Written by  :  Terrence Bosky (5463)
Written on  :  Jun 21, 2004
Platform  :  Commodore 64
Rating  :  4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars

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Do you hear the grasshopper at your feet?

The Good

Karateka wasn't the first martial arts game for the Commodore 64 (and yes, I know it didn't originate here), but it didn't borrow much from its predecessors. Unlike the acrobatic Yie Ar Kung-Fu fighting game, the arcade platformer Bruce Lee, or the Game of Death-like Kung Fu Master, Karateka—at first glance—was a conventional "run to the right" game.

The evil Akuma has captured Princess Mariko. He holds her in a cell, deep within his mountain fortress. Only the Karateka, the trained master of empty handed fighting, can rescue her. To do this, he'll have to fight his way through Akuma's henchmen, heading deeper and deeper into the heart of the fortress. There are no extra lives here, no save points, no continues—just one chance to save the princess.

After hoisting himself over the edge of a cliff, the Karateka began his run to the right and encountered his first enemy. If he didn't switch from running to his fighting stance, it would also be his last enemy because the enemy would kill him with one blow. Encountering his first enemy, the Karateka noticed the enemy's life bar. At this point they were equally matched—later enemies would have lifebars much longer than the Karateka's.

Then combat commenced. The Karateka's attacks were limited: High Punch, Medium Punch, Low Punch and High Kick, Medium Kick, and Low Kick. He could punch indefinitely, but could only perform three kicks in a row. For the most part this matched his opponents, but some could string more kicks together and his opponents' timing could differ than his. What became more important than being able to strike, was knowing when to strike. The Karateka could retreat half a step and then hammer into the enemy as he approached or take a full step forward and add a High Kick on to it knocking his enemy back a step. If he was low on health, he could retreat a bit and recover some energy, but if he didn't press the attack, the enemy would heal too.

After defeating one opponent it was on to the next—but there were some surprises too: a door that couldn't be trusted, Akuma's avian attack, and knowing when to bow.

Karateka had very good graphics, including very fluid combat animations and rewarding "hits". What set this apart from other games were intermittent cutscenes showing Akuma issuing orders and what was happening to the princess. Sound and music were phenomenal, really providing the game with a mood.

The Bad

There's the old joke about Tai Chi being a great martial art to know if you are ever fighting in slow motion. Combat in Karateka isn't that slow, but it is at a regular pace which can thwart one's intention to get through the game by mashing buttons. Its insistence on standard punching and kicking seems to place an odd emphasis on realism, one that some gamers felt was too limiting. And to be honest, there's something to the more visceral games like 1985's Way of the Exploding Fist.

Karateka's one life, one chance motif became a little nerve wracking, especially when you learned there were a few sneaky ways to die—instantly. Granted, I don't know what save schemes were in place at the time, but something to give the player a breather would have been nice.

The Bottom Line

Karateka is a great old-school game that serves as a bridge between classic gaming and the games of today. It was a standard platformer with style, meant to be played in one sitting, with great animation and gameplay that kept moving forward.