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The Making of Karateka

The Making of Karateka

Written by Joseph Moorer on 10/5/2023 for PS5  
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Jordan Mechner. This name may be familiar to the older generation of gamers, and for those of you who don't know, he is the reason why you kept trying to make that jump in Prince of Persia. He is the programmer behind that game, and everyone who is everyone has played a Prince of Persia game in their lifetime. And if you watched the movie, I'm not sorry. I actually enjoyed it. Now if you've enjoyed these games, it's all because of Jordan Mechner. What you probably also played was Karateka, and no matter how you pronounce it, you played it, and you were wowed at the time. You probably got your butt handed to you, but you played it. This is also because of Jordan Mechner, and he finally receives his flowers from Digital Eclipse's "The Making of Karateka"

This will not be a review of the original Karateka. I will tell you that out the gate you do get to play Karateka, but I will get into that later. This is similar to Atari 50's collection. It's a playable documentary, detailing how the programmer started with a game called Deathbounce, and a knock off of Asteroids called Asteroid Blaster. Again, we'll get to those later, but the punches and kicks this game really wants you to focus on are the actual footage and stories behind this game. Seeing how well Digital Eclipse put this all together, I'm pleased as Akuma's bird that this is the first of a series. I can not wait.  

I also don't want to ruin the coolness of the journey, nor do I want to take away from the cool photos and interviews within this compilation. There's a who's who of people within this who were either inspired by, or directly made things happen for Jordan Mechner. It's a really touching story, and it gives insight on how Jordan Mechner started doing Caricatures to afford his first Apple II computer for $1200. Jordan wanted to keep playing Asteroids, and became the epitome of "We got Asteroids at home." Of course, when he tried to get his version of Asteroids (or Asteroid Blaster) on the market, they Hayden book Company was sued, because it looked and played just like Asteroids. 

Let me back pedal just a bit, and say this. The story behind Karateka is fascinating. It's amazing to see that Jordan and his father Francis were way ahead of their time. They were making games, and had ideas that we now see in games today. If there was a pioneer in game design, from the ground up, it's because of them. When you died in Karateka, it was no fault of a bug in the game. It was not because a boss was too hard. You lost because you lost. You lost because the game wanted you to do something, and you wanted to do something else. There was no hand holding. There were no tutorials. Go and save the girl, using Karate. The man used trace paper and rotoscoping in the 80s. He used a Super 8 camera and something called a VersaWriter. It was nuts. And it makes sense now, though it definitely didn't then. So when you used to ask yourself why you lost so much, it's because the game intended for you to.

All this and more is laid out, on screen, in both movie and picture format, and can be accessed at your leisure. You can flip through all the things you want, as each chapter has a progression percentage. If you come to a playable title, it is playable right from the tab. You can even watch the game be played, and pick up where the "demo" leaves off.  It's kind of funny that some of these games never saw the light of day because they were so similar to their inspirations, but believe me when I say the recreation, or emulation of these games are a sight to behold. You can tell this is the Apple II version of Asteroids, and now here it is, with no qualms from Atari or anyone. I think that's pretty cool if you ask me.

Right from the title screen, you can go directly into the games available within this compilation. All the betas, with bugs and everything. Every game has a rewind feature, different filters for the screen, and you can change the format. You can also alter the mechanics of the game, such as improving the frame rate on the Apple II version of Karateka, which doesn't change by much at first glance, but does feel better. There's even a 6 button mode, ala Street Fighter, for your punches and kicks.

Let me be clear. These are reproduced versions of the original games. All the music, all the nostalgia, and of course, the unforgiveness of Karateka. You run toward your first enemy, and have to be in ready position to fight. You have to stop in time to be in ready position. The frame rate shows you no mercy. The frame rate of the game has '84 written all over it. The Atari version is a little better, but not by much. This is not a negative take on the game. I'm just telling you, this game you see in front of you for your PS5 on your 120Hz monitor at 4k is from 1984. "Run up and get done up" is still a thing. And it's game over. No matter how far you got. No matter how well you did. Start over. 

I said earlier that Digital Eclipse are a group of wizards and warlocks. And just as they did with the reimagining of some of the Atari games on the Atari 50 game, they've done the same thing here. They've created a full reimagining of Karateka, and it is just as tough. The graphics are smooth, as smooth as '84 pixel can get. The main character moves in fluid motion. There's background scrolling, and even in-game goals or achievements for every version of the game. The music is crisp. There are even some quality of life options here, such as more lives, and a combo meter. Digital Eclipse even has a commentary option as you play, telling you how this version of the game came to be. Karateka, if tech was cooler in 1984, would probably look like this. And you would get beat down just as quick. 

The real gem here, and what I haven't stopped playing, is the reimagining of Deathbounce. All of Jordan's original ideas are here, but they turn it up to 11. The game becomes a twin stick shooter, similar to Robotron 2084. There are ships that appear, only to lock on and slam into you. The final boss in each stage, has to have their shield depleted, and then dive bombed into. If you die, you can abandon your ship and start off where you perished from. Yes, the shield is still here, but the controls are a vast improvement to the original. Play Deathbounce version 4, and then go to the reimagined one for an experience that is truly nostalgic in all the right ways. 

That pretty much sums it up for The Making of Karateka. The tip-toing through the beginnings of this game isn't a slog; these materials are a lot of fun to watch. I keep having trouble finding who these games are for, but I know they are for people like me who don't necessarily get into the new fangled AAA super trendy games. Plus it's always fun to hand this over to my 25 year old daughter, and watch her go "What am I supposed to do!?" She's great at video games, but Karateka doesn't care, and before you throw that last punch, or back away to get that final kick in, here comes that damned bird. I CAN'T BEAT THE BIRD, YOU GUYS!

Everything you wanted to know about Karateka, but was afraid to ask, is here. Digital Eclipse has done it again. The bonus reimagined games are cool too. Go save the girl, and shoot down some alien bats. If this is the first in the series, I'm ready to get kicked in the face, multiple times. 

Rating: 8.5 Very Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Joseph is the resident streamer for Gaming Nexus. He grew up playing video games as early as the Atari 2600. He knows a little about a lot of video games, and loves a challenge. He thinks that fanboys are dumb, and enjoys nothing more than to see rumors get completely shut down. He just wants to play games, and you can watch him continue his journey at Games N Moorer on Youtube, Twitch, Twitter, and Facebook gaming! 

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