The History Of: Yie Ar Kung-fu
In fighting game history one title transcends them all. Konami’s Yie Ar Kung-fu coin-op created the template that every fighter followed. It also spawned its own series, including a distinct home version, countless conversion sand a very silly sequel
Martyn Carroll guides us through the Bruce Lee-infused 8-bit brawler series
Yie Ar Kung-fu was not the first one-onone fighting game and we’re not going to tell you what was. That’s because we don’t actually know. Many cite Data East’s Karate Champ (1984) as the granddaddy of the genre, but there are multiple earlier contenders. So 1985’s Yie Ar Kung-fu wasn’t the first, but it’s the earliest example of what we’d now call a traditional fighter.
Unlike Karate Champ, where you fought a ‘clone’ with the same moveset, in Yie Ar Kung-fu you faced a roster of increasingly challenging enemies, each with their own fighting style. There was also a backstory which involved our hero Oolong battling 11 deadly opponents to become the Kung-fu Grand Master, in honour of his father who had died trying to achieve the same feat.
As for the difference in gameplay, the clue was in the titles. Karate Champ versus Yie Ar Kung-fu boiled down to karate versus kung-fu. One was strategic, linear, rigid, the other was spontaneous, fluid, flexible.
Yie Ar Kung-fu was inspired by the enduring popularity of Bruce Lee flicks, and Oolong was clearly modelled on the famous martial artist.
The action was fast and overstated, characterised by Oolong’s extensive moveset that comprised 16 punches and kicks plus an outrageous long jump that covered the width of the screen. The traditional points system was replaced by the KO bar which saw the balance of power shift during bouts. Needless to say, Yie Ar Kung-fu was a hugely popular and highly influential release.
Konami must have guessed it had a winning formula as a version for the MSX computer range was developed in tandem with the arcade game. The main character was named Lee here, in the true spirit of Bruceploitation, but that wasn’t the only difference. Rather than try and emulate the coin-op, the MSX game was designed with the hardware in mind, and specifically the requirement to squeeze everything onto a 16K cart. So there was only one backdrop (a dojo interior), and just five enemies (members of the feared Chop Suey gang, so the story went). The biggest compromise, however, was the controls. The arcade game had separate punch and kick buttons, whereas the
MSX had to map all of the moves onto a joystick with a single fire button.
Regardless, the MSX version was well received when it was released in February 1985, mere weeks after the coin-op’s debut in arcades. “The graphics are brilliant and the jolly Chinese tunes are excellent,” commented What MSX? magazine in its 9/10 review. “This is programming at its best. If you start playing it you won’t be able to leave it alone.” A few months later the game was successfully ported to the NES. Nothing significant was changed or added, but the presence of two fire buttons for kick and punch made it the preferred version.
Konami saw the potential of releasing home versions of its arcade properties, but outside of its homeland there were so many different systems to consider. It looked to established European publishers and chose to partner with Ocean, signing an eightgame deal in mid-1985 that included Hyper Sports,
Green Beret, Mikie and the arcade version of Yie Ar Kung-fu. Konami was concerned that Ocean’s name might overshadow its own, so Ocean agreed to publish the games on its Imagine label.
This was a coup for Ocean, although the job of converting eight games to multiple formats was too big for the in-house team. For Yie Ar Kung-fu it farmed out conversion duties to Brian Beuken who operated as Timeless Software. “The biggest issue was finding coders to do it,” says Brian, who had never played the coin-op when he took on the job. “I was operating from a small office near my home in Scotland but didn’t employ any staff, and needed to find three trustworthy people to do each conversion – Spectrum, Amstrad and Commodore. I got lucky though and found them.”
The conversion wasn’t straightforward, however, largely due to the inexperience of the young team. “All three coders faced different issues,” he says. “The Amstrad’s issue was memory. Keith Wilson, who was only 14 at the time, was a prodigy and a really great coder, working out all the AI really quickly, but he had no idea how to fit all the code and graphics data into the limited memory. As I was creating the graphics for all versions, by basically pausing a video tape of an arcade playthrough, it dawned on me that the sprites didn’t need too many colours
and I could free up some spare bits.” This allowed Brian to create a compressed sprite routine that made more efficient use of the available space. “The Spectrum’s memory issue wasn’t as bad, but its biggest problem was speed. The coder just couldn’t get it to update fast enough, but I did come up with an overlapping sprite system which increased the speed quite a bit. Ultimately, though, both machines lacked the memory to get everything in so we got Ocean to agree to drop some features or make them additional loads.”
The C64 version caused even more of a headache. “Although the coder I hired understood the principles of sprite multiplexing he couldn’t get it to work and the project went into a tailspin. We only had eight weeks or so to do the conversion and he’d taken four or five weeks by that point, so Ocean stepped in and took the C64 version in-house.” Dave Collier was roped in and he started from scratch. “Dave was a total legend at Ocean and was given free rein to do everything his way,” says Brian.
ocean also earmarked versions for the Commodore 16, BBC Micro and Electron. For the Acorn versions they enlisted Peter Johnson who was already familiar with the game. “It was fun enough,” he says of the coin-op. “It looks very primitive now, but this was at a time when we didn’t have the processing power to display, or memory to store, large fighter sprites. It was all about timing, and knowing when to punch or duck by studying the enemies’ movement patterns.”
Like Brian and his team, Peter was not based in Ocean’s Manchester hub. “I worked from my home in Newcastle so Ocean supplied me with one of their special suitcases, which contained a real arcade board with a power supply and joystick. I drew the sprites and worked out the gameplay from the arcade board then adapted it to best fit the limitations of the hardware. With the Beeb the trickiest challenge was the very limited colour palette and limited space for animation frames. I used a four-colour screen with interrupts to give the illusion of more colours. Needing to animate a range of enemies and store a complex background limited how much animation there could be. Sometimes the most interesting part of coding
it was all about timing, and knowing when to punch or duck Peter Johnson
a game is deciding how to balance the available resources.” Once the Beeb version was complete he ported the game over to the Electron. “That probably took a few weeks. I could not use the colour interrupt technique on the Electron as the hardware was more limited.”
memory was an issue that affected all of Ocean’s conversions, so Brian jumped at the chance when he was asked to revisit the game for the new 128K Spectrum. “Even though we screwed up the C64 version, Ocean’s Colin Stokes was impressed with me when he visited to review progress,” he recalls. “After the original game launched and everything was selling well he suggested I come down to Manchester and do a Spectrum 128 version which was due to be packaged with the new machine at launch. The intention was to do a quick port, but as I’d only written the sprite system for the 48K version I needed to get my head round the code. Also, after reviewing the 128K’s hardware I realised it was possible to do a doublescreen paging system, so I suggested I start it from scratch. This didn’t go down too well, but I must have made a good argument as they let me get on with it. I wrote the whole game again from the ground up, using the screen swap for faster and smoother updates, and the extra memory let me get everything in one load.”
Brian was also able to redo the background graphics and add in the Feedle and Chain fights that were cut from the 48K version. Legendary pixel artist F David Thorpe also contributed a smart new loading screen based on the cover art.
Before Ocean released any of its home conversions, Konami had already rushed out a second game. Yie Ar Kung-fu II arrived at the tail end of 1985 and was developed for the MSX rather than the arcade. So Oolong was out and
Lee was in, or at least his son Lee-young was.
The game was set 20 years after the original, but the challenge was the same – floor a bunch of larger-than-life foes. However the sprites and backgrounds were improved, thanks to the use of a 32K cart, and there were a couple of noteworthy additions. The first was that before you fought each enemy, you had to progress through three screens of flying ninja kids – Konami product manager Luther De Gale preferred to use much more crass and offensive language to refer to them at the time, but we won’t repeat it here. To be fair, this was an absurd game. For instance your third opponent, Po Chin, tried to fart you to death.
The other addition was something that was absent from both the arcade and MSX versions – a
player-versus-player mode. P1 used Lee-young while P2 could choose from three opponents – Yen-pei, Lan-fang or Po-chin. While poorly balanced, this mode was a fun addition, and in allowing players to select Lan-fang it became the first fighter to feature a playable female character. The sequel was well received at the time. MSX Computing magazine awarded it full marks for graphics, sound and value, commenting: “Bouncing [dwarfs], masked men and deadly women wielding fans – it’s all happening. Konami makes great arcade games and this program is faultless. What more can we say?”
Having scored a sizable hit with the original, Ocean grabbed the rights to the sequel for its Imagine label. “The sequel was quite similar to the first game, with updated graphics and enemies,” says Peter Johnson, who returned to handle the BBC Micro and Electron versions. “I was able to reuse a lot from the first conversion. There were some slightly different challenges in fitting things into memory, but it certainly wasn’t a case of starting from scratch. For reference Ocean supplied me with a Sony Hitbit MSX computer. I probably still have it in the loft somewhere, along with the original cartridge.”
none of the conversions were knockouts, but the C64 version was the most polished thanks to the soundtrack by Martin Galway and the sprite work by Andrew Sleigh. “It was my first completed C64 game for Ocean, having joined earlier in the year,” says Andrew, who worked alongside coder Allan Short. “I had initially started to work on Short
Circuit but moved to this game having previously only crated graphics for the Spectrum. I had to learn a whole new set of techniques in a short time but I was pleased with the results.” He also reveals how Po-chin’s gas attack was purged from the conversions. “I remember that in the original version Po-chin attacked with ‘gas’ clouds from his rear, but it was deemed that he should be flipped around so that fire came out of his mouth!”
Despite being the official sequel, Ocean’s conversion attracted some unexpected competition from a brazen challenger. Rival Brit publisher The Edge licensed Konami’s arcade
beat-‘em-up Shao-lin’s Road and advertised it as “The smash hit follow-up to Yie Ar Kung-fu”. Now Shao-lin’s Road technically was a follow-up, in that it came after Yie Ar Kung-fu in the arcades, but The Edge was clearly implying that it was a proper sequel. It even changed the name of the main character to Lee! Sensing the confusion, Crash magazine reviewed both Spectrum conversions side by side in its February 1987 issue and settled the matter, critically at least, awarding Shao-lin’s Road 67% and Yie Ar Kung-fu II 48%. Impostor Lee won this particular battle.
Oolong, Lee or Lee-young never appeared in another fighting game. In 1993, at the height of Street Fighter II mania, Konami developed a fighter with the project name Yie Ar Kung-fu 2 but it was released as Martial Champion with no connection to the previous games – although the fighter Jin clearly resembled an older Lee.
Instead, the series has been kept alive through a series of ports produced for retro compilations. The original coin-op has been included on Konami Arcade Classics, Konami Collector’s Series, Oretachi Gesen Zoku, Konami Arcade Classics
and Microsoft’s Game Room. Both MSX games were included on the Konami Antiques MSX
Collection while the NES version appeared as part of the Konami GB Collection, and was included in the Japanese line-up of the NES Mini system. The coin-op was also resurrected as an Xbox Live Arcade title in 2007, sporting enhanced graphics and perfunctory online features.
Of all these ports the most interesting by far is the GBA one. This otherwise faithful port can be extended by entering the Konami code at the title screen. Then, when you defeat Blues, you’re whisked off to a bamboo forest where you face two new fighters – knife-flinging temptress Bishoo and lofty warrior Clayman. Even better, the game supports versus play via the link cable and players can select any of the game’s 14 fighters. For years, fans wondered whether it was possible to hack the game so that the enemy fighters were playable, and then in 2002 Konami released a port that finally made it possible. And no one can criticise Konami for incorporating a fighting game staple, as with Yie Ar Kung-fu it laid the cornerstone on which the genre was built.
There were some slightly different challenges in fitting things into memory Peter Johnson