Karate Champ is an early one-on-one beat ’em up that was pioneering and influential, and was a precursor to fighting games that followed. It was developed by Technos Japan and manufactured into arcades by Data East in 1984.
The aim of the game is to work your way up the ranks, starting at beginner level. You begin the game with a short practise session, then must go one-on-one against other fighters. Unlike later fighting games there is no health bar and successfully landing a single hit will end the bout and award either a full point or a half-point (depending on the move used and its accuracy). The first fighter to score two full points in a match is crowned the winner.
The first version of Karate Champ was single-player only – pitting you against AI-controlled opponents – and was exclusive to Japan. An updated ‘Player versus Player‘ version was released worldwide in 1984, allowing two players to fight against each other. The original Japanese version had only three different backdrops and digitised speech in Japanese. The re-release version had twelve different backdrops, digitised speech in English, and significantly different gameplay. I’m showing both versions here. The Japanese version first, then the worldwide release second.
The Karate Champ cabinet had two joysticks to control the fighter and required simultaneous use of both to initiate moves. There were no buttons used – control was exclusively via the two joysticks. So, for example, to do a backwards somersault you would push both joysticks up at the same time. To do a backwards left kick you would push the left joystick right and the right joystick left. Do to a low sweep kick to the right you would push the left joystick down, and the right joystick right. To move the fighter right you would push the left joystick right and leave the right joystick alone. And so on. There are 24 different moves in total. This created a game that was complex enough to offer some variety, but it also meant that the game could be over in a matter of seconds, if you didn’t know what you were doing.
In between matches there are ‘evade’ rounds, where you must dodge (or hit) items being thrown at you; ‘challenge’ rounds, where you must break as many blocks with a single punch as possible, and ‘bull’ rounds, where you must stop a bull that is charging at you by punching or kicking it. In the worldwide release the ‘evade’ and ‘bull’ rounds are more difficult than those seen in the Japanese original, because they come at you from both sides of the screen.
Although Karate Champ was hugely influential on the fighting game genre after its release, it was (and still is) a difficult and frustrating game to play. Mainly because the two-joystick control system is cumbersome and the level of timing required to beat the ‘evade’ and ‘bull’ rounds is off the charts. The fighting rounds are a breeze by comparison.
I remember playing Karate Champ way back in 1984 and not getting very far in it. You really had to feed the machine with a lot of coins to get good, and I wasn’t prepared to lose all my (limited) cash on it to do that. Playing the game in an emulator now is the best way to practise, and practise is definitely recommended for Karate Champ.