The mid-eighties video rental experience offered endless possibilities for the martial arts-obsessed teenager; you might have rented them a dozen times, but there was still a whole world beyond Enter the Dragon and Way of the Dragon that didn’t stop with other Bruce Lee films, or even those of the Bruceploitation greats like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lie, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai, Brute Lee and, of course, Lee Bruce! The works of Jackie Chan were the natural progression, with stuff like Drunken Master, Police Story, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or Brazil-based food-truck vigilante classic Wheels on Meals easy selections from the bulging martial arts video shelves. We’re just pre-Seagal and Van Damme here, so Chuck Norris was the big western alternative with the likes of The Octagon, Code of Silence and An Eye For An Eye, featuring loads of signature roundhouse kicks and Christopher Lee as his drug-baron nemesis.
Outside of these heavyweights we had more niche stuff like New York- based The Last Dragon, with its classic Shogun of Harlem bad guy, or Five Deadly Venoms, where different fighting styles are represented by five different animal masks, each with its own deadly venom – you had Lizard, Centipede, Scorpion, Snake and, er, Toad! Crippled Avengers offers a similar concept, but with the fighters having a unique disability rather than a fancy mask! There was also a ton of more generic warring faction (or more likely warring kung-fu school) stuff like Martial Club, Opium and the Kung-Fu Master, Shaolin Temple or The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter – you really could start watching these now and never run out!
And I’m almost forgetting all that ninja goodness we loved so much in the eighties too! American Ninja is maybe the pinnacle of the genre (closely followed by its four sequels!), but there was an endless supply of these as well – Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja in the Dragon’s Den, Pray for Death, Nine Deaths of the Ninja, Ninja Terminator and The Ninja Strikes Back, which brings us full circle to Bruce Lee… No, hang on, it was Bruce Le, which has also taken me right back to that very easy early-teenage beginner mistake of picking up something you thought was a Bruce Lee film you hadn’t seen yet!
We’d always be watching these things, whether at home or in our slightly older next-door neighbours’ house, who were members of the other video rental shop in Bedford, which was a bit further away but had an even bigger selection of martial arts movies! Being a bit older also meant that when we were all at the local leisure centre after kung-fu or a Saturday morning roller disco or whatever was on, they’d also get first go (or most goes because they had more money) on whatever the current selection of two arcade machines was in the refreshments area where the drink and snack machines were; at least my brother and me could enjoy a Dr Pepper in the only place you could get it at the time while we watched!
In this very limited experience of arcade games, I often wonder if my favourites are favourites because they’re actually any good, or if they were just there and made a lasting impression because they were better than anything I’d ever have at home! Looking at my big list of all-time favourite games, and the top 25 specifically, there’s not a lot on offer from the arcades, but from what is there, I doubt that many would argue with Star Wars, 1942 and Out Run being subjective top likes, but then as we approach my top ten we have Elevator Action, and finally, right inside my top five, we have Shao-Lin’s Road… and I’m sure that many haven’t even heard of them, let alone ever put them in any kind of best-of arcade list!
But back in our local leisure centre in our 1985 and 1986 heyday, those two sat side by side after Shao-Lin’s Road replaced Kung-Fu Master in the very slow, very infrequent machine rotation that – apart from fun fairs twice a year – dictated my exposure to that golden age of arcade games. And coming back to my previous point, I still play and absolutely love both the arcade and ZX Spectrum versions of both as much as other all-time favourites like arcade Out Run or Spectrum Renegade or Atari ST Supersprint, for example, so it’s not all rose-tinted. And yes, these non-arcade versions of Renegade and Supersprint are stories for another time, but as a point of interest, exclusively ports and not originals of Gauntlet, Enduro Racer and Commando also feature in my top 25!
Whilst we’ve established that I might not have been that well informed on arcade games in the mid-eighties, there certainly wasn’t much I didn’t know about Bruce Lee, Brute Lee, nunchuks and ninjas! And after our first taste of the union between the two media with Kung-Fu Master’s hero-versus-many rhythmic scrapping that we knew so well from our beloved movie rentals, when Shao-Lin’s Road came along there at some time in 1986, it added a whole new vertical dimension to that against the odds brawling, and I can still picture watching over my neighbour’s shoulder as he played it for the first time and just being blown away!
Something I did know around this time was Yie Ar Kung Fu, mainly from the very distinctive advert for the home computer versions with its own take on Bruceploitation, as well as those really distinctive characters in Commodore 64 promo screenshots, with all those chains and poles and absolutely groundbreaking variety in what was still the very early days of one-on-one fighting games. And when the home conversions of Shao-Lin’s Road appeared on the horizon, it got even more cool points with me because it turned out that all this time it was actually a follow-up to Yie Ar Kung Fu. Or at least that’s what the adverts said, because in the very same issue of Computer & Video Games magazine at the end of 1986, there was another advert for something called Yie Ar Kung Fu II, which was surely a more likely follow up, right? It was definitely adamant it was, highlighting it was officially endorsed by Konami and it was a sequel not a follow-up!
Actually, I was so excited about home ports of Shao-Lin’s Road that I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but it turns our that while Ocean had been sorting out the licence to the official sequel, competing publisher The Edge had done the same for Shao-Lin’s Road, and decided to advertise it as “The smash hit follow-up to Yie Ar Kung-Fu.” Taken literally, you might argue that was not incorrect because it’s also by Konami and it did come out a year or so after Yie Ar Kung-Fu in the arcades, in April 1985, so technically it was following it up, but it’s a pretty outrageous thing to do all the same! Even more outrageous was when reviews for both started appearing in early 1987 and Road was outscoring Fu II, albeit generally as signficantly less average rather than anything outstanding in its own right! It had a couple of 8/10 reviews though, and I remember Your Sinclair liking it a lot, as well as being quite sure it was the sequel to Yie Ar Kung-Fu! All that said, I’m not 100% sure how much Ocean’s official sequel is a real official sequel either, or where the planned Konami sequel that ended up being Martial Champion fits in, but we’ve spent far longer on a possibly unrelated game than I planned to here already, so we’re moving on!
Anyway, we were going to talk about this home version advert because this is our first hint at what’s going on in the arcade game we’ve been playing all this time! And it starts with another allusion to it’s follow-up status… “Our hero has finally mastered the secret martial art “CHIN’S SHAO-LIN” but is trapped by triad gangs. With kicks and other secret powers, escape from and travel SHAO-LIN’S road to freedom!” Not sure about Yie Ar Kung-Fu, but that’s definitely along the lines of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow or something!
When we finally get our mitts on the home versions, the cassette inlay goes even further… “As our Hero Lee you have finally mastered the secret martial art, “Chin’s Shao-Lin”. You find yourself trapped in the temple by hoards of Triads. Using your kicking skills and magic powers you must fight off the Triads and get out of the temple and head for the road to freedom. At each step on your way on your road to freedom you will encounter more and more of the Triads, and at each stage you will discover one that is particularly skilful! Look out for flying kicks, breathing flame, and punches that come clear out of nowhere!”
And there we were thinking we just had a great arcade game on our hands! Unlike its predecessor – one way or another – Yie Ar Kung-Fu, which is a pure fighter, Shaolin’s Road is more arcade platformer, where you’re working your way through five multi-tiered environments packed with goons to kick and magic away, and once you’ve done that the level restarts with more goons and the aforementioned particularly skilful boss characters; get rid of them all and you move on to the next level. Beat the last one and you’ll start all over again, but with even more particularly skilful characters on top of even more goons – some of which now throw knives or throwing stars or themselves – from the outset, as well as birds dropping eggs of death onto you! Some of the goons (you’ll know them by their trousers) release power ups after a good kicking which you have to quickly catch to get one of your magic powers. The first is a spikey ball that you can kick to knock over any enemies on your level of the level, and you can even catch and do this jumping super move with if you time things right. Next is a fireball that shoots out of both sides, but only seems to work on enemies a fair distance away. Last is a ball of energy or the like that spins around you, taking out enemies as it passes by on its rotation. The boss characters are nicely varied, with demonic looking things that breathe fire, some Yie Ar Kung-Fu style weapon wielders, an angelic looking lady with a lethal flying kick and just some big, bad dudes, but here’s an expert tip – just anticipate them going up and down, kick them, then go up or down! Patience is king in Shao-Lin’s Road!
Apart from one or two expert moves with power-ups that are completely superfluous to beating all the levels, the gameplay is simplicity itself, with you jumping up and down levels and kicking your way through loads of enemies. Jump. Attack. Nothing fancy! There is a bit of strategy needed in the boss characters, and in timing your up and down movements to avoid taking unecessary damage if you want to go far, but you’re going to be on the second level and feeling like Bruce Thai in one or two goes! Most of this happens on a single screen, but at each end you’ll get a very short side-scroll that extends the play area a bit, and within each stage’s three platform levels you’ll also get some gaps in the floor or roofs to jump between to add a bit more danger, with a fantastic slapstick animation if you get too close to an edge! Clearing a level of enemies gives a slightly more rewarding animation though, with a strongman pose and the word “GUTS” captioned about your little guy Lee, who’s got three lives, and three hits are allowed per life per level.
The action starts in a temple with an impressive looking big golden Buddha statue dominating an otherwise sparsely decorated opening scene. It does highlight all the onscreen characters though – big, detailed and full of personality, and their dress-sense really pops against the dominant blacks on this level; they really move at pace too. It’s also a good place to appreciate the bouncy, if slightly stereotypical oriental theme tune, which gets more frantic as the action hots up, with an ominous bass-line warning of impending doom! Sound effects are really meaty as well – you feel like those kicks are connecting! Stage two is where the graphics really come into their own, with you outside the temple (I guess) and everything is bold and bright and really nicely detailed against a rich blue sky; it would all look great in a big SNES JRPG! Stage three sees you at what is probably the grand entrance to the temple grounds, similar in style to stage two. Stage four has you outside a long, lower building with some huge bonsai-like trees behind it providing the third layer of verticality this time, and a bit of variety to the impressive but similarly styled array of traditional Japanese architecture elsewhere. Even more variety in the final stage as you make your way through some kind of desert canyon, with the temple far behind you in the background. Really nice looking stage – especially on the Spectrum…
Apart from being the most hit or miss game to load I ever (legitimately) owned on the Spectrum, it was a superb conversion, and whilst the arcade version might have been the one that always stuck with me, the Spectrum is certainly where I spent the most time. They absolutely nailed the easy to play, hard to master, utterly addictive feel of the original, though I think it gets harder quicker before it evens out a bit in the later levels. There’s also a bit less of the enemies moving up and down to get some vertical advantage, but there is an awful lot more bonus items (vases, possibly pizzas…) flying about here to kick for extra points, which does add a risk-reward element and some high-score longevity once you’re finding yourself good enough to be going around all the levels.
The characters are a bit less varied and a bit less cartoon-like than the original, and, of course, the colours have been toned down a bit, with a lot of use of different types of monochrome with just the odd (really welcome!) colourful flourish in the background, but in the main it looks just like the arcade version. The third level does go a bit more wild, with the resulting black characters feeling a bit like you’re playing in negative, but otherwise they’re nicely detailed, full of personality and everything moves smoothly enough, apart from a little jerkiness when it scrolls, but nothing especially jarring. Just don’t spend too much time analysing the flying kick – I think his leg is shrinking a bit when he does it, and who knows why doing one forces you down a floor! It sounds alright too, with a great rendition of the arcade theme playing on the title screen and a good scattering of pleasingly inoffensive sound effects!
It took me a very long time after the fact to find out that the arcade version had been available on the original PlayStation for several decades, as part of the Konami Arcade Classics compilation, together with Yie Ar Kung Fu – which is fine too, but not a patch on its sequel! And that’s where I generally play it now, before jumping over to the Spectrum version just to see if I can finally decide which one is really the one that makes it number five in my all-time favourite games list. But it’s always both! Simple, addictive and just like being in an eighties martial arts movie!