Irem’s Jackie Chan-based arcade brawler was the first of two third-party releases to be brought under Nintendo’s wing for the NES launch.
Japanese title: スパータンX • Spartan-X
European title: Kung-Fu Master
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-WR]
Japanese release date: June 1985 [HVC-WR]
European release date: April 1987 [NES-WR]
Alternate versions: Arcade ; MSX ; Atari 7800 ; Apple II ; Commodore 64 ; PlayChoice-10 [Arcade, 1985]; Amstrad CPC ; Atari 2600 ; Game Boy 
Nintendo published every game to appear at the NES launch in America, both its test launch in October 1985 and the more general release the following summer. But not every one of those games was developed by Nintendo. Two very lucky third-party creations were selected, presumably with the help of Howard Philips (the young game fanatic who served as NOA’s finger on the pulse of the consumer). These two licensed titles ascended to NES launch day status and entered the holy pantheon of Black Box games. Perhaps not coincidentally, both were from Irem, based on two of their most popular arcade creations of the early ’80s.
Proper third-party NES releases, published by companies besides Nintendo and in packaging without the distinctive Black Box branding, wouldn’t appear until the end of 1986. For the first year the NES existed in America, its entire lineup of games came from Nintendo itself—nearly a perfect repeat of the Famicom’s first year in Japan. Of course, the NES came along quite a while after the Famicom’s debut, so Nintendo could afford to be selective about what it brought to the U.S. By the time Nintendo made its first tentative American appearance, the company had an array of more than 70 Famicom releases to choose from.
For the most part, the company simply brought over its own creations, which made sense given that Nintendo had the best handle on the hardware early on. But it dropped games that didn’t make sense in the U.S., like the very Japanese go game Gomoku Narabe Renju, or Popeye Eigo Asobi, a game in which E.C. Seger’s famous sailor man taught English. Nintendo also dropped Devil World, of course, and even the impressive F-1 Race.
All told, Nintendo of America offered a lineup of no less than 25 games for the NES by June 1986, an impressive array just in time for the system’s proper nationwide rollout. There was even one title in there that Nintendo had created exclusively for the U.S. This makes the two third-party games Nintendo took under its wing for the NES launch remarkable—what was it about these two particular creations that the company found worthy of elevating to Black Box status?
10-Yard Fight makes sense; it was the only rendition of American football on Famicom at that point, even better suited for the U.S. market than to Japan. But Kung-Fu, also known as Kung-Fu Master, also known as Spartan-X… that’s a little harder to explain. Kung-Fu had been a modest arcade hit, but there were bigger names Nintendo could have chosen from—a whole raft of Namco titles like Galaga and Pac-Man, Hudson’s port of Lode Runner, or Taito’s Elevator Action, for example. But those were all older arcade titles; perhaps Nintendo simply wanted a more forward-facing work.
Kung-Fu stood at the crest of a new wave of arcade games that would dominate the mid ’80s, breaking the action out of single-screen board design in favor of fast-paced, side-scrolling thrills. It was part of the same movement that would give us Ghosts ’N Goblins, Rolling Thunder, Rastan Saga, and of course Super Mario Bros. I referenced Irem’s Moon Patrol vis-a-vis the design of Excitebike, and that work is even more relevant here: At the time of the NES’s launch, Kung-Fu was the latest coin-op creation by Moon Patrol’s lead designer, Takashi Nishiyama. It would inspire countless other games, which eventually appeared in sufficient numbers to constitute a genre unto themselves—the belt-scroller—and Nishiyama himself would go on to create the fighting game genre with Street Fighter and tons of SNK brawlers. In other words, Kung-Fu most likely made the cut for NES because it was simply the hottest and most of-the-moment arcade game available for the platform at the time… second only to Super Mario Bros. in terms of cutting-edge appeal.
Certainly it stood out at the time. Featuring the most detailed visuals of any NES launch game, Kung-Fu contained five side-scrolling levels, each one containing increasingly difficult threats over the last. It even included voice samples, a real rarity at that point. In short, a compelling showcase of the NES hardware.
In retrospect, Kung-Fu feels rather slight as a game experience. It includes side-scrolling in two directions, even allowing players to reverse their direction (unlike Super Mario Bros.), but the action ultimately lacks much substance. Your protagonist Thomas doesn’t have much to do but walk forward while punching and kicking.
Thomas’ move set should feel fairly familiar to anyone who knows fighting games; clearly Nishiyama already had a pretty solid vision for how video brawling should work. The hero can punch straight ahead, kick high, or duck and perform a low punch or floor sweep. Tap up on the D-pad and Thomas will leap to clear low threats or perform an aerial attack. However, that’s pretty much it for his bag of tricks.
You wield these martial arts powers against a seemingly endless array of identical enemies who march at you mindlessly in waves. The most basic enemies simply walk up to Thomas and grab onto him, slowly sapping his health. They’re responsible for the game’s most iconically ridiculous image: That of a man-train of warriors clinging to the hero, like some sort of sexy martial artist sandwich. These guys present a hazard only due to their sheer numbers; they appear from both sides of the screen in rapid succession, and their relentless urge to embrace the hero can distract from more dangerous opponents, like knife-throwers.
Where grapplers spawn infinitely, the knife-throwers appear at more or less fixed intervals. Unlike the grapplers they prefer to hang back and attack Thomas from a distance. They’ll follow the hero as he advances or back away if he comes too close, trying to keep a decent amount of space between them so they can toss daggers from afar. They can fling knives both high and low, forcing Thomas to duck the blades at head-height and leap the ones below. Arcade veterans might remember dealing with similar dual-level projectiles in Elevator Action, and the idea here is much the same. The blade-throwers even exhibit similar tells to that game’s secret agents, ducking low immediately before tossing a knife at Thomas’ feet.
While the grapplers themselves aren’t particularly dangerous, it’s easy to let them distract you from ranged opponents and take a knife to the face as a result—knives of course inflicting far heavier damage than a grapple.
Beginning in the second stage, Thomas also has to deal with a third enemy type, who are either children or little people. These tiny warriors can only be taken out by low attacks, and they have an annoying tendency to launch themselves unpredictably into jump kicks, bouncing off Thomas’ head in a way that would look hilarious if it didn’t inflict so much damage. When you face off against all three of these most common enemy types at once, Kung-Fu becomes pretty frantic.
The game does somewhat mitigate its repetitive nature with a touch of randomness. Certain enemies, like bosses and knife-flingers, appear at regular intervals. The grapplers and little guys, however, show up less predictably, and will seemingly appear infinitely until the timer runs down if you simply stand around. The game also throws in a little extra variety on the second and fourth floors of the enemy hideout in the form of non-human hazards.
The first half of floor two consists of a gauntlet of three different types of balls that fall from the ceiling, forcing Thomas to react to the threats within. Green pots smash on the floor to reveal a serpent that sidles along the ground and can’t be defeated with martial arts, only avoided. White orbs create a tall dragon that breathes fire at Thomas’ head before vanishing in a puff of smoke; while it’s possible to strike down one of these dragons, moving in close enough to land blows without getting crisped by its fire breath can be difficult. Finally, there are yellow orbs that hover in the air and can be pummeled for bonus points before they explode. These objects all fall unpredictably, so you have to be on your toes in this section, but fortunately human foes only begin pouring onto the screen after the hazard section ends.
You face a similar series of obstacles on the fourth floor, where small openings in the wall belch out deadly moths. The erratic, diagonal patterns the moths adopt makes them the single most dangerous thing in the entire game, ridiculous as that may be, and it’s a tremendous challenge to make it through the bug gauntlet section unscathed.
The final challenge Kung-Fu contains come in the form of the five bosses that appear at the end of each of the five floors. These enemies possess special attacks or traits that make them much more dangerous than other foes, including a higher-than-usual resistance to Thomas’ attacks. One guy carries a baton that gives him extra reach, for example, while the fourth floor is bizarrely guarded by a hunchback who can fling fireballs.
At the top of the enemy dojo, you face the evil Mr. X, the fiend responsible for setting the events of the game into action. Mr. X is the trickiest foe in the game, hopping about and avoiding Thomas’ attacks with a sort of erratic fluidity that calls to mind Bruce Lee. Like every boss, though, he’s not too difficult if you get in close and perform rapid low kicks.
Thematically, Kung-Fu presents a strange melting pot, with its standard save-the-girl theme, Chinese martial artists, and bizarre mishmash of bosses. But all of this weirdness exists for a reason: Despite its generic American title, Kung-Fu was in fact based on an early Jackie Chan martial arts flick bearing the odd title of Wheels on Meals. This had nothing to do with the charity organization Meals on Wheels and instead referred, obliquely, to the fact that Chan’s character, Thomas, worked as a food truck chef.
The game itself is based on the final act of the movie, wherein a beautiful con artist named Sylvia—whose mother lives in the same mental ward as Thomas’ father—finds herself abducted by a criminal organization who aims to get at her sizable inheritance. Despite starring Chinese leads and centering on kung-fu combat, Wheels on Meals was set in Barcelona, Spain, which perhaps accounts for the motley, multiracial cast of bosses; Sylvia herself is a Spaniard, portrayed in the film by actress Lola Forner.
None of this is made particularly explicit within the game—you’d never know about the film connection unless you happened to be a Jackie Chan aficionado who recognized the names Thomas and Sylvia—and each iteration of the game demonstrated less and less overt relationship to the film. The Japanese arcade game bore the same title as the Japanese version of the movie, Spartan X, and the promotional flyer featured stills and photos from the movie, with Chan front and center. The Famicom game, however, played down the connection, retaining the name and using a somewhat recognizable cartoon caricature of Chan on its cover while dropping more concrete film connections altogether.
The NES game, on the other hand, simply featured a more elaborate rendition of the player character’s sprite on box. The copyright indicia cites Irem, who developed the arcade version, but none of the production or distribution companies involved in the film’s creation. The NES would ultimately see a great many Japanese licensed games modified due to rights issues and costs when localized into the U.S., but Kung-Fu offers an unusual case: A game that avoided license-related issues not through revision but simply via omission.
As choices of games for Nintendo to pick up for first-party release at the NES launch go, Kung-Fu was a good one. Its bold visuals and fast-paced action made it a perfect game for retail floor demo kiosks. R.O.B. the Robot Operating Buddy may have been more unique to the NES, but its complex setup didn’t make for an effective pick-up-and-play demonstration; Kung-Fu did. Nine times out of 10, an NES kiosk that wasn’t running a loop of Super Mario Bros. in the early days was showing off Kung-Fu instead.
With its simple design and mere five stages, Kung-Fu didn’t offer nearly the depth and substance of Mario, but what it did offer was an impressive conversion of a recent arcade game. Certainly at the time of the NES’s debut, before Master System launched in America, Kung-Fu was easily the most eye-popping arcade port ever to appear on a home console. It’s a game that launched its own genre, and it probably sold a lot of NES systems, too.
Strangely, despite its prominence in the U.S., Kung-Fu’s life more or less dead-ended here. A tentative sequel never took form, and the eventual successor—Spartan-X 2—remained stranded in Japan. Only the Game Boy Kung-Fu Master (which was more a remix than a proper successor) and offshoot Vigilante for Turbografx-16 made their way west. As for the original, the combination of its movie license (obscured as it may have been in the U.S.) and the fact that Irem bailed on video gaming altogether several years ago means we’ll almost certainly never see a Virtual Console release for the game. But maybe that’s OK; it served its role 30 years ago as a stunning demonstration of what the NES could accomplish, but these days it feels much more dated than many other early NES games.