This year has proven to be something of a renaissance for the humble beat ’em up. Titles such as Streets of Rage 4, Battletoads and Shing! have demonstrated that this isn’t just a simple nostalgia fix; scrolling beat ’em ups absolutely have a role to play at the dawn of a new video game generation. It’s quite astonishing considering that the genre arguably had its heyday well over two decades ago. Still, with every renaissance masterpiece there’s a few lacklustre mistakes and Cobra Kai is the video game equivalent of renaissance artists trying to paint babies. It’s weird, ugly and a bit disturbing.
Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues is based on the YouTube/Netflix TV show that itself is a follow-up of the 1984 film Karate Kid, AKA Rocky for Children. Plot and character wise the TV show is a treat, having proven to be a whip-smart spin on the Karate Kid tale, but none of that has translated over to the video game. Instead the ongoing conflict between the rival karate schools of Daniel and Johnny simply provide a thinly veiled narrative excuse to wander around a city, punching everyone you meet in the delicates. That’s not strictly a problem, since that’s what beat ’em ups are always about.
What is a problem are the ugly, ugly visuals. This is not a pretty game. Characters bear little resemblance to their real-life counterparts, nor do they bear any resemblance to Homo Sapiens in general. Body parts are oddly deformed, character models are devoid of, well, character, and the cutscene art work is unpleasant to look at. Animation fares little better as characters move like jerky marionettes whilst their attacks are clearly lacking several frames – they almost teleport to complete a move. Environments are also bland and plain affairs, lacking in any detail or personality. The amount of levels to do Karate stuff in may be impressively numerous when compared to its peers, but you’ll struggle to tell them apart and they all just merge into one big brightly coloured poorly rendered mess.
The game’s selection of enemies are also a tad unpalatable. Beat ’em ups normally task you with punching evil ninjas, criminal gangs, deadly mutants or near-unstoppable robots to a pulp and I’m fine with that, but Cobra Kai forces my heavily muscled Karate aficionado to beat seven shades out of ‘Mommy’. Mommy is, quite literally, a mum who desperately calls for help from nearby reinforcements as your heroic protagonist beats her unconscious with a baseball bat. Then, after Mommy has been obliterated, how about you beat up a few hippies or goths? Their crime? Well, I guess the fact that they are hippies and goths. It just doesn’t work and left a bad taste in my mouth.
Maybe some of this could be forgiven if the combat was an explosive blast. Sadly, it goes off like a pound shop firework in a rainstorm. This is a game that acts as something of a homage to the beat ’em ups of yesteryear in its gameplay, taking elements from a hodgepodge of classics and welding them together. Attacks are varied, with each fighter having up to eight upgradable specials to go with their standard attacks, grapples, throws and even a spot of ground n’ pound. In a neat touch you can even lob your foes through the screen, just like in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. It all sounds fantastic, if only the collision detection weren’t completely abysmal.
It would be hilarious if it weren’t so frustrating when hot-headed Johnny unleashes a flurry of flaming kicks and punches at an opponent, only for the game to decide not a single one made contact. Why? I can only assume it’s something to do with the game believing the two combatants aren’t parallel, even though they are close enough to do a Viennese waltz. It’s a problem throughout, which is a big deal for a game that is all about hitting people.
This issue is aggravated by the fact that character models aren’t solid and combatants can just move through each other with an ease that would even impress Casper. Having your fighter physically inside their enemy and still not being quite able to hit them with your attacks is certainly a sight to behold. There’s a combo meter included to encourage making the most out of the combat system, but you can forget about it. Receiving an A grade is down to dumb luck rather than any skill.
On the plus side, the levelling up here is surprisingly deep, with each fighter in your team of four – you can swap between any warrior at will during a level – having an extensive range of specials to unlock and bonus abilities that benefit both themselves and the rest of their team. Experience points can be gathered by the usual means of punching people till they cry but also by completing challenges, such as defeating a certain opponent with a specific technique. If the combat itself weren’t so lacklustre, it would provide a compelling reason to keep playing.