“All your base are belong to us.” That’s probably the most famous line of Engrish on the internet, but that may soon change as Karate Master 2: Knock Down Blow is chock full of poorly translated gold. Upon starting the game, the first thing you are treated to is a Japanese announcer incomprehensibly shouting the title. At first I thought the game was a loving homage to 90’s Japanese fighting games. After playing the game, I’ve come to realize that no, they weren’t kidding. I’d never heard of Criansoft before so I did a little research to confirm I wasn’t missing the joke.
Another game by them is called Age of Barbarian and it’s exactly that subtle. Barbarian features downright ugly renditions of typical He-Men and chainmail bikini clad vixens. Age of Barbarian is flat out hideous and its concepts are blunter than a Warhammer. It looks like a fake game you would see on a bad TV show: the detectives from one of the many Law and Order incarnations would discover a perverted suspect playing it (because all gamers are socially inept fringe misogynistic virgins for whom Mountain Dew and Cheetos are dietary stables). But Age of Barbarian is very real.
So is Karate Master 2.
The awfulness starts from the first screen in Knock Down Blow. The menus and navigation are clunky, look cheap, and are poorly designed (it’s pretty easy to quit by accident in game). The cursor is supposed to look like a balled up fist but it just looks like a disembodied hand with tumors in the knuckles. You get four save slots, arranged horizontally. Why four I don’t know. Then you get to the story: our hero has decided he wants to quit his job at the local wharf (which is not only playable but a core part of the game) and become the titular karate master. Our hero’s sensei imparts on to him some invaluable advice: “The Karate begins wearing a black belt, remember you are only a noob.”
That’s a good tip for all of us.
The cutscene ends and there’s an unwieldy dedication to all students of karate around the world. You then get the Dojo Kun, a set of principles for the would be karate master which is just the standard fluff about how karate is really about mastering one’s self and not about being becoming awesome at asskicking. Dojo Kun is but one of many things the developers decided not to translate so a lot of the time you have to just click on something and figure out what it is for yourself. That, or learn Japanese. The half of the game that’s in English isn’t much better: on the stats screen is the word “Strenght”.
Karate Master 2: Knock Down Blow is divided into three sections: minigames to improve your stats and money, an overworld event selection, and the fights themselves. Minigames run the gamut from withstanding a waterfall by mashing buttons to breaking a column of concrete blocks by mashing buttons. These minigames are more strenuous and exhausting than actually doing karate. Some of them go on for two minutes and you cannot let up or get lazy or you will fail. I ended up holding the controller in a kind of spider grip in order push all four, yes, all four face buttons as many times as I could. It’s insane. My hand felt like I’d been punching wood blocks all day. That’s what I call immersion.
To compete in a fight, you require money and fame points. Getting money is a cinch – just go work at the wharf as a forklift driver, scoop up boxes or barrels and dump them in a truck. I kept expecting it to want me to carefully place them in the truck or only scoop some of the boxes or have some semblance of depth. Nope. You get one money (not dollars or yen, money) for each thing that gets in the truck, no matter how roughly. The physics are really wonky here and everything feels way, way too floaty. It doesn’t take long to master forklifting and you can do it as many times as you want. At the end of sixty seconds the announcer will shout “YA-ME!” and you’d better get used to this because every activity in the game ends with it. This makes sense in a match but at the end of your shift? Karate Man, our hero, also looks ridiculous driving the forklift and haphazardly chucking stuff into the back of a truck while making four money per chuck.
I hope there’s nothing, you know, valuable in all those boxes and barrels.
A time system might’ve been interesting here, having to balance your time between work, training, and fighting. Maybe losing a fight could cost you a lengthy and expensive hospital stay. Maybe if you spend too much time working it compromises your fighting ability, and too much time fighting it compromises your job.
No such complexity exists in Karate Master 2. Forklift boxes to your heart’s (and wallet’s) content, then go fight, then go train. Rinse and repeat.
Training points are awarded by winning fights. Training is hard for all the wrong reasons. Unlike your job you only get one shot per event. Do well and you will be rewarded a lot of XP. Mess up and you’ll just waste a point. Untranslated Japanese and unintuitive objectives make it so that you’re liable to be completely in the dark your first time doing an event. Sometimes the game changes it up by making you time a button press, then start mashing, and other times you just have to mash. One particular exercise involves punching the trainer’s gloves and he shouts what move to do. One problem: his shouts are in Japanese.
The wildly fluctuating difficulty also applies to the fights themselves. Fights are never won by points, always by K.O. Each fighter gets a green outline of themselves in the corner. As they take damage, a green body part turns yellow, then orange, then red. Get hit too hard or too many times in a red zone and you collapse, losing the fight. Same goes for the other guy. The problem with this system is that it doesn’t encourage mixing up your attack. Why bother going for the face, arms, or legs? Just aim for the chest and mash the night away (you’ll be very good at button mashing by this point). I would do this through the first two fights in a tourney, then slow down and stay out of range while poking their torso with kicks for the final fight. I’ve lost fights by getting hit once in the head and I’ve won them by only pushing one button over and over. The game attempts variety by offering both armored and unarmored fights. Face punches in unarmored matches are supposed to be illegal but I’m honestly unsure if you’re penalized at all for doing so.
The only good thing I have to say about Karate Master 2 is that the characters themselves look fantastic, and the animation is fluid and smooth (cutscenes not withstanding). I get an SNK fighting game vibe from the art if not the actual gameplay. Landing a counter hit (or eating one) has a nice impact to it. I just wish I knew what I did to land one and mashing buttons wasn’t the most effective stratagem. The music is also upbeat and appropriately cheesy. That’s really about everything this game has to offer. The developers at Criansoft seem to have a genuine passion for karate, but this game isn’t doing karate, or anything, any favors.
“So bad it’s good” is a term usually reserved for movies (like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or that great cinema classic Plan 9 from Outer Space) or the occasional song (like Rebecca Black’s “Friday”). Karate Master 2 is a convincing argument that ironic enjoyment can be extended to gaming. Every enemy in a tournament is named Karate-guy. Real karate lessons can be found on the left side of the screen: one is Tai no sen (attack when the opponent attacks) and another is Sen no sen (attack at the exact moment when the opponent attacks). Because, you know, those are different. It would be impossible to list all of the absurdities on display in Karate Master 2: Knock Down Blow but here’s hoping my favorite line of dialogue from the game: “Good Boy, beating everyone up, is good for your body!” becomes the next big meme because I want it on my t-shirt.