30 years ago, in 1982, before Jordan Mechner found world wide acclaim from his now famous ‘Prince of Persia’ series of games, Jordan developed a little known game called ‘Karateka’ on an Apple 2, while he was still at Yale University.
He was just 17. (At 17 I couldn’t even tie my shoelaces, let alone write a videogame!)
Back then indie developers pretty much had to do it all, create the characters, create the animations, (And if they were STILL talented enough) write chiptune music, as well as sound FX samples, for their games. Jordan began using an unsual, never- before – done technique for a videogame. He borrowed a technique from Disney animation studios, called ‘Rotoscoping’
What Rotoscoping essentially is, is in filming actors or performers doing complex movements and then tracing each individual shot with tracing paper and a pencil, then putting it into a cartoon animation. Jordan did the same thing, but instead of putting it onto an animated cartoon feature, he would put it into his game.
Karateka is a side scrolling beat em up published by Brodurbund games in North America and AriolaSoft in 1984. (With a remake published for XLA, PSN & Nintendo eShop in 2013. As well as the ‘classic version’ for Android & iOS.) This is the Commodore 64 game converted from the Apple 2 version from Robert Cook.
When I say that this is a side scrolling beat-em up, I’m going to go far as to say that it is more a ‘Thinking Man’s’ Side scrolling beat em up, (An ‘Action Strategy’) because there is an amount of strategy involved during fights. It’s more one on one combat, when it comes down to it, really.
It will look familiar to those that have played traditional 2D fighting games.
There is a life bar that can be depleted when taking blows, but the difference is, in that it can also be replenished slowly when you back away from your opponent’s blows or stand still.
There is no running clock, so you can take your time when in battle.
In the game, your hero must overcome insurmountable odds to rescue a beautiful Princess named Mariko from evil Warlord Akuma. I would not be surprised if this game had an influence on other fighting games of this type, such Data East’s ‘Karate Champ’, Archer McClean’s ‘International Karate’, or Capcom’s ‘StreetFighter ‘ Series.
The game has brightly coloured, hand drawn sprites and backgrounds, but one of the ‘first’ things that you will notice about the game, is in the smooth, fluid, lifelike animation of which has now become Jordan Mechner’s trademark in his classic games. (It will seriously make you wonder, how a game such as this could be running on a Commodore 64 at all, much less a humble, Apple 2!)
It is a joy to watch and pictures won’t do this game any justice. (Fortunately we have a video playthrough for you to see this game in action!)
There is music of some description, but I have learned that due to the limitations the Apple 2 provided, (and at a time before sound cards were invented) of which his animations were cut down to only eight frames per second capacity, Mechner found that he could not animate and play music at the same time. (The hardware limitations wouldn’t allow it.) And so music & sound effects were limited to one – note tones.
The music was composed by Mechner’s father Frances Mechner, who was not a professional musician as such, but was a good enough classical pianist to help write the music for his game. (From his sheet music converted into Jordan’s raw data). The game features wave upon wave of enemies that would charge out to fight you. (Each with varying degrees of strength meters on their life bar.)
Some will be tougher than others, but as you progress through the game they will be marginally more tougher, forcing you to think more and timing your hits more. (Stepping back as your opponent lunges at you with a kick and then stepping forward again with some well timed punch combos, will generally deplete his life bar faster, I found.)
As you near your fate with Akuma, you will have to dodge small obstacles such as sliding (Star Trek Like) doors that will fall onto your head and avoid falling from cliff faces.
And then there’s the bird. That annoying, freaking bird…
Yep, Akuma’s trained Hawk will dive for your face, but with timed punches, you should be able to deflect him away from you. He is by far, the most challenging obstacle in the entire game.If you are looking for a challenge, then this is it! (Though fortunately there are training levels in emulated versions of the game that protect you from damage from the lethal buzzard, but this is merely optional)
Leaving the ending spoiler free for you, If you eventually manage to rescue Mariko, please remember to bow respectfully. (Manners cost nothing & this can be a huge lifesaver for you)
Karateka is available to play on emulation and on Android & iOS respectfully.
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