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FLASHBACK REVIEW: KARATE FIGHTERS - ALMOST ACTION FIGURES
By Thomas Wheeler

Sometimes a toy series comes along, and you're not entirely sure how to
categorize it. Sometimes the stores aren't. When Hasbro started up its
Transformers Alternators line, of Transformers that were also 1:24 scale
representations of actual cars, a number of stores initially stocked them
in the die-cast car aisle of their toy departments. Whoops!

Then there's KARATE FIGHTERS. A popular table-top game in the mid-to-late
1990's, it almost qualifies as being an action figure line -- with some
interesting licensed tie-ins.

Produced by Hasbro, Karate Fighters was, in a sense, a one-on-one
fighting video game -- without the electronic video aspect of it. The
average set included two control handles with a scorekeeping gauge, and
two -- well -- they were sort of action figures!

Now, it would've been easy enough for Hasbro to have simply created two
anonymous-looking figures to go with this game, perhaps something along
the lines of the old "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots" game from the 1960's,
which could arguably be considered an ancestor of Karate Fighters. But
that's not what Hasbro did.

They not only created characters, they created a whole back story for the
Karate Fighters concept. Usually this sort of attention is reserved for
action figure lines, not games. Nobody knows how the poor sap on the
"Operation" game table got there, or why his nose lights up bright red if
you make a mis-step with the procedure. These days, making a mis-step
with an operation usually results in a lawsuit, but I don't think that
could be turned into a very fun game.

The articulation of the Karate Fighters figures was dependent on their
use in the game, and as such was hardly typical for an action figure.
However, these days, action figure collectors are collecting statues of
their favorite characters, and the Masters of the Universe line has been
sadly relegated to a line of "staction" figures, which are same-size-as-
the-figures statues of characters that should've been made as action figures.

Frankly, the Karate Fighters fit more closely into the category of action
figures than that. Their heads turn -- very slightly -- and their arms
and right leg are very loosely articulated. Despite this, they're able to
stand up on their own very capably. The left leg is articulated at an
angle, and has a spring in it.

The purpose of the game is to hit the button on the chest of your
opponent. This will send him flying off his base, and you win the round.
The way you hit the button is basically by getting a lucky shot during
the combat. There's a control dial on the base you place your Karate
Fighter on. This turns the figure very rapidly on a round base. Between
the spring-action leg and the other three loosely articulated limbs, the
end result is a figure that's flailing away with both arms and the leg
that's not mounted to the base, against an opponent that's doing the same
thing. Sooner or later, somebody's going to catch it in the chest and go
flying.

Arguably this is not authentic karate. But that would probably be
difficult to accomplish with a figure that stands about 5-1/2" in height,
with limited articulation.

The game certainly managed to be popular for several years. Whether this
was due to the backstory, the colorful characters, or just giving kids
the opportunity to use a surrogate to beat the tar out of somebody, I'm
really not certain.

The figures maintained more or less a fairly consistent build. Slightly
bulky, but not unusually so. Straight legs, arms bent forward slightly.
Offhand, the most unusual feature of most of the Karate Fighters -- that
is, the most consistent unusual feature that most of them shared -- were
their eyes. I don't know if Hasbro was going for some sort of manga/anime
look and missed by a bit or what, but most of the basic Karate Fighters
have these really large eyes that have a sort of "stare back at you"
quality that's just a bit creepy.

I wish I could remember character names better. And if I have the
instruction sheets around to these guys, I'm not sure where. The one name
I do remember from among the Karate Fighters is for a mail-order ninja
named Tiger Claw, and the reason I remember that, is because the name was
recently reused for a Ninja that came with the G.I.Joe Ninja Battles set.

The Karate Fighters Tiger Claw was one of two mail-order figures that you
could send away for. Yes, Hasbro promoted Karate Fighters to such a
degree that they even had mail-order characters for it! That sort of
thing was usually reserved for action figure lines like G.I.Joe and
Transformers. Tiger Claw was a particular colorful character, too, easily
living up to his name.

Attempted research on Google turned up almost nothing on the Karate
Fighters game. Some research on eBay turned up a couple of boxed sets,
offering names for some of the characters, including Dragon Kick, Red
Ninja (another name with some G.I.Joe history to it), Thunderfoot, a
native American who looks more than a bit like a native American from
Lanard's CORPS line called Tracker Tom, and Skull Crusher, a Road Warrior
reject.

Of the rest of the Karate Fighters, of which there were eighteen
characters total, including the two mail order figures, there was quite a
diversity. Although the focus was on martial arts, resulting in a
majority of characters that looked like they would be right at home in a
video game like Street Fighter or possibly Mortal Kombat, there were some
real oddballs, too.

Five of the figures would qualify as ninjas. Both of the mail-order
figures fit into this category. Several others were, for the most part,
ordinary humans dressed for fighting. One of my personal favorites in
this bunch was a soldier-type figure that could've fit in with G.I.Joe
fairly well. As for the rest -- welcome to the freakshow...

We have a green-haired cyborg with mechanical arms and a visor that looks
like he mugged Cyclops of the X-Men on the way to the arena. There's
another dressed in bulky armor. A third appears to be wearing a snake's
head for a mask, and has tattoos across his body that Vega from Street
Fighter would envy, and then there's the yellow-eyes oddball that appears
to be made out of stone. His chest button is shaped like a tombstone and
reads "R.I.P." Not bad on the intimidation front.

The game progressed for several years, adding interesting features as it
went along. The figures started to come with weapons that they could use
to pummel one another. And then there were the figures with the masks --
and the ones with the tentacles. This was when Karate Fighters started
getting seriously strange.

Two figures came with huge helmet-like masks, which were supposed to
spring over their heads during battle. This feature only worked
moderately well. One of the figures was an Oriental warrior with a nicely
detailed dragon mask. The other one was a bit more generic, with a greysh
armored helmet with fangs.

The most freakish of the Karate Fighters, though, had to be the two with
the tentacles. Both figures had four loosely articulated tentacles
emerging from their back. I'm not sure how effective these were in
battle, but if nothing else, it doubtless created a flurry of motion that
would likely make it that much harder for the opponent to aim for the
chest button. These two particular Karate Fighters didn't even look
esepcially human. One had purple skin, huge lower fangs, and green
reptilian tentacles, and the other one had dark blue skin, a hairstyle
that looked like he'd borrowed it from Wolverine, and rather insect-like
tentacles.

Eventually, Hasbro got into licensed products for their Karate Fighters,
with three distinct sets, the third of which came along so far after the
original game had run its course that it wasn't even called Karate
Fighters, but the figures were still the same design.

The first two sets involved BATMAN and SMALL SOLDIERS. The Batman set
featured a somewhat non-typical Batman. His uniform was mostly black, but
there were bright green highlights on it that showed Batman was wearing
some protective body armor. The figure also had a cloth cape. I wonder
how much this might've hindered his fighting ability. His opponent, not
surprisingly, was the Joker, who was dressed fairly traditionally, except
for spiked shoulder pads. He's wearing a boxing glove on one hand, and
spiked knuckles on the other.

The SMALL SOLDIERS set featured, of course, Gorgonite leader Archer, and
Commando Elite commanding officer Chip Hazard. The figures are excellent
likenesses of their movie counterparts, superb matches overall, even
fitting within the Karate Fighters figure format. The only really obvious
difference is the prominent chest button on Chip Hazard.

The third set, the one tha was not actually marketed as a Karate Fighters
product, was based on G.I.JOE, right around the time the new 3-3/4" line
got started in 2002. By this time, the Karate Fighters concept had been
gone from the game aisles for years, and Hasbro marketed this item as a
G.I.Joe product called COMBAT FIGHTERS. But the figures were the same,
and even used body parts from the original Karate Fighters. It featured
Duke going up against a Cobra Neo-Viper. The Duke figure is acceptable if
bland. He's wearing a beret for some reason, something I don't recall
Duke ever doing, nor is it a previous head sculpt. The Neo-Viper looks
decent, but he borrows from a lot of previous body parts, except for the
head, and his resemblance to the actual Neo-Viper figure suffers a bit
for this.

However, the two figures fully qualify as Karate Fighters, and are
totally compatible with the rest. Between all the licensed concepts, you
can have Duke pound on the Joker, see if Chip Hazard wants to take on the
Neo-Viper, have Batman work his way through half a dozen ninjas, whatever.

There was, as I recall, one other Karate Fighters type set that I chose
not to get. It was based on Jurassic Park. I decided that adding a couple
of raptors, whose body types would doubtless not substantially resemble
the rest of the Fighters, was just a little too much of a stretch.

So, bottom line -- are the Karate Fighters action figures? Or are they
game pieces? Well, let's say they're both. They don't seem to get much
attention these days, given my less-than-successful research attempts.
But for what they were, they were well made, nicely done, and a cool
concept. And maybe this "Flashback Review" will give them the bit of
attention and respect I feel they deserve.