China Warrior, known in Japan by the much odder name of The Kung Fu, immediately impresses the moment you start the game with its incredibly large character sprites. The main character, a Bruce Lee knock-off called the China Warrior, fills quite a bit of screen real estate with his detailed sprite, an impressive visual when this game released and one that’s still not all too common even now in most sidescrollers, but there is a reason for that. Such a simple visual feat alone does not a good video game make, and that large sprite, if anything, feeds into a few of the issues with China Warrior’s design.
After reading the manual’s loose justification for the game in the form of an Evil Horde and their leader Boss Kara taking over the Kungfu province of China, you enter China Warrior and the character immediately starts walking. China Warrior isn’t in full control of your motion though, as you can move your character back and forth as he automatically walks or even crouch to come to a full stop for as long as you like. Across the game’s stages, the bulk of the action takes place during walking segments where the China Warrior gradually advances forward, enemies and objects coming in from the right of the screen to try and hurt you. Some of these are as simple as robed men who just try to walk into you, but then you have bats flying in from above, rocks bouncing around the ground, and some occasionally hard to see projectiles like the tossed stones and quick arrows that can blend in with the background of certain levels. Immediately you’ll notice being such a large target means that, save a little space above your head, enemies can hit you fairly easily from different elevations. You aren’t entirely without recourse for the incoming attacks though, as besides a jump and crouch, you can also knock back or eliminate enemies and objects with a kick, jump kick, punch, or crouching punch. Each attack covers a different height level, although there are some it’s better to jump over or crouch beneath instead of trying to eliminate, especially when the game starts turning up how many dangerous objects approach you at once. Your kick does cover a bit more space than most attacks and is incredibly useful most of the time, but the game of course has some foes like falling fans and special green hooded figures who will force out your punches due how they move towards you.
These sections help expose why being so large doesn’t work well in your benefit. It’s not so much that you have more surface area for the enemy to strike, but that the China Warrior already dominates the left side of the screen, meaning that when an object comes in from the right, you might not always have the time needed to properly react, especially to a new enemy type you haven’t seen before. There are plenty of enemies who change up their elevation patterns or new foes that pop up and you have to learn their attack method immediately or you’ll lose health, and when you get to the later levels, some areas even try to trick you into taking damage if you didn’t respond to the previous problem with the proper move from your limited repertoire. There is some level of enjoyment to learning the game’s design and gradually growing better at anticipating its patterns and replying properly, but the health drain to get you there plays fairly poorly into the game’s boss fights.
Boss fights in China Warrior involve your character finally coming to a stop, the player now in full control of his motion. While most enemies and objects just require a single hit to immediately dispatch them, bosses have a health bar and more moves than a single basic approach. The problem with that is your attacks are still the limited set that seems designed more around hitting incoming hazards than facing down someone in a Kung Fu fight. Your attack types are still the same, although over the course of the level, if you hit the right enemies and objects, you can get the ability to use two super moves that are essentially guaranteed hits rather than anything too special. However, these guaranteed hits can prove surprisingly useful, as most the bosses don’t really have any clear method for fighting them, it mostly turning out to be a battle of moving towards each other and feeling out if you can land a strike or if the boss decides to block it. You can block as well, mostly by trying to execute the same attack the enemy is doing, but they have no real tells or guaranteed patterns so a guard is a lucky break rather than a skillful tactic. Some attacks do work better on certain bosses, but it’s still just a matter of approaching, seeing if it works, and backing away if it doesn’t or if they’re attacking, which is risky since most bosses will like to pressure you to land attacks and whittle your health bar down while you’re hoping for a lucky opening.
Besides the final boss, there are only really four boss types in this game that they repeat and recolor without changing their tactics at all. The first and probably the only one that isn’t an unreliable luck-testing game is the bald man in army pants, his attacks slow enough and his openings obvious so you can actually do things deliberately some times. The other bosses aren’t great fights, although the girl that seems to be using the crane style of Kung Fu can’t compare to the problems the other two bosses have. Her kicks can be avoided and your punches can be planned sometimes, but the third boss type you’ll see a lot is the China Warrior but evil. These guys have the same attacks as you and no tells on what they’ll do next. You just have to hope you guess right a lot here and he guesses wrong. The last boss template though is the worst, a figure I think is using the mantis style of Kung Fu who will crowd you and guard against your attacks fairly well. He also reveals that he game is reading your controller inputs to plan how the boss responds, as you can just do the crouch punch over and over to have him immediately assume his guard pose to perfectly avoid it. Surprisingly, the final boss is almost better than the previous two, in that you have to find moments of opportunity to strike rather than hoping the boss just isn’t guarding. Managing spacing to avoid being hit by his strong strikes is important, but he can heal if you play too passively. It’s at least a boss design with readable elements, where most are just about praying the guard system works in your favor because it seems to let the boss get through your guards a lot more than the other way around.
Thankfully, China Warrior is a somewhat short game with short levels, meaning that a death or game over isn’t impossible to recover from. The game likely wants you to memorize the walking portions as a way to get away with the moments where it deliberately surprises you, and a loss to the boss will only put you back to a bit before their fight so you don’t have to walk too much of a gauntlet and potentially get there with little health. Health replenishment isn’t impossible either, mostly earned by hitting the floating oolong tea or getting a perfect score on the post-level urn-breaking bonus game where you just need to press a button at the right time. You can go beyond your basic health bar as well, building up extra layers of back up health bars that will help you weather ambush objects or bosses that push in and land hit after hit before realizing they have to back off to avoid instantly killing the player. Those small accommodations help it from feeling completely unfair, and if you can make it to a boss with a lot of health it’s a fine reward for being able to anticipate the hazards you face in the walking portions. The boss fight will still be boring guesswork, but at least you can get it over with sooner because of the part you can actually develop some skill in.
THE VERDICT: China Warrior made both its main character and his enemies large before realizing they needed to fill the screen space with some action as well. Your incredibly basic selection of moves allows you to mostly handle the waves of approaching enemies and objects despite the surprises caused by very little time to react to some deliberate tricks, but that at least lets the player find a potential rhythm and learn how to deal with different challenges. The Kung Fu battles are essentially guesswork tipped in the computer controlled opponent’s favor both due to your bland moveset and the lack of any strategy to most of the fights other than hoping what looks like an opening doesn’t turn into a health-draining reversal. Neither mode truly excites though, you just learn how to deal with them better to get them over with.
And so, I give China Warrior for the TurboGrafx-16…
A TERRIBLE rating. The main reason a lot of sidescrollers don’t have such huge characters is it takes away a lot of the space that could be used for interesting interactivity. The China Warrior is too large and detailed to be able to do much, so his opposition has to approach from the right and can’t be too complicated so as to not require animations he’s not capable of. Things must fall into a set range to be hit by his punches and kicks so the walking sections are mostly about trying to upset your ability to hit a button at the right time, and the Kung Fu fights are also too basic because your attacks all are focused more on strike regions than any combat functionality. Bosses don’t really guard until you’re attacking already either, so you can’t plan your attack on how they’re posed. After the game helped you learn that attack regions are important, it throws you up against foes where it’s more about a fiddly guard system where the game’s discretion determines what works or not.
The walking parts of the stage can almost at least feel like moving puzzles or a poorly designed rhythm game, but when it’s not obvious what you need to do, it’s often because the game has shaken things up without much warning. Coupled with the bad combat, it’s hard to justify running through the game once, let alone once it introduces an Act II where elements from across the whole game can crop up as you go through each level a second time.
China Warrior’s Kung Fu is stiff and intuitive, something it only accounts for when the stakes are low. Otherwise, the China Warrior’s oddly lacking martial arts makes his game only tolerable when it is being repetitive because at least then the limited mechanics are working reliably.