Back when Stian and I still cooperated on this site, I often glanced over a review in our shared drive that we never had the opportunity to touch. This review was for Karateka, a game that looks like a typical Japanese beat ’em up for the Famicom, but which was actually developed by Broderbund luminary Jordan Mechner, who’d later go on to create the first Prince of Persia. An interesting bit of background, but how does it play?
The game features a classic story about a martial artist who has approached the residence of an evil man who has kidnapped his love interest. You must storm this fortress, overcome grunts and traps, and eventually battle the evil Akuma to free your beloved Princess Mariko.
Each of the game’s levels is a 2D plane where you must make a dash for the exit on the right, but Akuma continuously sends in his minions to try and stop you. When you encounter one, you press a button to enter a fighting stance. Despite being an early entry in the fighting game genre, Karateka is filled with innovative ideas that make it a pretty complex game, but this comes at the cost of a limited base moveset.
Our unnamed protagonist can punch and kick, with the angle of your attack dictated by whether you press up, down, or nothing on the D-pad. There is no blocking attacks, so landing hits is dependent on what moves your opponent throws in retaliation, your proximity to each other, and who started first. Like I said, it’s a bit basic. Landing hits begins depleting a health bar and you have to make that bar last throughout the game. It slowly regenerates out of combat, but you want to make it through fights as unscathed as possible to increase your odds for the battles after.
What makes this combat system more interesting is that you and the enemy respond sensibly to attacks. Getting kicked in the head once or twice makes your character step back automatically; you obviously don’t want to be there right now, so your dude creates some distance to give you breathing room and avoid damage. Perhaps you then want to step in when your opponents throws his final kick and land a few punches or perhaps you want to step back even further to force your opponent to approach you instead. Semi-automating movement like this keeps fights dynamic and forces players into interesting decision.
After a fight is won, you want to exit the fighting stance and run as far to the right as you can before the next encounter, which is where Karateka shows its cinematic side. It repeatedly cuts to scenes of Akuma commanding his minions and, as you dash for the exit, the game might cut to your foe leaving it and running towards you. It’s an impressive feat for the NES to have cutscenes like this that just cut in during gameplay.
The game is short, however, and throws as many enemies and cheap tricks at you as it can to prolong itself. A level might just be a straight run from the gate to the door, yet you’ll likely battle 4-5 enemies in that stretch. They hope to wear you down as much as possible so that you struggle even more in the next stage. Stage 2 is an exceptional pain in the butt, as it throws in instant-death traps that require pinpoint accuracy to overcome. You can clear the entire level with full health, only to then die instantly to the trap at the end and be kicked back to the courtyard.
Karateka is an interesting game to play, but its brief length and arbitrary difficulty make it one I don’t recommend trying to complete. It’s worth checking out to see this early attempt at fighting game mechanics, even if you only do so by endlessly fighting the enemies in the courtyard.