International Karate Plus, Game Boy Advance

This handheld conversion of Archer Maclean‘s classic IK+ was published in 2002 by Ignition Entertainment and is generally quite excellent.

The only real complaint I have is that the fighters are slightly oversized (in relation to the backgrounds), although you probably wouldn’t notice unless you’d played the C64 version, or Amiga/Atari ST versions. Those of us who have played the earlier versions might be slightly irked by this scaling discrepancy, because it gives the player less room to fight in. Does this affect gameplay adversely in this GBA conversion? No, no really. Yes, there is less room to fight in, but International Karate is more about close-quarters combat, and timing your moves correctly, than jumping all over the shop like in Street Fighter II. So the oversized characters aren’t really a major problem.

This GBA conversion seems to have more responsive controls than previous versions, probably because it runs at a higher frame rate. I’m not entirely sure if that’s true of not. One thing is true: IK+ on the GBA runs at a blistering pace. Later levels require zen-like skill to beat and are often over in seconds.

IK+ is excellent on the Game Boy Advance, although does have limited appeal. It is a game you can pick up, play and enjoy at any time, though.

More: International Karate Plus on Wikipedia

Karateka, Commodore 64

Karateka was Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner‘s first published game. He programmed it (originally for the Apple II) while attending Yale University in 1984.

It’s a simple martial arts fighting game that uses rotoscoped graphics to create realistic animation. Back in 1984 they were pretty revolutionary.

The aim of Karateka is to fight your way into a guarded fortress to rescue your love interest, Mariko. Using well-timed punches and kicks you defeat waves of opponents; defeat attacking hawks; and make your way past deadly falling portcullis – until you reach the boss, Akuma. Who of course you have to fight to free Mariko.

Karateka is – I think – a better-looking game on the Commodore 64 than on the Apple II. Both versions play quite slowly (frustratingly slowly for some, although you can boost the speed in an emulator), but the underlying gameplay is still sound.

Jordan Mechner himself was involved in a 2012 remake of Karateka, released for XBox 360, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, and iOS.

More: Karateka on Wikipedia

Kung-Fu Master, ZX Spectrum

This terrible Spectrum conversion of the mighty arcade game, Kung-Fu Master, was developed by Ocean and published by US Gold in 1986.

It contains none of the thrills of the original arcade game… The animated figures in the game are slow, badly-drawn and badly animated. When anyone raises a leg in the game – to make a high kick – it looks more like they are trying to squeeze out a tricky fart than kick anyone… And that includes you. The animation is pathetic. The colour clash is also bad. As is the (part-time) scrolling. The sprites have a horrible, distracting judder too. It wouldn’t have hurt to use a few different colours to differentiate the levels too – they all look the same…

The gameplay is also a pale imitation of the original, which requires precision, skill, and good timing to beat, and is fun to play. This is just a turgid shuffle through a soup of frustration and slowness.

There are some great arcade conversions on the ZX Spectrum. Kung-Fu Master isn’t one of them.

More: Kung-Fu Master on Wikipedia

Chuck Norris Superkicks, ColecoVision

This 1983 action game sees you playing as Chuck Norris – the infamous action hero of the 1970s – and it really is quite bad.

Chuck is on his way to an ancient temple and must fight off various opponents who attack him in order to get his black belt and gain access to the temple… This game really is as bad as it sounds… Which is a pity really, because Chuck Norris deserves better. Or at least he deserved better back then… He was the guy who took on Bruce Lee in the Colosseum in Rome (and lost), in the 1972 classic Way of the Dragon. He was the guy who made chest hair fashionable in action movies… He was the ginger assassin… Unfortunately Chuck is no longer with us (he died in 2001), but he did leave a considerable legacy. I’m not sure, though, if he’ll ever be remembered for this game…

I read the original manual before playing Chuck Norris Superkicks properly and had to laugh at how it tries to make the game sound more involved than it actually is. I mean: a big part of the game involves walking up a path, and you get penalised for walking on the bloody grass for God’s sake! Yes: Chuck walks up a path (avoiding the “tall grass”) and every now and then a fight breaks-out, cutting to a beat ’em up section.

The fighting sections are unsurprisingly lame. Chuck can block, kick, punch, and do a somersault jump. Beating opponents is a case of timing blows correctly, and also avoiding the shuriken they throw your way. If Chuck is hit by a throwing star he gets sent back to the last checkpoint with a time penalty. Beat your opponents and you are awarded a new belt (indicated by the colour change on the info bar at the bottom) and can continue walking up the path. Run out of time and it’s game over.

I’d almost put this into the same category as E.T., in that: there really isn’t much of a game in there, and what there is is pretty pathetic. It certainly doesn’t do justice to Chuck Norris  – or the ColecoVision – in any way shape or form.

Developer Xonox was a subsidiary of K-Tel and was one of the many companies to go bust during the big video game market crash of 1983. With games like this on their roster, it’s no surprise they didn’t survive it.

More: Chuck Norris Superkicks on Wikipedia

Stonekeep, PC

Stonekeep is a strange first-person Role-Playing Game, developed and published by Interplay Productions in 1995.

I say “strange” because Stonekeep comes from a time when developers were looking for any excuse to inject some full-motion video into their games, and Stonekeep uses digitised video quite a lot, and it now looks very dated. Actually, Stonekeep uses two very dated graphical techniques to create the world you’re exploring – the second technique being Silicon Graphics-rendered graphics (the first being the aforementioned digitised video technique, a la Mortal Kombat). It’s the clash of the bad graphics techniques…

The way the digitised video has been used in the game means that a lot of the characters and monsters in it look kinda like pantomime villains… Well I felt like I was playing a pantomime fantasy game with Stonekeep… The visual style of this game reminds me of that TV show, Knightmare – the one that superimposed live actors over painted fantasy backdrops… That’s what they tried to do with this game – film people in costumes and incorporate them into a Role-Playing Game… And the end result is a bit of a weird mess!

In spite of the outdated presentation Stonekeep plays excellently. Movement is quick and simple, and is tile-based. A journal keeps track of quests, items, maps, stats and available spells (which are cast using runes inscribed on wands). Combat is real-time; similar to that seen in the mighty Dungeon Master. Quests and puzzles are fairly simple – mostly unblock a route or kill a bad guy – although there are a few surprises along the way that take Stonekeep beyond the merely ‘generic’.

I wouldn’t say that Stonekeep is a ‘solid gold classic’, but I would recommend that RPG fans give it a try. Or even better: play it to the later stages at least, because that’s where it gets more interesting. That said: if you have a low tolerance for goblins, faeries, and ice queens then maybe this game isn’t for you…

Stonekeep is a game that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten and does have its moments, even though the story and setting are a little trite. Don’t let me put you off though – Stonekeep plays nicely in DOSBox and is cheap on GOG.com and is well worth adding to the collection.

More: Stonekeep on Wikipedia
GOG.com: Stonekeep on GOG.com

Saboteur II: Avenging Angel, ZX Spectrum

This 1987 sequel to the pioneering Saboteur is so much bigger in scope than its predecessor, but retains much of what made it good in the first place.

The main character – a stealthy ninja, on an infiltration mission – is actually the sister of the previous character, out on mission to avenge his death. So you’re controlling a woman inside that ninja outfit, which is great in my opinion, and Saboteur 2 was one of the first videogames to feature a female protagonist in the main role.

In Saboteur 2 there are nine separate missions that take place in the same gigantic location, with the difficulty level increasing as you progress. The basic aim is the same as the previous game: sneak around a guarded complex, looking for pieces of punched tape (yes: punched tape…), while at the same time avoiding guards and their pet pumas! No – not dogs this time – but pumas. And they do actually look like pumas, which is pretty cool.

There are also other incidental puzzles to solve along the way, such as having to disable electric fences that are blocking the way, and also a number of rather exciting motorbike sequences that do add some much-needed variation to the game.

The introductory sequence – of the ninja arriving by hang glider, then dropping down to begin the game – is iconic in ZX Spectrum history.

Note: the loading screen actually shows a map of the entire game. Or, at least: the entire complex that you’re exploring, and it is very useful if you want to play the game seriously. A lot of games-players didn’t even realise it was a map of the game at the time! Looking back: this was both a unique and clever thing to do – put the game map on-screen during loading – so players could study it while they waited for loading to finish (which could take more than five minutes).

More: Saboteur II: Avenging Angel on Wikipedia

Saboteur, ZX Spectrum

Written by Clive Townsend and published by Durell Software in 1985, Saboteur is a stealth action platform game that was something of a hit with ZX Spectrum users back in the day.

You play a ninja on an infiltration mission, who arrives by boat and who must sneak around a large warehouse, looking for a floppy disk with “names of rebel leaders” on it, and then make good his escape. Unfortunately the warehouse is crawling with guards, dogs, and automated security systems, all of which must either be destroyed or avoided. The level of difficulty can be chosen by the player beforehand, and there are nine difficulty levels to choose from (one to nine), and the higher the level is: the more concentrated the defence.

The saboteur can run, crouch, climb ladders, do a high kick, and throw shuriken, and – for the time – was a versatile and rewarding character to control. Playing Saboteur now still brings some joy, and the game has aged reasonably well, considering the Spectrum‘s limitations.

A much bigger (and better) sequel (by the same author and publisher) came out the following year, in 1987.

More: Saboteur on Wikipedia

19 Part One: Boot Camp, Commodore 64

Based on the Paul Hardcastle pop hit of 1985, 19 (“nnnnn-Nineteen“), 19 Part One: Boot Camp is a multi-event action game that is supposed to portray the training phase of a Vietnam solder’s experiences.

Overall, the game is pretty good – if a little on a tough side. There are four sequential events: Assault Course, Shooting Range, Jeep Training, and Unarmed Combat, and the aim is to work your way through them in order to take on your drill sergeant in unarmed combat at the end.

Graphically: 19 is nicely-drawn, coloured, and animated, but isn’t particularly special. The soundtrack – a chiptunes version of Hardcastle‘s hit – was created by legendary C64 composer Rob Hubbard, and is worthy of note. The gameplay is okay – it’s not bad, but it’s not great either. The final beat ’em up section is pretty poor, when compared to the likes of International Karate Plus (which came out a year before this).

19 Part One: Boot Camp was published by Cascade Games in 1988 and was a reasonable success. Unfortunately: there was nnn-no part two. It nnnn-never got made.

More: 19 Part One: Boot Camp on Wikipedia

Double Dragon, Arcade

Released into arcades in 1987 by Technos Japan, Double Dragon is a legendary one or two-player scrolling beat ’em up, starring twin brothers – Billy Lee and Jimmy – who are on a rescue mission for Marian – Billy’s girlfriend who has been kidnapped by a gang of thugs called The Black Warriors.

This double team punch and kick (or headbutt) their way through four different stages, a city slum, a factory, a forest, and a gang hideout. On the way they can pick up weapons such as baseball bats and whips and use them on seven different types of enemies.

What is interesting about Double Dragon is that if both players make it to the end, they must then fight each other for the affections of the rescued girl! Considering that it was Billy’s girlfriend they were supposed to be going in to rescue, it makes his twin brother’s challenge all the more incendiary. Families, eh? You can never predict them…

Double Dragon is a retro-gaming classic that is still great fun to play now.

More: Double Dragon on Wikipedia