Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Game 303: Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee is arguably the most influential figure in video games never to be directly involved in the creation of one. Whether they be fantastic one-on-one fighting games like Street Fighter, or side-scrolling urban brawlers, nearly all video games about hand-to-hand combat, apart from those set within the rigid confines of sporting venues, show his influence to some degree just by existing. Though he had only starred in five martial arts films, including the unfinished and posthumously-released Game of Death before his untimely death in 1973, his storied career as an actor, performer, instructor, and philosopher is universally recognized as the principal driving force for the exploding international popularity of martial arts in practice, in popular culture, in television and film, and by extension, in video games.

It feels strange, then, that this early example of that legacy, has so little to do with martial arts, and plays more like a platformer featuring Lee's likeness and an East Asian theme park aesthetic. Sure, you're constantly dogged by a bokken-wielding ninja and a green-skinned sumo wrestler, but your only defenses are a useless standing punch and an invincible-when-it-works flying kick, and most of the time you're better off running away or using the environment to kill them.

Bruce Lee was initially released for Atari computers in 1984 and was widely ported to every popular 8-bit computer in the US, UK, and Japan. The most widely played incarnation was probably the Commodore 64 port, but I played the Atari original.

Bruce Lee's world is a semi-linearly structured set of seamlessly-connected arenas, each one with a number of lanterns which you must collect to progress. The first region, for instance, is a set of three horizontally-arranged rooms of ladders, statues, platforms, and lanterns. Once all lanterns are collected, a hatch in the middle-room opens, leading to the next area, a series of caverns.

The game is overall not terribly difficult, except for a few rooms which are mostly made challenging because of unreliable controls and physics, and to a lesser extent, its cluttered and often unclear graphics. Spike traps are consistently a bigger threat than your enemies, and their patterns are slow, forgiving, and predictable, but Bruce's movements are slower, unforgiving, and sometimes not predictable. In one room, a spike trap at the bottom of a shaft fires about once every eight seconds, an eternity in most games, but Bruce's featherfall physics make him float to the bottom in nearly five, which means a huge window of safety but also a tricky one to anticipate. Even running feels strange, as many of the platform surfaces have a rutted or grooved appearance, which causes the game engine to decides Bruce's foot is no longer connected to level ground on random intervals and disrupt his run cycle with a frame or two of his falling animation.

Still, once I could semi-reliably pass the caverns area, which contains two of the three hardest rooms, and are partly dependent on luck, I was able to finish the rest of the game on my second subsequent try. OBS unfortunately crapped out around the 11:30 mark and failed to record several seconds of gameplay. I've cut out some of that corrupted footage, so in the below video, there will be a visible splice around that point.


The last Datasoft game I played, O'Riley's Mine, was a little basic looking, but Bruce Lee is one of the ugliest things I've seen in awhile, to the point where it can interfere with gameplay. Bruce, the ninja, and "Green Yamo" are some seriously dorky-looking sprites but at least stand out from the backgrounds and each other. The same can't be said of the environments, which are excessively busy for the low Atari resolution. Take that screenshot from near the starting area.


Those white ladder-like things? They do nothing. Except for the one in the middle above the grey ladder-like thing. That's a ladder. The black girder-like things are walls, and the gap in the middle of the floor is a hatch.

The caverns below that hatch, though, are where things become a real horror show of pixelated noise representing who knows what, and rooms so confusingly laid out that even your enemies won't set foot inside.


Bruce Lee has a general problem with collision physics, where you can never be quite sure if Bruce will touch a surface while jumping, or be quite sure how he'll be affected if he does. Sometimes he passes through, sometimes he bounces off or falls to the ground, or clips upward to the nearest surface, or finds his footing seemingly in mid-air, or enters a climbing animation, or just gets stuck and forces you to restart unless Green Yamo can find his way to your predicament and administer a coup de grâce.

As mentioned, three of the game's most difficult rooms are down here in the caverns. There's the one in the above shot, which manages to qualify despite having no enemies and no moving hazards other than a slow and predictable flying spike trap. The odd collision detection that screws with your jumps here, and ascending the chambers requires "climbing" the correctly-colored plumes of animated pixel noise, but only at the right time, as they have a current that goes through a cycle of changing direction and strength.

Another one of these tricky rooms is right at the start of the area.

The real gameplay isn't as choppy as the GIF encoding makes it seem, but you can see Bruce stumble on the floor texture, as it randomly disrupts his running animation cycle with a falling frame simply because the floor does not register as flat to the game's collision logic. The slow falling and erratic collision detection with walls can be seen too.

Here, the narrow corridors make it suicidal to fight your enemies, and nearly as difficult to avoid them while also getting the lanterns. Killing them with the spike traps is easy enough, but should the Green Yamo respawn at the lowest level, you are screwed once you have to descend there yourself and have no running room for pulling off a flying kick.

It's smooth sailing here for a while after that. The ascent and escape from the caverns is a mostly linear series of rooms with minimal backtracking to collect lanterns, and for the most part your enemies don't really threaten you. Geyser traps found in some rooms are more likely to kill them than you. Soon, you resurface back into the starting area, and find that the statues of yaks here moo at you, and a gate to the east has opened up.

Ugly visuals aside, the bridge here suspended over the spike pit moves, but your window to cross is generous, and it's easy enough to progress and enter a castle region.

The hardest thing here is recognizing the torches that you're supposed to collect. Your enemies are easy to avoid and even easier to kill by activating the geyser traps as they pursue you.

The next room is a rare branching path, where three waterfalls lead to three different sections of the castle walls. You've got to visit them all, and none are all that hard, but one section holds a golden Yin Yang symbol which can be collected for an extra life, and then you can exit and reenter the screen to collect it again for up to four more. They come in handy soon; once you finish all three sections you're taken to the last difficult room.

It's a far cry from the nightmarishly difficult patterns of Jet Set Willy, but awkward physics and unforgiving collision detection can quickly deplete your stock of extra lives.

A watchtower here is both visually interesting and nearly impossible to parse just what's going on inside it, but it's simple to climb up inside where the enemies can't hurt you, and if you can tell which textures are climbable and which aren't, to clamber up to the top and grab the torches (those are torches) up there and on the sides. Nothing here can hurt you except the enemies who are too dumb to follow you.

One last room is a bit of a puzzle, but not a very complicated one. Grabbing torches adds ladders to climb, and you can shimmy across the second story ceiling once you reach the ladder on the left. The rest is just a matter of following the path and ducking under the fireballs, jumping over the electrified floor without hitting the fireball, shimmying over again, timing your descent to the final torch to avoid all of the fireballs, and then climbing up the ladder to the last room of the game.

Hesitate here and you die. Make a mad dash for the torch and you win.

Your prize is fire, I guess. Or maybe money.

There's a two-player mode where the second player controls Green Yamo, with the option to swap roles whenever Bruce dies, but I didn't really get a chance to play it properly. "D" tried it but quickly got frustrated with the game controls, and my friends are either away for the holidays or self-quarantining in illness. It's a neat idea that you don't see done very often, where a second player can control a basic enemy in an otherwise singleplayer game and try to sabotage the protagonist's progress, but I suspect that this is little more than a novelty. Some rooms seem they would be nearly impossible for Bruce to evade a skillful Yamo, such as the first area, where you have to defenselessly climb the ladder in the central area, and Yamo could just wait on a nearby platform and kick you off. Others give Yamo no avenue at all to catch Bruce, and yet others don't spawn enemies in the first place.

GAB rating: Average. There's a germ of a good game here, but it would need a lot of polish before it could attain its potential. Bruce Lee feels like a precursor to the cinematic platformer genre, and indeed has some of its crucial elements including a seamlessly interconnected world, semi-realistic character animations, and setpiece-driven stage design, but without the hindsight of the lessons taught by genre forebearers like Prince of Persia and Another World, it doesn't quite work. Bruce Lee needed better graphics, more forgiving controls, more consistently behaving physics, and some challenge that comes from the stage design rather than from the rough edges of its own mechanics. Still, it's vastly preferable to something like Jet Set Willy.

Datasoft would release three more licensed games with the Bruce Lee engine; Conan, The Goonies, and Zorro, and developed few games after that, operating primarily as a publishing house, especially for stateside releases of UK-developed computer games. Their final in-house project would be Alternate Reality: The Dungeon, a sequel to 1985's Alternate Reality: The City based on the notes of its designer but made without his direct involvement. But I'm done exploring these games, as they neither make whale status nor do they personally interest me.


  1. I'll add a comment on the Goonies, having played the C64 version quite a bit (way back when). I'd say it is also notable for the two-character control scheme, where you had to switch between characters to solve the puzzles on each screen, or a second player could control the other character, leading to some heated arguments.
    A look at Mobygames reminds me I played Conan as well, I remember the little death pop-up screens.
    Didn't play Zorro, but it sounds the same as those two.

  2. Hey, I played Bruce Lee on DOS, and I can testify that multiplayer games turned into staring contest around the central ladder of the game.
    Strangely, I remember finishing the game, but not the final boss (but I do remember the "3 waterfalls room", so either my memory is spotty and I forget that guy, or my memory is spotty and I did not finish the game.


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