The Making of Karateka Review (Switch eShop)

Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Digital Eclipse, following on from Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection, is continuing its trend of going back to the past to rekindle the games that kicked ass. While the Cowabunga Collection was wrapped in comic book paraphernalia and finished with a lick of old-fashioned Konami, The Making of Karateka follows the clean and tranquil stylings of Atari 50: The Anniversary Collection, a package we commended for being so thoughtfully arranged.

Digital Eclipse’s “interactive documentary” angle, thus far, has been somewhat pioneering, built with robust research, stuffed with original interviews, and showcasing unearthed and playable prototype materials. And, priced at a reasonable $19.99, there’s a good chance that anyone who sits down and actually sifts through everything in The Making of Karateka, from video interviews to superb audio commentaries, will probably spend more time with it than they do with most games, such is the attention span of today’s impulse buyers and the wealth of content on-board. Without even playing the games in the package, you can kick back and enjoy the story of how Karateka came to be, in alluring, personal detail.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Mechner, probably best known for Prince of Persia (1989), was infatuated with movie-making back in 1984. While studying at Yale, he brainstormed a concept for a martial arts game set in old Japan; something that would capture the spirit of the movies, while being revolutionary for the medium. Learning to program for the Apple II computer, he drew upon the works of film legend Akira Kurosawa for tone and used traditional Japanese woodblock art as a visual touchstone.

Karateka, on release, was a massive success. It introduced the world to one-on-one fighting like they had never seen before. While at first glance it may seem similar to 1984’s Karate Champ, Data East’s two-player versus arcade game that saw combatants face off with various martial arts strikes, Karateka happens to be quite different, offering a broader game with a cinematic feel, a sense of adventure and progression, and more fluid and exciting combat. And, while the game is a series of one-on-one engagements, some may consider the format of scrolling through stages and taking out guards to have more in common with the belt-scrolling beat ’em ups spearheaded by Irem’s Kung-Fu Master (1984). Mechner used rotoscoping to draw out realistic, fluid animation, which was graphically remarkable at the time, and something he would later become noted for with Prince of Persia. Digital Eclipse’s thorough interactive documentary goes into great detail on the subject, recounting in an audio commentary the people who allowed him to record their motions on an old Super-8 camera; his father Franice Mechner contributed the running animation, his mother’s Karate teacher Dennis Holliday the martial arts moves.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

In Karateka, you play a Karate hero on a mission to save Princess Mariko from the clutches of evil Japanese warlord Akuma. Set in feudal Japan, the graphical motifs of Mt. Fuji, Tori gates, and wood-structured castle enclaves, remain impressively atmospheric. The protagonist marches forward until the screen cuts, in real-time, to a guard running in approach. When you meet, it’s time to fight, at which point you need to enter a Karate stance and trade blows. The original game had only two buttons and used the directional keys to plant low, medium, and high punches and kicks. Here, you can use six buttons if you wish, relinquishing the need for directional inputs. You can also rewind gameplay at will if you’re a sore loser, and adjust the screen with borders and filters.

Even by today’s standards, Karateka plays very well. Yes, you can get away with spamming the low kick to get you through quite a few enemies, but there’s still a tactical element to it. It features regenerating health bars for you and your enemies, meaning you can back off to regain energy during a fight, but your opponent receives the same recuperative bonus. You also need to press on quickly between fights to limit the number of approaching guards and reach the end of the stage.

In addition to a ton of historical tidbits on board, and a genuinely interactive element that allows you to jump in and start playing the game during commentaries, the package features every available prototype of Karateka, allowing you to play its work in progress and all the finished releases and ports, including Apple II, Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit versions. Deathbounce, a game Mechner originally coded at 17 entitled Asteroids Blaster, has several prototype versions that changed based on feedback from Broderbund Software, who ultimately never put it out for sale. Broderbund’s input, however, did influence its transformation from an Asteroids clone to an altogether novel arena shooter set on the cars of a space train. There is a remaster of Deathbounce included, too, and it’s lots of fun to play for score, hurtling from car to car and littering the screen with destructible firework explosions.

Of greater interest to fans will be the Karateka remaster, which sensibly does nothing to lose the charm of the original. That is to say, it’s nothing like the 3D 2012 Karateka remake and is more about keeping the format exactly as it was. Heavily tuned up, it has a lot more pixels and colours, as well as a rousing score by Francis Mechner, and visually sits somewhere between the 8 and 16-bit era. And it’s wonderfully done. Cherry blossom, bridges, and other new background elements breathe new life into the adventure, and there is an optional audio commentary track from the programmer that interrupts your playthrough at certain stages to tell you about the project’s development.

On the whole, The Making of Karateka is superbly handled. But — and there is a but — one must be aware that it’s a very niche field of interest. If you suffer from a ‘2D looks old’ disposition then it’s simply not for you. Despite its animated fluidity, Karateka was built around the limitations of ancient home PCs — an aspect that’s discussed often in the documentary snippets — and as such, is a simple game with a relatively slow input system. People looking to dive in on this should know what they’re getting: an excellently laid out documentary with interactive timelines, soothing menu music, and plenty to watch and play, even if the number of unique games is fairly thin.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Perhaps broadening the package to include Mechner’s other works, like Prince of Persia, would have made this truly unmissable, although that would no doubt require the involvement of Ubisoft (the owners of that IP) and a price point to match, not to mention a huge amount of additional work. Still, considering the quality of the execution and the wealth of researched content, the price stands fair and will be a no-brainer for fans of the game or historical compendiums generally.


The Making of Karateka is not for everyone, and most of its appeal will lie with older gaming generations. If you’re a student of historical gaming flash points, however, it’s a package that delivers the goods, and in fine form. It doesn’t have anywhere near as much unique gaming content as Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, a fact that will limit its appeal. Despite this, the two remasters are solid, the prototypes intriguing, and the content comprehensive. If you were a fan of Atari 50, The Making of Karateka will find you well.

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