Jordan Mechner's Karateka broke new ground for gaming in a few ways. It was one of the very earliest one-on-one fighting games (although presented more as a beat-em-up than what we're used to), it had a cinematic quality with dramatic music and a story you could follow, even with no speech, and it included a new style of animation that wasn't exactly smooth - we'd have to wait for Mechner's next game, the original Prince of Persia, for that - but it looked incredibly realistic for the day. That's not bad for 1984, a time when the best games were still largely arcades, and when a movie-like story was still generally a long way off for most video games.
Maybe it was the resurgence of interest from creator Jordan Mechner and the re-discovery and publishing of his early games' original source code, but Mechner was eager to get back in there to recreate Karateka as a downloadable action game. The result is decent, but it could never possibly live up to its name as one of the very early pioneering video games. Unfortunately, it doesn't even quite live up to gameplay standards set today for either beat-em-ups or fighting games, and maybe it's the insistence on being true to Mechner's classic that makes this re-imagined Karateka something that straddles the line between old and new games without really committing properly to each one.
The story is simple: the evil Akuma has captured Mariko and taken her to his island fortress, and three men have taken up the quest to fight through Akuma's minions, defeat him, free Mariko and take her home. The three characters are Mariko's True Love, a Monk, and a Brute, each serving as something like your three "lives" in the game, each more powerful but a worse match for her (as a husband, I guess) than the last. The challenge isn't really to just beat the game, which admittedly can be done in less than an hour, and if you're an experienced gamer with good timing, it can be done the first time without actually losing the game. The real point of Karateka is to beat it without deaths so that you stay as the True Love character. He's a little bit weaker than the other two guys and seems to have the least health so the challenge is a bit higher the longer you are able to stay alive as the True Love, but all characters play the same basic way.
So how does Karateka play, you ask? It's a linear game where the camera swaps around as you run in pretty much a side-scrolling fashion through a sparsely-decorated world rendered in 3D, but you're always walking forwards, taking on one enemy at a time in a karate fight. Unlike the original, though, now you'll mostly be forced to block an enemy's set of attacks first before you can answer with your own. The game warns you with subtle musical cues as to the number and timing of enemy attacks just before they start swinging, and you'll have to hit your block button for each incoming attack. Your block is only active for a short period, so you'll need a combination of memory, timing, and fast reactions in order to avoid incoming damage. After blocking at least the last hit in an enemy combo, you'll get a small window to unleash a combo of your own, choosing between punches and kicks to get some hits in before he backs up and readies his next attack. Health bars at the bottom are the little arrows we saw in the original, and you can pick up flowers Mariko left behind (or just fight for a while without taking damage) to regenerate health.
Some enemy attacks have a charge-up period where you can interrupt the start of their combo entirely and start your own, but you'll need to be good to do this regularly, and most of the time you'll be forced to defend first. The challenge starts coming later in the game when enemies start putting together five-hit combos with staggered timing or quick reactions to your own attacks. Thankfully, you do get something like a fighting game Super meter, and once it's filled up, you can unleash a Stun attack on your enemy. You follow this up with a powerful mashed-button combo that looks great and does very significant damage to an enemy.
Throughout Karateka you'll see plenty of references to the original, including samurai gear, Akuma's annoying-ass bird that you'll have to eventually fight as a mini-boss, and even the ability to bow to some opponents and have them bow back at you before you fight. The visuals are now cartoony and the animations aren't exactly wonderful, so all that rotoscoped genius from the original - which, of course, has long been made obsolete by the motion capture systems in nearly every game now - was never going to come back, but I have to say that Mechner's reputation for wonderful animations raised my expectations, and I couldn't help but feel a little let down.
Still, the music has many of the same themes and harmonies you'll remember, which can bring on heavy waves of nostalgia, although sometimes there'll be background music during fights that can mess with the audio cues for incoming attacks; the fact that these cues change based on the enemy and type of attack might throw another monkey wrench into your attempts at a no-damage run. (And yes, that's really an achievement: take zero damage throughout the whole game up until Akuma.)
Karateka is not meant to be played once and deleted off your console's hard drive; the intent is for you to play it over and over, slowly improving and honing your timing, until you beat the game with the True Love character and get the "real" ending. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that the rather simplistic gameplay and lack of choice at all really warrant multiple playthroughs, especially since there's so few ways to get creative about your attacks. Each of the three characters has their own moves, but it doesn't even really matter whether you're pressing the punch or kick button in any conventional fight in the game, as the combos you can unleash are very simplistic. I also wonder if this remake could have been better executed as a side-scroller with luscious, 2D 1080p graphics, but with identical gameplay to the original and maybe a way to swap back to the original graphics and/or music at any time with a button press.
Still, there's no point in wishing for something else, because this is what we got. Karateka costs $10 on Xbox 360 and PS3, which isn't exactly highway robbery, but there are so many gamers nowadays that have been trained to simply fight their way through a game, proclaim that they have beaten it, and move on; those players will be very unhappy with what their ten bucks got them on Karateka. Even then, the visuals aren't exactly revolutionary and the fighting is just a little too basic for 2012. Those looking for a stroll, a punch, and a bow down memory lane will enjoy the many throwbacks to the original, but even those gamers will likely come away at least a little disappointed. Seeing the return of classic games redone as entirely new efforts is often amazing, but it's also easy for them to go wrong, and this re-imagining of Karateka stumbles just a bit too much for me to recommend it to the vast majority of today's gamers.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a bought Xbox 360 copy of the game.