Game Reviews

Karateka Classic

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| Karateka Classic
Karateka Classic
| Karateka Classic

Vintage games are almost always disappointing. They look terrible, their controls are crude, and their gameplay is often simplistic and capriciously unfair.

They came into being when expectations were minimal and the available technology was so feeble that it wouldn't power a modern-day steam iron. The retro gaming scene runs on delusion.

Surely only a masochist would corrupt a precious childhood memory by replaying a decades-old, once-loved game.

Karateka first appeared on Apple II in the '80s, and it may well be the first game I ever played. But somehow, paradoxically and against all reason, it's both better and worse now than it was then.

Let me clarify that. Karateka Classic isn't better - it's more or less exactly the same, although you can now swipe left to return to your most recent victory. But it's better from the point of view of an adult than it was from the point of view of a mostly foolish six-year-old. It stands up surprisingly well to the test of time, because it's surprisingly deep.

Kicking it old skool

You play as a man who can do karate and who is trying to save his girlfriend, who has been abducted by another man who can do karate, called Akuma, and who has several minions who can also do karate. You move from left to right, first across a mountain path and then deeper into a fortress, beating up karate minions one at a time and repelling the odd eagle strike.

Fans of the more familiar Prince of Persia will immediately recognise that Karateka Classic is a Jordan Mechner production. It has the same fluid, spare, naturalistic presentation, the same concise storytelling through minimal cutscenes, and the same atmosphere of silent dread, which gets thicker with every abrupt death.

It also has the same nuance of motion. An unusually presented grid of virtual controls lets you move left or right; alternate between running and fighting stances; and execute three different kicks and punches. Early bouts are straightforward - you can just mash the 'kick' buttons (the 'punch' buttons are pretty useless) and let your opponent blunder himself to death against your feet.

Punch drunk shove

But as you reach the more advanced fighters you need to fight more tactically, timing your movements and blows; compensating for the inertia of your sprite; and thinking about your position. A mistimed blow will generally mean a foot in the face, so you need to watch what your opponent is doing constantly.

Your health and your opponents' slowly recharge during bouts, so you can't be too hesitant. Getting a hit in is much easier if you back off a little bit and wait for your opponent to come to you, but since karate men keep filing in from the left until you reach the next checkpoint this defensive approach won't get you anywhere in the long run.

If you retreat too much you'll start your next bout even farther back, and you'll probably have lost a few health points in the process, which deficit the game cruelly aggravates by filling your opponent's health bar all the way up to the point where yours stops. The less you have, the more he has.

You can attempt to compensate for a passive approach to combat by adopting a non-combative stance and running between bouts, but if you don't manage to switch back to a fighting stance before you run into your next opponent he'll kill you with a single strike.

The best defence is a good offence

In this way Karateka Classic is always nudging you forward into danger, forcing you to constantly grapple with risk and reward. And in this way, Karateka Classic is probably better than you remember - it's a deeper, more intelligent game than the primitive proto-mash-'em-up you may recall playing in the '80s with your hands all sticky with Push Pops and Quattro.

But, of course, it's also worse, like most vintage games are. For all its depth it still just involves trying to thump a series of karate men to death with the same six moves - of which you'll probably use just two - and it doesn't take long for repetition to set in.

Even so, Karateka Classic is worth 69p, on any terms. If you played it as a child and you want to have your nostalgia gland tickled then you won't be disappointed by this faithful, well-handled port. If you don't care about all that history stuff and you just want to play a ruddy good action game then, well, you probably will be disappointed - but not as bitterly as you might imagine.

Karateka Classic

Karateka Classic has the same problems that all vintage games have, but it's a faithful port and its deep gameplay may just surprise you
Rob Hearn
Rob Hearn
Having obtained a distinguished education, Rob became Steel Media's managing editor, now he's no longer here though, following a departure in late December 2015.