Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Game 343: Karateka

"Karotica?" Is that like erotic karate? - "D"

Jordan Mechner's journals portray himself as a computer nerd, an appreciator of classical music, a college slacker, and with a level of interest perhaps second only to his zeal for programming, a cinephile with an eye for authorial touch. It could hardly seem more appropriate that his 1989 opus Prince of Persia, a 2D platformer with realistically proportioned and animated characters, actions and physics based on plausible human athleticism, and a focus on puzzles, set pieces, and use of cinema grammar to advance the plot visually, would retrospectively be labeled a cinematic platform game and considered the precursor to that subgenre of games with such design goals.

Mechner's road begins in 1982, though, and his first commercial product Karateka, though it isn't a platformer, and it ultimately didn't enjoy the enduring success of his later smash hit, a lot of the ambition and style comes through here, in this unassuming little beat'em up adventure from 1984.

Before working on Karateka, Mechner programmed and submitted Deathbounce, a crummy Asteroids Deluxe clone with twitchy keyboard controls and excessively slidey physics. It's not the worst Asteroids clone I've seen, but it isn't fun or very playable, and I don't feel extended analysis would enhance our understanding of Mechner's career.

Mechner would submit the game to Broderbund, and was personally advised by Doug Carlston to improve on certain aspects, and even sent him a free joystick and a copy of Choplifter! for inspiration. Blown away by its smooth animations, original gameplay design, and most of all, its sales volume, Mechner put Deathbounce on permanent hold in favor of a something much more ambitious that had been floating in his mind - an adventure with a martial arts film-inspired presentation, and an elaborate fighting control system.

Two years later, Karateka hit shelves.


Karateka opens with some silent film inspired storytelling techniques. Title cards, theatrical gesturing (made more fluid and realistic with rotoscoping), expressionistic use of light and shadow, and even three dimensional blocking to an extent. It's simple, but feels more modernly cinematic in style than anything we've looked at yet, or indeed anything predating Prince of Persia, and many things since, for that matter.

You begin ascending a cliffside, and soon encounter the first of Akuma's guards, and begin your first of many fist fights throughout Karateka's brief runtime. Sadly, Mechner's elaborate dual-fisted fighting system never came to fruition, and the full extent of its gameplay possibilities - and technical issues - are already seen by the time this fight is over. For instance, the gameplay speed is overall quite slow, and the presence of doorways and arches really exacerbates the problem, leading to lag and dropped inputs. Thankfully, the fight mechanics are quite forgiving, except in one regard - if you get hit even once while not in a fighting stance, you die. Apart from that, you're much more likely to be killed through your own impatience than by mistimed moves.

You have three kicks and three punches, low, medium, and high variations on each, but you can get by almost entirely on your medium kick. Walking is slow, and kicks just have better range than punches. You're basically invulnerable so long as you stand still and wait for your opponent to step within your kicking range before you let loose with your mighty foot - worst case scenario is that the first blow knocks him out of range, best case scenario is that he starts flailing with his fists uselessly while you land in multiple kicks.

Against these early starting enemies, though, you can walk right up to them and just pummel them to death with rapid-fire fists. There's a knack to doing this without getting kicked yourself while approaching, but it's not difficult.

After your first victory, more filmic techniques heighten the drama without too much gameplay interference. Tracking shots with parallax effects on Mt. Fuji follow your assault. Cross-cut shots transition in with wipes to show Akuma sending reinforcements your way, or the princess stirring in her cell.

The enemies don't fight much better just yet, but they start to have more health than you, making it unwise to trade blows too aggressively.

Enemies' kicks also outrange your punches.

Once you make it to the palace, enemies start fighting more defensively. Patience is key, but you also can't just depend on outlasting them through attrition - health regenerates, and if all you can do is land the occasional defensive kick, you'll just be at a standoff as that tick of damage keeps regenerating faster than you can deplete any more of them. Enemies love to kick the air in front of you, but if you can slip in between kick animations, or coax them into stepping within range of your own kicks, you can pretty easily hit them more often than they hit you.

Falcon PUNCH!

You'll have to deal with Akuma's falcon too, and this is the only place where high and low punches serve any purpose. A well timed and aimed swat gets it out of your face. A miss means you get clawed up a bit and have to fight the next guy with a bit less health. Not a big deal, really, unless you get taken by surprise and get falconed in the running stance. That means you die.

The final screen is protected by a guard with similar tactics and lots of health, and a nasty portcullis trap that will probably kill you the first time you encounter it.

The final area is the prison, where all of the guards have more health than you and fight defensively with greater speed and effectiveness, but once again, patience prevails. All those doors will slow things down terribly, but mistakes typically cost you one hit - a hit you can quickly regenerate back - and successfully stepping in range usually let you hit back multiple times.

Kick down the penultimate door, and you're in for a nasty surprise.

That damn bird! Timing your punches to actually land is tricky, and even unfair with how laggy the controls are, but on the other hand, it only has five hitpoints and doesn't regenerate. I have never lost this fight, to be honest.

Only Akuma remains, and the tactics that got you here will defeat him too. Like everyone else, other than the falcon, he simply can't harm you as long as you allow him to approach first. He'll stand just outside your kick range, starting at you for ages before approaching, but this can be a good thing if you need time to regenerate. I lost to him once, mainly because I got impatient and got in close too soon to trade punches while his own health was up, but after than I beat him down without a problem. It just took awhile - about two minutes.

Obligatory note - approach Mariko in your fighting stance, and she KO's you with a single hook kick.

Makes you wonder why she needed rescuing.

GAB rating: Average. Karateka's authorial style is visionary - apparently Mechner spent nearly two years making it - but the gameplay is kind of shallow and repetitive, even for the era, and it's all over in about twenty minutes, which would be too short if the gameplay weren't shallow and repetitive. But there's a forward-thinking elegance to its cinematic inspiration that you don't see in its contemporaries. Every scene and every room, despite the Apple II's cripplingly limited palette, is aesthetically pleasing, never seeming too cluttered, too busy, or out of place for the setting. King's Quest, another game with cinematic influence and where every "room" is artfully constructed, feels flat and garish in comparison. Thirty years later, Mechner would be involved in remaking Karateka for mobile devices, but even its visual style misses the mark, I feel, constantly bombarding the player with tutorials, flashing icons, and "gamey" touches like combo counters, chi-meters, and scoring bonuses and extra lives when the original was over that, even forgoing the concept of points when seemingly nobody else realized you could make a video game without them.

Further obligatory note - inserting the disk upside down causes the game to load and play upside down.


  1. Really interesting thank you ! I had never heard of the game, and the intro looks a LOT like the one from Prince of Persia. Influence is probable.
    I wonder whether you will play Bushido (one year later, 1983) - it is a game I played a bit when young I did not quite like, but possibly because it was so difficult. I wonder whether there was some sort of influence there too.

    A lot of years later, there will be Budokan. I loved that one.

    1. I just realized that I had missed the line where you remind everyone that Jordan Mechner is actually the designer of Prince of Persia ^^. Well, of course "influence" is "probable" :).

  2. Loading the disk upside down causes it to play upside down? Is that normal for the Apple II?

    1. Nope. This is an easter egg made possible by having an inverted copy of the game on the disk's reverse side.


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