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Karateka Review

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On 02/13/2013 at 12:00 PM by Daniel Iverson

Jordan Mechner's latest remake plays it safe.

Fans of the original will enjoy revisiting Karateka. Newcomers should wait for a sale.

Remakes can breathe new life into classic games, which despite being paragons of their time, are now becoming relics of the past. They represent a chance to update more than graphics and sound, but also gameplay and value to match contemporary standards without compromising the timeless elements for which they were originally known. Karateka, a remake of the 1984 martial arts-themed Apple II game of the same title, is true to its roots but aims unfortunately low in terms of bringing something new to the table.

In Karateka, suitors of the captive Princess Mariko fight their way through a clifftop fortress to liberate her from the evil Akuma. Occasionally the game plays a cutscene of Mariko nervously awaiting rescue while Akuma deploys goons to stop you.

It’s a simple but charming premise highly characteristic of its time (Shortly after the original game was released, an Italian plumber would embark on a similar adventure). With no dialogue to tell the story, the game instead employs more subtle but effective techniques such as facial animations and music to convey Mariko's distress, Akuma's malevolence, and the suitors' heroism.

Once the adventure begins, you move through the fortress along a single, predefined path. Although you're constantly moving forward, I discovered by chance pressing the analog stick forward isn't even required. You can press it down, left, or right and still move forward.

With no branching paths, hidden items, puzzles or other obstacles to speak of, I soon realized navigation serves only to connect the hand-to-hand combat sequences which constitute the actual gameplay, and then I questioned why the game wanted me to control the suitor at all instead of simply initiating fights one by one automatically. I concluded it was probably so I could enjoy the scenery—colorful, cartoon-style imagery of bamboo trees, falling leaves, and waterfalls—and to listen to the excellent soundtrack by Civilization IV composer Christopher Tin.

The turn-based combat starts with the enemy unleashing a string of attacks while you attempt to block. Audio cues indicate the number of attacks to expect, with one chime pointing to a single hit and so on. The audio element is clever and gives the combat a rhythm that is easy to learn yet difficult to master. Successfully blocking the enemy’s last attack will leave him open to your own combination of punches and kicks. Performing well causes your chi meter to increase. Once it is full, you can activate a special attack that allows you to perform a combo without first blocking. Saving up the chi meter can be an effective way to prepare for the occasional boss fights. Mariko's flowers, occasionally found between battles, restore a few HP.

Should you die, another suitor will replace you. You start with Mariko's True Love, after which a monk and finally a brute (her second and third choices, respectively) pick up where the last failed. And if the brute fails, you may revive him by deducting points from your running score. Each suitor's animations are different, but all three play the same. The only significant differences are the endings you unlock with each one, and the fact certain suitors are tied to certain achievements.

From start to finish, the base experience lasts about 30–40 minutes, with additional play time to be derived from unlocking achievements (several of which are quite difficult; e.g., completing the game without taking any damage) and climbing the leaderboards.

The combat works despite its simplicity, but much like the story and navigation, is again paper-thin. Different fighting styles for each suitor, equipment, more special attacks, and upgrades would all be welcome additions to build upon the anemic gameplay.

I've tried to give credit where credit is due. Most everything Karateka presents is quite lovely. It's true to its source material, presented well, and fun to play while it lasts. But it's also hollow, and for everything it does right, it also misses the chance to do something better. While its simplicity was standard in 1984, perceptions have changed. Now, gamers expect more for their $10.

Both the original and the 2012 version were developed by Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, whose contribution to the remake is his first game development project since 2003's Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.

Ironically, Sands of Time was widely recognized as an ambitious and successful revitalization of an aging series. Obviously having the support of a major publisher afforded greater freedom to bring his vision to life, but it's a shame he wasn't so ambitious with revisiting Karateka too.

Ultimately, the remake is safe—and as a result, it's also forgettable and unfulfilling. Fans of the original might find enough value from the updated graphics to justify the purchase. I never played the original myself, so I experienced the remake without the aid of nostalgia and found it to be a questionable buy. If it's on sale for half off, go for it. Otherwise, there are better ways to spend your money.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.

Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.

Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.




02/13/2013 at 07:41 PM

Broken H

Double dragon and Kung Fu were the first nes games that introduced me to the beat em up/fighter genres. This is interesting for historical reference but I do admit I do expect "more" for my $10.00. Regardless, this was an informative piece.

Probably the most interesting concept is the one behind the three separate suitors. The fact they all play more or less the same is a wasted opetunity though.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

02/14/2013 at 10:40 AM

Have you tried Double Dragon Neon? It's a little slow and kind of cheesy, but it's pretty fun and has what may have been my favorite soundtrack of last year.


02/23/2013 at 07:28 PM

Yup, I downloaded DD: Neon as well, Julian. lol. You're right. The soundtrack is nostalgic 80's cheese at its' finest!


02/25/2013 at 03:35 PM

I recently downloaded and played this game and I have to say I agree with this review.  I played the original a pretty good amount on the C64 back in the day, and still have a great deal of nostalgia for it.  But they really didn't add anything for the remake.  I could play a game like this over and over again back when it came out (probably didn't hurt that I was also very young), but nowadays I need a little more to hold my attention.

This remake was fun while it lasted, but after playing it once (with all 3 suitors) I haven't really had a desire to play it a second time.  I think I made it to the final guy, and maybe one day I'll try to beat it.

Still, I don't regret buying it (especially since I got it on sale), but I'm not sure I could recommend it to others unless they were fans of the original.  To me at least, the 30 or so minute nostalgia trip (with updated graphics!) was worth it.


02/25/2013 at 07:12 PM

While I was reading this, I was thinking how much it reminded me of the original Prince of Persia, so I wasn't very surprised to find out that they were made by the same guy. Is it easier than PoP? I still haven't beaten that game...

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