As before, combat is the core of your journey, and movement is nearly insignificant. The original's side-scrolling converts to a one-way path, with you pushing the control stick upwards to roam the false 3D world. You reach a combatant, defeat him, run up the path, reach another combatant, defeat him, and so on. Apart from occasional cutscenes, this is how the whole game goes from start to end. Reducing a game to a manually-traversed rail punctuated only by fights and cutscenes isn't inherently wrong, but it does put pressure on combat and narrative to deliver. This is where Karateka comes unstuck. While the original distracted with cinematic innovations and challenging karate combat, its remake doesn't distinguish itself from its peers.
Let's start with the narrative. The 1984 Karateka stood out because creator Jordan Mechner threw his history-of-cinema classes into the game. It wasn't just in the animation, but in the direction – switching from fighter to fighter, tracking them as they ran. It had drama.
The 2012 Karateka embraces that ethos through more modern touches. As your hero takes a health-sapping hook, the camera angle changes to focus on his pain. Individual fights have their own scores of music, helping each one feel like a chapter in your overall story.
These little touches are clever and decent, but they are far from standout. The same goes for the cutscenes. They are well produced given the obviously limited budget, but are no more than pleasant, pretty distractions. The 80s hallmark plot of saving a princess nowadays has its charm, but little else, and a spot of cinematic flourish doesn't change that. In the end, the story, the drama, and the action of Karateka all feel ordinary. It's never quite dull, but it doesn't exactly get the juices going either.
The combat does fare better. It keeps the original's emphasis on karate by focusing on blocks and counters, an important part of the martial art. Yet the new rhythm-based model changes things up. Each fight goes back and forth: your opponent launches a sequence of attacks, you (hopefully) time your blocks correctly, and then you land your own sequence of attacks before the whole thing repeats. But it's smarter than that.
Before each opponent attacks, you'll hear a short sequence of music which acts as a clue. If you hear one note, for example, your opponent tries to hit you just once. A chime of two notes indicates two hits, while a flurry means you should prepare to block several hits. Also, each fighter has his own rhythm of attacking. The early fighters stick to predictable beat-by-beat attacks, while later ones have complicated patterns that step out of rhythm.
It's a clever, modern way of keeping the combat true. The fighting looks great, even with the artificial back and forth. The problem is that your actual moves are reduced almost completely to two face buttons, one for punches and one for kicks. The only other factor is a meter you build up with successful hits and blocks. Once it's filled you can stun your opponents – this gets its own face button – and then build up a quick flurry to smash through his health. In reality, though, combat is just successfully blocking attacks and then tapping punch and kick buttons until it all repeats. There's little point to mixing up the two buttons beyond visual variety.
While this keeps things simple. making the game accessible, in the grander scheme of things it's an issue – the major reason being Karateka is short. In fact, you'll probably beat it in around 30 minutes (on the timer) the first time you play it.
The original was similarly short, as many games were in the 80s. Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with a short game now, as long as it packs a lot into that time. Otherwise a short game translates into a forgettable, expensive-feeling experience. There isn't enough depth in Karateka, including its combat, to prevent that feeling from creeping in. While the 30 or so minutes the game lasts are fine, they are well below memorable.
To its credit, Karateka tries to distract from its short length with an interesting attempt at replay value. Instead of losing a life when you die, your initial hero is replaced with a stronger hero. There are three heroes in total, each with his own ending. Beating the game with the first hero gets you the 'best' ending and a chunky achievement, but it's a tough ask because of his low maximum health.
While it's a very clever way to tier the game's difficulty naturally while simultaneously adding replay value, there are issues here too. The difficulty in beating Karateka with the first hero lies in the final few bosses, who drain plenty of health with each blow landed. The problem? It takes a good 20 minutes to get to these bosses, and on a retry these 20 minutes are dull and lack any real challenge. Having to go through them with each successive attempt is not enticing at all. Even motivations like leaderboards and other achievements fail to make it attractive.
The people who'll enjoy Karateka the most, and maybe a lot, are those who revere the 1984 classic. There are plenty of references to savor, from victory chimes to the very way the game begins. As a remake, it's hard to fault the creative choices made to keep the game true while still modernizing it. Maybe the issue here is whether or not a remake was a good idea, because the new Karateka has too many issues and too little substance to compete against current peers.
This review is based on a XBLA download of Karateka, provided by Liquid Entertainment and available for 800 MSP ($10) on Xbox Live Marketplace.
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