Genre: Action Developer: Sega Ent. Publisher: Sega Ent. Players: 1-2 Released: 1987
Something about the ‘80s just makes you think about martial arts. Ninjas and kung fu masters were everywhere, and it often seemed like everyone was out to avenge someone. This was especially evident in video games, and why not? Let’s be honest; the simple vengeance dynamic is tailor-made for action games. It allows for minimum analysis and maximum body count. Sega’s Kung Fu Kid comes straight out of that mold, and as with most games if its type, it’s possible to jump right in and start kicking butt without ever taking the time to read about how the evil Madanda killed young Wang’s master. Why isn’t important. All that matters is that Madanda must die!
The problem with Kung Fu Kid is that it trips in the execution of such a simple premise. Bad guy kill master, so bad guy must die. Simple, right? Unfortunately, Sega decided to copy Irem’s playbook for its 1984 arcade classic Kung Fu Master practically word for word. That game at least had the benefit of being based on the 1972 Bruce Lee film Game of Death, so it was novel to see that classic put into video game form. By the time Sega made its version, there was nothing really novel about it, and the game seemed like an imitation. In all fairness, it’s a decent imitation. Kung Fu Kid sports some excellent presentation and simple gameplay. It’s easy to play, and it’s quite entertaining. There just seems to be so much more that could have been done, and I’ve always had the impression that most of the game was left on the cutting room floor.
Kung Fu Kid consists of seven rounds, and much like in Kung Fu Master, enemies swarm in from both sides. Wang’s move set is quite limited, and he can only kick and footsweep while on the ground. He can also jump kick, and this is perhaps the best form of attack, as Wang seems to eat his whole family’s share of Wheaties each day and can jump like the Hulk. Doing so lets him literally leap past most of his enemies, who move much more slowly. Thomas from Kung Fu Master couldn’t do that! There are also talismans that Wang can grab and hurl at his foes, but these appear sporadically, and using them is a pain. They’re powerful, but throwing them isn’t as intuitive as it should be with the Master System controller, and Wang is far too slow getting them out for them to really be useful. Even with my modded Genesis three-button pad, I still had problems throwing the darn things when I wanted to. A super talisman can be obtained in rounds two and four, and they don’t lose power for the rest of the game, but I found it easier to just Hulk-leap past everyone. Why fight when you can run? Even the game’s manual tells you to save the talismans for the last bosses, Madanda and his henchman, Kyong Shi. The only other power-ups to be found are sweet bread to replenish Wang’s life bar and a jar in round five for warding off fireballs. It’s entirely possible to beat the game without using the jars, and I never really bothered to go after them.
Kung Fu Kid’s rudimentary gameplay is boosted by some great presentation. The graphics and colors are spectacular, and the game’s stages scroll very fluidly, often in multiple directions. Each stage is bright and nicely detailed and moves the action through constantly changing scenery, and a varied soundtrack compliments the action nicely. I’ve come to appreciate Kung Fu Kid’s music a lot more over the years, and it has really become one of my favorites on the Master System.
In the end, Kung Fu Kid is what it sets out to be: a simple action title in same vein as Kung Fu Master and Vigilante. What it lacks in imagination and creativity is somewhat balanced by decent design and great presentation, but there’s always the sensation that it could have been so much more. After playing it back in the day, I remember wondering what a sequel would look like. I went over all kinds of cool attacks and moves in my head, and I convinced myself that the next game could be incredible. Sadly, it never came, and I was left with the realization that Kung Fu Kid was more of a quick opportunity for Sega to cash in on the martial arts craze of the ‘80s than to establish a new franchise. I’d say the company accomplished its goal, but it threw away a ton of potential in the process. Still, beating up frogs is strangely entertaining…