chance against the more difficult opponents, you have to go through the same routines over and over and over again. At least you can skip one by pressing the start button. If you lose a fight, you also get some points detracted from your stats, so it’s back to the gym for you for another two or three repeats. So what sounds like a nice touch at first soon turns into annoying busywork. Interestingly enough, there is no actual limit on how much you can actually train in a row, so technically you could just enter the gym section over and over and over again and max out your stats before even fighting a single opponent. Why you should actually do so is beyond me though, since this is even more tedious of a grind then in the worst RPGs.

Finally there are all the minor details that don’t work, are lacking polish or are simply wrong. The portraits of your opponents all sport the same body type and only swap out the faces, which is just lazy. Occasionally the sprites during the Kumate, which should have no rules, act like in ranking fights, which shows for example when a fight gets interrupted after you repeat the same move thrice. In ranked fights that go longer than ten rounds, you notice that the counter only goes up to 09 and then resets to 00, 02 and 03 for tenth, eleventh and twelfth round respectively. The graphic artists got the German flag wrong (black, yellow and red instead of black, red and yellow). The list goes on and on. These are comparatively minor gripes, but they add up on top of the already glaring gameplay issues. It’s obvious that this port didn’t receive any proper quality testing.

Best of the Best: Championship Karate has an interesting concept for sure, and on a first cursory glance it may appear that it could be fun; it isn’t. It’s lackluster, repetitive, boring, broken, cheap and repetitive (also, repetitive). The AI can be defeated with the same moves over and over again until it starts to cheat in a very ugly way. Sure, the graphics look kind of nice, but you only get to see the same three stages and the same two fighter sprites over and over again, with no new and some very awkward looking animations. Though due to morbid curiosity, I’d like to try playing this game with a Sega Activator some time. It must be quite the experience to play a game with broken controls on an utterly broken control mechanism. But as long as there will be shin kicking, it’ll probably suffice.

SCORE: 3 out of 10

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