Karateka: A Hero's Journey for the High ScoreA game review article by: Dylan Tano
The art of Karateka, or the art of being a hero. Many strive for it, but few make it. It requires perfection. It is a profession as old as time itself. An evil warlord captures the princess, and it is up to a hero to save the day, overcoming insurmountable odds in the process. There is no reward for failure. If you should fall, another will simply rise from your ashes. Are you the princess’ true love, a devoted monk or a simple brute merely, wanting to repay her kindness? This is Karateka, where only one can be the hero.
Karateka, designed by Jordan Mechner (designer of the original Karateka and creator of The Prince of Persia), is deceptively simplistic in its combat. Combat is rhythm based blocking and attacking, asking you to key in on the music to exploit and defeat your opponent. Paying attention is key -- both to your opponent and to the music -- because this game will punish you for button spamming. You’ll quickly find yourself on the losing end of several fights if you’re just constantly spamming button mashes. Counter-attacks are key. Blocking successfully opens your opponent up to your own combos. The whole system seems rather simple, but they key to success in the game is in the details. It is not an overly long game. It plays in about 30-40 minutes, but the goal is the same as someone who is mastering karate: it asks you to develop perfection.
Karateka asks you- nay, demands you play for perfection, much like practicing karate. The combat and art flow beautifully. The accompanying score by Christopher Tin (of Grammy-winning Civilization IV fame) is absolutely beautiful. The score morphs and changes in real time depending on how the fight is going. The music fits the Feudal Japanese era you’re hero-ing in. All this is matched by the art style, which seems to have sprung out of the Disney film, Mulan. Slightly exaggerated, but also wonderfully alive. The characters do not speak. Instead, everything is conveyed in grimace or a worryful look. The game relies on the art and music to deliver the story to you and it works exceptionally well.
The game harkens back to a simpler time, when the quest for the high score dominated gaming as well as our lives. There are no crazy plot twists, no overly complex mechanics and nary a Quicktime event in sight. In a way, it reminds me of playing old side scrolling games at the local arcade. John Mechner and the team at Liquid Entertainment have effectively brought the arcade box to your home in Karateka. Only this time you aren’t competing with the local kids, you’re competing with the Internet.
The game is fast, inviting and fun. It doesn’t ask for a lot of your time, but you’ll enjoy every moment that you give to it. The three heroes are varied and fun. The simple brute, with his silly smile and haymaker fighting style may very well be my favorite. The story is simple: save the girl and save the country. I’ll leave you with one piece of advice: punch the hawk.
Dylan Tano has been playing video games since before he could walk. He's scaled castles and rode on the backs of giants. He has lived many lives and will live many more. He revealed himself to be the infamous Spider-Bro on Twitter as @BroSpider.