I originally published this opinion piece in 2015 on Noobgrind, a computer game website, but since that has gone I’m posting it here. Whilst the original article’s focus was about computer games, this article is more about my influences, how old games led me to martial arts and my RPG designs.
For me Way of the Exploding Fist (WotEF / Fist) is the Mario of 8-bit fighting games! Okay, considering the cultural weight of Mario, maybe that is too strong a statement, but I do consider this game to be of that design calibre. Later beat ‘em up games like Street Fighter weren’t quite the gem, especially the 8-bit version on the Commodore 64; IMHO, not until Street Fighter 2 did things improve. Today there are many iconic fighting series, but in the mid-80s there was nothing, then Fist came out! The game received a 93% from Zzap! 64 magazine in August 1985 and game of the year, plus according to the wiki page it apparently went on to become the bestselling game for both ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC
Why write about a game from thirty years ago? The classic answer of it being helpful to know our roots, to understand how they influence us; even if we are not aware, which is often the case 😉 I would urge any budding game designer to check this game out, to see what the creator Gregg Barnett did with a good design, an emphasis on game-play, and a clean interface. Additionally this was achieved with a very limited amount of processing power. Also maybe check out some other quirky game ideas like Attack of the Phantom Karate Devils, if only for its novel approach to reducing the need to draw lots of graphics on the screen.
For many reasons this game carries great importance for me. It wasn’t Bruce Lee or other martial artist movies, which made me obsess with martial arts. In 1985 my dad purchased this amazing game for our Commodore 64, the title sounded just so exciting: ‘Way of the Exploding Fist’ or the simple punchy ‘Fist’. Thankfully due to my dad, even at 9 years of age I had a tiny frame of reference in understanding how difficult combat training is; my dad is ex-military and he had studied several different styles of fighting, and he’d started teaching me. Although I was already interested in martial arts, there was unfortunately limited access to media on any style in the early 80s in the UK, and we did not have enough money to pay for lessons. Crucially for me Fist wasn’t a platformer, or a game with just a few basic attacks, no, this was my first proper fighting game, and it is more like a fighting simulator.
Anecdotes aside, the graphics and imagery were incredible, yes dated now, but in its time quite impressive. I loved how crisp the game-play felt, the fantastic movement of the character led to a great sense of tactile feedback, and the attacks felt brilliant; for me game-play is the most important factor in any game. The game had 16 moves, enough that a fight felt strategic, not formulaic. Like so many people I believe that even a point-and-click or text-based adventure needs a good feeling of interactivity, and the graphic user interface (GUI) is a key part of this. Some people criticised the game in regards to how a character turned around, but I consider this criticism to be unfair since turning was just another thing to practice; besides you could attack someone behind you. In comparison to other games of the time Fist was spectacular. The music and sound effects were great, carrying that great combination of quality, feeling right and being distinctive. The music evokes strong memories of the game, and still carries importance for me; I’ve been humming it for decades!
Although a game called Karate Champ (KC) actually came before Fist, I didn’t come across it until afterwards, so it didn’t have any impact on me. KC had so many firsts to it, and can be considered the basis for all the fighting games to come. Whilst the arcade game, Warrior, came out in 1979, it looks and plays barely like anything in the fighting game genre. Even though it was made just a year earlier, KC was not as fluid or well-paced, nor as graphical or musically as impressive as Fist.
On a side note Yie Ar Kung-Fu came out the same year as Fist, which I also liked, it was fast, quite fluid, but the martial arts style was more like Wire-fu (Wuxia), plus most opponents had weapons. Crucially I thought it didn’t have that feeling of tactile weight, despite there being a brief pause to indicate that a hit had landed and seeing that the opponent’s health bar went down a bit, but otherwise there was no physical effect to the opponent. Interestingly this game fits what later became the foundation of later fighting games. In contrast Fist follows the rules of full contact point sparring with the fight pausing after a successful hit on a point scoring area, thus there are no health bars, and this approach has barely been used since. Since Yie Ar Kung-Fu felt quite different it provided a good alternative style of gameplay, and whilst I did enjoy playing it a lot, just not as much as Fist.
Besides the excellent 1 on 1 game play, Fist also included an odd bonus level that involved a charging bull? I guess this bonus level was inspired by Masutatsu Oyama, the founder of Kyokushin Karate, who had fought many bulls! Whilst I believe Karate Champ was probably the first game to include such bonus levels, it was years later when Mortal Kombat (MK) and Street Fighter 2 (SF2) in particular became known for popularising this level concept.
Fist included the cool and important ability to fake an attack. This does not refer to the simple idea of moving as a feint, although this can be a valid tactic in many games. What I mean is that attacks could be started but not completed; this was possible due to the great control system, which was all the better with a great micro-switch joystick. I find this particularly useful when playing against another person, plus it did seem to affect the computer controlled competitor. Nowadays whilst some games include the ability to feint, this important part of real fighting is not seen as a core feature in all fighting games, I wonder why this is?
The game was accessible due to a combination of being: well presented, there were no hidden moves, nor complicated sequences, but crucially I believe the game flow and speed elevated it. Like any good fighting game the timing was absolutely critical, and the well animated sprites allowed for good control of the timing, and therefore distance management became the first thing to consider. Because this is an important part of real fighting, it should be no surprise that this is often discussed as a crucial factor in all fighting games. Sadly there are games that lack the combination of fluid animation and character control; the amount of bad SF2 or MK clones are a testament to this issue. In some games, attacks with long animations are annoying, especially if you cannot do anything. Ideally a game should always a player to try something.
I love fighting games, I have no issue with games like Street Fighter with hidden moves, special attacks, nor the detailed list of techniques like in Tekken. It is not uncommon for new players to complain about too such games being too complicated, requiring a lot of effort to learn even the basics. A modern game like Fist would got some way to providing a stepping stone in to the fighting game genre. I’ve heard it said that the UFC games maybe fulfils this a little bit, and the general fight fan is much better educated these days, but the UFC games are still somewhat complicated, since after all they are simulating Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
Another classic fighting debate is addressed by this Fist’s design, should button mashing be allowed? Although it was possible to button mash in Fist, learning the game could overcome the wild approach. This approach gave new players a chance to compete; their button mashing elevated my gameplay, and in turn helped them. I call this a successful design approach.
After a few weeks of extensive playing of Way of the Exploding Fist I got in trouble for misbehaving. I was banned from playing the computer for a few days, which at that age seemed like a lifetime! Since I dabbled in programming I was not banned from using the computer, just playing on it, so this gave me what I considered at the time, a creative workaround. I loaded the game and patiently waited, after a mini eternity I was rewarded with a successful load and the awesome music started. After about twenty seconds the computer would play against itself, so I could watch two competitors fight each other, with each attack being given added emphasis due to their kiai (spirit shouts). I had watched for an hour by the time my dad found out what I was doing, impressively he was not angry since I had not technically broken the rules. In fact he was amused by the fact that I was making my punishment more intense on myself, by having the object of my desire in such close proximity, but not being allowed to interact with it! When I explained I was watching the timing and distant management of the game he smiled, because he understood that this simple point fighting karate game actually did a great job in making this the focal part of the game.
There is no real end to Fist, just like with real martial arts. Although I am not sure if the approach was due to design as metaphor, or more to do with just allowing a player to keep going to aim for a super high score.
The review from Zzap 64 Issue 4 August 1985 can be found here. For more information check of the game details on the wiki page. Whilst writing this article I found out that the music for this game was taken from Dance of the Yao Tribe, I had never looked it up until now; maybe that shows that a bit of hard work looking in to things you like can pay off? 😉
From Way of the Exploding Fist to Street Fighter RPG 3 part series
Part 1 = https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2019/11/18/way-of-the-exploding-fist-lookback/
Part 2 = https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2019/11/18/fist-2-exploring-mystical-fighting/
Part 3 = https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2019/11/18/a-fist-full-of-dice/