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A few years before he became known as the creator of Prince of Persia, a university student named Jordan Mechner created the Apple II classic, Karateka. Telling the story of a nondescript karate guy out to save a princess from the clutches of an evil warlord (and his awful, awful pet hawk), Karateka was a big leap forward for in-game storytelling and animation, and essentially invented fighting games as we know them. Now, 28 years later, Mechner’s finally revisited his roots and produced a Karateka remake, and it’s… not quite what we were expecting.
Not wanting to work on a complicated modern fighter, Mechner instead made the new Karateka a rhythm-action game. As in 1984, the nameless hero spends the game running to the palace of the evil Akuma, engaging in one-on-one fights with his interchangeable minions along the way — but those fights are more about timing than anything else, with musical (and, in the iOS version, visual) cues to let us know when our opponents are about to attack. When they do, we tap to block — and if we successfully block each strike, we’ll get to tap madly on the screen in a brief counterattack.
It’s an accessible, but jarring, approach to martial-arts brawling (particularly for those who played the original Karateka). Once we get used to the concept, however, the rhythmic fights become instantly, addictively fun. Where guards in the original were all essentially the same, every opponent in the new game is unique, with differing attack patterns that continually threaten to throw us off our game. And while the iOS version’s gameplay is simpler than other editions — all we’re really doing is tapping along to the rhythm, with no choice between high or low attacks — it’s no less challenging.
And challenge means a lot here. Karateka will take most players around 20-30 minutes to charge through, and the hard part isn’t finishing the game (it’s specifically engineered to let anyone do that), but finishing it right. Instead of multiple lives, Karateka gives us multiple protagonists. First, we play as the princess’ True Love, who also happens to be the weakest protagonist. When he dies, the stronger, more skillful Monk takes his place. And if the monk falls, then the Brute, a fat, invincible lummox who flails around gracelessly in a direct jab at the player’s abilities, will take over. Any of the three can save the princess, but only one will make for a truly happy ending.
The bottom line. Karateka is stylish and fun, but its brief runtime and repetition make its price tag a bit questionable.
iPad, iPod touch, or iPhone running iOS 4.0 or later
Strikingly pretty. Music is integrated well into both story and gameplay. Fights are much more fun than expected. Three distinct heroes add some replayability.
Over way too quickly. Being unable to skip some cutscenes and the opening tutorial on subsequent playthroughs is a drag.