Retro Review: The Karate Kid (NES) – Does It Hold Up?

Is Karate Kid for the Nintendo Entertainment System as bad as people say it is?

That’s a question I asked myself as I was re-watching The Karate Kid Part II the other day. For those unaware of this game, it was released on the NES back in 1987 and loosely follows the plot of the first two Karate Kid movies. However it’s greatest claim to fame was that it was featured in one of the earliest episodes of the Angry Video Game Nerd, back when he was known as the Angry Nintendo Nerd. In fact, I think this may have been the first AVGN video I ever saw. I actually grew up playing this game on my Mom’s NES. Back in the mid 90’s, my mom had picked one up on clearance at Woolworths while she was pregnant with me. She used to come home from the hospital she worked, and still works at, and would apparently play the original Super Mario Brothers on it every night. After I was born, she continued to play video games every now and again and one of my earliest memories is actually picking this game up at Kmart with her and my Dad.

In hindsight, it’s kinda nuts that I was even able to buy new, sealed, NES game in a department store in the late 90s. I was born in 1995 and I’m assuming we must have found this game in the clearance bin or something in 1998 or 1999. Anyway, I actually have a lot of fond memories towards this game. I’ve always loved The Karate Kid franchise, and remember having a lot of fun with this as a kid, even though I could almost never beat the third level. I was actually so into this game for some reason that I remember taping one of the few times I got to the fourth level of the game onto a VHS tape to show my mom after she had got home from work that day. I even remember beating the game for the first time and excitedly running over to my parents room to tell them all about it. If I’m not mistaken, this could be the first game I ever beat too.

So yeah, you could say that I have a lot of nostalgia for this game, which is why I was pretty confused by how much some people online seem to dislike this game. While it’s certainly no hidden gem and, while I’m admitting that I’m probably a little biased here, I don’t know if I’d go as far as to call it terrible. I mean, while it was published by LJ, it was actually made by Atlus, so that’s gotta count for something right? How can you hate something that might be a Persona reference?

Jokes aside, I thought now would be a great time to revisit this game, what with the third season of Cobra Kai right around the corner. So without further adieu, I present to you… The Karate Kid for NES. Will this game help me master the martial arts, touch of death style, as it’s cartridge says it will? Let’s find out.


Moments before Daniel’s, erm, climactic battle with Chozon…

The game can best be described as an action platformer that’s split across four different levels and also features several mini-games.  While that sounds short, and it is, I actually am pretty okay with this sort of game length. I get how it had to have been frustrating for gamers who paid full price for this game back in the day, but over 30 years later, the game’s short length helps keep this game from growing too stale for me. 

It’s first level (which is based on the tournament from the first Karate Kid) is actually a series of one on one fights against four other martial artists, culminating in a battle against Johnny Lawrence of the Cobra Kais. You wouldn’t know that though unless you’ve seen the movie, as the game doesn’t refer to him as Johnny Lawrence and, outside of wearing an all black gi, he looks nothing like the guy. It’s kinda weird that Atlus didn’t bother to give the guy the right hair color but… whatever. I’d also say it’s equally strange that a game that revolves around light platforming and action decides to start off as a one on one fighter, but I honestly don’t mind that decision too much. It helps ease newcomers into the games controls, while also giving them a safe enough arena to test their skills in. As for the controls themselves, they’re perfectly functional. You can move Daniel from left to right as well as jump and duck using the D-Pad, while the the B and A buttons are reserved for punching and kicking, respectively. Daniel can also perform the crane kick and drum punches to do extra damage by performing a punch or kick when he’s standing still, though you can only perform these attacks if you have the appropriate energy to do so, as these attacks are available via pickups you earn on the platforming levels or via the games bonus stages.

Speaking of attacks, punching is borderline useless in this game. While the drum punch attack is more useful than it’s regular counterpart, mostly due to it elongating Daniel’s arms for some reason, a standard punch offers less range than a kick and is harder to land on an opponent. It does become a bit more useful later in the game when you’re fighting opponents on higher ground than you, but I honestly found myself kicking most of my opponents for most of the game. Simply put, the kick has more range than a standard punch and seems to do just as much damage to enemies, so there isn’t really much reason to try and punch to begin with.

After you finish the All Valley Tournament, the game transitions over to covering the plot of The Karate Kid II, turning into an action platformer. Each stage is loosely inspired by a scene from the film. Stage two is based off of Daniel and Kumiko exploring Okinawa and wandering upon Sato’s Dojo, stage three is based off of the storm scene from the end of the film’s second act, and the fourth and final stage is inspired by the festival at Sato’s castle from the end of the movie.

The Karate Kid’s action stages are, seemingly, inspired by none other than Data East’s Kung Fu, which was ironically also inspired by a movie. That game was modelled after Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, and was also initially released as a tie-in with Jackie Chan’s Wheels on Meals.

While that game found you (mostly) traveling from right to left, fighting hordes of martial arts as you climbed a tower, The Karate Kid has you traveling from left to right while fighting hordes of martial artists in Okinawa. But, and this is a big difference, The Karate Kid also has you performing what should be very simple acts of platforming while you do so, while Kung Fu doesn’t. It sounds like a small thing to point out, but the inclusion of platforming in this game, and the fact that failing at any of these tiny, occasionally hard to spot, platforming challenges results in an immediate death, turns what would otherwise be a pretty alright game into a fairly frustrating experience. This isn’t helped by the fact that this game’s collision detection can occasionally crap out, leading to attacks missing for seemingly no reason, or your character clipping into part of the level and being unable to move until you jump. The spotty collision detection can make these platforming segments incredibly frustrating as there are usually enemies on either side of you while you’re trying to clear a hazard, and getting hit by them sends you flying back and possibly into the hazard you were trying to avoid. You can even get stunlocked by multiple enemies, if you manage to get cornered by them, and, on the third stage, you can actually get flung back by a pretty large portion of your screen due to the level’s wind gimmick..

The games hit and collision detection also rears its ugly head at you in the games final stage, when you’re pit against enemies that have a spear. I don’t know if it’s the hit detection or The Karate Kid’s hit boxes specifically, but knocking a spear away from these enemies can be next to impossible, unless you use a special attack, which is why I usually hoard them until the final level. You can actually get quite a bit of your special attacks saved up if you use them conservatively and get lucky with the games bonus stages. While you’re traveling through the action stages, you’ll sometimes be able to enter random strangers’ homes or shops in order to participate in one of three mini-games. These games usually only last for a couple of seconds, but if you do well enough at them you’ll be able to collect some crane kicks and drum punches that’ll make the game a lot easier. The mini-games themselves aren’t anything special. You’re either forced to train with the swinging hammer, which can be done by facing it and punching at the right time before it hits you, to karate chop six blocks of ice by attacking when you’ve maxed out the mini-game exclusive power meter, or by catching flies with a pair of chopsticks. Of all the mini-games, this one is by far the easiest, as you can basically just go berserk on your NES controller and catch all of them before time runs out. The mini-games you’re given are randomized each time you play the game, which is nice in theory, until you realize that this bit of RNG can directly impact whether or not you’ll be able to survive the game’s last level.

Daniel training with a swinging hammer (The Karate Kid NES)

At the end of each action stage, you’ll face Chozon, Daniel’s rival from the film, in one on one combat. However, these three encounters aren’t identical and each feature slightly different fight parameters. Your first fight against Chozon is a simple one on one fight, but your second fight actually doesn’t even require that you fight him at all, as you only need to rescue the girl from the telephone pole near him to end the level. In fact, it’s actually advisable that you don’t fight him here, as that would likely mean using a few special attacks, which are vital to beating the fourth level. As for your third and final fight with Chozon, you do need to fight him here, while also making sure that Kumiko doesn’t fall off the arena you two are fighting on. It’s actually quite simple though, as all you need to do is play defense and spam special attacks at Chozon to defeat him. Playing aggressively doesn’t work here, as advancing on Chozon will either lead to Kumiko falling to her death, which results in you losing a life, or you kicking Chozon off the arena. Kicking him off is the worst scenario here as it actually heals him completely, prolonging the battle. Beating Chozon at Sato’s castle leads to a pretty lackluster and minimal congratulations screen, followed by an even simpler “The End” screen before the game resets to the title screen.


 All in all, The Karate Kid is a pretty short game, clocking in at just about 10 minutes long if you know what you’re doing. While that’s extremely short for an NES game, I honestly can’t say I’m particularly bothered by that. In fact, if anything, I’d say that this game’s short length is a bit of a plus for the title, especially nowadays since it can only really be looked at as a curio. By being four levels long, the game honestly doesn’t outstay it’s welcome for me and actually feels pretty well paced, all things considered. It’s first level eases the player into how combat works in the game, before introducing them to a fairly standard and easy platforming stage. Then, the difficulty is raised by the storm level, which introduces more stage hazards and the idea of a secondary boss objective and culminate in the final, much harder, level. On paper, this is actually a fairly decent structure for a game, and makes a bit of sense. The execution definitely leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s still a fairly well paced game. The short length honestly also helps curve the games difficult a bit, by ensuring that you won’t have to wait that long to get back to where you had previously been in the game after getting a game over. 

Overall, The Karate Kid on NES is fine. It’s nothing to write home about, but it definitely doesn’t deserve the hate it gets. I actually kinda prefer it to the game that seemingly inspired it too, if I’m being honest, as that game also had its share of collision issues and a high difficulty. Although I’ll also be the first to point out that, as a game released in 1987, this is pretty bare bones. Kung Fu, on the other hand, was originally released in Japan back in 1985, which was a very different time in gaming. It was perfectly fine for games like Kung Fu to be the way they were when they were released, and The Karate Kid unfortunately came out in a time when games were getting longer and more complex. While the game’s introduction of platforming changes reflects this increased complexity, it’s fairly obvious that at least some it’s design was a little antiquated for the time.

But in the 21st century, I’d hardly call that a problem. Nowadays, The Karate Kid is just a short, relatively flawed game. While I wouldn’t go as far as to recommend it as something worth going out of their way to play, I’d also call it a relatively fun title for what it is. It’s graphics are fine, it’s music isn’t terrible, it’s simply… a game. It isn’t terrible, but it isn’t particularly memorable either.

So did The Karate Kid for NES hold up? Kinda? I mean, I think this games deflation in value over the years has actually helped justify picking it up, if anything, so I’d say it’s aged well in that regard. If you can get this game for cheap, and I mean cheap, you might have some fun with this one. It’s got a two player mode that’s similar to what’s on the original Super Mario Bros, which can be fun, and it’s also got a one on one mode that exists, and nothing more. It didn’t teach me any karate though. So that’s false advertising. 

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