Review by Bloomer
Reviewed: 02/17/01 | Updated: 02/22/01
The landmark fighting game is a potent, graceful and cinematic experience
'Focus your will on your objective. Put fear and self-concern behind you, accepting death as a possibility. This is the way of the Karateka.'
These are the final eerie words from Karateka's opening scroll.
This tremendously popular game of hand-to-hand combat in an ancient oriental land was a technical and aesthetic breakthrough for the Apple II. When I fire it up now, everything I remember about it (surprisingly) floods back to me, including all of the strategies and tricks, so that I am able to complete it in one pass. But time hasn't lessened the impressive overall experience of the game nor its distinctive atmosphere. Apple II fans everywhere are always smug to know that the style and ideas used by Jordan Mechner in Karateka were the basis for his follow-up 'Prince of Persia', also originally for the Apple II, which went on to become possibly the most ported game of all time, appearing on virtually every console and system under the sun.
So it all begins in Karateka... You play a young hero who must battle his way into the fortress of the warlord Akuma and rescue the princess Mariko. The story is told in an opening scroll. The opening credits immediately have a cinematic feel, flashing single elements up onto a darkened screen.
'Broderbund Software presents...'
'A game by Jordan Mechner...'
Your character, clad in white combat robes, emerges climbing up from a cliff into a courtyard to the sounds of his own short fanfare. The clarity and fluid motions of the characters are readily apparent. The view is side-on, with quasi-3D elements such as arches overhead and a stationary distant background (a snow-topped mountain) contrasting with the more rapid scrolling of the adjacent courtyard wall. Exteriors have a wide-open feel, and it was a wise move to avoid clutter in the backgrounds given the Apple II's flakey display habits. The characters are sketched principally in black and white, once again placing all the emphasis upon their quite graceful movements.
Your first opponent wears a fearsome mask - as do all of your successive opponents. It's surprising how quickly a feel is created for the individual personalities of each combatant using this simple trick of giving each one a new and distinctive mask. Even not having played the game for years, I could immediately remember each opponent and what kind of attack they would use just from watching them arrive in their mask.
There are ceremonial aspects to the combat. If you stand initially and bow, you are surprised to see your first opponent bow in return. For cheap laughs, you can have an endless bowing match. But eventually you need to drop into combat stance, accompanied by a stressful warcry. Karateka also made good use of the Apple IIs strange variety of sound-producing tricks. The warcry is a pained but expressive sound which fits well.
Combat itself is a more subtle matter than in the modern beat-em-up. You have six basic moves - high, mid-height and low kicks, and the same set of punches. With no blocking available and only two kinds of in-combat movement (a small shuffle and a long slow stride), it's about timing and patience. Early enemies will wander continuously towards you, allowing you to constantly kick them back into submission. Later enemies gather more patience, advancing far more slowly, which may unnerve you into rushing into their kicks. With each fight completed, your maximum stamina is reduced by a point, so eventually enemies will start with 3-4 times as much health as yourself. At this point, being entirely patient will result in you losing as both you and your foes heal slowly with time. You need to find a more zen-like balance of aggression and defence.
When you slay a foe, you can quickly move the joystick to the high, middle or low position to select your victory pose (was this feature 10 years ahead of its time??) and then you need to think about making progress towards the fortress. After your first victory, we have a cut-scene to the chamber of Akuma himself. There is a strong contrast between the complete darkness inside the fortress and the outdoors. An eagle sits on Akuma's shoulder, and to the strains of two short sinister themes, one of his warriors enters, is ordered to kill you, bows, and starts to make his way towards you. The game now alternately cuts between your progress, running towards the fortress, and your foe running from the other direction.
The cut-scene is truly a great feature. I had certainly never seen anything like it in a game before in its day, nor the cross-cutting between you and your next opponent. It really does feel like an involving film. Even now, the combination of the few notes on the soundtrack and the succinct gestures and stylised motions of Akuma and his henchman is something quite potent.
Running towards your opponent.. don't run for too long, as a single Karateka blow to an unguarded victim is fatal (though it's pretty funny too, to die after many fights because you run into a man's extended fist). Drop into combat stance, scream again, and let him have it!
Once you have completed the courtyard sections, you enter the outer corridor of the fortress. Comfortingly, the background mountain is still visible through window panes, but it's dark in here and the atmosphere has changed. Your opponents are warming up, and inbetween rounds, Akuma's eagle swoops on you for a peck. Running into the eagle is also another frustrating but potentially amusing way to die instantly.
The spiked gate which slammed on me the first time I ever completed this section of the game, and left me visibly bleeding to death on the floor, was a cruel but powerful shock. I was sent back to the beginning, as you always are when you die in Karateka, ready to approach it with more caution next time. Karateka often pulls a dramatic stunt like this that might be a bit savage, but you still appreciate the strong experience the game is giving you.
When you reach the inner chambers of the fortress, the backgrounds are entirely dark. Yet some deft motions of the graphics and angling of doors creates a vivid picture of the rooms you are moving through. There is a nice atmosphere to this section of being truly deep inside the structure. Your opponents patiently wait for you in a series of rooms whose doors you must kick open. For the penultimate battle, you will have a mere six or so health points left, and as your opponent's health is displayed as the remainder of the width of the screen in relation to yours, it's a bit frightening.
Before you face Akuma, you must fight his eagle. This battle caused spectacular frustration to me in my youth, and much screaming and mashing of the joystick when I fell to a crumpled dead heap on the floor. It still makes my heart rate jump today, which I guess is a good sign. It's a pretty harsh experience when you first die here, but once you know the 'trick', you will almost always win, even if it gets a bit hairy. Admittedly the game did give you a chance to train for this earlier on by having the eagle attack you between skirmishes in section two. It's simply a matter of timing.
Akuma is the only opponent who can launch karate attacks as numerously as yourself and at the same speed. And he has more health than you do. What's really impressive (but fatal) is getting into a punching match with him, where you just trade bodyblow for bodyblow until you crumble. It is always you. But against Akuma's iron constitution and scary solid stature, you have patience, and the human spirit! Or something. If you beat his eagle, you can definitely beat him. And when you do, watch out for the princess. Gee is that a nasty final trick to worry about in the game. Yet it fits perfectly with the ceremonial qualities. Let me just say that you should not advance upon her in combat stance.
Another thrill worth mentioning for joystick owners is the 'superpunch' trick which I worked out. You can't do this playing with the keyboard. I only ever showed it to other people, and never saw anyone else do it except those I demonstrated it to, so I dare to say it's entirely my own creation! You start to take a full length stride towards your opponent, but without completing it, rapidly rock back and forwards on that one leg, making repeated low punches. The punches start smacking your opponent's groin at high speed. He won't want to kick because you're too close, but his punching gets confused too. The game actually loses frames of animation as your opponent's arms teleport about wondering what to do. With perfect timing, you can slay early opponents with this in one pass, and even later ones if you're lucky. And if you don't kill later opponents, you'll still cause them substantial damage.
Karateka has very fine gameplay based on a simple structure, but it is really 'made' by its flourishes, its remarkable technical qualities and the atmosphere. The cinematic cut-scenes, the fluid and very human animation of the characters, the ceremonial qualities of the combat, the ornate scenery, the musical themes which I can still remember years after I first heard them. These things make Karateka a real experience. Some of the shocks and tricks were indeed cruel, and yet they cranked the drama factor up by %100, and only added to the cinematic feeling. Karateka still feels as engrossing and charming to play today (though a lot easier) as it did when I was first awed by it as a kid in primary school. I think it's a wonderful game and an important one in gaming history, which drove forward with many innovations.
I'd give it 10 out of 10, except for the amount of extreme aggravation I remember getting from the eagle!..
Taking that into account, I give it a superlative 9.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
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