My time at university got off to a slow start. Or maybe I was just the model student… For a few weeks at least! Actually, I was a rubbish “student” for a while – never been great at new people, especially hundreds of them all at once, no matter how much I’ve learnt to disguise it since. I made an effort though – the Science Fiction Film Club, for example, where I remember watching Young Frankenstein in the most stale old lecture theatre you can imagine – I think it’s where we also did mechanics, the most stale old subject, to give you a bit of stale old flavour! That one wasn’t bad though, and I’d make admittedly increasingly infrequent visits through the whole of my first year.

Wednesday afternoons were free for sport and the like, so I joined a shooting club. That involved an awful lot of waiting around for your very brief turn, but it all happened in some kind of old World War II military hut, which I actually found far more fascinating than shooting paper targets. As a completely non-gaming aside, you can read more about my latest fascination in that area – involving two surviving local bomb shelters – here! Anyway, that lasted two weeks, and Wednesday afternoons of sport were replaced with trips into Hatfield’s town centre, which was about as close to being part of Resident Evil as you could ever wish for, though there was a cool little independent record shop there, where I picked up what is about the only ever cassette single I ever bought, Shame on You by Gun (who were also my second ever gig a year or so previously)! We weren’t too far from London either, so now and then I’d get a train down there to go and look at some big record shops, but money was always a struggle so that was a rare treat! I do recall buying Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’s first album on one of those trips though!

Apart from the sci-fi nerd-out one night a week, the only other thing I did of an evening was Role-Playing Club on Mondays. Or Monday, to be precise… I’ve no idea what I was thinking, but I came away with a character sheet I’d rolled for some space adventure game that was dressed like a bald Vampirella with a Hitler moustache but even bigger knockers, and I never went back; or they never allowed me back – one or the other! That left me with my Goodmans Quadro 905 mini black and white TV / radio / cassette combination, that I discovered could pick up Sky’s early movie and sports channels in a very fuzzy way if I tuned in using the FM dial, and writing up university notes or doing whatever you call homework there, with the help of ridiculously expensive text books that you had no choice about buying! Speaking of books, I was a massive reader at this point, and as well as the engineering books I’d borrow from the massive university library, I’d also lap up loads of philosophy and poetry books that were there for people not doing engineering degrees! That’s when I started writing lyrics and poetry too, ably assisted by a non-stop soundtrack of The Doors, and those seeds would develop alongside a very different person over the next three years and beyond, but that’s another story!

Before that, we’re talking around three months before I’d hook up with a group of friends that gradually became inseparable until we were separated by work placements abroad in our third year, and that being some of them’s final year. Before the end of that first term, we were all starting to look like proper students too, hanging out in the Student Union bars a couple of times a week, and in someone’s room watching videos from the rental shop next to the chip shop next to the off license just across from one of the guy’s hall of residence on the others! By the second year, we’d levelled up, and a couple of the guys were now studying on other campuses or had moved out of town, meaning trips to exotic pubs in St Alban’s or Hertford. That also meant more dodgy old cars around too, so it wasn’t uncommmon to be pushing someone’s Mini half a mile down the road and onto a roundabout, for example, before removing the wheels, rolling them back, piling them up outside his room, knocking on the door and running away! He didn’t speak to us for weeks! And this was all sewing more seeds for the utter debauchery of our final year and a whole new group of friends from my course and a whole new range of “interests” that would link up with that writing I was getting good at by this point and take me to all kinds of places not long after I left, but that’s still that other story!

When I started this, I wasn’t planning on a recap of my sub-Young Ones-esque existence at university, but there was a point! When I covered Hydra, after finally working out what it was called after years of trying, I talked about one of the aforementioned Student Union bars at the University of Hertfordshire – the smaller of the two, the Mandela (obviously) Bar, where I think the arcade machine was located. One mystery solved, and in doing so I also think it led me to solving another… Where was the Pit-Fighter arcade machine I’d either be playing or watching other people playing around the same time? And my best guess is that it was also there, either with that Hydra machine or replacing it when the time came. It’s all very hazy now though, but given the timings and my very limited exposure to arcade machines around that time, it’s as good as it’s getting! One thing’s for certain though – I wasn’t the only person watching, because whatever anyone says about Pit-Fighter now, back in the very early nineties, that arcade machine was an absolute showstopper!

Thinking about it, I had a lucky escape with Pit-Fighter, because it wasn’t often that I played an arcade machine before a home conversion, and if I’d done things that normal way around I almost definitely wouldn’t be writing about it now! That said, those arcade screenshots from Computer & Video Games magazine will forever be imprinted in my mind, and it would probably only have been a matter of time and one of those Midway compilations on PlayStation 3 would have changed my mind! We’ll come back to ports later though (if we must!), though as I write this, apart from a quick go on the Sega Master System version, I don’t think I’ve ever played any of Pit-Fighter’s conversions, so we can discover those together!

Back with the arcade original, Pit-Fighter is a pseudo-3D fighting (we’ll come back to that too!) game by Atari Games, published by Konami in Japan in 1990, and it uses digitised moves captured from actual live actors. And that alone was utterly, utterly jaw-dropping at the time! It wasn’t quite the first game to do that though, or even the first fighting game to do it, and in finding out about what was, I’ve discovered a whole new world!

The first game to use digitised sprites was called Reikai Doushi: Chinese Exorcist. It was another fighting game, launched into the arcades in Japan by Home Data in 1988, and was also the first game to use claymation. It kind of looks like Viewtiful Joe meets Morph, with your fighting monk taking down ghosts from Chinese folklore in one-on-one round-based battles. No idea if it’s any good or not, and as someone that owns a dozen copies of a dozen different Street Fighters that I’ve still never played any of, if I’m desperate for a new fighting game I’ll probably start with one of those first! Anyway, while I was looking into it, I came across a brief piece that Giant Bomb had done on it, where they mentioned that it was “made by a company known better for erotic mahjong arcade games.” And this mind boggled, so off down the rabbit hole I went!

I think I know what mahjong is even though I don’t really – some sort of strategic tile placing game where you take one and discard another to create matching sets. Or something. I’ve really never been less interested in a game! Stick the world “erotic” in front of anything and it’s worth a look though, so I’m going to let the author of the first erotic mahjong game I came across care of Google, entitled Erotic Mahjong, no less, explain all… “The new game Erotic Mahjong combines two genres: mahjong style and adult content. Perfect mix for attentive self-confident people who like take advantage from any moment of their life. Here you will meet traditional mahjong in a perfect graphics and erotic pictures of sexy ladies in different frank poses. Cleaning the field from the tiles you will able easily see all intimate parts of beautiful female body: c*nt and breast…”

Beautiful indeed, even if I did need to censor it slightly for family audiences! From what I can tell, its regular mahjong tiles on top of a picture of a naked woman, and works a lot like one of those Big D peanuts displays that I don’t suppose are allowed behind the bar in pubs anymore! Not quite enough to convert me, but you should see the other “Japanese” games on this site! There’s Officer Juggs: A Single Wish; also Vacuum Massage Part 3; and Abduction Night Striptease; or my personal favourite, Ass Effect, featuring “Strong dick Shepherd” blowing off steam at a sex party after a long expedition! And that’s just what was recommended on the Erotic Mahjong page! But you’re here for Pit-Fighter, so let’s head back to 1990 and that arcade game!

Despite appearances and decades of unfair comparisons, Pit-Fighter isn’t a fighting game. It’s a beat ’em up, and given the limited scrolling nature of the “pit” you’re fighting in, owes more to Renegade than the likes of Double Dragon or Streets of Rage. And while most of the fighting here is one-on-one, assuming you’re playing solo, it’s definitely not a fighter like other well-known games with the word “Fighter” in the title, although there’s definitely influences on the likes of Mortal Kombat to be seen here! It’s worth mentioning that the arcade machine could handle up to three players though, which would introduce more enemies into the mix and more of a co-op feel like those other beat ’em ups we just mentioned, although I only ever remember playing two-player at the most – my memories of playing this arcade game might be a bit hazy, but I do seem to remember it was shoved in a very cramped area, so that might be why!

The gameplay goes like this – you choose from either Buzz, a beefy ex-wrestler; Ty, a kickboxing champion; or Kato, a master of the martial arts, and then enter a series of fifteen no-holds barred fights on your way to winning an unspecified pit-fighting championship. On the way, you’ll face the like of Executioner, Mad Miles and Chainman Eddie before a final championship match against the mysterious Masked Warrior. And they all look like they’ve just left an S&M club!

You’ve got punch, kick and jump buttons, and a super move by pressing them all down at once… Reminds me of a guy who came into school one day and said he’d pressed all of the buttons on the TV down at once. We asked him what happened, and he said his dad hit him with a spade! Anyway, depending on how and where you deploy them, each of the three fighters will then lay the smack down based on their own individual fighting style.

Buzz is all about power – a kind of Tom Brady meets Brutus the Barber Beefcake for anyone into American sports! He’s going to give you body slams, headbutts and piledrivers, and while he’s not the most effective of the available characters, he’s definitely the most fun! The most effective would be kickboxing champion Ty, with agility combined with his repetoire of spin kicks, flying kicks and roundhouse kicks. He’s also, without doubt, based on Jean Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport, right down to that splits move he does! Finally, there’s Kato, with his 3rd degree black belt, lighting speed and variety of moves, from combo punch to flip kick to a meaty backhand. Kato is a bit rubbish though! As an example of why, his special doesn’t guarantee a knockdown, but after he’s done it he does this bow which leaves him wide open to a free beating!

There’s also environmental violence at hand, with barrels just waiting to be dropped on someone’s head, and members of the audience ready to get involved to lend a fist or a knife if you get up close; actually, where there’s multiple opponents you’ll find them not averse to having a go at each other too! You also find bamboo canes, crates, beer kegs and the occasional power pill which literally turns you into the hulk – you get bigger, you get stronger and you even turn a bit green!

Wipe out your opponent’s energy and you’ll move on to the next match, with each player awarded a knockout bonus, a brutality bonus for hitting your opponent while he or she is down, and a fight purse. Every three matches is a last-man standing grudge match where you need to floor your opponent three times. If you’re playing solo you’ll fight a computer-controlled clone of yourself, but in co-op all of that co-operation is going out of the window for a multiplayer scrap! Same if you get to the championship match where there can be only one, so it’s another elimination match to decide who fights the Masked Warrior for the championship.

As we established a while ago, this is a beat ’em up and not a fighter, so the secret to success here is space management over fancy move execution. Treat it like some kind of Streets of Rage boss rush, learning your opponent’s patterns and where to stand to avoid them and get a few strikes in of your own! Combine that with a bit of time spent on learning the pros and cons of your characters (especially the quick-fire pros of Ty) and it’s not a massively difficult game if you stay on your toes. Picking it up is easy too, with the limited moveset offering immediate reward for anyone that can wield an arcade stick and a couple of buttons. It did the beat ’em up thing it set out to do pretty well, even if not everyone has realised it yet!

When visuals are this ground-breaking and the gameplay relatively simplistic, there is absolutely a case to be made for all fur coat and no knickers here! It’s a really warm fur coat though, made out of something really exotic like raccoons, and no one is going to have a go at you for wearing it. Or not wearing knickers. The fighters, your opponents and the huge crowd around each fight are real people. Their muscles, their hair and their bondage gear is all real too! There is a lot of repetition in the audience, but there’s nice variety all the same, with fat old guys in vests and braces that look a bit like Uncle Jesse from The Dukes of Hazzard, and fat old guys with no shirts on like you see watching a Newcastle football match. If you’re not into fat old guys, there’s a fella in denim that looks like the fella with the big seventies hair in Fleetwood Mac, or the kind of girl with similar big seventies hair that you’d see standing next to Jimmy Saville in those episodes of Top of the Pops that the BBC pretends never existed anymore!

The only downside to this realism is the contemporary limitation on animating it – each character, whether playable or not, only has a few frames of animation associated with it, and while that snazzy fur coat did cover this up a bit at the time, when you’re Buzz picking up Angel, the leather lady, for a body slam, his arm will be horizontal then diagonal then vertical but nowhere near touching her body, even as he lifts her, so you get this stunted and literally disembodied movement from him, while she goes from standing to flying through the air in the literal blink of an eye! That’s about the worst of it though – less dramatic moves, like dropping a knee on her face while she’s on the floor, for example, work pretty seamlessly, and there’s a definite charm to the binary up-down headbanging headband dude in the crowd!

The various “pits” you’ll be making your way through are not digitised, which on paper might also seem a bit jarring, but in the main it works fine. It works best in areas where the detail is relegated to the background, like in the empty tower block with the night-time city skyline outside the windows, but you’re better off not studying some areas too closely, like the parking lots with not especially well-drawn cars littered about the foreground, or subway stations with fairly basic trains coming and going in the background. Nothing offensive mind, but focussing your attention on those lovely sprites was always the safest best with Pit-Fighter!

If you imagine Steven Seagal playing an ex-Navy Seal chef who’s trying to sneak into Mr Big’s evil underground lair, the background music that’s playing there is also most of the in-game music here! It kind of reminds me of Road Rash on the Mega Drive in its delivery too. It’s all a bit generic though, and you’re certainly not going to be humming it to yourself when you’re done; you’d be doing well to even remember any of it! Sound effects are straight out of a classic martial arts movie though, even if they are all a bit samey!

Pit-Fighter did alright for Atari, particularly in North America, so home ports were inevitable, and given its timing, so was being converted to everything, from Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum to Amiga and Atari ST, plus Sega Master System then Mega Drive / Genesis, SNES and MS-DOS, Game Boy and Atari Lynx. Collectively they’ve always been given a massive bum rap, but as promised, as I’ve only ever briefly dabbled with one of them, let’s have a look at them together here…

I’m going to start with the Spectrum version, not just because I owned one, but because I’ll never forget the time the garish screenshots that burned themselves into my retinas in the Sinclair User review that started with something like “this isn’t a computer game” and ended with “pile of rubbish!” I can’t really argue; it looks terrible, the scrolling is headache-inducing, and it’s mostly unplayable. You have to admire its ambition, but as bad as it is, the C64 version benefits from having none, and just going for a simple, typically blocky graphical approach backed by some nice music; it’s as good as it was ever going to be on an 8-bit machine! In which case, maybe the Amstrad version would have been better off using that one as a template rather than making the Spectrum version even worse, which is some going!

The Amiga and ST versions seem alright – graphically they’re not far off of arcade perfect, with just the controls veering from being overly finicky in some situations to not caring where you’re punching to register a hit in others. Nothing wrong here though, and as I’ve been writing this I found out that you can pick up the ST version for around a fiver, so I did and can confirm it was money well spent, if for nothing more than for the biggest game box I’ve ever owned, which, at 23x18cm is big even by that system’s big standards!

I’ve got a soft spot for the Master System version – it’s what the Amstrad version could have been! A cleaner take on those C64 graphics, near-enough gameplay and better music than the arcade version! The Mega Drive port is a real winner though. Everything’s a bit scaled down, but it plays a great game of Pit-Fighter; probably the best so far! Definitely better than its SNES counterpart, with small, jerky characters dumped on horrible backgrounds that they clearly don’t want to be a part of, though in its defence it doesn’t play too bad. The MS-DOS port is terrible though – the fighters almost gave me motion sickness, and it plays like a dog! Moving onto handheld, the Game Boy version is very impressive! Okay, it’s monochrome (take note, Spectrum version!), but it’s nicely animated and is a lot of fun to play. Finally, over on Atari Lynx, I don’t think I’d have been disappointed if my brother had bought it for his, but it’s all a bit murky and a bit too quick for its own good. Overall, I think collectively they’ve all been tarred with the same brush – that of their lowest common denominator, of which there are, unfortunately, multiple choices! You’d be happy with either of the Sega versions if you owned those machines though, and same for the Game Boy, and I’m definitely not disappointed with my new proper ST version!

There was supposed to be a Pit Fighter 2, introducing three more playable characters, but it never materialised. The closest we ever got was 1992 Atari side-scrolling beat ’em up Guardians of the ‘Hood, which used similar digitised sprites, with three new playable characters lifted straight from that canned sequel, as well as the sprite-scaling 3D effect that was still all the rage back then. I’m not sure that the premise of taking on gangs across various locales was that bold a step for the genre at this point, but it did give you some magical Street Fighter-esque special moves to launch at your opponents, and when you beat a certain gang their leader would then join you. Like its spiritual predecessor, it looks nice, but unlike it (in my humble opinion!), it didn’t really set the world alight though.

I’ve always defended Pit-Fighter – much like Out Run on the ZX Spectrum, the opposite of rose-tinted spectacles often seems to be applied here, mainly down to not understanding its true nature, but probably also clouded by the wider experience of a lot of not very good home conversions. While their animation might appear a little primitive by modern standards, those digitised sprites were nothing less than staggering at the time, creating a level of cinematography that we’d never seen in a “fighting” game before. There was always a mesmerised crowd standing around a Pit-Fighter arcade machine! It’s still loads of simple, carefree fun to jump into today too, maybe not up there with the timeless fluidity of Streets of Rage 2 as a genre showpiece, but in mixing up co-op and competitive multiplayer, as well as the accessible controls that quickly have you breathing life into actual human fighters, almost anyone can get something out of playing it. And at the very least, you’ll have a better time here than with a game of mahjong, erotic or otherwise!