Karateka, developer Jordan Mechner has brought back the old school classic as a nice companion piece to its modern sibling. If you are of a certain (read: younger) age, chances are you never played Karateka when it first came out way back in the Ice Ages. While I realize that old games like this will never blow away today’s young gamers, the good ones are still worth our time. And Karateka is definitely one of the good ones.
In Karateka Classic, you don the gi of a man who does two things. 1) Karate. 2) Save his girlfriend. The girlfriend in question has been kidnapped by an evil dude named Akuma, who also happens to know a few martial arts moves himself. With that simple formula, we have ourselves a classic video game. Don't be turned off by the primitive look, this game will surprise you with its slick presentation.
If you played the Karateka game that came out a few months ago, there will be plenty to recognize here. Much like in that title, the gameplay is spare and tense, as you move left to right, taking on one enemy at a time. While the new game gave you three characters to choose from, here you just control the fate and feet of one man.
With this retro revival, Mechner has given us the most stripped down and basic version of his game possible. First thing after tapping on it, it felt almost as if I booted this up on an old Apple II, instead of a new Apple iPad. There’s no newly designed menus to swipe through or glossed-up title screens and interfaces. Karateka Classic just goes right into the action and puts you inside this old school title.
The presentation works in lockstep with the game design philosophy. Everything in Karateka is simple, spare, zen. The motion capture techniques that Mechner employed, while crude by today’s standards, are still very impressive, especially when put in context of the early 1980s. I still find it impressive, much as I did with the original Prince of Persia, that these dead simple pixelated characters could move so naturally.
The controls are handled with a virtual overlay on both sides of the screen that not only serve as a sort of "karate instructional poster" version of the art of Karateka, but also let you pull off your moves and fighting stances. The battles are simple enough at first, but as you progress, the enemies get harder and harder, forcing you to time your moves and make sure that you land effective blows. Even if you only use two moves, it still feels like you’re employing a whole arsenal of physical combat.
There’s a real satisfying feeling of the game getting more complex the further you get. I love how the health bars recharge over time, which makes stringing together a combination of moves all the more important. And the farther you get, the more the tension mounts, because when you die in Karateka, you have to start over. I know that may seem harsh, but old games were unforgiving like that. And don't worry, it builds character. (Tip: Don't go into a fighting stance when you meet the princess, or you'll throw your iPhone into a lake.)
This is a retro title that’s a welcome addition to the library of any old school gaming enthusiast. But it’s also a title that younger gamers should play as well. Think of it like reading Moby Dick. It’s not something you necessarily want to do, but it’s good for ya. There’s a reason it’s called Karateka Classic!