In 1984, before Mario was jumping down warp pipes and Kirby's liberation of Dream Land, the world said hello to Karateka. Originally designed on the Apple II, Karateka completely broke free from every video game before it. Instead of a triangle shooting rocks on a grid, or a yellow dot eating other dots, a character was given purpose. A true love separated by an evil warlord, players took on the epic quest to save their girlfriend. Sure it's not the most original story, but this was 1984. Games with writing like that back then when held against the competition looked like The Divine Comedy against Twilight.
Now in 2012, we see the re-release of Karateka. A game by the same name with the exact same premise. Players are put on a rail and run from a harbor all the way to the castle where the warlord Akuma is holding the beautiful Mariko hostage. Along the way the player will run into various enemies that will try to halt their progression (and one annoying hawk). If successful, the player will see one of three endings depending on who saved the princess.
Simple Ideas Made Grand - There are a total of four buttons necessary to play Karateka. Two buttons to kick and punch, one to move the character forward on the rails, and one to block incoming attacks. While this may sound simple, the game has an incredible amount of skill required to play it. Pressing buttons out of sync can quickly lead to the death of the current character.
Ooh, Pretty - With everyone pushing for the most realistic breast jiggle (here's a hint, don't use the same program you use to animate water for breasts) it's relaxing to see a game that appreciates surrendering realism for beauty. Sometimes the most realistic nose dimples are required for a game, and Karateka proves that. The cel-shading in Karateka is top notch, and I wouldn't trade it for anything else. All the characters look simply beautiful.Christopher Tin, You Glorious Man - I've been quite fond of Christopher Tin since he did Baba Yetu for Civilization IV. Needless to say, I was intrigued when I heard he was handling the music. Sure enough, the music was spot on. Supposedly it's even designed to tell the player when the enemy is going to attack next, but I was too busy loving it to care.
YOU ALWAYS PUNCH THE BIRD
$10=15 minutes? - On a bad day, it can take players 30 minutes to finish Karateka. On a good day, I can see someone doing it in around 15. A replay value exists for players who want to see all the endings, but it's still a really short game. A dedicated player could see all the title has to offer under an hour. Perhaps if the game was a bit cheaper, this might be justifiable. But not on a $10 purchase.
About Those Three Characters - The game advertises a story with three unique characters. Only catch is that to play the subsequent characters that deviate from the main, you have to lose. The monk is only playable if the main character fails his quest, and the brute is only available if the monk fails. Additionally, each time a character fails, the next character is considerably stronger than him. Even then, Mariko is a snobby little tramp who's unhappy unless her TRUE LOVE saves her. It's like “Hey, this hard working beast of a man just saved your life, and you're wishing you had the lead singer of some obscure indie band instead?”
Punch or Kick, It's All the Same - Occasionally the player will have to fight a hawk that attacks them. If the hawk, after being blocked, flies in a certain direction the player must kick or punch it. Unfortunately, this is the only noticeable time where punches or kicks matter. Aside from that, they only serve to add a small variety to attacks.
Karateka is a very unique game that doesn't quite justify itself. On one hand, it's one of the most artistically beautiful games I've run across in the last year. On the other hand, it's very expensive for how short and simple it is. It sits as a beautiful example of how artistic design can carry a game, but also a warning that it takes more than pretty visuals and sound to make a game worth buying. A purchase for old fans of the game and those with an appreciation for unique design, and little else.
*This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game with a review code provided by the publisher.*