My first draft of this article made reference to classic games such as International Karate and The Way of the Exploding Fist. It felt lazy. Karate Master 2 is more than that and rightfully so; this is 2015. Those of you who watched my Karate Master 2 live streams may have heard me make comparisons to Tekken or Fighter's Destiny. It feels unfair to compare to other games. Karate Master 2 is unique.
What does it feel like to be Daniel LaRusso? In the final round of your small-town's regional karate finals, you are a single move away from victory or defeat. One legged, beaten and physically crushed, this next motion is the difference between gaining the respect of your peers, or being the laughing stock of your campus. The stage is small, but the personal stakes are high.
What does it feel like to be Rocky Balboa? An unknown in the sport, you find yourself up against a champion. The world is watching. This is your moment to make a name for yourself. Victory now could mean a glamorous career in the sport that you love. Defeat will send you back to your miserable life working at the docks, with nothing but grey skies for company. The world is your stage and the eyes of millions will watch you conquer, or crumble.
John G. Avildsen movie comparisons aside, Criansoft have managed to craft an emotional experience around a solid fighting game. No, an excellent fighting game. The awkward cutscenes and poor translation into English don't detract from the bond that forms between you and the game. Starting without a penny to your name, you must first earn money working as a forklift driver. This is depicted in an appropriately dull minute-long mini game (think Shenmue). Once you have scraped together enough cash, you can afford to enter a local fighting tournament, either Bogu Kumite (headgear and gloves) or Full Contact Karate.
Early in the game, the consequences of defeat are dire. Put simply, lose and it's back to the forklift you go. For me, this was a common pattern. I'd gradually progress further in the tournaments, but ultimately be defeated in the final rounds and be unceremoniously dumped back to the docks. This sounds frustrating, but it actually felt like a necessary right of passage. Each time I fought, I learned. Not only does my character earn XP, making him stronger and faster, but I'm learning the intricacies of the fighting system with each defeat. I'm understanding the techniques used by my AI opponents. My gi-clad avatar and I are growing together. As I load crates onto the back of a lorry, I think back to my last defeat and what I will do differently next time. Next time I will win.
Your eventual tournament victory feels fantastic. You feel responsible for every blow and block. You earn it. Unlike karate sims of the 8 and 16-bit era, the controls are fast and responsive. You have direct input of what is occurring on screen, with each face button controlling a limb (like Tekken). Your stance and defence shift immediately with stick/control pad input. Instead of depleting a life bar, you and your opponent receive locational damage (like WWE or UFC games). This forces you to constantly adjust your strategy. If your nose is broken mid-fight, it's time to keep your guard up. If you see your opponent struggling to keep his balance, chop him off at the knees. A bit of luck can result in you breaking a bone, or rupturing and internal organ (depicted in gruesome Mortal Kombat-esque x-ray vision) which will daze your opponent, or result in a one-hit-KO. I managed to capture the latter during my live stream (see video below).
Tournament victories result in winning Fame points. Enough Fame points will get you access to various dojos around the city, where you get to prove your worth against various boss characters. These characters vary from 'Johnny' from The Karate Kid (no, really) to professional wrestlers who can pick you up and slam you. Victories also earn you Training points, which allow you to take part in various minigames to improve your stats. These distractions from the regular gameplay are hilarious and have to be seen to be believed. Other side events include fighting a bear, or taking on an oncoming, speeding car. Thankfully, the game doesn't take itself very seriously, but when it's fight time, there is a sense that it's time to wipe the smile away. Criansoft clearly take their karate very serious and outside of the slightly tongue-in-cheek presentation style, you can tell a lot of care and attention has gone into the simulation of the sport and unarmed combat in general.
Unlike the first Karate Master, which could be finished in a single sitting, progress in Karate Master 2 can be quite slow. For the better. Be warned, there will be several trips back to the docks as you continue to keep your finances afloat and accumulate Fame, but with the core gameplay being so intuitive and rewarding, I personally found delight in having to tighten up my black belt and try again.
Criansoft deserve a huge hit on their hands with this game. I fully expect it to sit very high up on my personal list of favourite games this year. It is available now on Steam for Windows. If you are a fan of fighting games or martial arts in general, you are doing yourself a disservice by not giving this a try. For more information, check out Criansoft's official page for the game.