Game Review: Karateka
Back in the days of the 8-bit Apple II there was a young man called Jordan Mechner. Rather than focus all of his efforts on obtaining a degree at Yale University, he instead harnessed all those youthful hormones into a love story known as Karateka. As it turned out, this love story was based in the form of a fighting game that perhaps took the frustrations of unrequited love and manifested them into brutal outbursts of Karate based combat. Understandably, it was a best seller: shifting more than half a million copies to other young men and women with a similar sense of angst.
Several decades later, and Mechner has successfully rebooted and modernised his later gaming classic Prince of Persia, as well as writing a screenplay for its film adaptation. As the game that launched Mechner’s career in video games, the legacy of Karateka has finally received a similar treatment, but it’s not necessarily what you would expect. Released as a downloadable title, this HD remake of Karateka is no reimagining, but instead an ode that emphasises its Arcade heritage. Instead of using its premise for some grand blockbuster trilogy, it is a simple and speedy session of fighting that only takes around half an hour to complete. The premise is identical to the 1983 original, in which a young man embarks on a dangerous quest to save and hopefully win his true love Mariko: beating up anyone who gets in his way.
While society’s view on the process of courting might have changed a bit since then, Karateka still captures the addictive perfectionism and score chasing that dominated the early fighting games and helped define the genre. The combat is an easily remembered execution of punches and kicks that don’t combine into a sophisticated move set, but instead encourage the player to focus on timing. It is very easy to play, with audio cues interacting with the fighting to inform the player on when and how often to block an opponent’s attack. It is then both accessible and yet also only for the hard-core, as while it remains easy to get to grips with Karateka, only the committed will find themselves achieving the high scores to show off about. This is reflected in the three playable characters, in which if a player fails to succeed as the True Love figure, his death results in being replaced by the less favourable in the eyes of Mariko character of the Monk. If you die again, then the Monk’s place is taken by the even less desirable and slightly dim-witted figure of the Brute. Quite humorously then, if a player lacks the brains to play well, then he is represented by a fitting character.
This is all complimented by a glossy Japanese locale that has all the rich colours of its native cherry blossom trees as well as taking place in a classic enchanting castle of traditional feudalist Japan. The string dominated shamisen soundtrack that is typically associated with ancient Japanese culture blends in seamlessly with the fighting, and ultimately shows Karateka as Mechner’s love affair with the Eastern.
However, while this remake of Karateka does well to capture the traditions of the genre, as well as harken back to the fighting days of old, its lack of modernisation sadly eliminates its ability to be played over and again. Considering this is something that is encouraged by Karateka in its emphasis on mastering the timing of fighting, as well as bettering your score, this really undermines the whole experience. The differing characters have no individual move set, there is no way to increase the difficulty and ultimately because the entire game is set in just one particular half-an-hour set piece, it has a tendency to bore the player. Perhaps with a little more variation and a little more adherence to more modern conventions it would retain a certain depth. Still, what Karateka set out to do, it does well, which is a charming, honest and respectful ode to a classic of the fighting genre.
Available now on Xbox Live Arcade