Karateka Review

Karateka is an attractive remake of a classic, but simplistic combat and limited replay value keep it from greatness.

by

It's best to approach Karateka much as you would a haiku. Its short narrative follows the lives of three heroes that parallel the three lines of a haiku's English transliteration. In an earlier, simpler time, its short bursts of gameplay were exciting--innovative, even--but its charm doesn't hold up so well in an era that prefers long-winded heroic epics. There's much to appreciate in its unique mix of lush animations and nostalgic gameplay, but they're fleeting pleasures, much like a lotus that wilts not long after it blooms.

This isn't as hard to pull off as it looks.

Karateka first saw life in the late months of 1984, when the craze over The Karate Kid was still sweeping the country after the film's release that summer. It was innovative at the time, designed by Jordan Mechner of Prince of Persia fame, complete with engaging cinematics and fluid combat movements that once seemed impossible considering the limitations of the Apple II. As was par for the course in those days, the story involved little more than saving the princess Mariko (a blonde, much like the hero himself) from the clutches of the evil warlord Akuma, but the whole experience benefited from touches of humor, such as the way Mariko could kill the hero in one hit if he had the gall to approach her in fighting stance. Elsewhere, if you inserted the floppy disk upside down, the action on the screen would unfold upside down.

In the modern incarnation, that humor is gone. Drawing on Karateka's inherent simplicity, Mechner instead attempts to transform the whole into an emotional mix of artistry and fun. Gone are the Caucasian protagonists, for instance; in their place, a cast of Japanese warriors and monks spar among pretty cel-shaded temples and pathways. It works, for the most part, and the occasional flashes of stunning scenery make it easy to appreciate. Even though you watch the heroes you control run up arcing passageways, Karateka is as bound to rails as Japan's Shinkansen lines, and you'll find that you can't even retreat to pick up the health-granting flowers your heroes may have passed along the way.

You're gonna have to get closer than that.

Still, the three heroes provide this incarnation's most intriguing feature, with each hero granting access to a different ending. The first hero is Mariko's true love, a dashing fellow with a ponytail who can take only about half as many hits as the others. Reaching Mariko with him affords the best ending, while his comparative lack of hit points afford the most challenge. Should he die, though, the monk steps up in his place. Karateka, already easy, suddenly becomes easier, because the monk can take many more hits than Mariko's dashing but flimsy boyfriend.

But should you fail even with him, you can still fall back on the hulking brute, whose goofy animations and massive girth are reminiscent of Popeye's Bluto, and seem out of place in this serene animated world. He has a good heart--as you see in a brief flashback that reveals his love for Mariko--but it's clear from her conflicted gratitude at the end that he's the last choice in both position and preference.

The problem, unfortunately, is that all three heroes play the same. Karateka's combat never gets more difficult than taking on the foes who confront the heroes one by one and then timing your blocks, which then allows you to whale on them through normal and heavy attacks. Perform well enough at this, and you fill a chi meter that grants access to a helpful stun. The only difference between the three protagonists lies in the true love's meager health pool. You can master this system on your very first playthrough, especially once you realize that the musical cues in the background announce the pattern of incoming attacks in most fights. Three plinks on a shasimen, for instance, heralds three incoming blows; a lazy string glide heralds a massive single attack; and a flurry of notes announces a rapid cascade of punches and kicks. While not without a welcome dash of beauty, combat is so predictable that only Akuma's huge health pool poses any real threat, along with Akuma's hawk, which torments the heroes periodically as they make their way up to Akuma's citadel.

One of the toughest enemies isn't even human.

In Karateka's favor, the game lasts as long as it should considering the simplicity of its design; the downside is that this amounts to a mere 30 minutes. That's all, and for 800 Microsoft points to boot. At that price, it's worth wondering why Liquid Entertainment didn't include the original as a bonus for completing the achievements. There's minor replay value in store if you would like to reach Mariko with her true love or win the game without ever letting the foes land a hit, but if you're particularly focused, it's possible to score the majority of the 12 achievements in a single playthrough.

Such a short running time wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, if the overall experience lingered with you long after its completion. It's a shame, then, that Karateka's easy combat is so disappointing. Even the rich cinematics don't lift Karateka to greatness, because they depend on a sentimental and predictable "save the princess" trope that never manages to distinguish itself regardless of the ending. For all that, it's not without its charms, albeit fleeting ones.

The Good
Lovely art and music
Crisp animations, reminiscent of an animated film
Use of three heroes allows for three different endings
The Bad
Short, and has too little replay value and leaves no lasting impression
Combat is easy and repetitive
6.5
Fair
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Leif Johnson (pronounced "Layf") is a freelance writer whose works have appeared on GameSpot, IGN, PC Gamer, Official Xbox Magazine, GameTrailers, and a host of other publications. He still considers GameSpot a "home" of sorts, though, as he got his foot in the door through GameSpot's blogging platform. He lives on a ranch north of Goliad, Texas..

Discussion

19 comments
nyran125tk
nyran125tk

would of been better if he made the fighting really realistic and interesting.

theKSMM
theKSMM

I had no idea this game was coming, but it I was really excited the first time I saw it listed.  I played the Commodore 64 version of this game, and it is probably still among my top five favorite games of all time.  I continued to be disappointed (though not surprised because it is Jordan Mechner) that it never appeared on GOG or in app form somewhere.

So on the one hand, I'm mildly disappointed that the gameplay isn't more fulfilling.  I would love to see the Karateka motif and style taken to AAA levels with a multimillion dollar budget.  On the other hand, what made Mechner's games special was their attention to the story and art at a time when most games had little of either.  So it's no surprise here that Mechner has given us a short romp in which art trumps gameplay.

geitenvla
geitenvla

Wow, I just finished the game on my first attempt in 31 minutes. I was like wtf? I remember playing the original being so very hard. This is a joke. All you have to do is press "D" to block and than smash your mouse to make a combo. I guess this is the most pointless game I've played in a very long time.

spartan_jedi
spartan_jedi

nooooooo ways is this based on the TV Game?

farcorners
farcorners

the original game really only has nostalgic value for people owning apple computers in the 80s. Back then, It may well have had great animation for an apple 2 game, but compared to what? Snake Panic?

 

Why would anyone think there was name value in this, and any value in a mediocre remake?

jastone837
jastone837

i played the original on computer, and i was very disappointed in the remake...the original had three things the remake didn't: fighting the birds and the fighters at the same time, the falling gates that were very difficult to time and were instant death, and Mariko high-kicking the player as he approaches aggressively...it's actually funny reading the review because as a very young kid, i couldn't understand how to keep Mariko from kicking me in the original until just now...so i never beat the game officially back then...i do agree that it would have been awesome to include the original as an unlockable under whatever stipulations they put...i bought it just for nostalgia and comparison...i would love to play the original again to make right what has been wrong very early on in a veteran gamer's life..lol

GAME-QUEST-EX
GAME-QUEST-EX

The art style of "Karateka" kind of reminds me a bit of visual style of "The Mark of Kri" (2003) & "Rise of the Kasai" (2005), both on the PS2.

Dnaisinmybody
Dnaisinmybody

Did anyone ask for this game? I'd be very surprised if the answer is yes! Still kinda cool that they've tried bringing it back though. 

Ratatoskr321
Ratatoskr321

"whale on your enemies" hehehe. Fairly certain you meant wail :)

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

 @Ratatoskr321 Actually, to "wail" is to emit a mourning cry. "Whale," the verb, means to thrash or beat. We got it right; we have a copyeditor for a reason!

GAME-QUEST-EX
GAME-QUEST-EX

 @KingofCabal 

 

Those titles were action adventure games, with stealth elements in their gameplay. Their art-style was quite good, similar to "Karateka" reviewed here.

 

Plus, the games setting & story drew from Polynesian Mythology, which is pretty rare in the video game industry.

 

Both games were on the PS2. You can look them up online (WikiPedia has info on them). Fun titles, but they were not hugely popular, even though "Rise of the Kasai" was in fact the direct sequel to "Mark of Kri."

Karateka (2012) More Info

First Release on Nov 07, 2012
  • iPhone/iPod
  • PC
  • + 3 more
  • PlayStation 3
  • Wii U
  • Xbox 360
Jordan Mechner returns to game development for the first time since Prince of Persia: Sands of Time with a downloadable remake of his Apple II action hit from 1984.
6
Average User RatingOut of 29 User Ratings
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Developed by:
Liquid Entertainment
Published by:
Karateka LLC, D3Publisher
Genres:
Action
Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language.
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