If there’s one thing you’re likely to have heard about Human’s (that’s the Clock Tower people) sports-based kick ’em up it’s that right at the very end of the single-player tournament mode your opponent strolls in disrespectfully late and immediately hoofs the referee into the scoreboard before launching into a relentless Taekwon-do’ing-your-face-for-real brawl. In the same breathless moment your now familiar points and timer markers vanish, replaced without explanation by a power bar (a combination health and stamina meter) you’ve never seen before, isn’t mentioned in the manual, and… and… is this guy really going to keep on kicking me in the face like this? How am I supposed to fight back? Is this actually happening? It’s an awe-inspiring and supremely subversive move: The last boss, as tradition would have us call them, has just walked in and broken the rules not only of Taekwon-do as a competitive sport but the game itself. Can he really do that? Are games allowed to do that to their players? People are quite right to home in on this one scene when discussing Taekwon-do and I wish more games were brave enough to follow its example, spectacularly shattering their own systems for the sake of conveying a particular mood – it’s no exaggeration to say this is a high point not just for this Super Famicom cart but honestly all of gaming.
The trouble is the frequently glossed over long lead up to that astonishing moment is actually a very good digital representation of Taekwon-do as a martial art in its own right – and it remains a very good Taekwon-do game after you’ve survived that vicious unsanctioned scuffle and come out the other side too. So let’s take some time away from the one thing everyone knows it does differently and take a look at all the other things it does differently too.
Everything in here feels like it’s been born out of a love for Taekwon-do itself: The game treats the martial art with the utmost respect at all times, going so far as to mention two specific instructors by name as well as list the Japan International Taekwon-do Federation as an adviser in the credits, and it even offers a full Korean language option as well (this also replaces Japanese names with Korean ones, for example the fighter known as “Yagami” (no, not that one) in Japanese is called “Kim” (also not that one) in the Korean text. Even non-Japanese names are changed – the Canadian “Blade” becomes “Henry” for come reason). This hyper-authentic attitude permeates every aspect of the game – including how you have to approach it. You see all those other fighting games? The ones where you get to pick a wildly unique character who flings fireballs around like it’s the most normal thing in the world and will easily leap ten feet into the air from a standing start? That’s not Taekwon-do, so that’s not in here either. In this game you’re a martial artist participating in a series of official sporting events – and as such it’ll take some time before you find yourself basking in international glory, as Taekwon-do does everything differently from the fighting game norm: Much like Human’s other semi-realistic sports series, Fire Pro Wrestling, there are no health bars to whittle away, charge meters to build up, or any of the other usual beat ’em up shenanigans going on – all that matters here is executing the right move at the perfect moment. That quick jab that sends an off-balance opponent to the floor, the crashing overhead kick just as they’re recovering from their own movement, the danger that comes from a badly-landed jump or a mistimed lunge.
Winning a Taekwon-do match can be done in a variety of ways: A KO can happen at any time (although they’re far more likely when an opponent’s tired) but you’re going to emerge victorious more often either by scoring five knock downs (this is classed as any time an opponent ends up on the floor) or accumulating more points than your opponent by successfully landing unblocked moves – whichever of these three comes first decides the match’s winner. Points are awarded as follows:
- Five if opponent is knocked over or leaves the mat
- Three if a jumping attack connects (this is any move that includes a jump or hop as part of its wind-up, not just discrete “jump and then press an attack button” moves)
- Two for a connecting standing head kick
- One for any connecting body blow
Having three completely different ways to win (and lose) every match blows each battle wide open – no matter how well or how badly it’s currently going for me nothing’s decided until either one of us is KO’d or the timer’s run out, and that means it’s always worth me staying engaged and alert right up to the last second because I always – always – have a realistic chance of making a comeback – and so does my opponent. No matter who became visibly tired first or who’s been pushing who around the mat with quickfire attacks neither side is ever too worn out to not kick the other off their feet and score the final match-winning point, and the thrill that comes from having that genuine question mark hanging over every single moment has made my time with Taekwon-do some of the most memorable game-fighting I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. I’ve been downed with a single kick, I’ve dealt a knockout strike with two seconds left on the clock, and I’ve lost on the time-out tally by just one point – if only I’d blocked one more attack, or perhaps if I’d been more daring in the split-second my opponent was open and landed another blow…
Participating in matches as fair but eternally unpredictable as these feels utterly electrifying – this must be what regular one-on-one fighting games are like between people good enough to really understand them.
But because Taekwon-do sticks about as closely as a 2D game reasonably can to realism and disposes of any sort of additional display beyond what I’d expect to see during a TV sports broadcast I already know how to read these lightning-fast close-quarters fights even though I struggle to get even halfway through most practise modes in a standard fighting game. Human’s title always makes sense, from the flow of the fight to the constant danger of a sudden loss to the simple physical presence of the participants: Kicks actually follow through, the active leg landing and then staying ahead even though that means the fighter’s back’s now facing the screen. Quick attacks to the face snap with the speed of their execution and heavier kicks not only deliver a powerful blow but actually push back the person on the receiving end. A quick retreat can set you off-balance if your opponent uses your own backwards movement to apply further pressure and the same common-sense applies to jumping too – leaping around all over the place is likely to wear you out and get you quickly kicked off your feet. These people have weight, inertia, and existence not just in their animations but also in their interactions with each other – a phenomenal achievement in its own right but even more so to see this all play out so smoothly and intuitively on the relatively humble Super Famicom.
However there’s no pretending this isn’t all running contrary to what we’ve collectively learned about games that pit two muscular people with bare feet against each other since Street Fighter II so firmly embedded itself in to the hobby’s collective consciousness, and because of this it does initially take some deliberate effort to play Taekwon-do as intended.
Luckily for us Human knew this and countered any potential misunderstandings with a series of interactive tutorials in the form of dojo lessons, covering everything from the basic rules of the sport to physical attacks and the concept of knocking your opponent off-balance, stressing the importance of treating bouts as far more than an opportunity to hit hard and often. Best of all it actually makes you perform the techniques that have just been discussed several times before carrying on, forcing you to prove you can actually perform and land the kick that’s just been described instead of brainlessly “Yes, yes… let’s hit things already” clicking through the text.
The moves available vary by character (there are plenty to choose from, and you also have the ability to edit your own creation into existence and jot down their slightly-intimidating alphanumeric password) and Taekwon-do makes executing them as straightforward as possible by giving every single fighter the same simple command list, broken down like this:
- X: A strike aimed at your opponent’s head
- A: An attack aimed at the upper body
- B: Your all-out technique (think something like “A really powerful kick”)
- Y: A quick attack that can chain back into itself or another move
- L: A feint. Pressing either X, A, or B, during a feint will perform new attacks.
- R: When dabbed this changes your leading leg, and when held this allows you to move in and out of the screen instead of just side to side (roundhouse kicks and other moves with depth can still connect across the Z-axis)
- Forward+B performs a hook kick, which is relatively slow but can throw your opponent off-balance if it connects
- One high kick requires a “fireball” motion +B to perform
- Pressing forward and either A or X while guarding will unleash a quick counterattack
Aerial moves are naturally different from their mat-based counterparts, and some techniques change depending on your current distance from your opponent – the same button that performs a side kick from further away may become an elbow strike to the stomach up close.
As you can see there’s not, by what gaming knows as fighting, a lot in there but the game – and Taekwon-do as a martial art – is too close and too quick for anything more complex to fit within the fractions of time you’re given to react and counterattack. You’ll spend most of the match responding to split-second visual clues occurring mere pixels away from your character’s face – the skill here doesn’t come from remembering and then executing an input but from reacting quickly and intelligently to whatever’s coming your way, from being aware of your own positioning and center of gravity and looking for gaps in your opponent’s behaviour to exploit – which again brings this Taekwon-do sim back around to playing a lot like a “real” fighting game.
You’d think considering this game’s almost-genre the lack of any significant visual difference (ooh! A headband!) between the characters and the extreme similarity of the stages would be a bit of a mood-killer but the mechanics of fighting Taekwon-do style are so exciting and require so much focus I don’t see how anyone could tire of playing this beautiful convergence of speed and skill, this wonderful 16-bit approximation of the spirit of martial arts competition. A lot of fighting games long to retain their depth while still capturing the imagination (and wallets) of the broader gaming audience, but with its wide variety of win conditions that always reward skill but still leave even the most dominating player open to defeat to the single-button inputs that can devastate an opponent with just one blow performed at the perfect moment, Taekwon-do makes me wonder if the answer’s been with us all along.