Karateka

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Save a beautiful princess from a sadistic warlord.

PC Release: November 7, 2012

By Ian Coppock

As a general rule, I tend to think of remakes and reboots as a cop-out. Studios in desperate need of both creativity and funds solve both problems by prettying up an old favorite and re-releasing it. The amount of remakes in today’s media industries is a bit depressing. Spiderman‘s been rebooted despite Spider-Man 3 coming out only five years beforehand. Nintendo’s been making almost nothing BUT remakes these past few years, digging into an impressive back catalog to compensate for an in-studio creativity and originality vacuum. Thankfully, the modern remake of Karateka is one of those few remakes that actually works, blending the soul of the original with the means of modernity to produce a title of some excellence.

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Like the 8-bit arcade game from the days of yore, Karateka espouses perhaps the most cliche storyline of gamedom; rescue the princess from some bastard who’s captured her for marriage or power or what have you.

The game has you take control of three protagonists, each of whom wuv the princess vewy, vewy much.

Rescue the princess? What a novel concept!
Rescue the princess? What a novel concept!

The game’s central protagonist is the young, sexy, heavily musclebound True Love, who kicks ass at all things karate. It’s your job to get him through all of evil warlord Akuma’s thugs to rescue Princess Mariko.

It’s impressive that he still has the strength to fight after climbing up a goddamn cliff. Unlike that pansy Wesley in The Princess Bride, he didn’t even need to take a break before jumping into the action.

The True Love is quite a badass. He's the savior whom the princess will be happiest to see.
The True Love is quite a badass. He’s the savior whom the princess will be happiest to see.

The game is what I guess you’d call a… rail brawler? You’re guided along a winding path up to Akuma’s castle, engaging his men in rythm-based one-on-one melees. The gameplay is simple; block incoming punches and kicks before responding in kind with your own punishing attacks. Each enemy has his own attack pattern, throwing down one or more attacks. You can try to attack as they’re going at it, or wait for an opening in their defense.

One round of Karateka takes me about 45 minutes, making the game a shotgun experience. The first few baddies you tango with fall over like crop circle cornstalks, but it’s not long before enemies are throwing down mantis kicks and super-punches and all kinds of crazy shit. The entire game proceeds as thus: walk up to enemy, knock his block off, rinse’n’repeat. Thankfully, the gameplay progresses gradually and is excellently paced. Karateka will usually cut you a break after a tough fight, allowing you to build up your chi once more.

A simple concept for a simple game.

A simple concept for a simple game.

Karateka‘s premise is delivered through an intro screen, after which the game features no dialogue beyond the grunts and growls of your enemies. The focus of the game is the gameplay itself, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some fights get frustrating, but if you have quick reflexes, you can block your enemies’ attacks and throw down some satisfying attacks of your own. It’s a dynamic that I found to be oddly relaxing, strange given the quick reflex motif.

The True Love’s power is not infinite, though. He has a health bar that can be refilled by doing well in fights or by getting high on magical blue flower steroids you’ll find along the path, but too many wrong moves and your ass will get slapped off the face of the earth a la Super Smash Bros. You can prompt two additional protagonists to step up to the plate: a humble monk and a gorilla-human hybrid otherwise known as the brute. They’ll go toe to toe with whoever took down the True Love, giving two two additional chances to progress.

The True Love has some bitchin' backup, giving you three chances in total to save the princess.

The True Love has some bitchin’ backup, giving you three chances in total to save the princess.

The world of Karateka is rendered in vivid cel shading, perhaps the most underrated form of video game artwork. Is it realism? No. But extravagant, stylistic artwork can add a great deal of atmosphere and feeling to the game world. Karateka is no exception. The game’s geography comprises lush forests, beautiful temples, autumn trees and the magnificent castle itself. I slowed my character’s march toward the enemy down to take in the view, and you should too. The artwork helped reinforce Karateka’s distinctive vibe.

The visuals are accompanied by a dynamic score mixing Asian flutes with deep drumbeats. These sections will occasionally quiet and let the sounds of nature, like wind and waterfalls, take over. It’s a relaxing and well-balanced artistic experience that helped flesh out Karateka, which, while fun, had a soup-thin plot that needed support from some other pillar of good game design.

Though short, Karateka is a pleasure to play and to look at. The attention to detail is impressive for a low-profile remake.

Though short, Karateka is a pleasure to play and to look at. The attention to detail is impressive for a low-profile remake.

In essence, Karateka‘s art, music, and small story serve ultimately to frame a new style of brawler gameplay. Each encounter with an enemy is a dance of competing reflexes and will. Timing your blocks and punches is essential, but the game’s groove is pretty easy to get into.

The fact that each enemy has his own punching rhythm is where the challenge comes in. The first few enemies go down in a cinch, but they go up in difficulty as you approach the central fortress. Sometimes you’ll fave a few “breather” enemies after beating a hard boss, but the overall level of competence you must have continues to rise. It gives the game some balance without making it too punishing.

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HAVE AT THEE! No, wait, wrong hemisphere.

This isn’t exactly a magnum opus, but if you’ve got five bucks and an hour to kill, Karateka is for you. It’s a brawling game made for people who aren’t fans of brawlers, and does a good job of capturing the same rhythmic fighting spirit of the original 8-bit game in a fun, pretty new setting.

Thanks for reading! On Friday I’m reviewing the crappiest horror game I’ve ever played in my life. You might not get the terror you crave from my review, but expect to die laughing. Do I proclaim myself a comedian by promising you that? No. The game will make you laugh for me.

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You can buy Karateka here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

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