The arcade beat ‘em up genre has been sorely underrepresented in the mobile world. Awkward on-screen d-pads and complicated button layouts make them less-than-ideal candidates for touch screens, and games like Combo Crew that attempt to skirt this issue with totally new control schemes often lose the core of the gameplay in the process. KungFu Quest — The Jade Tower attempts to right this wrong, by tracing the genre back to its roots and building it back up from there.
Although there’s no official connection, it’s hard not to notice the similarities between KungFu Quest and Irem’s seminal classic Kung Fu Master. As in that game, your character occupies the middle of the screen and works his way down a long hallway to reach a staircase to the next level, while waves of enemies swarm in from both sides. Irem’s game is often cited as the first beat ‘em up game, and it’s a great foundation, considering the platform’s need for simple controls.
The controls have actually been pared down a bit further, in fact. Unlike Irem’s game, there is no duck ability, and only one attack button. Left, right, attack, and jump are your only options, leaving two buttons on either side of the screen, below the action. It’s an easy setup, even if it seems disappointingly simple at first. The game still could have benefited from controller support, especially with platforms like the OUYA and Shield out there, but the touch controls do their job just fine.
This is where KungFu Quest parts ways with the classic it pays homage to. Tapping the attack button busts out combos, and enemies take quite a bit more punishment. You can also double-tap either directional button to do an evasive roll in that direction and pass through enemies or to evade their attacks. Combos don’t require any particular execution or technique; you build your combo from available moves in the dojo before entering a stage, and once it’s set, you’ll perform the same moves every time you start mashing the button. There’s a bit of strategy to which moves you pick, as you can build juggles, and work out speed versus power concerns, but the execution remains the same.
The action gets pretty frantic in a hurry. Some enemies have weapons with a longer range than your punches and kicks, and you’ll constantly be rolling left and right to get in position behind them, while still staying out of reach of the half-dozen other enemies on screen. The game does an excellent job of adding new enemy types in just about every stage, with new weapons and unique concerns. As you move up in level (literal levels in the tower, not RPG-like levels), you’ll unlock purchasable items and moves to help you meet these challenges.
Working your way up the tower is brutally challenging. We’ve come to expect a low standard for difficulty from mobile action games, but KungFu Quest will kick your ass. There are 8 unique stages, each broken into a few levels and a boss fight. The first stage (downloadable for free) isn’t that tough, but things ramp up sharply from there. If you run out of lives, you’ll be kicked back to the level before the one you died on, too, so expect to be screaming and cursing at your phone. Still, it’s refreshing to see this kind of punishing, old-school difficulty in a modern mobile game.
Guardian Heroes this isn’t, but KungFu Quest manages to do what no one else has to date: create a solid arcade beat ‘em up for Android with simple-but-effective controls that stay true to the core of the genre. Many will be chased away by the high challenge, and some may get bored of the repetition, but for fans of old-school arcade games, KungFu Quest is a tower worth climbing.