The original version of Karateka launched on an Apple II two decades ago and helped show that video game design could deliver idiosyncratic, narrative experiences. Back then, both Apple and video games were in their toddler stage, stumbling around trying to figure out what they could do.
Now, both the medium and the tech company have become juggernauts in their own rights. And, after news broke that creator Jordan Mechner was working on a Karateka re-make, a collective fear popped up. Namely, that this fondly remembered game may not survive a re-imagining for the present-day.
Those fears are largely unfounded, though. Yes, things are different in this Karateka, but the core aspects of the iconic game are the same. You're still controlling a nameless martial artist in a side-scrolling combat adventure as he fights waves of enemies in a quest to save a kidnapped young woman named Mariko.
The simplicity of control found in the original Karateka resurfaces in this new version, created with the help of Liquid Entertainment. Players will tap and hold the screen to move forward and use single taps to block and attack. The combat doesn't quite happen in real time. As the combatants approach each other, someone—usually the enemy—attacks first and there's a chance to respond. Bird-punching returns and is still a really freakin' annoying but fun part of the experience.
Karateka on iOS feels like a button-masher (or a touchscreen equivalent) at first, but eventually you come across enemies that reveal the trickier depths of its rhythm-based attack & defense gameplay. Points get awarded on how well you do in defense. There's more skill involved than it might seem, because you'll need to block the last attack to have a chance to launch your own punches and kicks. Do well enough in combat and you'll earn a super move that wallops an opponent really hard, stunning them long enough to launch a flurry of rapid-fire attacks.
One big difference with this Karateka is that you get health refreshes in the forms of blue lilies dropped by the abducted Mariko. Another divergence is the fact that you get extra lives. If the warrior you're controlling succumbs to an enemy beatdown, he falls off the precipice of the mountain palace, down past another martial artist who's been climbing the cliff face. A cutscene reveals that this guy also wants to save the girl, and off you go again. I liked how the monks' varying personalities and styles comes across in different combat animations. The bald Monk is coolly unflappable, the hunky True Love guy is more hotheaded, and the Brute is more slapstick.
The great music (by Christopher Tin, the guy who won a Grammy for Civ IV's Baba Yetu theme) and art direction by cartoonist/animator Jeff Matsuda make the proceedings feel like a fitting update to the original. There's also a nice use of different camera angles to keep things fresh. One control quibble was when I found my special move triggering when I didn't want and couldn't figure out why. That was really aggravating.
The biggest drawback with Karateka iOS is a near-complete lack of replayablity. It's entirely possible to finish the game in one hour-long sitting. Sure, you can revisit to try and get better scores or unlock achievements but it's pretty much a done-in-one affair.
Flaws aside, the game comes across as a game built on old-school principles: easy to approach, delivers a simple universal story in a stripped-down way, finds a minimalist way to implement combat. It doesn't sully any fondness you might have for the original and upholds the tradition of doing a lot with a little.