International Karate is a fighting game from 1985, designed and coded by Archer Maclean, Rob Hubbard and Mark Cale. Personally, I view it as probably one of the games that helped the genre gain its feet, and probably inspired many other to this day. Back then, it came out on pretty much everything with a screen (Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX, Atari, Apple II), but it’s since had various ports, notably on the Game Boy Colour and Advance, and the C64 version is also on the Wii’s Virtual Console.
If my own C64 still worked, this game is probably the one that will never be removed from the tape deck. It was easily my favourite game of that time and probably still is one of my all-time favourites today. When I had my Wii back about a year or 2 ago, it was the game I clocked-in the most hours on playing, and I still go back to playing it on emulators from time to time.
While it may have been made 25 years ago, it’s surprisingly stood the test of time rather well. The music (below) arguably helps its case here. Maybe it’s because I gamed so much in my early years on my C64 that my liking of chiptunes is pretty much a natural given, but the entire feel of the backing music… From its slow start in earlier, easier stages to the change in pace with progression of the difficulty, and back to slow when it’s at its hardest, when you have to plan your strikes properly, it just clicks with the game so well. You could tell that the music was written around the gameplay itself, as if it were on cue with your actions. Of course, to reinforce this opinion, hitting F1 to start a new game also resets the music to the beginning, so hearing all 11 minutes of it is a challenge in itself, given that you hit Black Belt (the hardest AI setting) after about 8.
The gameplay was great for its time too. Rather than taking the health-bar approach, it went down the road of tournament-rules karate, with points scored for a solid hit, and 2 full points resulting in a round win, and the players resume the starting position after every hit. It can be a bit of a deal-breaker among players though, as the player’s hit-boxes are so minute, your kicks and punches need to be absolutely bang-on-the-money or they won’t register. Stand too close and it will count as a miss, as the limb used doesn’t align itself with the perceived point of impact, and likewise, stand too far away and you’re just flailing at air.
Bonus rounds were your typical feats of strength/dexterity. They would alternate between breaking planks of wood with your head, and avoiding flying weapons. Since my childhood, I have yet to master either of these though, but they’re still a fun distraction from the game when they crop up.
Perhaps what was another stroke of genius was the design process itself. It wouldn’t be International Karate if different countries weren’t implied, right? Well, without a plot of any kind, the only way you could was with the backgrounds, and this is where it comes into its own. Having originally came as a cassette tape (hey, it was the 80s, don’t look at me like that!) the game was on both sides of the tape, in order to minimise on time wasted rewinding the tape every time you wanted to play it. However, on each side of the tape was also a different set of backgrounds. One side, for example, had the Sphinx in Egypt, a beach in Rio de Janeiro, complete with Jesus statue on the mountain, London’s Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, and an old Greek temple, while the other had Sydney Harbour, a New York skyline backdrop with the Statue of Liberty, a Chinese temple, and Mount Fuji. Pretty neat idea, huh?
Its legacy still holds up as well. The variety of different backgrounds in each stage is pretty much a staple of the genre now, and it was one of the first games I remember playing that had an Easter Egg in it – the notorious “press T to make them drop their pants” Easter egg.
I haven’t a clue how much games cost back in the old days of tapes and floppy disks, but I’d put a pretty safe bet on saying however much this game set my parents back back then, I more than got my money’s worth. You can too now, the game, along with its sequel, IK+, sit proudly in the Commodore 64 section of the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console, for 500 Wii Points each. I’m still holding out hope for it to be added to the C64 Store on the iPhone app as well though.
Developer: Archer Maclean. All the original versions, by himself.
Time: It’s a fighting game, you play until you get bored of it really, though a good run at it will see you get as far as Black Belt in just under 10 minutes.
Gripes: Aside from the hit-box issue mentioned above, none really. The only other one I have that I didn’t mention, is with the Wii Virtual Console version. Where with the originals, F1 is to start a new 1-player game, this requires you to pull up the on-screen C64 keyboard, which doesn’t auto-hide after you hit it. Meaning you’re going to have to hide that thing like a ninja as soon as you push the button or you’ll lose a point.
Get it for the: I can’t exactly say why you’d get it, especially over more modern and advanced fighting games today. But come on, an emulator and ROM on the internet are free, and even on the Wii, €5 is still cheap enough.