If, like me, you are approaching your “late youth” and grew up in the 1980s alongside your trusted Apple II, chances are that you spent a considerable amount of time playing a game called Karateka. As the titular martial-arts expert, your goal was to free your beloved Princess Mariko from the clutches of the (presumably evil) warlord Akuma, who keeps her confined against her will while sending his (also evil) henchmen to dispatch you before you can reach his chambers.
Developed by Jordan Mechner, who would later rise to prominence with his long-running Prince of Persia franchise, Karateka was known for the fluidity of its animations—quite the feat considering that the Apple II could barely sustain eight frames per second—and for its uncanny ability to reduce grown men to tears. With notoriously tough enemies that required considerable hand-eye coordination to beat, and a twisted sense of humor that would turn Mariko into a death machine if, upon defeating Akuma, you forgot to exit your battle stance before attempting to free her, Karateka was the game everybody loved to hate.
Oh—and you had only one life: running out of energy meant immediate and definitive death, no matter how close to your objective you had managed to get.
Fast forward nearly 30 years, and Mechner’s creation has landed on iOS—still under his direction, but with the help of a small team from software house Liquid Entertainment. The Apple II’s blocky pixels have been traded in for a rich three-dimensional environment and gameplay has been significantly simplified for modern audiences, but the game has remained very much faithful to its ancestor in many other ways.
Be like water
The goal of the $3 Karateka for iOS, a universal app for both the iPhone and iPad, remains that of saving the fair Mariko, who is imprisoned inside Akuma’s beautiful—but, we must assume, evil—compound, whose architecture and expansive looks cross the gamut of post-WWII Japanese film, from the epic samurai movies of Akira Kurosawa to the luscious landscapes of Hayao Miyazaki. As you make your way through the grounds, you must defeat a series of enemies whose martial-arts abilities increase the closer you get to your goal.
Gameplay is simple enough that the whole game can be played one-handed and with a single finger: as enemies attack, a series of pulsating dots clue you in to tap the screen so that you can mount a successful defense—which, in turn, allows you to counterattack, eventually draining your opponent’s energy until only one of you emerges victorious. To give you a better chance of winning, successful attacks increase your Chi, which can eventually be unleashed in a fury of fists and kicks from which no enemy (including, mercifully, Akuma himself) can defend.
Death is only the beginning
In a departure from its predecessor, the death of the protagonist at the hand of a bad guy does not necessarily mean defeat. Instead, you start as Mariko’s unnamed lover—the one that fair lady would most likely want to rescue her and, in the event of his demise, are given a chance to continue as one of two additional characters: a monk who abandoned his vows to pursue Mariko, and a well-intentioned brute who passed her on the streets and became infatuated with her. In an interesting twist, each new character is more powerful than its predecessors, so that winning the game with the brute is relatively easy, while doing so with the lover is really quite difficult.
This approach may seem gimmicky at first—it certainly did to me when I first heard Mechner explain it, but it works remarkably well. On one hand, the brute’s significant strength makes it easy to complete the game in a relatively quick way, reducing the frustration factor for even the most casual of players. On the other, the game makes it clear that, while Mariko is glad to be rescued, she is also sad that her true love has been replaced by a less interesting suitor, and this makes replaying the game worthwhile.
It would be easy to dismiss Karateka as just a fighting game, but to do so would mean doing it a disservice. Much like the Japanese movies from which it draws so much inspiration, the game’s real protagonist is not the one doing the fighting, but the environment in which the action takes place. From the beautifully depicted scenes of Akura’s palace to the subtle differences in the way Mariko responds to being rescued by each character, Karateka rewards an attention to detail that makes the journey the real reward for the player.
Alas, the game is not without its flaws. For starters, it’s rather power hungry, and requires at least an iPhone 4S or iPad 2 to run—this despite the fact that the App Store will happily allow owners of older devices to purchase the app, which has resulted in a number of disappointed reviews on its iTunes page. In addition, the game suffers from a number of glitches, some of which come dangerously close to becoming kill screens, although most can be fixed by terminating and relaunching the app.
Altogether, Karateka is a great title that, when played the right way, entertains on many level without ever becoming frustrating or repetitive. If you’re looking for a bit of adventure and want to avoid the urge to chuck your mobile device against a wall, this game belongs on your Home Screen.
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