Kung Fu is a game that is called many different things. The arcade version is known through most of the world as “Kung-Fu Master”, and the game is called “Spartan X” in Japan (More on that later). In the US, though, the NES port of the game is simply known as “Kung Fu”. That’s not the only simple thing about it.
The plot of Kung Fu is also quite simple. Thomas, the Kung Fu Master in question, has had his girlfriend Sylvia kidnapped by Mr. X (In the arcade version, the intro mentions that the pair get attacked by “several unknown guys” and Sylvia gets kidnapped by them). To get her back, Thomas goes through a five-floor pagoda, defeating not just human enemies, but snakes, dragons, and moths. Each floor is guarded by a unique boss enemy, and Mr. X himself waits on the top floor.
Those of you who are familiar with Bruce Lee movies will note a strong similarity to the original version of The Game of Death. This movie’s influence can be felt in other media as well–Yuffie’s sidequest in Final Fantasy VII also involves a five-floor pagoda with a unique boss on each floor, to name just one. Sadly, Bruce Lee died before his vision of the film could be completed. Additionally, the reason the game is called “Spartan X” in Japan is that the character names–and on a broad level, the “man saves woman” plot–are based on a Jackie Chan movie, Wheels on Meals, which was called “Spartan X” in Japan.
Besides the story, the gameplay of Kung Fu is easy to pick up. Thomas can move left or right, jump, duck, punch, or kick, and can combine the ducking and jumping with an attack, yielding a total of six moves to use on your foes. Some of them are more useful in certain situations than others–you’ll almost have to use a jump kick on moths, for instance, and one boss can only be hurt with ducking punches.
It should also be noted that the game is very much a product of its arcade roots. Getting past all five levels gets you a cursory ending, the end of which gets Sylvia re-kidnapped, making you start the game again on a slightly harder difficulty setting. This continues until you eventually run out of lives–which you will, since you start with 3 and get only a single extra life upon scoring 50000 points. Poor Sylvia, always destined to wind up re-kidnapped, and never truly rescued.
Despite the defeatist way the game ends, Kung Fu is a fun game to pick up and play for a few minutes. It’s also a historically important game, being one of the first side-scrolling beat-em-ups, that genre which would come to dominate arcades in the late 80s to early 90s. While it’s necessarily simple compared to later entries such as Double Dragon, Final Fight, and Streets of Rage, it’s cool to play Kung Fu and see just how the genre got started–and, since a lot of beat-em-ups have “rescue someone kidnapped” as at least part of their plots, just how little the genre changed in some respects, even as it evolved.