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The Making Of International Karate and IK+

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In the early Eighties Kung Fu games were everywhere, but few were as exciting as International Karate and its superb sequel. Developer Archer Maclean reveals how they came to be.

International Karate was born into the golden age of the fighting game, when the one-on-one filled the stale arcade air with the splash of an over-full coin box and the jeers of blood-hungry players. Coin-op cabinets were tested by fire as savage gamers mimicked their on-screen counterparts, assailing joysticks and buttons with the fury that only a beat-’em-up can provoke. Developers were fighting their own battles to be the first to bring this passion to our home systems.

Spectrum IK1 Screen Cap 1

The original International Karate in all its glory.

In 1985, System 3 was desperate to save a struggling production it hoped would join the fighting game fray on the software shelves and introduce Archer MacLean to the 8-bit fighting world. He told us how the journey began.

“I was originally asked in about August ’85 to just do some C64 graphics routines for a karate game, as the original programmer and artist had walked out on the project. Gossip said he’d apparently not been paid. I took one look at the minimal amount of early Spectrum IK1 work and thought it was pretty awful, in fact really dire, and had no interest in trying to convert it and improve it. Afterwards we all went to the pub and there was an arcade karate machine in there, and I was more or less asked if I could do something just like it. I hadn’t seen it before although it was clear where the Spectrum’s game structure had come from. I played it for five minutes and simply thought I could do a much more fluid quality job if I just redid everything myself whilst sticking to a karate type theme of timed bouts of fighting.”

These difficulties caused System 3 to falter, and by the time Archer was at the helm, fighting games were causing a sensation on the 8-bit computer game charts, with Melbourne House’s Way Of The Exploding Fist, firmly in the lead. “Around the same time, Fist came out and was a huge, huge hit and I remember fondly playing it to death over and over again. It was seriously addictive, and I take my hat off to Greg Barnett for making it such an incredible, fun game. I played various others like Yie Ar Kung Fu, but Fist was the best at that point” Archer explains, happy (and confident) to acknowledge his inspiration.

“I started working on a whole new game structure and adapted it into my proven Dropzone game shell. I set about drawing and re-drawing various backdrops and animations some of which I was asked to do, and some of which are unique to the IK1 versions I wrote. I also wrote various simple tools to allow me to animate frames together and cue sound effects to trigger at exactly the right frame time.”

Amstrad Screen Cap

We prefer the graphicaly style of the Amstrad CPC version.

Martial arts are synonymous with speed, control and agility, and any game basing itself around an established fighting system had to encompass those core principles. Most managed to deliver one or two, though all three were hard to find neatly packaged in a single beat-’em-up. Even the hallowed Karate Champ caused its share of frustration as the two combatants shuffled sluggishly back and forth while trying to find their fighting distance. International Karate suffered no such lethargy. “The biggest challenge was making the players move and react sensibly, with increasing conviction as the difficulty level increased. Also, I wanted to make the knuckle of a hitter strike the actual nose pixel of the opponent, and none of this Street Fighter stuff where you can be miles out and the guy still drops. So I wrote another graphics tool to allow me to quickly set various x/y offset’s from each animation frame’s corner.

Except for being told to stick to the formula of rounds/points/bonuses etc, the International Karate content was created from scratch by me and reversed into my proven Atari and C64 game-shell that I’d used on Dropzone. This wasn’t a conversion from the Speccy version. You’ve only got to run side by side emulators to see that”

What really made International Karate stand out was its fighters. The difference between its characters and those from the increasing number of fighting games was the array of subtle idiosyncrasies written into the background; characters with a distinct personality were a new and ingenious concept that allowed players to identify with the fighters in a whole new way.
The skilled alacrity of the combatants granted a feeling of impending suspense from the second each round began, akin to the quick draw duelling of a Western. A flurry during close-quarter fighting could evaporate into a game of full contact chess when the distance extended into a standoff. No small wonder that such a polished game would catch the attention of jealous rivals.

We should compare International Karate to Technos’ 1984 Karate Champ; if it was a simple matter of Karate Champ being a self-styled, unique game which transcended genre – like Pac-Man for example – the lawsuit Data East brought against the US release of International Karate (published locally by Epyx as World Championship Karate) might have made an equitable argument. Initially, the courts thought it did.

IK1 C64 Screen Cap (29)

Bonus rounds broke up the action nicely.

“This was in the days before the Internet, or magazines began covering games from outside the UK, and I was completely unaware of the USA lawsuit until one day I got a curious call from the States asking why it was so similar to Karate Champ in terms of look and feel. Despite being originally asked to complete the work on a totally different game, I did go off and evolve all the programming, graphics and sound effects myself, and pointed out that a karate game with two karate players wearing red and white karate suits fighting within the familiar rules of a bout of karate is bound to look similar to any other game featuring karate players wearing karate suits and doing karate moves in timed bouts of karate fighting! I think that’s why the look and feel and rules became better defined. At a high level of abstraction it’s easy to say that Karate Champ is like Fist is like IK1 is like Tekken and so on. They all feature bouts of timed karate-type gameplay.”

Epyx were ordered to recall the product. The decision was appealed against, however, and was summarily overturned when the judge declared that the overly generic concept of a karate bout, regardless of the inevitably similar features between different games, could not be copyrighted.

By the time the lawsuit had helped a second round of IK sales to peak, software developers were seeking a way to refresh the concept. Over the years, there would be a plethora of variations on that original theme, yet the most immediate update was a simple idea. Archer told us about his flash of multi-player brilliance. “IK+ was an idea I had in a flash of inspiration whilst trying to solve the problem of having a game design where a dozen opponents would be seen seated around the fighting area, set in a dojo. This all came about after a conversation with Activision in mid 86, who asked if I could take fighting games to the next level. Anyway, I wanted the next player to get up and walk into the fighting area as the other went and sat down, or got carried off in pieces!” Archer laughs while looking back at his time spent watching such antics in a real dojo. He continues, “then I just decided to make it a three player simultaneous game, instead of one on one as with IK1. As soon as I had this idea I knew it was a good one, and couldn’t work fast enough to make it happen, yet at the same time trying desperately to not tell anyone because it just seemed so simple for me to do – or anyone else!”

The problem with simple ideas is that realising them is invariably an intricate process, and players were expecting the same slick gameplay from the sequel they’d enjoyed in the original International Karate. “The fun part was dealing with the technical limitations of having three different coloured, animated players on the screen whilst still making use of sprites rather than the slower conventional bit-plot/erase/refill method. I managed to make it happen quite quickly because the animation system from the two-player IK1 on the Atari 800 version didn’t use sprites, and it was extendable and could be used on the C64 with Sprite stuff as well, allowing three players to be drawn.”

By their very nature these games must, above all else, be responsive; this was hindered by building cohesive animation frames between the vast array of available moves. Many a pixelised tooth has been sacrificed waiting for the central ‘ready stance’ to roll around before the next move could be executed, though IK+ couldn’t easily be accused of such lassitude.

Screen shot 2014-04-30 at 09.27.30

The addition of a third fighter in the sequel was a stroke of genius.

“Another problem I had was how to squeeze all the animation frames into the available RAM. There was about 80 or 90 individual frames of movement. These could be flipped when the fighters turned the other way, and on the 16-bit versions the data could be dynamically changed to be one of eight different colours. Then I wanted the ‘end’ frame of a sequence to skip past the ‘standing’ frame and straight into the first frame of the next animation sequence without the fighter constantly returning to the default stance because it would slow down the game and make it appear less fluid, so I had to consider this when drawing all the frames.”

A major part of the game’s appeal is the incredible fluidity of the fighter’s movements, particularly in comparison to many of the stiff, clunky graphics that brought down many beat-‘em-ups. Other than the music, Archer was a one man team, yet nothing in the broad spectrum of game development suffered due to his resources being spread so thinly, including the outstanding visuals.

“I used a slow motion, steady frame VHS player and watched the end scene of Grease with some bloke doing a sideways-on back-flip in a fairground. I laid cellophane on the TV screen and shrunk the size to match the pixel height needed on the computers, then just traced around the arms and legs. Using a pixel editor on the computer I would draw the player’s outline before filling in the details. Another one I remember doing was the jump up double face kick. That came from a scene in The Cannonball Run where Jackie Chan is kicking the crap out of a load of bikers. He was wearing a white jump suit which kind of made it easier for me to draw around!”

Despite its name, IK+ was not particularly international, instead making good use of a single oriental courtyard backdrop sporting an atmospheric ocean vista, complete with rippling reflections and waves lapping at the shoreline. It was also replete with novelty animations to catch the corner of the player’s eye while their fighter was laid out.

Periscopes, falling cherry blossom, crawling worms, descending spiders and more frittered about in the background; even a Pac-mania character made a cameo, chomping his way across the Zen garden. It was this kind of hidden detail and charm, alongside the monumental number of cheats and jokes, that endeared IK+ to players across the board. “The trouser-drop in IK1 was only put in because I hate games that look static if the player isn’t doing anything, so the little animations were added to beckon the player to join in. This proved to be a big hit with reviewers and players alike, so with IK+ I just went overboard and put 50 or so cheat codes in. Some were small incidentals and some had a serious amount of code behind them. These days that would all be designed out because it would be seen as a waste of project time, whereas I think it’s part of what made the old 8-bit games fun!”

You can read the rest of our Making Of International Karate and IK+ in issue 26. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com.

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from Imagineshop

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