Karateka returns on the Xbox 360 and it's a triumph of nostalgia

Bill Loguidice's picture

Karateka (Apple II)Karateka (Apple II)Karateka (Xbox 360)Karateka (Xbox 360)As one of a legion of fans of the 1984 videogame classic, Karateka (Apple II and a host of other 8- and 16-bit platforms), I was both delighted by and cautious of the February 2012 announcement of a modern day reimagining. On the one hand, the game's original developer extraordinaire, Jordan Mechner, was going to be directly involved. On the other hand, Karateka was not your average game, so reimagining it could prove disastrous even with Mechner's involvement. As heavily stylized, Disney-esque in-game images began to roll in, along with camera angles that reminded more of a modern day Street Fighter, it seems our worst fears had been realized. So, it was with somewhat muted enthusiasm that I set the new game to download on my Xbox 360 at work to wait for me when I got home. I was sure to be disappointed. Luckily, I was anything but.

You see, along with my general agreement about the new art direction, I've said all along that if they got the gameplay right, everything else was far less important. Karateka was never a fighting game in the traditional sense, but a game where you had to pick and choose when you defended (dodged) and when you struck. It was all about timing. That's extraordinarily refreshing considering 99% of other fighting games are about being the fastest to mash the buttons or who can memorize the most complex moves. We got a clue that the developers understood this when the fighting elements were being compared to a game like Guitar Hero, but that still threw up an obvious red flag. It needn't have. The structure and pacing is just right--it is indeed a modern day reimagining of the structure and pacing of the fighting that made the original so special.

Now, with all that said, the visuals have grown on me. Stills don't do it justice and video clips don't convey enough of the "live" effect. It's still not the art style I would have chosen, but - and this is a big but - it's almost like the art style is necessary to convey the emotion they were attempting to portray. The original game featured sprites that were literally faceless and used for-the-time stunning animation and targeted audio (the origin system was the Apple II after all) during its ground breaking cut scenes to make you feel for the story. That same effect would just be weird with today's heightened expectations and how we've been conditioned. Surely as an Xbox LIVE Arcade game (and an upcoming iOS game) their budget was not up to something like the cut scenes in a Halo 4 or Forza Horizon (as just two recent examples), so they clearly opted for what would work within their constraints. Rest assured, it does work.

In short, if you're a fan of the original, this is a near perfect reimagining. The cadence of the fighting is spot on and there are a ton of in-game homages to the original (keep an ear out for the updated tunes, as just one example). The lives system is also genius, with each of the three new lives casting the player as a different character, which impacts the overall story. I beat this on my first playthrough, and that would not have been possible if I didn't put many hours into the original. Of course, I got the third (out of three) best ending and barely did it, so I'll have to keep playing. Happily. The only pity is younger gamers conditioned on the norm in fighting games won't get it, not even a little bit. Sad then that they're going to miss out on a new 28-year-old breath of fresh air for the genre.

Comments

Rowdy Rob
Rowdy Rob's picture
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Joined: 09/04/2006
Bill's recommendation = game worth considering

I posted my objections (and the gameplay video) in the other thread, but if Bill says that this is the real deal, then the game is definitely worth considering.

Truth be told, the original Karateka really was groundbreaking, but it was too short and too easy. I beat it easily back in the day, and when I came back to it 20+ years later, I still beat it easily after my second try (probably after no more than an hours' worth of playtime). The only reason I didn't beat it on my first try is because of a "surprise" that got me the first time.

The gameplay video made the game look like "Virtua Fighter," but if the fighting is indeed based on timing rather than button-mashing, and if the game is more challenging, then it sounds like a must-buy.

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
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Joined: 12/31/1969
It's definitely timing, Rob.

It's definitely timing, Rob. As for difficulty, if you were good at the original, then you'll be good at this and you'll have only a slightly longer play experience. With that said, there are three possible endings, so you'll still have to work hard to get the best possible ending.

As for the looks, experiencing it in person does seem to be a different experience when it's taken as a whole, live. I'll be curious your live impressions, though.

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Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
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Joined: 12/31/1969
I've now played it three

I've now played it three times and "won" three times. The first time, I barely won with the Brute. The second time, I easily won with the Brute. The third time, I *almost* won with the Monk before finishing up with the Brute. At least I'm improving. I definitely plan on winning with the True Love, though I suspect I'll be winning with the Monk (second best ending) first.

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Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Karateka for iOS on my iPad 2

Karateka for iOS on my iPad 2 is not quite as smooth as on the Xbox 360 and the control scheme is simplified to one button (tap). I have to figure out if the latter is a bad thing or not, but it may not be...
Karateka for iOS on my iPad 2 is not quite as smooth as on the Xbox 360 and the control scheme is simplified to one button (tap). I have to figure out if the latter is a bad thing or not, but it may not be...

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clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
I did pick it up on STEAM,

I did pick it up on STEAM, downloaded it and .. forgot about it.. I was going to check it out but bought TOWNS and have been a bit addicted, needed a reminder am going to look at it (err in a week). Speaking of Tablet games.. going home for a week (small town ZERO activities) so been grabbing a bunch for my thrive.. some pretty interesting and good looking games.. Quite a few MMORPG's.. sad part is they are all the same except the location (space, fantasy, horror) good thing I'm addicted to Tower Defense games, i should be good. And Netflix is working smooth as glass so i should be good. I did pick up Bards Tale (paid) see if that can hold me over .

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Online
Joined: 12/31/1969
TBT
clok1966 wrote:

I did pick up Bards Tale (paid) see if that can hold me over .

Bard's Tale is pretty good, though it's just that original Xbox and PS2 game starring Cary Elwes from many years back with the added bonus of emulations of the original trilogy. I have yet to REALLY play something epic like that for a long time on my tablet, though it should be the ideal place being completely portable. I'm hoping the new Infocom collection will allow me to do that for some of the text adventures, though I still favor playing those on the old hardware for whatever reason.

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