Like so many other movie-based games to hit the NES, The Karate Kid’s transition to the world of 8-bit video games was provided by LJN, a publisher that has gained infamy in the world of retro gaming, for seemingly tainting every product they touched. The Karate Kid has become one of the most infamous examples of LJN’s 8-bit butcherings of beloved blockbusters, though it isn’t among their worst offerings.
The most immediate issue with The Karate Kid are the controls. As Daniel-san, players can use the A and B buttons to punch and kick, while pressing up on the D-pad makes you jump. The jumping is probably the biggest issue, as it never feels responsive enough to make the game’s platforming elements feel fluid.
Another issue comes in the form of Daniel’s special “Crane Kick” and “Drum Punch.” These moves are performed the same as the standard punches and kicks, but require the player to collect letters in order to perform them (Cs for the Crane Kick, Ds for the Drum Punch). These attacks prove to be self-defeating, since you’ll automatically use them the next time you perform their respective action, but you need to use these actions in order to get the letters to perform the special moves. So you’re basically unable to store up the letters to utilize them at later times, making you wonder why you need to collect the letters to begin with.
Probably the game’s biggest complaint is its often-unfair difficulty. The player is only given three lives with no continues, with game overs sending players back to the start of the game. It is possible to get extra lives, but only by racking up 20,000 points, meaning that unless you have a lot of patience and don’t mind the tedium, getting extra lives is more of a chore than anything. Another issue with the game’s difficulty is that there’s no temporary invulnerability after getting damaged once, meaning that when enemies manage to hit you, they’ll keep doing so and drain your life rapidly. Should you have enemies on both sides of you, forget it. They’ll be smacking you around and you’ll be bouncing about the place like a madman.
One of the most annoying issues, however, is how it’s often difficult to tell which parts of the environment are platforms you can jump on, and which parts are just part of the background. Combine that uncertainty with the aforementioned clunky jumping, and it can get really cumbersome.
Perhaps the developers cranked up the difficulty to try to extend the game’s length, as The Karate Kid only features four stages, which is short even by NES standards.
The first of the game’s four levels recreates the tournament from the end of the first Karate Kid film, where players have to face off against a series of opponents who gradually get tougher, somewhat like a fighting game. Unfortunately, you never recover health in between bouts, and again, you only have three lives to beat the whole game, leaving you at an unfair disadvantage from the get-go.
The rest of the stages are all sidescrolling, and feature waves of enemies that must be overcome, platforms that need to be jumped, and final showdowns to cap them off. These stages are all based on scenes from The Karate Kid Part II. Admittedly, these stages aren’t horrible, but they also aren’t anything stand out, either. The third stage at least tries to add some variety, as Daniel-san has to fight against enemies during a typhoon, which sends birds and debris flying the player’s way, as well as making the jumps more difficult (not that they needed to be). Still, the variety isn’t enough to lift the game above your average, forgettable sidescroller.
Another annoyance in the game are the bonus stages, which are either tedious (like the game where you have to catch flies with a pair of chopsticks), or downright confusing (like the game that tells you to “dodge” a swinging hammer, but you actually need to hit said hammer). What’s worse, these bonus games are found in rooms that are entered by pressing up on the D-pad, and since that’s the same way you jump, you’ll often enter these bonus games by accident when you’re just trying to jump.
It also doesn’t help that the game is pretty ugly to look at. Though it’s easy to blame visual blemishes on aged technology, there are still NES games that are colorful and lively to look at. The Karate Kid certainly doesn’t fit into that category.
In the end, The Karate Kid isn’t the same kind of broken mess as some LJN games were (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure), but its cheap difficulty, awkward controls and bland level design prevent it from being anything more than another forgettable movie-based NES title.