Like most game genres, fighting games went through a period of experimentation and flux in their early days as developers and publishers attempted to figure out the “best” way to do things.
In the days of 8-bit home computers and consoles, we saw a variety of different games attempting to simulate martial arts with varying degrees of realism — and certain elements of these early titles can be traced all the way forwards to today’s most competitive fighters.
One early, influential title was Beam Software’s The Way of the Exploding Fist. This is best known in its home computer incarnations for Commodore 64 and 16, BBC Micro, Amstrad CPC and Acorn Electron, but there was also supposed to be an NES version. For one reason or another, this console version never saw the light of day, but more recently Piko Interactive managed to rescue this prototype, clean it up a bit and release it to the public. And now you can enjoy it on the Evercade retro gaming platform as part of the Piko Interactive Collection 1 cartridge. Let’s take a look!
Many early fighting games eschewed today’s “health bar” approach in favour of a points-based system inspired by real-life martial arts competitions. For the unfamiliar, this usually takes a two-tier approach: landing a clean hit (or a decisive throw in the case of judo) results in a full point (often known as an ippon in many Asian martial arts disciplines), while a less decisive hit results in a half-point (or waza-ari). Depending on the competition, either one or two full points are generally required to win a bout.
The use of this system in video games dates back to Data East’s 1984 arcade title Karate Champ, widely regarded as the first one-on-one fighting game, but it was also used in a variety of other popular fighting games of the period, including System 3’s International Karate and the original home computer versions of The Way of the Exploding Fist.
The NES port of the latter, now known simply as Exploding Fist, takes a slightly different approach. Rather than distinguishing between ippon and waza-ari hits, you now simply get a point for successfully connecting a hit with your opponent. The trade-off is that you now need a full five points to win a bout — or simply be ahead in points when the timer expires. In the case of ties for points, the player who successfully used the most “valuable” (i.e. difficult to land) moves is awarded the victory.
Early fighting games also eschewed modern, multi-button control schemes, usually in favour of a system where each of the eight directions on a joystick would do a different move, and each of the eight directions with the fire button held down would do something different again. This allowed single-button controllers, which were the norm for ’80s home computers, to have up to 16 moves assigned to them. Exploding Fist for the NES, meanwhile, makes life a bit simpler for newcomers by eliminating the diagonals and instead using the NES’ two buttons combined with the four cardinal directions.
Despite the seeming simplicity of the mechanics, Exploding Fist absolutely allows one to make use of the fundamentals of fighting games — namely, controlling space, being aware of your various moves’ reach, and defending against anything your opponent might happen to throw your way. While it can be tempting to rely exclusively on the long-reach flying kick move — particularly in the single-player mode, where the early AI opponents are rather susceptible to it — as you develop your skills, it becomes clear that each move has a distinct purpose.
Exploding Fist gets most interesting when you’re fighting at close quarters. When knocked down, quick reflexes and a good choice of move can see you effectively “counter” your opponent as you get up — but a canny fighter will be ready for this and either avoid the attack or preemptively strike. Thankfully, it’s rather tricky to get caught in a loop of getting knocked down and immediately getting struck again as you stand up; good opponents know that standing over a temporarily downed foe is a risky strategy.
As the single-player mode progresses, the opponents start to use more varied tactics and are able to counter your moves more effectively. Every four levels, there’s a three-fighter bout, too, where you square off against two separate opponents at once. This actually ends up being a little easier than the one-on-one fights, since you can split the five required points between the two opponents rather than just one — you just need to make sure that you don’t finish that spectacular flying kick by landing right on your other opponent’s outstretched fist.
While Exploding Fist gets a little repetitive after a while in its single-player mode — particularly with the lack of variety in sprites, backgrounds and music — this is a game set up to shine in multiplayer, with both two- and three-player options on offer. Sadly, at the time of writing the Evercade handheld doesn’t support more than a single player at once, but should the rumoured and much-requested console incarnation of the platform ever emerge, this will definitely be one worth trying out with friends. It’s accessible and easy to get started with thanks to the straightforward control scheme, but can become surprisingly strategic and addictive as you attempt to position yourself perfectly for an unstoppable strike or five.
If nothing else, it’s fascinating to see the very roots of the fighting game genre and admire how far things have come. In some ways, the simplicity and purity of a game like this has its own distinct appeal from the flashy, complex mechanics of modern fighters — particularly if, like me, you’ve never quite mastered the Dragon Punch motion — but it’s also rather pleasing to see how many of today’s “fighting game fundamentals” are still applicable to an aged classic like this. You might even find this a good game to learn the ropes on before moving on to something more modern and complex.
Either way, Exploding Fist is a great example of what Evercade — and Piko Interactive, for that matter — is all about. It’s a version of a game that never saw the light of day 30 years ago — not in its NES incarnation, anyway — but which is getting another chance for people to enjoy today. And, assuming you don’t go in with unreasonably high expectations, there’s actually a lot to enjoy here, too. There’s an undeniably addictive quality to the game’s quick yet strategic matches — and the feeling of satisfaction you get from successfully landing something more elaborate than the ol’ reliable flying kick is something which should not be underestimated.
Definitely pushing this one to the front of the queue if and when an Evercade console happens, though — with modern fighting games being all but impossible to explain to casual players, this sounds like just the ticket for an evening of silly brawling fun.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via any of the services below or the Donate page here on the site! Your contributions help keep the lights on, the ads off and my shelves stocked up with things to write about!