Over the years, I’ve played as a lot of videogame characters “inspired” by Bruce Lee. Fei Long from Street Fighter, Marshall Law from Tekken, Forest Law from Tekken, Kim Dragon from World Heroes, every time I’ve played a Fist of the North Star game… the list goes on. Well, today that’s going to change - this time I’m actually going to play as the man himself. Originally developed in 1984 for Atari’s 8-bit computers, it’s the Commodore 64 version of Ron Fortier and Datasoft’s Bruce Lee!
Here’s the Little Dragon himself, appearing on the title screen next to his name in both English and Chinese. I have to say, that’s a rather good likeness. If you showed it to me out of context, I’d definitely recognise it as Bruce Lee, so it’s a step above a lot of eighties computer games starring real humans.
I think it says a lot about both Bruce Lee’s fame and level of cultural impact and the fact that his talents are so suitable for a videogame conversion that it feels perfectly acceptable for this game to just be called “Bruce Lee.” Not Bruce Lee: The Computer Game, not Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, not Bruce Lee’s High-Kickin’ Kung Fu Kapers, just Bruce Lee. I can’t think of many other celebrities for whom that would be true.
As the game’s simply called Bruce Lee, you might have guessed that it isn’t based on any specific Bruce Lee movie. So what’s it all about?
Collecting lanterns, mostly. There are six pictured in the screenshot above, they’re the ovoid things hanging from the edge of the platforms. You control Bruce – he’s not wearing a shirt but he is wearing black gloves – and you have to collect lanterns by jumping into them until you’ve collected enough to open up the next screen.
I realise that description has made Bruce Lee sound extremely lame. The thing is, though, it isn’t lame. If you’ll forgive me for leaping ahead to my conclusions, it’s actually a really fun little game, even if gathering up all the nearby light fittings might not be what you’d expect from a game called Bruce Lee. You’d expect kung fu fighting, naturally, and you’ll be pleased to know that there is some of that in the game. Bruce can’t go about his lamp-collecting in peace, and there are a pair of enemies who will appear and reappear endlessly to try and stop him. The first is the ninja, who runs towards Bruce and tries to whack him with his wooden sword. Not to worry, the ninja can be dispatched with a couple of flying kicks to the chest, performed by pressing the fire button while Bruce is running left or right. You can also stand in place and punch, but using the flying kick means you don’t have to be as accurate, and also you’re playing as Bruce Lee for pity’s sake, you should be doing nothing but flying kicks.
The other enemy is the mysterious Green Yamo. He looks a bit like a sumo wrestler and he’s wearing very small black pants, but other than that little is know about Green Yamo. Green Yamo simply is. He’s a much trickier customer than the ninja, mostly because he’s just as adept at flying kicks as Bruce is, so running towards him can end badly.
The ninja and Green Yamo often appear at the same time, doing their darnedest to prevent Bruce from collecting all the lanterns. Bruce can take a few hits before losing a life, but it’s still a bad idea to get trapped between the two villains as they can and will knock you back and forth. They’re especially fond of waiting just below a platform you need to drop down from, so they can whack you while you’re falling and thus defenceless. However, having them next to each other isn’t necessarily a bad thing because, and this is one of the reasons I had so much fun playing Bruce Lee, the enemies can hit each other. It’s extremely satisfying to see the ninja take a swing at you and miss, only for the Green Yamo to clobber him in the back of the head with a flying kick
Bruce has one more move up his sleeve, and because defence is as important as attack he can avoid all incoming strikes by laying face-down on the floor. It does mean that the bad guys can’t hurt you, but it has two major drawbacks: you can't move or attack while you're doing the worm, so your foes will be waiting to slap you about as soon as you stand up. It also makes you look a bit of a tit.
After a few screens on the surface world of pagodas and statues of particularly bulbous oxen, Bruce descends underground and the game undergoes something of a shift in focus. You’re still collecting lanterns and the ninja and Green Yamo still appear sometimes to attack you, but for the most part Bruce Lee eschews the combat in favour of a platforming, trap-avoiding collect-a-thon.
There’s a lot of climbing to be done, too. Many surfaces, like the trellises in the above-ground screens and these moving “conveyor belts” of purple energy can and must be scrambled up to reach those tricky lanterns. Not only is Bruce Lee a martial arts expert and charismatic movie star, but he’d also make a tip-top rock climber, it seems. Well, he’s definitely got the upper body strength for it.
There are also traps littering every screen from here on out, each of which will immediately cost you a life if you touch them. On this screen, for instance, you’ve got the white spikes, which are easily avoiding as long as you’re paying enough attention not to accidentally climb into them, and the rather more dangerous bolts of energy that zip across certain parts of the screen and must be dodged by carefully timing your movements.
Other traps include land-mines that explode a second or so after you run over them – that’s one pictured above, spurting what appears to be a plume of lightning. At the bottom of the screen is something that looks like a particularly lush carpet, but is actually a… well, it’s, you know… it’s a thing. A deadly thing. A conveyor belt that doesn’t move you when you stand on it? Look, I don’t have a word for it. What it is, right, is you see those two white pixels on top of it, over on the left-hand side? Those are deadly to the touch, and they travel horizontally along the top of the shag pile at regular intervals, meaning that Bruce has to perform a series of jumps to clear the danger and get to the other side.
I was a little dubious when I realised Bruce Lee was going to be less about fighting and more of an obstacle course, but I needn’t have worried. There’s still fighting to be done, but more importantly the traps are all fun to negotiate. Apart from the projectiles, where you have to stop and figure out their timing, many of the traps can be defeated by pure speed. Running headlong into them and dodging the dangerous bits with well-timed jumps is both effective and enjoyable, thanks in large part to the game’s excellent controls. They’re smooth, responsive and reliable, especially when you’re jumping, and I don’t think there was ever a time when I pressed fire and Bruce refused to attack, which puts Bruce Lee way above dozens of the other eighties home computer games that I’ve played in terms of pure accessibility. Once or twice I had a problem getting Bruce to let go of something he was climbing on, but aside from that it was smooth sailing all the way.
The traps are also fun because they can also defeat your enemies. Getting the ninja to chase you onto a land mine you’ve just triggered is particularly satisfying, and on top of that it feels like a very Bruce Lee thing to do. Have you ever read his philosophy toward combat? He was all about using whatever was available to defeat your opponents, eschewing the set-in-stone patterns of traditional martial arts as being pointless and limiting in a real fight. Be like water and go for their weak points, that kind of thing. Does your opponent have testicles? Then mash those potatoes until your foe comes to regret that life ever evolved beyond asexual reproduction. I might be paraphrasing there, but what I’m saying is that if Bruce Lee could trick someone into running into a spike, he totally would.
As I scampered and scurried my way through the increasingly murderous maze, it suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea why I was doing so. So I looked up the game’s cassette inlay and apparently Bruce is trying to “penetrate the fortress of the Evil Wizard.” Why? Because defeating the wizard will grant Bruce “infinite wealth and immortality.” Okay, see, I don’t think Bruce Lee was ever that concerned about infinite wealth, and there’s something a touch unnerving about his digital quest for immortality given his tragically early death. On the other hand, vast swathes of the planet still know who Bruce Lee was, so he’s already achieved a certain degree of immortality.
Bruce Lee’s gameplay is a lot of fun, then. Simple, precise, exciting and often rather satisfying. But what about the presentation? On the audio side, there’s not much to talk about. There’s a decent theme tune on the title screen, but no in-game music and only a few sound effects – although the sound effects that are there are good, especially the grunt the Green Yamo makes when he sees you and the noise that plays when collecting a lantern. You’ll have to provide your own Bruce Lee-style combat screams, I’m afraid, and if there was ever a C64 game that would benefit from just a smidgen of digitised speech it’d be this one. Imagine a tinny, distorted cry of “whataaa!” playing every time you performed a flying kick, it’d be great.
As for the graphics, they’re a bit more divisive. Personally, I really like the super-blocky aesthetic: there’s something charming about the crudeness of it. That said, if someone told me they thought the graphics were ugly, I could see where they were coming from. I will definitely say that despite their simplicity, the character sprites are well-animated and have a lot of, well, character. I especially like the feeling of solidity when you land a flying kick and you opponent goes flying. Nothing beats a well-executed flying kick, eh?
There is one problem I have with the graphics, actually: later in the game, some of the lanterns get bloody difficult to see. There are three in the screenshot above. No, really. The only reason I figured out where they were is because they contain a single black pixel that blinks on and off. Drawing the lanterns to be grey on a grey background was a bad decision: drawing them to look nothing like lanterns was another. Still, once you’ve figured out that you’re supposed to be collecting them it’s not too difficult to pick them out.
After much running, climbing and being murdered by electrified carpets – that static build-up is no joke – Bruce finally reaches the lair of the Evil Wizard. That’s him, up there. I know I was just defending the graphics, but this chap is a little hard to read, huh? He’s holding the bars of his cage(?), he seems to be wearing a mortarboard, his shoes are very pointy, he’s… he’s carrying a massive rose under each armpit? Look, I’ve got nothing. He’s an evil wizard, that’s all you need to know. Okay, so you need to know how to beat him too, I suppose. It’s simple – as soon as you enter the room, run as fast as you can to the right and smash Bruce’s face into the switch on the far wall. The Wizard throws projectiles at you, but they’ll only hit you if you hesitate. Just leg it and you’ll emerge victorious (also immortal and wealthy, I assume).
“Congratulations!” the game says, “you’ve found the room where we store all the graphics deemed to ugly to appear in the actual game!” I think that stuff at the bottom is supposed to be fire. I’m not entirely certain, though. Fire doesn’t tend to be black, blue and red at the same time.
And so ends Bruce Lee – except it doesn’t really end, it loops back to the start but it’s much more difficult this time around. The Green Yamo in particular has really stepped up his game. It’s because I lured him onto all those land mines, isn’t it? Humiliation can be a powerful motivator.
It’s easy to see why Bruce Lee is so fondly remembered by people who played it back in the day, and it’s still a fun game to spend some time with even now. It’s fast-paced and accurate, it’s got solid controls, you can jump-kick a ninja in the face – what more could you want? There are even a couple of two-player modes, one where control over Bruce alternates when you lose a life and a much more interesting mode where player two takes control of Green Yamo, allowing them to either hinder or help Bruce. That sounds like the perfect recipe for a spoiled friendship, I must remember to try it out some time.
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