The Way Of The Exploding Fist

By Edge Retro

Originally published in EUG #67

The Way Of The Exploding Fist

Edge learns just how differently they do things in Australia, as
Gregg Barnett of Beam Software relates the sun, sea and sex-stuffed story that lies behind the genesis of a seminal martial arts videogame

Original format: Commodore 64
Publisher: Melbourne House
Developer: In-house (Beam Software)
Origin: Australia
Release date: 1985

The Way Of The Exploding Fist embodied everything that is sacred to the martial arts fraternity - elegance, control, precision. It eschewed the scrolling scenery and endless procession of enemies more typical of early fighting games such as Kung Fu Master and attempted something radical: a one-on-one contest boasting an audacious array of fighting moves. Though Karate Champ was to appear during the game's development, Exploding Fist's concentration on simulation and a dynamic block/counter attack mechanic set it apart from anything else which had gone before.

The title came from fledgling Australian developer Beam Software and was tailored for the UK market by its publishing wing, Melbourne House. The locale which provided the resources to make the title was a far cry from the tranquil backdrops which were to typify the game's eastern flavour. As the game's creator, Gregg Barnet, explains: "South Melbourne was not only the computer centre of Melbourne, if not Australia, but it was the red-light area with scores of brothels... so, literally, we had a brothel on one side, one on the other, and then one across the street. I don't know if any of our guys used them, but they knew all the girls quite well because they'd share tram rides and they'd be stood outside showing clients in. Mind you, another distraction was the topless beach."

Diversions aside, Barnett was intent on making Exploding Fist an incredibly realistic interpretation of a martial arts discipline. The 18 moves of the game provided the focus for the initial outline. "As with a lot of my designs, it started with the user interface," begins Barnett. "For Exploding Fist, I spent a lot of time with an old joystick, mapping imaginary moves on to it. It had to be intuitive so a manual wasn't a requirement. We had pull down for duck and punch low, push up for jump, pull back to retreat (or block if being attacked). It was this procedure that determined which moves were in and which weren't. Then research was done on the moves - films and martial arts books - to give us a consistent style for the artist to work with."

Bruce Lee's popularity and distinctive fighting style supplied much of the inspiration. Barnett sought out every book in the district to provide a focus for his vision. But, interestingly, the game's focus on power and aggression was tempered with a feminine touch. "Exploding Fist combined Bruce Lee's Wing Chun style which was actually started as a female style of martial arts," explains Barnett. "Originally it was developed so that nuns could protect themselves with lots of little hand movements to protect their breasts. But then when he went to Hollywood he exaggerated and he used The Exploding Fist - a style in which the fighter would keep his body loose and then like a Japanese karate fighter he'd tense it at the last second."

Lee's infamous one-inch punch encapsulated the spirit of the game. Bouts between two masters would often follow a pattern of waiting and blocking until openings formed. A quick strike with the all-powerful roundhouse kick could win the match if timed to perfection. "It worked graphically as well," adds Barnett. "Because you could have a great impact where you had everything loose, and then you'd swing everything out and at the last second the artist would tighten the fist and that would be the impact point. With the collision detection that I opted to use, the hit was always accurate."

Barnett's perfectionism went to extraordinary lengths. With research already well underway he began to develop the game - by writing all the code down, line by line, in longhand. This process took approximately two months. "Then I started with a tree diagram linking all the subroutines, not just main modules," he explains. "I would then create pseudo code (half English, half Pascal), before coding all the routines in assembler. In fact, the first compile wasn't even attempted until I had everything to the twoplayer game ready. In one day I went from nothing happening to a full two-player game (much to the relief of one or two people). That very day I remember returning to my desk from a coffee break to find a queue of people playing Exploding Fist, at which point I knew we were onto something big."

Taking the handwritten data and then transferring it into living, breathing code was not only a tedious process but relied heavily upon the reliability of existing technology. "In terms of coding, in those days I engineered every facet of the development cycle," adds Barnett. "The main reason for this was the old assemblers we had to use. They would take hours for full compiles, so you had to get them right. A classic example was just before Exploding Fist, when I was finishing off Horace Goes Skiing. It was the last race for the America's Cup, the year Australia first won it from them, I was intending to work all night, but started a full compile anyway. I went home and watched the race (over four hours), came back and the compile was only halfway through."

Pixel Perfection
The game's most exquisite feature was its pixel-perfect collision detection. Barnett created his own editor to achieve the accuracy he desired. This plotted every impact animation frame by frame, rather than the standard collision-box approach. The collision routines coupled with the sound effects resulted in an incredibly satisfying reward when blows landed. The addition of more pronounced crunch effects for perfectly timed hits made the game particularly tactile, and remained the benchmark for fighting games for many years.

The sprite animation and sound effects are also fondly remembered sixteen years on. For Barnett these are the two technical aspects of which he is particularly proud: "The more innovative things were the sprite meshes (Commodore 64) and the digitised screams and shouts. Both of these I actually delegated internally. We went on to far bigger and better things with Commodore 64 sprites, but at the time Exploding Fist was the best utilisation of them. As for the sampled sound, it was a huge part of the game's success. The pre-attack wind-up screams and the bonecrunching impacts were something new in those days. Even the scream during loading is still remembered today. The number of people who have mentioned how they jumped the first time they heard that is quite amazing."

With the two-player mode already in place, Barnett began implementing the AI to ensure that a solid one-player experience flourished: "I remember spending two weeks or so analysing how people played the game. From that information, I created a list of AI variables: aggression, defensiveness, speed, ability to block or counter attack, favourite moves, sequences, and learning. I then deteriorated the attributes to give me the lesser opponents. In other words I started with the best opponent and I just worked backwards from there."

The formula worked tremendously well - with one slight oversight. "I always regretted the leg sweep," laments Barnett. "Because I made this simulation and I made it very accurate and, of course, in real life the leg sweep is very powerful at knocking your opponent down. It doesn't do much damage other than that. Initially I had a layer of moves where once you were collapsed on the ground you could still keep fighting - they never made it through. But the leg sweep was still in there. It was such a wide move with the legs going three or four feet. So there's all that distance and unless your opponent jumps you're going to hit them. I kept it accurate, which was a mistake."

Unfortunately, The Way Of The Exploding Fist devotees soon discovered the crippling power of the leg sweep and news that the game could be completed with just one technique was reported in the gaming press. While this never detracted from the two-player experience, Barnett certainly bemoans the fact that some people preferred to take the easy route through the one-player mode. "They could get good at the leg sweep for the first seven or eight opponents if they were that sort of boring person - just pressing and pressing and pressing. In the Spectrum version we fixed that problem, but on the Commodore version if people wanted to be really anal about it they could leg sweep their way through. Although when they got to the last couple of opponents they then find that they have real trouble because the last two would just jump the attack."

Though the title is often remembered for its cathartic pleasures, for developer Beam Software the game's inherent exuberance threatened to bring out the child to an alarming degree. Mix a hi-octance Jackie Chan movie with a scene from 'A Shot In The Dark', and an approximation of the office atmosphere during voice sampling might be conjured up. Inspector Clouseau stalking a recalcitrant Kato couldn't have caused more of a disturbance among the whorehouses of South Melbourne. "Recording those screams was a decidedly weird experience," concludes Barnett. "We were jumping around like madmen from a kung fu movie and screaming our lungs out, even getting the odd complaint from neighbours. Ironically, 'The Times' did an article on Exploding Fist, saying how games were growing up and mature names like The Way Of The Exploding Fist proved it. Which is not exactly what I had in mind at the time..."