The father of Beat them all: “Kung-Fu Master” (1984)

We say “Beat them all” in French (well, in France), but everywhere else we say rather “Beat'em up” or “Beat them up” (or “Scrolling Fighter” or “Brawler”), who knows why ( we could but it's too long). In any case, it's a kind of fighting game in which you progress from point A to point B by eliminating enemies with “shpaaffff”, on the model of a game released in 1984 on arcade machine: Kung Fu Master. But the latter does not only capture the essence of a genre: its rich history intersects with that of cinema on several levels (Jackie Chan, Bruce, Agnès Varda…) and involves important players in video games (Irem, Takashi Nishiyama…) .  

Content table

  1. A game-cinema: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Agnès Varda
  2. A new type of game: “Beat them all”
  3. Beyond the historical interest, a difficult and therefore stimulating Beat them all
  4. Three times nothing more on Kung Fu*

The translation of Beat them All says “beat them all” (or burst, smoke, hit, zlatanez, pulverize, destroy…): that's exactly it. The term “technical” in French would be “progressive fighting game”, and that's exactly it too. The goal of a “Beat them all” game is to progress through a forest of enemies with your fists (or with the help of whatever you are allowed to use) to get to the point an “end-of-level boss”, or “boss”, which allows you to move on to the next level, and so on until you reach the “ultimate boss”, or “Boss”.

Kung-fu Master, father of Beat them all
Kung Fu arcade version.

The sets change (streets, caves, pirate ships, etc.), the clothes evolve (kimonos, fatigues, punk uniforms, etc.), the forms of combat vary (martial art, fencing, street brawling, etc.) but the principle has not changed since the beginning. famous arcade game kung fu master (1984), called Spartan X in Japan, and adapted under the simple name Kung Fu (1985) for Nintendo NES. This latest version has sold 3.5 million copies, making it the twelfth best-selling game on this console.

Kung-fu Master, father of Beat them all, NES version
Kung Fu Nintendo version

The versions for arcade machines and Nintendo are the most successful and they are also the best (make sure you have at least one on your FLEX-arcade terminal !). The game was adapted to most 8-bit platforms (Atari 2600 and 7800, Apple II, NES, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Game Boy) and even spawned two sequels (vigilant in 1988 and Spartan X in 1991), but his dynasty quickly came to an end: from the mid-1980s, the genre grew rich at the speed of a fist (Double Dragon, Trojan, Streets of Rage…) and relegates Kung Fu Master to the already appreciable rank of tutelary figure of Beat them All. 

1. A game-cinema: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Agnès Varda

The scenario: you should understand very quickly

Kung-fu Master, father of Beat them all, arcade version presentation
What cruelty.

The hero of this story is called Thomas, Keiji Thomas: let's just call him Thomas. He is the master of kung fu. So there you go, Thomas has a little girl, she's beautiful and her first name is Silvia. Silvia has been kidnapped by the X gang, led by Mr.X, the game's ultimate boss. The goal: to free Silvia, locked up at the top of the Demon Temple, a pagoda simply called "castle" in the NES version. The Temple has 5 floors to walk through, and in the end, warns Mr X of the arcade version, “5 sounds of the Devil will entertain you”. Nice program.

Between Thomas and Silvia are also intercalated several hundred secondary villains. In the end, the object of the game is the same as in Bubble Bobble. Of course, it's not exactly the same either.

Two films to create a game and a half-Bruce Lee half-Jackie Chan hero

The course of Kung Fu Master is modeled on the story of Bruce Lee's last film (1940-1973), The Game of Death. As you probably know, the master died before the end of filming, but a feature film was released on screens in 1978 despite everything.

Kung-fu Master, father of Beat them all, Kareem Abdul_Jabbar
Almost Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, almost with the Lakers outfit

Summary: To free a woman, Bruce Lee goes to a 5-storey building and faces a formidable opponent on each level. The most famous fight is of course the one between Bruce and legendary basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1.72 m against 2.18 m).

Kung-fu Master, father of Beat them all
NES Version… Different

It happens at 3. floor, like in the video game: the arcade version of kung fu master represents “faithfully” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; the NES version simply turns him into a slightly shorter but stockier black giant. In short, the scenario kung fu master is that of game of death and our dear Thomas is a bit like Bruce Lee. But it's also a bit like Jackie Chan. 

Remember, the Japanese title of the 1984 arcade game is Spartan X. The same year, a Hong Kong film was released in Japan, the Japanese title of which is also Spartan X. Internationally, it is called Wheels on Meals, and in French Thirst for justice (And why not, after all ?). The most important thing for this story is that the hero of Spartan X is called Thomas, played by Jackie Chan, and that Thomas is trying to free Silvia. The video game is therefore the adaptation of the last part of the film, which takes place in a castle (this link will lead you to the final fight, pretty cool I believe), and this, to help the promotion of the film (and vice versa). 

Indeed, it is difficult to know in just a few hours spent on the Internet who created what and what influenced whom. Is it a quick and opportunistic rebranding of a game already produced from the canvas of the game of death or a game actually produced from Spartan X using elements of Bruce Lee's film? The first assumption seems almost obvious, but if you have a more specific idea, let us know. Let's simply remember two important points: the film and video game industries have been made for each other for a long time; and above all, the development of Beat them all owes a lot to martial arts cinema in general and to hong kong cinema in particular, which seems even more obvious now.

A little detour through French cinema

Two films bear the name of Kung Fu Master. The most recent dates from 2009, its main actor is Jackie Chan (one could have guessed). But the oldest (1988) is French, was directed by Agnès Varda and has nothing to do with martial arts: it tells of a forbidden romance between a middle-aged woman (Jane Birkin) and a teenager (Mathieu Demy ).

The work is remarkable, and as far as we are concerned, it is undoubtedly the best film to discover kung fu master since the young hero is a relentless arcade player and we discover the course of the game scattered throughout the film, until the end (that of the film and that of the game). In the first dialogues around kung fu master, Julien (the hero) eloquently recounts almost everything there is to know: “It's a very hard game (…) There are knife throwers, they throw up or down, so you have to jump or bend down (…) At the end of each floor, there is a cowhouse, a big guy or a wizard, you have to go up to fuck him, and each time, we are reminded that we have to free Silvia, at 5. stage."

You can discover here the first thirty seconds of the film, a tasty representation of Kung Fu Master in real shots.

2. A new type of game: Beat them all

Born under a lucky star: the creators

R-Type, Irem game

Kung Fu Master is a game published by the prestigious company Irem, which between 1979 and 1995 produced no less than sixty arcade games, before devoting itself exclusively to development on Playstation(s) from the 2000s (and evolutions capital resources on which we will not dwell). To his credit, besides Kung Fu Master, an interstellar hit from Shoot 'em up, R-Type (1987-2021), or even blademaster (1991), Air Assault (1993) and In the Hunt (1993). A good shop.

street fighter 1. Yes, it happens to hit in the void.

The designer is Takashi Nishiyama, who left Irem after this game to join Capcom. At Capcom, he realizes among others Trojans (1986), another reference beat them all, then street fighter (1987), quite simply (see above). At SNK, he creates Fatal Fury (1991). He is also working on the production of the first Mega Man (1987) and some sequels to Metal Slug. He founded Dimps Corporation in 2000, whose important work I let you discover on his page Wikipedia. In short, a giant.

For those like me who are obsessed with the sound world of video games, we should also point out that the hectic music of Kung Fu is signed by the master Koji Kondo, obviously best known for his fantastic work on The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario. And Koji Kondo or not, what about the sounds of the game? Kung-fu-izing, right?  Kung Fu Master and Karate Field, released the same year, transformed the universe of battle sounds: after 1984, “Bruce Lee sound effects” will be everywhere in video games.

Multiple battles + scrolling = birth of a genre

Before kung fu master, fighting games have been around for quite a long time, mostly boxing. Released the same year as Kung Fu Master, Karate Field, already mentioned, sees karateka compete in one-on-one tournaments, on the model Versus fighting game, which would become another popular fighting game genre, of course.

But for the freedom of movement of the player, it was necessary to go to the side of the platform or adventure games: the trip from one table to another did not yet exist in the game of combat with bare hands. Kung Fu Master combines the two, which had to happen one day or another: the fighter moves and fights at the same time. And he doesn't just take on the bad guys one by one, he has to fight everyone. Add to that the principle of the “boss” at the end of a level, already widely used. Multiple fights + side scrolling = Beat them All. And then that's all. The style of these games is now immediately identifiable, even after switching to 3D: Kung Fu Master synthesizes this style.

3. Beyond the historical interest: a difficult and therefore stimulating Beat them all

Seen from 2022, we do not find a priori anything fascinating in Kung Fu Master. The sets are immutable and not really unforgettable. But it's good old arcade: what matters is the gameplay, the opponents, the challenge and the fist count (what a pun, thank you). From this point of view, it is excellent. Minimalist, Kung Fu Master goes to the essentials.  

Simplicity, efficiency

Isn't the best way to truly understand a game to watch a good old notice of the time ?

As a result, the version concerned is that of the NES, but all of this is very adaptable to an arcade terminal. On the NES, there is an easy A game level and a hard B game level. Reassuring… Finishing mode A is already quite a thing. 

Kung fu, presentation board

Five floors, five bosses, small peculiarities on each floor. On top of that, the levels are short. A player can theoretically finish the game in a quarter of an hour, or even less. Simple. You can move right or left, you can duck or jump, you can punch or kick, and of course the player can combine all of that. Six possible moves. It's short and that's enough. Simple.

A very short game (in theory)

This is a remarkable aspect of the game: to finish all the versions of Kung Fu Master, it takes no more than 15 minutes. Moreover, there is a limited time at each level and a timer scrolls (when you already tend to panic in front of the influx of enemies, it's hard to bear). It seems incredibly short, especially now that each Beat 'em up is a marathon in very different landscapes. But let's remember that we don't save the parts of Kung Fu, and that on an arcade machine you had to play with credits. In short, the interest does not lie in the discovery of the universes that parade but in the challenge of reaching the end by doing better each time: a very short playing time turns into a very long time for the relentless player.

Kung-fu Master, father of Beat them all: the Grippers
The “Grippers”. They try to grab Thomas.

The villains

There are the low-end enemies, the most numerous, the plebs: the “grippers”. Their goal is to cling to Thomas to drain his energy, so it's best not to let them accumulate. For me, they are incarnations of judokas, right?

Kung-fu Master, father of Beat them all: knife throwers
The knife thrower, who seeks to stab Thomas.

The most notable and feared common enemy in the game is the knife thrower. His traits are hard to avoid in the long run. Finally, I can't. There are also two dwarfs, the Tom Toms. They are painful. But the worst, apart from the bosses, is the snakes, dragons, confetti, balls, “venomous moths” (???) that dot the game.

And there are the bosses, the “5 sons of the Demon”: a staff-man at 1er, a boomerang ace at 2., a giant (already seen) at 3., a magician to kill and re-kill and re-kill at 4. and Mr X at 5..

Small criticism: it bears its name well, this Mr X (the most on the right). A little bland, perhaps? There remains his laughter, of course, which resounds on each floor. A pure evil laugh.

Taken one by one, however, none of its villains are so formidable. Their behavior is predictable. Simply, when they all arrive at once, you have to choose who to attack first. And there, we understand that it is difficult, Kung Fu.

Maximum difficulty

Indeed, as the young hero of Agnès Varda's film says, “it's a very hard game”, and about me that's an understatement. To succeed in Kung Fu, it takes skill, coordination, timing, unleashing the shot at the right time. Otherwise, the time to uncheck another one, Thomas can be hit or grabbed, and his life gauge drops. 

You need know-how: you can't do just anything to let off steam, nor can you wait in the shadows (the timer runs). Each boss, for example, must be killed in a certain way. You have to find the right method to understand each situation (understand smoking the right enemy in the right way) and apply it rigorously.

Know-how is important to get points: a particular way of killing an enemy earns more points than another (see manual). However, reaching 50,000 points earns an extra life (the player has 2 at the start). Let's not forget that we are in the arcade and only points count! The proof: at the end, you savor the release of Silvia ten seconds before you are sent back to the fight, all for the futile purpose of improving your score.  

The thing

The 12. floor enemy, jump kick: 5000 points

On the Internet, many "secrets" are shared, and this one is widespread: if you kill the 12. enemy of each level with a jump kick, you earn 5,000 points in one shot. Which is not a luxury because reaching 50,000 points is worth one more life, let's remember. Moreover, we can read on the manual that if you kill several enemies with a single jump, the points are multiplied.

The urban legend

It often takes one in a great video game: everyone repeats that some believe or have believed that after 50 victories in the game, something different happened at the end, like a duel with Silvia. Nobody believes it, and besides it's not true, but everyone repeats it. Like me, so.

4. Three times nothing more on Kung Fu

I give you the link to the excellent incipit of the film by Agnès Varda Kung Fu Master, for those who let it slip along the way. 

 The music, of course, on the Raul Vader channel. Go well until the end, the final “waadaa” is excellent, just like the Mr X's laugh. It marked Nintendo gamers, after all. 

A fight between the Keiji Thomas of the arcade machine and the Keiji Thomas of the NES, can you miss it? It's on the YouTube channel 1983parrothead.

Yannick Campe
Yannick Campe

Web editor, editorial secretary and even Swiss army knife on occasion. Interested in a lot of areas, including video games. Although it still tends to confuse buttons and fall off platforms.

Yannick Campe

Yannick Campe

Web editor, editorial secretary and even Swiss army knife on occasion. Interested in a lot of areas, including video games. Although it still tends to confuse buttons and fall off platforms.

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At FLEX we love video games, it is this passion that rocked our childhood (and perhaps yours!?) that drives us on this adventure, to design and manufacture superb machines to replay the best titles of the young history of video games. We produce a “ready to play” range but also make special orders for unique and characterful arcade terminals using for example the base of a 300L wine barrel or a French army ammunition box ! We are at your disposal for your projects, share your wildest dreams, we love to make them come true.

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