I've read a lot of bad press about China Warrior recently due to its re-release on Nintendo's Virtual Console service. Many make fun of the simple beat-'em-up as being a completely horrible game, which is not far off the mark: playing China Warrior is about as fun as eating a brick. But they don't know exactly how horrible it can be. In the early nineties, I had a personal run-in with this TurboGrafx-16 non-classic that still haunts me to this day.
Our story begins, strangely enough, in the early 1980s. I grew up playing (and watching my brother play) Atari 800 games, which were wonderful, but not magical. When I first saw Super Mario Bros. in 1986, it was the most incredible, enveloping gaming experience I'd ever seen in my life. A vibrant world of wonder and exploration unfolded before me, with secret warp zones, minus worlds, and a seemingly endless number of tricks to discover and exploit. So it was only natural that the US release of Super Mario Bros. 3 in 1990 seemed like the Second Coming (of Mario) to a devout young Nintendophile like myself. But I had no idea what I'd have to do to actually get the cartridge in my hands.
When I was a kid, I was often stricken with chronic outbreaks of strep throat. At one point, it seemed that every week would yield another trip to the doctor, another swab to the throat, and another traumatizingly ineffective penicillin shot delivered by an impersonal pediatrician. Ultimately, I had my tonsils removed at a local hospital. It was the summer of 1990.
As a gift for agreeing to the surgery, my parents bought me the game I wanted most: Super Mario Bros. 3. It was ready when I came home from the hospital, teasing me from within its golden box until I had the strength to pull the sacred cartridge out of its black nylon sheath. Even then, I was too sick to play the game, and I remained so for a week while recovering from the surgery. Bedridden and miserable, I could only look on, bleary-eyed, from across the room while my older brother coveted my prize. I begged him not to play the game before me, as I didn't want him to ruin any surprises it might hold. Reluctantly (and with my parents' insistence), he agreed.
After a full recovery, I eagerly explored the colorful and whimsical world of Super Mario Bros. 3. I loved the game — I cherished it, in fact, and it became my favorite game for the NES.
But all things fade with time, and our true feelings are often obscured by the lust for something new. In 1991, on the eve of a coming sea change in the console realm, my brother bought a TurboGrafx-16. With the TurboGrafx came the promise of better graphics, better sound, and better games.
Each holiday season, I drooled over the latest issue of the annual J.C. Penney Christmas catalog. Within those hallowed pages (which had never let me down before), I first encountered incredibly detailed screen shots of a large, buff, Bruce Lee-type karate commando locked in life-or-death combat with deadly ninja monks. Being something of an amateur martial artist myself (limited to kicking trees in the woods), this game seemed right up my alley. It was called China Warrior.
In order to afford more games and controllers for his new system, my brother began selling off his NES collection (limited to about 30 games at the time). Like him, I wanted a ride on the TG-16′s sleek black monorail to the future, and I decided that my ticket there would be China Warrior. Being only ten years old, I had no money to speak of. My only possessions of value were what few video games I already owned.
One weekend, my father took me and my brother to the local flea market. It was there, at a video game sales booth, that I first saw China Warrior's shiny jewel case in the flesh. Luckily for me (or so I thought at the time), the seller offered TurboGrafx-16 games with the trade-in of two NES games. In my zeal to possess the ultimate in video game entertainment, I foolishly traded in Super Mario Bros. 3 and another NES game (I can't remember which) for China Warrior. That had to be — and I say this with no reservation, sarcasm, or irony — the worst trade of all time.
Upon bringing my new game home and playing it, China Warrior's charade began to unravel. While my brother hated it instantly, I gushed over the vivid, lifelike graphics, still blinded by the temporary excitement of owning a piece of the future. It wasn't long, though, before my enthusiasm faded and I saw China Warrior for the hollow piece of electronic trinketry it was. My "ticket to the future" soon lay dusty and untouched in a cabinet, while my beloved Super Mario Bros. 3 was nowhere to be found.
My strep throat went away, but sadly, China Warrior never did. It's sitting on a shelf nearby as I type this, mocking my poor decision making skills as a child. Sure, I eventually acquired another copy of Super Mario Bros. 3, but the most special copy — the one my parents gave me as a get-well present — is still floating out there somewhere, out of place and abandoned before its time.