In a year that brought us reboots of XCOM, Need for Speed: Most Wanted and SSX, it shouldn't surprise anybody to see a new Karateka game. In fact, the only thing surprising about this Xbox Live Arcade game is that it wasn't done sooner. After all, Jordan Mechner's other franchise, Prince of Persia, has been rebooted multiple times, remade and even turned into a feature-length motion picture. It's about time Karateka gets some love.
Think of this as a modern retelling of the 1984 computer game. You play a tall, good-looking hero who has decided to risk life and limb in order to rescue an attractive young woman being held by the evil Akuma. Unfortunately, Akuma's fortress is high atop a craggy cliff and guarded by an army of fierce warriors. You'll need to kick and punch your way to victory, not unlike the original.
As luck would have it, there's a simple that that leads right into the front door of Akuma's fortress. The only problem is that you'll end up going head-to-head against a couple dozen angry kung fu fighters. This path will take you up the steep mountain, through the forest, into the courtyard, past the dojo and all the way to the fortress gates. There Akuma, his trusty hawk and right-hand man wait for our hero.
If you're able to make it past the guards, the bosses and that bird, you'll save the beautiful princess and live happily ever after. Fail and somebody else will be forced to complete your mission ... literally. There are three characters vying for the lady's affection, each waiting to take over where the last left off. Die once and a monk will show up. Not only does he have a longer life bar, but he's also able to regenerate health over time. If he should die for any reason, a third guy is ready to take over. But the princess shouldn't get too excited, because it's a big fat brute who knows a thing or two about taking a punch. Die with him and it will start to cost you points in order to continue.
Although the locations and characters have changed, it all does a good job of embodying the spirit of the original computer game. Where the game veers off is in the combat mechanics. This time around we're given a rhythm system, where player is expected to pay close attention to enemy attacks in order to perfectly time blocks and counters. The idea is to hit the block button a split second before the impact to properly deflect. The enemies will mix things up with multiple attacks and moves of varying speed. In either case, it's up to you to predict the hit and press the block button.
Block enough strikes and you'll temporarily stun the enemy. Here's your opportunity to use the punch and kick buttons to lay out a brutal combo. But don't get too excited, because you'll only get a few attacks off before it's back to dodging. From time to time you'll earn a special power move that will stun the opponent for a long period of time. This move is also helpful as it cannot be blocked or avoided; it's guaranteed to turn the fight in your favor.
All this is meant to be short and simple, allowing players to see the whole journey in around thirty minutes. Chances are you'll lose a couple of guys along the way, leading to what can only be considered the "bad" ending. You'll want to play through the game a few more times to pick up achievements and see how the game ends with the monk and true love heroes. The game is short enough to make replaying the adventure not feel like a task.
Unfortunately, that's about all there is to Karateka. Every time you play the game you'll see the same backgrounds, enemies, bosses and that damn bird. The power-up items (in this case a plant that regenerates life) are always located in the same place and the heroes spawn in the same order every time. Nothing changes. I had a good time playing through the short story a few times, but the appeal of seeing everything play out the same way every time made each session a little less fun.
The game's combat doesn't help the repetition any. While I liked what they did with the fighting, it's far too simple to stay compelling for long. Too many of the fights play out the same way, which left me wishing for more variety. Occasionally you'll run across a character that mixes things up, but they are far and few between. It would have been nice to fight a few enemies that had weapons or special attacks. How cool would it have been to go up against a fire-breathing fighter or some ninja with a sword? As it is, it often feels like I'm fighting a clone army.
Many of these complaints can also be leveled against the 1984 computer game. Although impressive at the time, looking back at it now you'll see a repetitive game with a whole bunch of similar looking bad guys. A lot has changed in the last three decades. These days fighting games have raised the bar, giving their characters dozens of moves to master. Even modern brawlers offer a greater amount of depth to the gameplay. While a marked improvement to the old school original, Karateka still doesn't feel current enough.
Although this Karateka reboot uses polygons and other modern design tools, it still feels like a classic 2D action game. There's no way to deviate from the set path and all the action happens on a single plain. In an interesting design decision, the player is unable to turn around or walk backwards. Not that there's much to go back for, but it would be nice to walk backwards for those times you accidentally forget to pick up the health-regenerating plant.
The game's visuals certainly look current. While not bleeding edge, the style comes straight out of an animated movie. Each character has a comically large torso, resembling the look of many animated films from DreamWorks. The backgrounds are also good looking, full of bright colors and small details. None of this is going to change your opinion of the game, but I was generally impressed by the look and sound from the Karateka.
Even though I had a good time playing through the story a few times, I ultimately came away wanting more. Outside of replaying the thirty minute campaign, there's nothing else to do. No multiplayer or bonus modes. They didn't even pack in the original PC game; a huge missed opportunity as far as I'm concerned. Karateka has some cool ideas and a good sense of style, but ultimately comes up short.
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