Here it is, the grude match you've all been waiting for. All your favourite Super Mario characters, plus Toad (who is surely no-one's favourite) gather together to beat seven bells out of each other in hand-to-hand combat! What? Super Smash Brothers? Never heard of it. This is Hummer Team's bootleg Famicom game Kart Fighter!
In the last article I said I was going to write about a Mario game next, and like the twisted wish granted by an ironic punishment genie, here it is. It's called Kart Fighter because the fighters involved are drawn from Super Mario Kart, along with the look of the title screen, and not because there's any karting involved. The Fighter part of the title is spot-on though, because fighting is all there is in this game: it's plumbers trading punches, flying turtle shells and unsolicited dinosaur tongue-baths all the way. There's nothing to get in the way of the carnage, and the text on the title screen is accurate in this regard - it says OPTION, singular, and there is indeed only one option you can change. That's the difficulty level, which I will be leaving on the default setting so that I can enjoy Kart Fighter exactly as the developers intended. Well, maybe not exactly as intended because I didn't buy the cartridge from a dingy market stall, but as close as I can get.
Here they are, the Super Mario characters that you know and love so well: Kung-Fu Peach, Mario and Green Mario, Nervous Kong, the gang's all here. At first basing a bootleg Mario fighting game around Mario Kart didn't make much sense to me, but then I remembered that it was the first time that Nintendo had assembled all these characters in one place. It's easy to forget that, after decades of seeing the Mario family get together to compete in every sport under the sun, but Super Mario Kart was where it all started and so it doesn't take much of mental leap to go from "Mario characters racing" to "Mario character kicking the crap out of each other," especially at the time of Street Fighter II's phenomenal success.
Anyway, for your enjoyment I present my adventures through Kart Fighter. I will be playing as Mario himself, as seems most appropriate. If you're red-green colour blind this means that you get the bonus experience of seeing me play through Kart Fighter as Luigi.
Opponent: Nokonoko (that's Koopa Troopa to you and me).
Fighting Style: Shell Defence.
Reason for Fighting Mario: Revenge for his countless fallen brothers.
This Koopa Troopa must be the most elite warrior of his race, because Mario hit him with a fireball and he didn't immediately die. No matter how amusing it would have been for Hummer Team to include a character that is instantly defeated if it touches a projectile or is jumped on from above, Kart Fighter's Koopa Troopa has been through a rigorous training schedule that allows him to survive these minor blows, although he is still susceptible to being kicked in the face. The lack of buttons on the NES controller means that you're limited to one button for punches and one for kicks, but other than that Kart Fighter is a by-the-numbers recreation of Street Fighter II. You block by holding backwards, you can throw your opponent by getting right into their personal space and pressing punch, and you can even put them in a dizzy state with repeated blows.
Special moves are also unleashed using the familiar joypad inputs popularised by Capcom's classic: the first thing I did when I started playing Kart Fighter was unconsciously attempt a quarter-circle-punch motion, my brain immediately making the connections between Mario's ability to throw fireballs and the extremely high likelihood that Hummer Team had completely ripped off Street Fighter II. It worked, naturally, and Mario threw a fireball. He can also do a Dragon Punch, but the command for this is different than you'd expect and extremely finicky to pull off, so Mario's jumping uppercut became a move only performed by accident. Mario is Ryu, then, only without the Hurricane Kick. Mario makes up for this oversight by being sensible enough to wear shoes.
See? Koopa's getting a good look at those shoes as this kick ends the fight. The faces of the combatants are contorted in pain and rage, which is a slightly unnerving sight - even in Smash Bros the characters never look like they want to inflict real harm on their opponents, but one look at Kart Fighter Mario's grimace leaves me with the feeling that he's been waiting years to cut loose and beat a Koopa Troopa to death with his bare hands. Well, now's your chance, Mario, but can you summon that hatred and anger when you face... your own brother?!
Fighting Style: As Mario, only greener.
Reason for Fighting Mario: Sibling rivalry.
Mario's facial expression has changed to one of trepidation as he faces off against the Green Machine. Whether he's worried about Luigi's martial prowess or that he's about to see his dumbass brother fall to an agonising death in a lava pit is up to the player to decide.
Luigi is the Ken to Mario's Ryu, differentiated only by the colour of their outfits and the fact that Mario's name is spelled wrong on his health bar. This misspelling may have been intentional, designed to bamboozle Nintendo's lawyers, as if the rest of the game didn't demonstrate quite how much contempt Hummer Team had for Nintendo's lawyers.
Oh, right. Luigi. There's not much else to say, really. He kept trying to hit me with fireballs, forgetting that jumping over fireballs is one of Mario's most finely-honed skills, along with rescuing princesses and falling down easily-avoided chasms through sheer overconfidence (admittedly that last one might be down to me rather than Mario himself). A few jump-kicks later - jump-kicks always seem to work particularly well in bootleg fighting games - and Luigi is defeated.
Opponent: Toad (Kinopio is his Japanese name).
Fighting Style: Pure, unfettered rage.
Reason for Fighting Mario: Endless "fun guy to be around" jokes.
Toad's bulked up, he's gained a foot in height and if the look of fury on his face as he approaches Mario is anything to go by, he's been hitting the steroids pretty hard. Thankfully his new-found dedication to the way of the warrior means he fights in stoic silence, so we're spared the aggravation of hearing a sound even worse than Toad's normal speaking voice: a badly-recreated copy of Toad's speaking voice.
It was at around this point that I figured out the key to victory in Kart Fighter, and that's marching relentlessly towards your opponent while tapping the punch button. Ninety percent of the time you'll either punch your foe or they'll block, giving you a chance to get even closer and allowing you to grab them. Once you've got one throw in you're golden, because you can stand over your fallen foe and grab them again as soon as they get up, allowing you to rack up big damage with no fear of repercussions. Sadly, you can't throw them around forever: eventually you'll trap them right at the edge of the screen, and throwing them a few times from that position will cause their head to clip around to the other side of the screen, whereupon any further throws will propel them back into the centre of the arena. Whether this is down to a glitch in the game's fighting engine or a deliberate effort by the developers to stop you throwing people people around until they're unconscious like a malevolent fairground teacup ride is unclear, but I know which one I believe to be true.
Opponent: Yoshi (again, Yossy is his Japanese name despite it sounding less Japanese than "Yoshi").
Fighting Style: Opens the door, gets on the floor.
Reason for Fighting Mario: Animal cruelty.
There is something about seeing a cartoon dinosaur putting up his dukes like a Victorian bare-knuckle boxer that amuses me on a deep level, so I'm just going to take a minute to enjoy it. Ahh, very nice. Okay, Yoshi. He attacks with his tongue. Don't do that, Yoshi, that's disgusting. Also, Mario is a plumber. Do you really want to be licking a man who travels through sewer pipes on the regular? Just beat him up with your muscular tail, you oddly-proportioned ferret-lizard. Yeah, Yoshi took a bit of a hit in the translation from cutesy sidekick to pugilist. He's sort of... stretched. Maybe carrying Mario for all those years has royally screwed up his back.
Speaking of graphics, if those mushrooms in the background look familiar, it's because they're ripped from Little Nemo for the NES. In for a penny, in for a pound on the whole "copyright infringement" thing, hey Hummer Team?
Opponent: Donkey Kong Jr.
Fighting Style: King of Iron Swingers Tournament Winner.
Reason for Fighting Mario: Well, Mario did once imprison his dad.
From dinosaurs to apes now, as Mario takes on Donkey Kong Jr. and by some miracle is not immediate torn apart by the ape's fantastic strength. You ought to think yourself lucky you're fighting Donkey and not Diddy Kong, Mario. When chimpanzees attack they go for the soft, vulnerable areas; the eyes, the testicles. DK Jr. fights using leaping uppercuts, by throwing banana peels along the ground and by twirling across the screen with his arms outstretched, which funnily enough presages Donkey Kong's similar move in Super Smash Bros.
In the interests of both fair reportage and relieving some tedium, I tried playing Kart Fighter without resorting to constant throws, and the results were not great. Kart Fighter suffers from all the familiar problems of the bootleg fighting game genre, especially those on the NES: the sprites are flickery enough to make me seriously worry about developing a tic in my eye, the presentation is extremely barebones with no win quotes or story to speak of, but worst of all is action that's a bit of a stodgy mess. Unlike a good fighting game, there's no sense of flow to the game, no feeling of smoothness or fluidity to your attacks. The characters are buffeted about the screen by unseen forces, sliding off each other in ways you wouldn't expect, presumably in a lazy effort to stop the sprites piling up on top of each other. Combos are out of the question - when you land a hit, the action actually pauses for half a second, making the game run at a somewhat ponderous pace. The entire thing feels not quite right in an almost undefinable way born from a hundred tiny gameplay flaws congealing together. As I said, that's what bootleg fighting games are like in general, but from what I can tell the Kart Fighter engine was reused for several other pirate fighting games so this game may well be the progenitor of those problems.
Opponent: Princess Peach.
Fighting Style: Gymkata
Reason for Fighting Mario: I have no idea, you'd think she's be more grateful.
With her usual pink pink dress replaced by a blue miniskirt and a serious case of conjunctivitis, Princess Peach pirouettes into battle, determined to do Mario harm by either spin-kicking him or whipping him to death with her hair. Why is Peach dressed in blue? I don't know, because her traditional pink colour scheme is in the game as her 2P costume. Maybe she just fancied a change, maybe Hummer Team were trying to invoke the essence of Chun-Li. Peach does have a Chun-Li-esque fireball, which brings me to another of Kart Fighter's problems: the characters are too similar to one another. It seems like an odd thing to say about a roster that includes a princess, a mushroom man and a gorilla, but all the characters have a projectile attack and either a horizontal "dash" move or an uppercut, which makes things a bit samey after a while.
Still, there is fun to be had with Kart Fighter. It might be awkward and clunky but it's not horrifically broken or anything. The hit detection is decent and the controls, apart from on some special move inputs, are relatively reliable. The computer's bone-dense AI means that it's a game that can only really be enjoyed in versus mode, and on the NES it's probably one of the best one-on-one fighting experiences you're going to find. Granted, that says more about the lack of good fighting games on the NES than it does about Kart Fighter's quality, but if you were desperate to challenge your friends to an NES fighting game for some reason - a time loop has trapped you in 1993, you have a serious mental disorder - then this game might be your best bet.
On a side note, the musical theme of Princess Peach's stage is an 8-bit version of the Koopa Beach theme from Super Mario Kart that sounds a bit like it's being whistled by a robot mogwai. I'm sure the rest of the music in the game is stolen from other sources, but none of it leapt out at me like this one did so presumably it's from games I've never played.
Fighting Style: Adorable tinyness.
Reason for Fighting Mario: Small Man Syndrome.
Oh my word, look at this itty-bitty Bowser! He's so adorable, I just want to pick him up and give him a hug. I kept pressing the button, fervently hoping that just one time it'd allow me to give the Koopa King a cuddle, but alas it never happened and I ended up punching him in the snout over and over again.
Bowser is the closest thing Kart Fighter has to a final boss, but he's still got the same moves as everyone else - a fireball projectile and a ramming attack using his spiny shell - and he's still susceptible to repeated throws. No, I don't count throws as a hug. What, every time you hug a loved one does it end up with you slamming them to the ground? Unless you grew up in a family of professional wrestlers I very much doubt it.
Yep, that's the look I'd have on my face if I thought I was going to land on Bowser's, um, prominence.
Disturbing tail aside, Bowser is no more difficult to beat than any other character and you know what? I'm fine with that. It makes a nice change from every other fighting game, where the final boss is a cheap, overpowered test of patience. I mean, it's not like Mario's ever had any trouble beating Bowser before, so why should he now? With the Great King of Evil defeated, Mario's fist-throwing adventure is over...
...Or is it? No, it is quite clearly not over. There's another fight after Bowser and it's against Green Mario. I'm not having another dig at Luigi constantly being in the shadow of his brother, it really is a Mario vs. Mario mirror-match, and Mario's alternate costume is, well, Luigi. The first time this happened I honestly thought the game had looped back around, and it was only because I happened to glance at the health bars and see MARI up there in all its misspelled glory. Mario's attacks are identical to Luigi's, and I've already beaten Luigi once so it'll come as no surprise that this fight did not pose much of a challenge.
Then I was made to fight Bowser again. Here, Mario has thrown his arch-enemy to the floor with such force that half of Bower's body has disappeared in a jittery mess of pixels. That's gonna hurt Bowser's chances of winning this rematch.
Okay, now Kart Fighter is over for realsies. There's no ending, which is a shame - I'm one of those odd people for whom the post-battle quips and ending sequences are an integral part of my enjoyment of a fighting game. I can enjoy them purely for the mechanics, but those extra flourishes are what brings a fighting game alive. Imagine playing an SNK fighter without people calling each other "weenie king" or "pin-headed son of an icecream maker" at the drop of a hat. A dreadful thought, isn't it? I suppose you could argue that the extra screen you get for clearing Kart Fighter on the highest difficulty is an ending, but it's an argument you'd lose because a single screen traced from the podium scene at the end of Super Mario Kart with the words "The End" over it is not an ending. The end of an ending, maybe, but not an ending it it's own right.
Also, check out these high scores. I finished the game without losing a round and I still didn't make it onto the high score table. My total was around 110,000 points. I don't think it's likely that I or anyone else could get six times that to claim top spot. What is likely is the developers randomly slapping some numbers into the top scores without even considering for one millisecond the scoring system of the game they were making.
Kart Fighter is that rare beast - a bootleg game that has something of a positive reputation. I don't think I'd go as far as to say I have positive feelings about it, personally. Not positive feelings about the gameplay, at least, but I will freely admit there's still some pleasure to be gained in watching Princess Peach beat Bowser into unconsciousness using her hair. It's a weirdly transgressive thrill that has been diminished by the passage of time and the release of multiple official Mario slugfests in the form of the Super Smash Bros. games, but it's still entertaining in its brazenness.
It doesn't have enough depth or finesse to keep you engrossed for long, and your interest will probably wane as soon as the novelty of the setting wears off, but for an NES fighting game it's not bad. For a bootleg NES fighting game it's a work of art, a Mona Lisa of almost-good gameplay and intellectual property theft. And, with no qualifiers at all, it's still a lot better than Rise of the Robots.