Jordan Mechner is responsible for stealing a sizable portion of my adolescence. He created Prince of Persia, the pixel-precise platform game that I spent hours in front of. The idea was simple; you’d been usurped from your rightful position on the throne and had to fight your way out of the dungeon avoiding traps, fighting off guards and jumping from fragile platform to fragile platform. If you were off by a pixel you died. If you were too slow, you died. If you were too fast, you died. It was precise and elegant and completely addictive.
Now, Mechner has re-made his original game; Karateka. Again, the plot is ridiculously simple; Princess Mariko has been kidnapped by the evil warlord Akuma and as her boyfriend, you must scale a large cliff face, kick a tremendous amount of men in the head and win her back. So far, so Shaw brothers and that’s both the point and merely the starting point.
It’s the point because I’ve rarely seen the martial arts film experience captured as perfectly as it is here. A good fight has a story to it, a genuinely great fight has ebb and flow and psychology, the struggle for physical control manifested in the tics and motions of the fighters. It’s something you see in professional combat sports all the time, but it’s almost never been present in fighting games before. Fight Night Champion flirted with it, and did some imaginative things with the different stipulations for various matches but even that was window dressing. Here, the lone hero versus lone villain model is the foundation of the game as well as the gameplay. The two fighters approach each other cautiously, the strikes when they come are chained, precise and graceful and if you fail to block too many in a row, your opponent will mockingly let you take a couple of cheap shots. There is very little more satisfying than those cheap shots being the ones needed to finish him off.
However, the game’s clear love for and knowledge of the genre goes even deeper than that. At one point you’re confronted by a notably larger guard than the ones you’ve fought before. When you wear him down to half energy, he takes a step back, wipes his nose and chuckles appreciatively. It’s a tiny little character beat but it’s one which is so perfect and so perfectly captures that moment from countless movies that you almost feel bad for beating him unconscious and knocking him off a rope bridge into the sea. Almost.
Later still, you find a guard sitting down, clearly drunk. He looks up at you, blearily, stumbles to his feet and you fight him. When his energy’s halfway gone, he backflips to his bottle, downs it and pops back up, his movements sharper and his energy far higher. The first is a classic martial arts heavy, the second is a drunken style kung fu expert. Both are martial arts movie staples and seeing them here gives you a very different glow of nostalgia. This isn’t just a game that knows its routes, it’s a game that celebrates and loves them, even as it uses those roots to do horrifically violent things to you.
Karateka’s true genius lies in its mechanics rather than its trappings though. The first is how you fight, defending by tapping the screen a number of times equal to your opponents’ strikes. Hit the screen at the right time, and the right rhythm, and you block each strike with graceful skill. Miss a couple and you still look quite good, but take some damage. Miss them all and your opponent beats you, then beats you again and keeps doing so until either you die or you work out when to block.
This mechanic is simple and elegant, a necessity on a screen two inches long, but it’s also a unifying factor between you and the character you’re playing. You get it wrong, he gets hit, you get frustrated, miss again, he gets hit again. The game plays with your mild fatigue from holding the phone and the frustration of not quite hitting your marks to mix your character’s growing fatigue with your own. It’s a masterstroke and it’s only built on by the fact you get precisely one life. You have the opportunity to refill your health bar from blue flowers scatted, far too occasionally, around the castle, but if you miss those, or if your health is too low between fights, you will lose. Once again, your characters’ health directly influences the game play. You have to do well, because he’s only human and can only take so much damage.
When he takes too much, the game’s real genius is revealed. The difficulty curve for a normal computer game goes in one direction; up. Here, it goes down, becoming progressively easier when you lose a life, because of the price you pay for that loss. Your first character, the Princess’ love, is replaced by a Monk who cares for her, a platonic, aesthetic love instead of the true romance that the first character shares. The Monk inevitably has less to do because you can’t access him without dying the first time, and, if the Monk is killed, then a third character can be used. The Brute is a huge woodsman with vast strength and it’s entirely possible to finish the battles with the final bosses, Akuma’s last guards and Akuma himself with the Brute. It’s possible to do it with the Monk and the Princess’ True Love, it’s just progressively more difficult. You can finish the game with the first character, but you will finish it with the third and the challenge of doing so in turn heightens the danger and raises the narrative stakes. Every single punch you take counts, every single blow you land means something.
Even if you win, the game is still happy to leave you with a moment of real narrative ambiguity. The Brute’s victory animation sees the Princess cautiously approach him and be carefully, and, it seems, reluctantly carried away over his shoulder. The implication for many is disturbing, but I don’t see it that way. The animation plays like someone relieved and grateful to be saved, trying their best to cover their disappointment they weren’t saved by the ‘right’ person. It leaves the game with a real moment of ambiguity. One that the Monk ending shares, as he escorts the Princess home, clearly attentive and affectionate but also chaste and stern. For the Brute, the Princess appears to be a prize. For the Monk, she’s a student to be returned to the fold.
As for her True Love? I have no idea. I haven’t beaten the game with him yet. Although it has been awfully fun to try. Karateka’s reverse difficulty curve makes for engrossing, at times very frustrating gameplay but, for a game which is barely 40 minutes long, it’s completely engrossing. The stakes are high, the danger is palpable and the emotional investment, in such a minimalist game, is surprisingly big. Even better, this time around, there are no pixel perfect jumps to make. Maybe in the sequel…