When you think of Jordan Mechner, you probably think of sand, swords, and angsty ancient Iranian royalty. But it wasn’t Prince of Persia that got the famed game designer on the map (though admittedly, he hasn’t really done anything in the gaming industry since the 2003 reboot of the action platformer series); that honor belongs to Karateka, a beat ‘em up that Mechner wrote while still an undergraduate at Yale. This year’s remake of the classic game sports brand new visuals and audio, along with updated gameplay mechanics, but in execution feels really dated (and not in a cool retro kind of way), The original sold half a million copies on its release in 1984, but there’s not a whole lot in this remake that stands out as being done very well.
The basic premise of the game is the same one that anyone who’s played a game featuring a certain Italian plumber will recognize: bad guy kidnaps princess, good guy beats down hordes of minions, good guy rescues said princess from bad guy’s castle. This time though, instead of Dinosaur Land or the Mushroom Kingdom, you’re in feudal Japan, and there’s only one long, linear stage to play through. It’s so linear, in fact, that you can’t even explore the world; you can only move relentlessly forward, like a fat man who’s been promised the very last Twinkie in the world. It’s a shame, because the graphical aspect of the game is handled quite well. Art design is colorful and quite easy on the eyes; few evil lords bother to build koi ponds and beautiful mountain vistas into their dens of villainy. It’s let down perhaps a little by the technical aspects; there are quite a few jaggies and everything’s a little low-res. On the whole though, it is quite an upgrade from 8-bit pixel art on the Apple II.
The game is basically just a series of fights one after another, with maybe two or three short cutscenes to break things up. Controls are incredibly simplistic; you have one button to move forward, one button to block, two buttons to punch or kick (though in most cases there’s absolutely no difference between the two, other than the animation), and one button to pick up flowers. If you look at screenshots, you might be tempted to think that Karateka is a fighting game, but it’s actually just a rhythm game in disguise. Each fight falls into two phases: blocking and attacking. You can’t hit enemies until you’ve blocked their attack patterns, so it’s just a question of watching enemy animations and listening to audio cues to figure out how to time your blocks. Mashing buttons will get you killed fairly quickly, so it’s crucial to be patient and precise, but quick on the trigger finger. There were a few times where the controls felt a little off, like I’d gotten hit even though I clearly pressed the block button, which lead to some rather unsatisfying deaths. Sometimes enemies would even start hitting me while I was in the middle of my own attack, which was incredibly confusing and also incredibly cheap.
The audio cues are a nice mechanic that signal enemy attack patterns; a single note means a quick strike, while a brilliant trill of notes alerts you that a flurry of strikes is incoming. The game trains you to listen to and rely on the background music for those cues, which is why I feel like it’s so disingenuous when it suddenly and randomly takes away those cues with no explanation. More than once I was just sitting there waiting for those telltale chimes only to get hit with no warning whatsoever. It’s hard to say if it’s a bug or if it was a conscious design decision, but it just feels cheap, especially after you’ve been led to expect those cues to get through fights without getting hit.
As you move through the game, you can pick up flowers to restore your health, since it doesn’t regenerate between fights. You can’t save manually, meaning that if you die, that’s it for that particular character. Unlike in the original game, you have three lives, represented by three heroes: the True Love, the Monk, and the Brute. If one hero goes down, you just switch to the next character in line; there’s also a difficulty drop every time you switch to the next character, meaning that the greatest challenge is in completing the entire game without dying and reuniting Princess Mariko with the True Love. It’s actually quite difficult, and requires a bit of pattern memorization for the later, more difficult enemies. Other than that though, there’s not very much replay value. The entire game can easily be completed in less than thirty minutes, and once you’ve beaten the game once there’s not much reason to go back through it again unless you really want to see the different endings and compete for a high score on the online leaderboards.
Karateka isn’t necessarily a bad game, it’s just far too simplistic to really keep your attention for very long. Once you’ve played through the game once, you’ll probably feel like you’ve seen it all…because you pretty much have. Old school games are by no means bad, but the repetitive nature of Karateka’s gameplay doesn’t have enough depth to justify putting very much time into it. I’m not saying it’s not worth taking out for a spin; just don’t expect to get much more than your money’s worth.