Developer: Liquid Entertainment / Publisher: Liquid Entertainment / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $9.99 / ESRB: Teen [Violence]
There’s a reason that, in a world of iPhones and video games, you can still buy a simple top for five bucks. In fact, if you gave a top to someone, they wouldn’t do anything else before spinning it on a table. The building could be on fire and they’d give it a spin before running to the exit. It’s simple and timeless.
Karateka is that kind of experience. It’s simple and distilled, which is amazingly refreshing when you can’t play a game these days without seeing experience bars or Facebook integration. If the idea of a game that can be beaten in a half hour rubs you the wrong way, Karateka may not meet your expectations, but it’s a delightful experience for those that don’t demand production to the nines.
STORY AND GAMEPLAY
Given that Karateka is an HD remake of the 1984 game of the same name, it’s fitting that it uses older storytelling techniques. The game opens with a slow scroll of text establishing the most bare and timeless of plots; an evil man has captured a beautiful woman, and you must save her. From there the story is told in wordless cutscenes, relying on character design and stage acting to sell the drama. This is every bit the Jordan Mechner that made us instantly hate the pixelated Vizier Jaffar in 1989’s Prince of Persia, only working with slightly more powerful tools.
Following the establishing text roll, the game opens identically to its predecessor. The “True Love” climbs up a mountain face to find a path strewn with enemies that engage him in one-on-one combat. As mentioned, the gameplay here couldn’t be simpler, drawing from the successful template established by Punch-Out!!. Enemies attack you in strings of punches and kicks, and you must tap block in sequence with the timing and number of attacks. If you block a string of attacks correctly, you get a string of uninterrupted attacks to dish out. That’s really all there is to it. Some later enemies get tricky with their timing, mixing in feints and pauses that can trip you up a few times, but ultimately Karateka is a simple game of pattern matching.
There’s a clever meta-challenge to the experience though. Should the True Love be defeated in combat, he’s sent tumbling down the same mountain he climbed in the intro. Luckily, another eager suitor is ascending at the same moment. Now, a devout Monk with a longer life bar and moderate life recovery takes up the fight. Should the Monk fall, he’s replaced by the comically oversized Brute. Thanks to the Brute’s statue, he can recover even after being downed in combat with a severe point penalty, which should give any player a sure path to the ending.
The ultimate goal is to beat the game as the True Love, an accomplishment that will take several tries and loads of concentration. Leaderboards also give additional incentive to those with competitive friend lists. All told, though this game can be finished in half an hour, it’s easily worth three to four hours of play. Unfortunately, forced tutorials and a couple of unskippable cutscenes make the replay process slightly more troublesome than it should be.
On top of that, there’s some unrealized potential in the game. The Rhythm Heaven series shows that you can get a lot of mileage out of rhythm-based simplicity, but almost none of that is explored in Karateka. There are some enemies that mix up their attack timings, but I would have loved to see even more complicated rhythms and some significance to the timing or sequence of your attacks. To extend the Punch-Out!! references, it would’ve also been great to have certain enemies that could be speedily downed by a specific sequence of attacks. Regardless, the price is right for what you get.
Karateka is one of the most pick-up-and-play games in recent memory. Though the controls include the left analogue stick, there’s really four buttons here: run, punch, kick, and block. The inputs all work without flaw, though there is a small amount of fuzz between the inputs and the animation of the characters. The window for blocking strikes a good balance between absorbing the inaccuracy of laggy TVs and punishing button mashers, but often when I’d go on the attack, I’d tap out my attack combo but not really be sure if I was pressing for the current attack or the next. It doesn’t affect gameplay at all, but it does make the game feel significantly less snappy than Punch-Out!!.
VISUALS AND SOUND
Using simple shapes and sharp corners, Karateka has a strong-and-undeniably-Asian visual style that’s becoming the vogue in modern animation. This isn’t a case of copycat though, Jeff Matsuda (The Batman, Jackie Chan Adventures) contributed to the game’s design and animation. As a result, the game has the unique ability to tell a story and sell characters without words.
I am disappointed by the fluidity of the animation, however. The original Karateka stood out because of it’s amazingly realistic rotoscoped animation. I assumed that a sequel would have buttery-smooth animation but the characters move a bit jerkily. Still, I can appreciate that several of the fighters and especially the game’s main trio of protagonists all use different flavors of Kung Fu.
The game’s score, on the other hand, is wonderful. Composed by Christopher Tin (Civilization IV, X2: X-Men United), the dynamic music drives the intensity of combat. When being attacked, the music is subdued but active. Once you finish blocking a string of attacks, thrumming taiko drums explode driving you forward in battle. This effect is even more pronounced in later fights that swap back and forth between attack and defense very quickly. Not only does it become a duel of martial arts, but combat between two different music tracks. Before long I was adding my own “WATCHAA!”s to the music because it is that affective.
Karateka proves that some elements of game design are timeless. It’s simple, pure fun and the price is right for the gameplay it provides. I do wish that the game explored its combat mechanics a bit further, but that may contradict the game’s unifying feeling of simplicity. Karateka is a perfect for for anyone that played the original as well as those that appreciate more daring and unique games.