Between the late-1960s and early-1970s, the martial arts genre in both cinema and television came in with a flying kick on an international scale. Many of it is thanks to the amazing charisma and physical capabilities of Bruce Lee, who was not only a pioneer as a performer but as a real martial artist. As technology evolved with video games in the following decades, it wouldn’t be long before the martial arts genre would be in our arcades, home computers, and consoles.
Thanks to these games, players can experience the thrill of either a one-on-one showdown or against a gang of thugs armed with only your fists and feet of fury. Though martial arts games are mostly popularized through fighting games, they can be enjoyed through other genres such as your typical action-adventure and RPG games. So for today’s list, we will cover some of the best games that represent the martial arts.
10. Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (Rittai Ninja Katsugeki Tenchu)
- Platform: PlayStation
- Publisher: Sony Music Entertainment Incorporated, Activision
- Developer: Acquire, Activision
- Release Date: Feb. 26, 1998 (Japan), Aug. 31, 1998 (NA)
In the 8 and 16-bit eras, players were treated to gimmicky ninja games such as Ninja Gaiden, Strider, and Shinobi, but they were straight up action as opposed to using stealth. But if any ninja game was the first to be historically and mythically accurate to ninjas, it, of course, has to be Tenchu, meaning divine retribution in Japanese. In Tenchu, players have the option to play as either Rikimaru or Ayame.
Each character has their own distinctions, Rikimaru is stronger and uses a sword, while Ayame carries shorter blades but is much faster. However, characters do share the use of grenades, smoke bombs, poison rice, and grappling hooks when needed to make a quick escape. Each stage is an open field in which the player is free to complete the objective. In some instances, if you get caught or mess up, it’s game over. Failure in these missions is not an option! Due to its distinct nature upon its release, it was seen as both innovative but frustrating to get into. But when engaged in combat and kills, they are not just swift but violent. Through this game, we can learn that sometimes opponents can be defeated without even having to fight them.
9. Virtual Pro Wrestling 2: Oudo Keishou
- Platform: Nintendo 64
- Publisher: Asmik Ace Entertainment, Inc.
- Developer: Aki Corp
- Release Date: Jan 28, 2000
Some of you readers that are pro wrestling fans may have enjoyed THQ’s wrestling games for the N64. If you want to play as famous wrestlers in Japan, Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 is the game for you! The game also gives players the options to play as famous Japanese wrestlers or Western wrestlers who achieved fame in Japan. The game controls very similarly as its American counterparts but still has its own unique distinctions to make the game fresh.
While the American releases based on WCW and WWF feature gimmick matches such as no DQ and falls count anywhere, Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 sticks to the conventions of being more sport oriented as opposed to entertainment. The game heavily features techniques that you would never see in American promotions such as the muscle buster, tombstone piledrivers from the top rope, and the hangman’s DDT. The game has its own career mode similar to Wrestlemania 2000’s. As opposed to winning belts, you can win trophies as it is in real life Japanese wrestling.
In place of hardcore wrestling, the game has a feature called Shoot Rules, an old school wrestling way of saying wrestling for real. In Shoot Rules, you don’t win by pin, but you have to knock out or submit the opponent. The game introduces a unique grappling system that compliments competitors who were active MMA fighters at the time. It also features selectable fighters of its time period such as Don Frye, Bas Rutten, and Rickson Gracie. While wrestlers tend to be a bit more showy with the techniques, the MMA fights are taken more appropriately with the approach to takedowns and positioning making it one of the earliest MMA simulators of its time.
8. Garouden Breakblow: Fist or Twist
- Platform: PlayStation 2
- Publisher: ESP Software
- Developer: Opus
- Release Date: Mar 16, 2007
Judging by the art design and its unconventional details to muscles, some readers can probably recognize the style of Grappler Baki’s Itagaki Keisuke. It is based on his manga, which is in turn based on a novel series by Yumemakura Baku. Like Baki, Garouden takes influence from old school MMA (when it was style vs. style) and street fighting due to the series debuting in the early-1990s, before MMA would take off.
As a result, the nature of the source material is reflected in this game and if any of you have familiarity with Grappler Baki, the nature of the action is pretty much the same. So characters are likely to exclusively represent striking martial arts and/or grappling martial arts. Just like in the old days, if a character just punches and kicks, that can be nullified by grabbing a hold and taking him down where he is a fish out of the water.
By taking influence from a manga based on the old ways of thinking as opposed to modern reality, it is much faster paced (or very arcade-like) and active as opposed to the pacing of a rounded system, and/or taking an opponent down trying to edge out a decision (a strategy known in MMA as lay and pray). Meaning this game is not at all sports oriented and is more fight-oriented so you fight to the finish! Instead of a standard ring (which is an option), you can fight in Dojos, in office buildings, and on the street. And if in the event you get a choke or joint lock, there are no tap-outs! It’s either choke out or snap out! So if you want something with an old school flavor with new school brutality, this might be the game to try out.
7. UFC Undisputed 3
- Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
- Publisher: THQ
- Developer: Yuke’s
- Release Date: Feb 14, 2012
In UFC Undisputed 3, you can choose to play as amateur and pro wrestling champion Brock Lesnar, and rely on his takedowns for the ground-and-pound! Or you can play as kickboxing legend Mirko Filipović, who is known for not only his devastating kicks but for his impregnable takedown defense. Or as BJ Penn, you can work your way to a rear naked choke with his elite Brazilian Jiu-jitsu skills. Or maybe you can crush the skulls of your opponents with the deadly accurate knee strikes of Anderson Silva.
The game also features an in-depth create-a-fighter and career mode. You can choose what his (this game was released shortly before the women’s division would develop in the UFC) base style is such as Karate, Kickboxing, Judo, Boxing, and Brazilian Jiujitsu, or you can make him an all round fighter. Then as the career progresses, you have the option of enrolling the fighter is a famous gym and certain gyms can help you with certain attributes.
In addition to competing in the UFC, UFC Undisputed 3 also gives players the option to fight under Pride, Japan’s top MMA organization in the 2000s. For some of you who are not familiar, as opposed to an octagon, Pride uses a ring and uses different rules. In American MMA, you cannot kick or knee a downed opponent in the face, but in Pride, the fact that you can is portrayed in the game. Also, the rules and judging system of Pride are excellently presented as well.
While American MMA has three 5-minute rounds, Pride has its first round at 10 minutes (this was actually meant to favor submissions) and two 5-minute rounds. And with American MMA using a 10-point must system like in boxing, Pride’s judging criteria is based on a combatant’s aggression and their effort to finish the fight. So in a way, you’re getting two different kinds of MMA games as one.
6. Tekken 3
- Platform: Arcade, PlayStation
- Publisher: Namco
- Developer: Namco
- Release Date: Mar 26, 1998 (JP), Apr 29, 1998 (NA)
From Namco’s flagship fighting franchise, we have Tekken 3. It is the third game but felt like the game’s true beginning. The game features a great roster of characters that have their own unique moves and styles (though Nina and Anna are nearly similar), while its SEGA counterpart, Virtua Fighter requires more complex controls and is based more on reality, Tekken is straight to the point and fast paced. Though infamously known as a button masher, it is rather easy to get into the game but takes time to truly master it.
For example, players who are new to the game can play as the Korean taekwondo specialist, Hwarang, who relies mostly on kicks (as taekwondo is famously known for) and has the most effective combinations. If you want power, play as the cyborg known as Jack. If you want a mix of speed, power, and efficiency, there is the Kyokushin influenced Jin who can do damage on the inside.
Though the game is a bit fast paced, on its base level, it does a great job of representing numerous martial arts. With Forest Law, he can assume many positions from Kung Fu such as the snake and crane, and his movements will change with each stance. With capoeira, you have Tiger and Eddy, who maintain a crouching stance while utilizing unorthodox footwork, and appropriately brings the dancing elements into this game. So if you want to earn a black belt in numerous martial arts the digital way, this might be the game for you.
5. Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown
- Platform: Arcade, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
- Publisher: SEGA
- Developer: SEGA AM2
- Release Date: Jun 5, 2012 (NA) Jun 6, 2012(JP)
Many experts and enthusiasts like to say that martial arts were developed for self-defense and if any game demonstrates that, it certainly has to be Virtua Fighter with its very intricate defense and counter system. With the character Aoi, her style is Aikido (the fighting style popularized by 1990s action star Steven Seagal), which is centered on using the opponent’s aggression against them with counter grappling. Her offense has always been weak but if you know how to use her right in accordance with the real principles of Aikido, instead of getting punched or kicked, you can break their limbs!
Plus, it is very easy to stick and move which is another principle to not only the sweet science (of boxing) but in combat sports as a whole. This is demonstrated with Jacky Bryant, who uses a striking based move set. Just dodge, throw in a combo and repeat until victory. At times, the game does get appropriately gimmicky such as having sumo wrestlers, lucha libre wrestlers, and ninjas. So if you want something that combines realism and cinema in the martial arts, this is it.
4. Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate
- Platform: Arcade, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
- Publisher: Tecmo Koei Games
- Developer: Team Ninja, SEGA AM2
- Release Date: Sept 3, 2013 (NA), Sept 5, 2013 (JP)
Other than its bouncing breasts and provocative costumes, what can we say about Dead or Alive that hasn’t already been said? This game totally goes balls to the walls with its action. While Tekken and Virtua Fighter are more real life with its martial arts, Dead or Alive is more like an anime. In addition to its anime-inspired designs, the action is fun and over the top. Ever since the second game, you can kick people off platforms and continue the fight on those platforms. It adds a unique dramatic flare that anime always has.
It also combines the theatrics of ninjas, pro wrestling, spy thrillers, MMA, and just about anything action oriented. The female combatants appropriately fight in a way that best suits not only their style but also natural advantages of the female anatomy such as being more reliant on speed, swiftness, and kicks. With males, they are more power oriented. So the game equally represents not only the entertainment aspects of the martial arts, but the fairness between genders. Also, for you Virtua Fighter fans, a few Virtua Fighter characters are selectable and are controlled in a way that perfectly represents the game they are from along with DoA’s faster-paced engine.
3. Mortal Kombat
- Platform: Multiplatform
- Publisher: Midway
- Developer: Midway
- Release Date: Oct. 8, 1992
On the heels of Street Fighter II, follows Mortal Kombat. While Street Fighter takes more from anime and manga, Mortal Kombat is a tribute to iconic martial arts cinema such as Enter the Dragon and Bloodsport. In fact, the game was originally conceived as a game starring Bloodsport breakout star, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Unfortunately, the deal fell through and the game was changed to what it is now. Johnny Cage was initially modeled after the Muscles from Brussels himself (going as far to showing he can do the splits). In addition, Liu Kang is obviously based on Bruce Lee with his clothing and his battle cries.
Aside from its groundbreaking graphics, what made Mortal Kombat a hit and a controversy is its use of fatalities. Shortly before the internet age, people were dying to find out how to rip out a dude’s head from his body, take out their heart, blow the kiss of death and so on. The violence became its appeal to the point that it became the center of a US Senate hearing! Hollywood already mastered the practice of all publicity is good publicity and Mortal Kombat was one of the first games to master that in the gaming industry. So how did Boon and Tobias respond to the controversy? Of course, they kept on making fatalities in its sequels but they introduced friendly alternatives such as Friendships where the winner gestures an act of friendship, or Babalities, where the winner turns the loser into a baby.
2. Street Fighter II
- Platform: Multiplatform
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Date: March 21, 1991 (JP), 1991 (NA)
If one game solidified the fighting game market, it would be without a doubt Street Fighter II. Though the game is obviously gimmicky with the use of projectiles, it does take influence from real martial arts and finds its own ways in converting that. The game excellently uses a good balance of defense, offense, and countering to give players the right mindset necessary in what it takes to win a real fight. Certain techniques such as grappling are advantageous only in close range, but when applied, can do major damage. While with striking, you need distance and you got to throw it in bunches.
The movements of the characters excellently represent their martial art and their build. Chun Li’s moves are appropriately revolved around her kicking. Balrog only punches though he throws in the occasional head butt. Sagat’s striking has an excellent range that represents his behemoth body and the actual nature of Muay Thai and is believed to be based on Sagat Petchyindee, a famous Muay Thai fighter in the 1980s. Ryu is assumed to be based on Mas Oyama, a Korean-Japanese karate master famous in the 20th century. And there has been some speculation that Balrog is based on the notorious heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson.
1. Shenmue (Shenmue: Isshou Yokosuka)
- Platform: Sega Dreamcast
- Publisher: SEGA
- Developer: SEGA AM2
- Release Date: Dec. 29, 1999 (JP) Nov. 7, 2000 (NA)
As some of you readers may know, Shenmue was initially conceived as a Virtua Fighter RPG, and many techniques from Virtua Fighter still remain. For example, Ryo can do Akira’s elbow assault and the button input execution is actually the same. Other characters are modeled after Virtua Fighter characters. Chai, the main boss, is based on Lion, who both use the praying mantis style and the same move sets
One of the most distinct features of Shenmue is that as Ryo, players can learn other martial arts techniques from other characters. A character will explain the movements of the technique and demonstrate it. Then, the player must interpret the instructions into the controller. If the player has difficulty, then the button movements will be displayed on the VMU. The explanations are so effective to the point that you may want to try these out for yourself. In addition, players can learn techniques from finding and/or purchasing technique scrolls, or you can discover new moves on your own just by doing the free practice in empty parking lots, parks, warehouses, or in the family dojo. Last, not only does Ryo and the player learn new techniques, they also learn about the principles of being a martial artist.
Like many of our lists, if we had the chance to do more than 10, then we probably would. But we can’t end this list without a few honorable mentions. Our shout outs go to Bushido Blade, Kung Fu, King of Fighters, Soul Calibur, and Jet Li’s Rise to Honor. As stated and shared, martial arts is not limited to what you see in movies or in sport. To many of its practitioners, it is a way of life. People of all ages and backgrounds find something to practice. Some may like the Japanese way, the Korean way, the Chinese way, the Brazilian way and so on. Some feel it is best to practice a bit of everything.
As Bruce Lee once said, take what is useful and discard what you don’t need. In gaming, this can be true when playing as a character. Sometimes this character’s move is the best to rely on and as long as it gets the job done, that’s what matters. Though some call it spamming or playing as a scrub, all that counts is the victory. So what do you readers think? Gives us your thoughts in the comments!