You could almost hear the groans of disappointment when this game was announced for the Virtual Console, simply because the sequel, "International Karate Plus", is so legendary. But that's a disservice to the original, as it is a strong game in its own right.
Those looking for a quick pick-up-and-play brawler will be disappointed, as "International Karate" is a game that rewards a more patient and involved approach. There are no energy bars here, or convoluted special moves; I don't know enough about the martial arts to know if "IK" is truly realistic, but it certainly is the approach they're going for. There is an array of basic kicks, blocks, jumps and punches, all controlled through simple combinations of joystick or joypad directions and fire button presses, and fights are decided through precise attacks rather than a flurry of blows.
The sprites are relatively large, and their moves are well animated, particularly the roundhouse kick, which is worth attempting just to see it in action. Only a rather feeble jumping animation lets things down on that front. It's also a bit of a shame that the opponents are all identical palette swaps of the player's sprite, as I'm sure the C64 would have been capable of at least some variation in character designs. The backgrounds, though, are well done, giving the sense of being on a world tour despite minimal animation. The sound is effective and fits the mood of the game well, and composer Rob Hubbard's use of the C64's sound chip is as clever as expected; this is not one of his classic soundtracks, however, as it's rather more derivative than usual.
The controls are tight and responsive, although there's something a bit counter-intuitive about the layout. Due to the C64's single-button joystick, some moves are executed through a directional push without a button press, and while that does make for a relatively large number of different attacks, it does seem strange to attack without pushing the fire button. That said, perhaps that's just an ingrained response from years of playing "Street Fighter" style games. Another challenge is that it’s not entirely clear when a hit has connected cleanly or when you're just flailing at your opponent, which can sometimes result in a frenzy of button mashing. That said, all it takes is a bit of practice, and the layout of the moves and effective range of the attacks soon become second nature.
All in all, this is a more measured and cerebral game than it might appear at first glance; each of the opponents has a distinct set of behaviours and responses, which gives them a good illusion of personality, and as such the game is often more about strategy than reflexes as you match wits with the AI. Like all the best beat-em-ups, "International Karate" rewards dedication and planning, and, once mastered, will provide many hours of entertainment. But yeah, the sequel is better.
Note: To start the game you need to press the 1 button on your Wiimote to bring up a virtual C64 keyboard. You can then virtually prod the F1 or F2 button to start a 1 or 2 player game. Be quick to press the 1 button on the Wiimote once you have done this as your game will start right away!