Karateka was the first commercial project of Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, released in 1984 on the Apple II. Karateka's animation was years ahead of its time. When it was released, it had the most realistic animations ever made for a video game.
The game was later ported to the Amstrad CPC, Atari 800, Commodore 64, DOS, and ZX Spectrum in 1986. Karateka was also ported to the Atart 7800 in 1987, but featured broken controls and poor animation, making it one of the worst games on the console. The game was also ported to the Famicom and Game Boy in Japan. The Game Boy version was released under the name "Masters of Karateka", despite there being only one such Karate master in the game.
The player, a master of the martial art Karate (known as a "Karateka"), must save the beautiful Princess Mariko, who is being held prisoner in the castle of the evil warlord Akuma.
The combat consists of side views of the player and the enemy, like a fighting game. The player progresses through a courtyard and castle structure until reaching the final room where the end game boss resides. There are several screens worth of empty hallways after each encounter. The player runs through these screens to the right, and occasionally, the screen will change and the view will shift towards the enemy's perspective as he runs (to the left), towards the player. As the two converge towards battle, the time between screen changes rapidly increases, adding an early bit of cinematic flair to the game.
The player can issue a series of punches and kicks, as can the enemy. Both can also adjust the height of the punches and kicks using the joystick. The types of punches and kicks can also be specified. The player only has one life but unlike many other games of its time, the player has health points. Once the health points are deleted, the player dies. Depending on the game version, these health points can be recovered by resting, in other words by not attacking or being hit. The original Apple II version had no way to recover health or block attacks, so the player had to be very careful positioning for an attack and rationing his health against the enemy guards.
Although some games had started to feature it, Karateka had no save function. However, the game was so short that it really didn't make a difference.
The player had two stances, which could be swapped by pressing up or down on the joystick. The non-combat stance allowed the player to sprint and traverse the environment quickly. However, an enemy could score an instant, one-hit kill on any player who wasn't in the combat stance. Sprinting carried momentum, similar to the original Prince of Persia, so these one-hit kills happened often as the enemy could always enter their combat stance faster than the player.
There is a minor easter egg that's only apparent at the beginning of the game. If the player carefully approaches the very first guard in the non-fighting stance, he can push down to bow to the guard, who will in turn bow back. The player can repeat this process as long as he wants - each subsequent bow will be mirrored by the guard. The guard will only fight the player if he gets too close or a combat stance is initiated. As all the other enemies are already in a combat stance by the time they reach the player, bowing was only feasible to do with the very first guard.
There are several strange parts of the game that have become increasingly famous thanks to the Internet:
- The very first area of the game has the Karateka standing with the path to Akuma's fortress to his right and a cliff to his left, behind him. If the player chooses to back up instead of walking forward, the Karateka will indeed walk right off the cliff and fall to his death.
- Arguably the most memorable "fight" of the game is the surprise attack by Akuma's trained eagle, who is fought before Akuma himself. Its attack may catch the player off-guard, killing him in one hit.
- If the player remains in the fighting stance while approaching Princess Mariko, the princess will kick the player in the head, killing him instantly. This causes the player to start the game over from the beginning.
- If the floppy disk is inserted into the computer on the wrong side, the game will play upside down. Mechner has stated that he put this in deliberately, as a joke.
- The ending sequence to Karateka was famously rotoscoped and changed to the Karateka dancing to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" in an Internet video. "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" by Daft Punk was later added to the same footage to create "Ninja Works It".
The Future of Karateka
During a talk at Comic-Con 2008, Jordan Mechner announced his involvement in the production of a new Karateka video game. No details were given on the new title, except that Mechner would be directly involved (unlike the more recent Prince of Persia titles). Mechner teased that the new game is "not going to be in the way you expect" ( source). Despite this early and definitive confirmation, the remake was not officially announced until February 2012, when Mechner stated that the new Karateka would be available on downloadable services by the end of the year.