Despite the valiant efforts of services like Good Old Games, a lot of classic games have fallen through the cracks. The reasons are many, ranging from licensing issues to a general lack of interest amongst the populace. In the case of 1984's Karateka, creator Jordan Mechner just never felt the time for a re-release or reimagining was right. Luckily for the game's fans, that all changed with the recent boom in mobile and downloadable games.
Curious about the game's revival -- and because you never turn down a chance to talk to an industry legend -- we spoke with Mechner about, amongst other things, what players can expect from Karateka's return.
A brief history lesson
Alongside Karateka, Mechner is best-known as the man behind Prince of Persia 1 and 2, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and The Last Express. As diverse a list as that may seem, it doesn't totally capture Mechner's scope as a creator. He also served as a screenwriter for the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time film, wrote graphic novels (Solomon's Thieves, Prince of Persia: Before the Sandstorm), and released two documentaries (Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story, Waiting for Dark). But it all began with Karateka, a game he created on an Apple II in college.
"Since high school I'd been dreaming of making a game that would be good enough to be published. And Karateka was the one that made the dream come true," Mechner told me. He had similarly high hopes for a game called Deathbounce, which he developed at the age of 17. Upon submitting it to Broderbund Software, though, it was rejected.* But as they say, you must crack a few pixels to make an omelet, and it wasn't much later that Mechner found himself with a hit on his hands.
Fast forward to now
There's been little movement in the Karateka camp since the series of ports that followed its original release. This presents a bit of a prickly issue: How does one modernize a classic while still respecting its original fans? By updating the graphics and implementing a few new gameplay ideas while still retaining the core mechanics of its predecessor, Mechner managed to find a way.
"In the original Karateka, the princess Mariko has been kidnapped by the evil warlord Akuma, and you have to fight Akuma's army of karate-trained warriors to rescue her. It's the same story here, but now there are three suitors, all in love with Mariko," said Mechner. And the inclusion of three playable characters isn't simply cosmetic; it's Mechner's way of acknowledging what's changed in the industry. "Now in the original Karateka, as soon as you lost a fight, the game was over -- you had to start from the beginning. You know, that was how we did it in the '80s. In the new Karateka, if the true love loses a fight, then the next suitor picks up where the true love stopped. The next suitor is a monk who is slightly more powerful than the true love; his karate moves are stronger. And when the monk fails, then the third suitor -- the brute, the most powerful and the ugliest of the three suitors -- continues."
If you want the happiest ending in the game, that requires finishing it with Mariko's "true love." It's a unique system, and one that gives the thrill-seekers something to strive for while ensuring the more casual of us aren't scared away.
The combat has also undergone a bit of a makeover, shifting gears to something more rhythm-focused.
"When an enemy attacks you, he attacks with a series of punches and kicks. You actually have to block those attacks in rhythm by tapping on the touch screen, or in the console version by pressing the block button with the correct rhythm -- you can't just hold down the button, you have to actually block individual attacks," said Mechner. "And if you do that successfully, then you earn a counter-attack and have the fun of beating on the guard."
This rhythm-oriented mechanic wouldn't work without -- you guessed it -- music. Mechner informed me that Christopher Tin (Civilization IV, Pocket God) composed a score that "reflects the on-screen action."
The original Karateka is known for pulling a few pranks on its players. For example, if you were still in fighting stance when you approached Princess Mariko at the end of the game, she'd kill you in one hit. I asked Mechner if players could expect similar mischief this time around.
"You can't surprise people the same way twice. I think the three suitor system will be a surprise for people who remember the original Karateka, and we've got a lot of little moments in fights where, when you fight a particular opponent, there's maybe a little twist..." Mechner responded. I laughed, remembering the odd synthesis of joy and anger I felt when a hawk destroyed me in the original.
Having discussed the general changes we can expect from the new Karateka, I asked Mechner what kinds of differences -- and similarities -- there will be between the mobile and console versions. And, perhaps telling of how far video games have come, there's quite a bit of parity!
"The iOS version is simplified from the console version -- iOS can't quite match all the beauty of the Xbox and Playstation and PC with the environmental effects and particle and lighting and so forth, but it's amazingly close," Mechner informed me.
Karateka is available now on Xbox Live, with PSN, PC and iOS versions arriving later this month. Whether you're a fan of the original or just now learning about it, one thing holds true: always punch the hawk.
*Mechner has made the game available for download here, and sounds open to the idea of working with an iOS/Android dev on porting it over to mobile.