I bookmarked China Warrior for this column because of its prominence in the manga Hi-Score Girl. However, while it holds some sentimental value to the main characters, they don’t actually express if the game is good. I will step in: It is not.
While a North American copy of China Warrior would cost me $40 or so (with case and manual), I acquired the Japanese version, The Kung Fu, alongside Genpei Tōma Den and Susanoo Densetsu for roughly the same price because nobody desires The Kung Fu. Okay, that’s not really accurate, it probably has more to do with the fact that it was one of the first titles released for the PC-Engine and, therefore, most likely had a massive print run, so supply greatly exceeds demand.
The North American price mostly relates to the fact that the Turbografx 16, the North American analog to the PC-Engine, crashed and burned in North America, leading to a minimal print run. Maybe. The collector’s market prices are pretty illogical over here.
One thing I can tell you, though, is that it’s not because it’s good.
China Warrior puts you in the shoes of a kung-fu guy named Wang, who stands rigid and upright at all times. Wang must journey to the right side of the screen, punching and kicking his way through rocks, sticks, and non-violent protesters. Three times in a stage, he faces off against someone who can defend themselves and must cheese them to death.
I mentioned this about Zombie Hunter a while back, but China Warrior doesn’t look like a real game. It looks like a ‘90s TV show’s interpretation of a video game; like something you’d see in the earlier seasons of The Simpsons. Wang stands impressively tall, literally as tall as half the screen, and the obstacles you battle against are so laughably ineffective it just doesn’t seem real. It is a spectacle, if nothing else.
Giant sprites of man-beef were a big draw in ‘80s video games. Hardware at the time was rather limited when it came to the size of sprites it rendered, so having big, detailed muscles on screen was something of a flex. It led to some pretty awful experiences like Altered Beast and the “Big Mode” levels in Genpei Tōma Den and Predator. As I mentioned, China Warrior was released close to the launch of the PC Engine in 1987 (it’s actually branded as Vol. 1 on the cover), so the best way to sell the hardware was to show it rendering a massive slab of man-beef.
So, the priorities for the development of China Warrior had “massive shirtless dude” at the top of the list and then nothing below it. Everything that couldn’t flex just occurred because they needed to create a game out of it.
There are four levels in China Warrior, and they all involve punching your way from left to right. The only underlings you run into are these robed cultist dudes who just walk towards you. Their hands are crossed in front of them, so they’re not even trying to attack you or defend themselves. You just kick them aside because Wang is a hammer, and everything looks like a nail to him.
Three times each level, you have to fight a boss. In the first level, it’s Sgt. Slaughter, Sgt. Slaughter, and Sgt. Slaughter with a severe sunburn. These battles become a bit more varied, but by my count, there are only five unique bosses, and one of them is just Wang with different severities of skin damage. But no matter who you’re fighting, it’s mostly just a matter of finding the best way to cheese them.
Sgt. Slaughter, for example, doesn’t do well if you just ram yourself against the left side of the screen and kick him whenever he gets close. The ballerina lady in the second level can’t really defend herself if you just push her to the edge of the screen and punch her to death. The cheesy strategy changes from boss to boss, but there’s always some way to overcome them with a cheap tactic.
Getting through the actual walking part of the levels, however, sometimes comes down to reactions, sometimes relies on memorization, and always requires you to spam your fists. It’s not too difficult to get through a stroll through a level, but if you want enough life left over to cheese the bosses with, it helps to know what’s coming up.
Wang gains more life by kicking what are apparently boxes of oolong tea(?) but look to me like cartons of cigarettes. However, you can also gain extra health by punching very specific projectiles. Sometimes, this is a rogue arrow that zooms by overhead, but other times, it’s one moth in the middle of a line-up of 20 or so. In later levels, it’s important to try and find these and remember their location so you’ll be able to stand up to your opponent’s feeble attempts to overcome your cheap tactics.
This is especially important because China Warrior doesn’t give you all that many lives and no continues. Or so I originally thought. As it turns out, it’s one of those games where you need to know a special input to continue. In this case, it’s holding any direction on the D-pad at the title screen and pressing Run.
Even with that, you’re going to be repeating levels quite a bit. While you’re inevitably going to cheese the bosses because the combat sucks, it will probably take you a few attempts before you figure out the right way to do it. And while it took me a mere hour and a half to get through China Warrior, I quickly wanted to clock out and turn it off. I thought to myself, “Maybe if I was paid hourly, I’d put in the effort to get through this.” Then my dog fell asleep on me, so I was trapped with China Warrior.
By the time he woke up and went off to sleep elsewhere, I was on the last level. I figured, at that point, I’d play until I lost all my lives again, then call it a night. However, the Gods of Completionism heard my despair and chose to prolong my suffering. I managed to somehow finish the game on that continue, at which point, the cave you’re in collapses on Wang as he stands in defiance of death. He manages to survive, at which point it starts up “Act 2,” which is just replaying the game but harder.
I wound up clearing a full two levels of Act 2 on my remaining lives, at which point I finally released myself from my self-imposed torture.
China Warrior is kind of interesting from the fact that it’s prolifically bad. It drew people in with its towering, legally distinct Bruce Lee. If you played it at the time, you’d probably remember it as the most mind-blowing graphics ever depicted on your TV screen. Nowadays, if you know it at all, it’s probably as the game that everyone made fun of when it came out on Wii Virtual Console. Either way, I just hope today we can all look upon Wang and laugh.
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