Karateka: Resurrecting a Classic

Jordan Mechner, later responsible for the Prince of Persia game franchise, released his first game in 1984 for the Apple II. This game was Karateka. It’s a side-scrolling game featuring industry changing one-on-one combat about a lover trying to save the Princess Mariko from Akuma’s castle fortress. It’s a simple, classic video game story.

Mechner returned to his independent roots earlier this year to remake the game in HD. First appearing on consoles, the remake has an all-star developer team: Screenwriter John August (who is listed as a producer), Grammy-winning composer Christopher Tin, and artist Jeff Matsuda were all involved in the production. I never played the original, so I’m walking into this with fresh eyes. And I was not disappointed.

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The Concept

Karateka is largely a combat game. You run towards your next opponent and proceed to try and defeat them in hand-to-hand combat, which is more a test of timing than anything. Tapping on the screen at the right moment defends yourself from your enemy’s attacks, then you get your chance to retaliate. If your timing is off, you might look okay, but if it’s really off and you miss every opportunity to defend yourself, you don’t get a chance to retaliate at all.

The brilliance of the set-up is that it only requires one finger; defending and attacking are done just by tapping anywhere on the screen. Karateka is the very definition of easy to learn, but also meets the requirements of being difficult to master.

The Monk is the second character.

The Monk is the second character.

If you completely lose, a secondary character takes your place. This character is the Monk. And if you die again, you’ll play as the Brute. If the Brute dies, you can either use points you earn throughout the game to buy another chance at the offending fight or you can start all over. This setup gives the game a sense of urgency without ever becoming too difficult for novice players.

The Finer Details

When you die as the Lover (and you will) and the Monk takes the Lover’s place, the game actually adjusts to your skill level and becomes a little easier. The Monk is also a little more powerful than the Lover. The same thing happens again when you lose as the Monk (and I suspect the Monk will die as well on your first play through) and the Brute takes his place. Beyond that though, screenwriter John August has created an ending for each character. I still haven’t seen the Lover’s ending, but I look forward to seeing it if I ever get good enough at the game.

Foes get tougher. You will die. And you will need to start being OCD about flower searching.

Foes get tougher. You will die. And you will need to start being OCD about flower searching.

The game smartly mixes up the proceedings as you play. Along your journey, the game will get progressively more difficult as you take on mini-bosses who get faster and stronger as time goes on. You’ll also have to defend yourself from an attacking hawk (which is lovingly referred to as “punching the hawk”). You’ll start obsessively searching for purple flowers in an effort to gain health. There’s just enough small elements like this to keep me interested in coming back to the app for repeated rounds, not to mention that the perfectionist in me won’t be happy until I see every ending and get every achievement.

The Finest Details

I don’t normally mention achievements in an iOS game, simply because they normally aren’t worth mentioning. But the achievements for Karateka are smart and simple. Like the game itself, they offer immediate satisfaction early on and a reason to continue to develop your goals. They’re perfect for the game, and that attention to detail is both rare and appreciated.

Music plays a huge element in Karateka. A lot of your timing can be based upon the beats and the pacing of the music, so Christopher Tin’s score actually plays along with every round of gameplay. It’s a unique twist on a score that has to be experienced to be fully understood. There’s a level of professionalism to this score that simply isn’t in other indie games on iOS.

There's an actual story here!

There’s an actual story here!

I want to take a moment to talk about the script. John August is listed as producer, but some part of me assumes (based on his trade) that he had a hand in writing the script as well (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). It took me a couple play throughs to appreciate it, given what I expected from John August, but I think it’s tremendously powerful. It’s wordlessly communicated, which is often more difficult than just throwing words together (speaking from experience as a playwright), but I suspect the game can be universally appreciated by people of all languages as a result. The story still generates a feeling, and every ending (none of which I want to spoil for you) means something.

Art direction in the game is simply stupendous.

Art direction in the game is simply stupendous.

And the art needs to be mentioned alongside the game’s graphical prowess. I’m not going to say that Karateka looks as good as, say, Infinity Blade II, but it’s not a slouch. The real glory of the game is in its artwork. Characters actually emote. I feel like I can see the determination in the Lover’s eyes. The art is why John August’s story works. Beyond the great-looking environments and the well-rendered characters, the art helps tell the story. Because August’s script is wordless, it’s really the eyes that sell you on the story. The art is great.

These individual elements deserve a lot of praise because they are identifiable parts of a great package. They’re selling points. Mechner is the sort of developer who clearly cares about the entire app, down to the smallest detail, which seems reminiscent to me of the same qualities that Apple espouses in their own products. That’s the highest praise I can really give the game. The entire app, from the music and writing all the way to the animation and core game design, is simply top-notch.

Imperfections

Karateka is one of the few games that I’m proud to have on my iPad mini, iPad and iPhone. I feel like it’s a must-have game at all times, regardless of the device. So I was a little disappointed to find out it doesn’t have iCloud syncing. I don’t think it necessarily needs it; the game is fine with its own saved files on each device, but it would have been a nice touch.

Flowers for a princess.

Flowers for a princess.

On the note of nice touches, the iPhone app is not optimized for the iPhone 5 display at the time of writing. John August has told me that support for the 4-inch screen is “likely” coming.

There’s only one other flaw, and this one does bother me. Every time you restart a cycle, you literally restart the game. You have to go through the instructions again and be “re-taught” how to play. I wish that you could skip the instructions on a later go of the game; it just doesn’t make sense to continually go through it.

Conclusion

Niggles aside, Karateka is a fantastic remake of the original Apple II classic that influenced a generation. Without that legacy to stand on, Karateka would still stand on stable ground as a fantastic iOS game that’s just a pleasure to play, watch and listen to. It comes highly recommended to anybody with a device who can support it.


Summary

Karateka is a great remake of Mechner's famous debut game and comes highly recommended to anybody looking for some great one-on-one combat on iOS.

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