Best Games - Karateka
Fighting games are all about range and timing. You press the kick button of this side of the screen and a few milliseconds later your character has their leg extended reaching for the unguarded midsection of your opponent. Let that kick fly from too far a distance and the game's hidden collision boxes strike nothing. Too close and your opponent can intercept with a shorter range, but slightly quicker attack of their own. Range and timing.
Karateka is probably best known as one of the first, if not the first, cinematic games. Jordan Mechner was a college student studying film when he developed Karateka. The game wears those film school influences proudly. Musical stings. Cuts to establishing and framing shots. Presenting your progress through the stages with wordless camera movements rather than scripted story dumps. Fluid rotoscope style character animation. It all works to propel you through the game, but I don’t want to talk about any of that.
It is amazing to me how successful Karateka is as a fighting game.
Karate Champ is typically thought of as the first arcade fighting game. It is a twin stick game where you can use fairly complex inputs to manipulate the would-be Karate Champ. You can engage in martial combat against a computer opponent or against another person.
While firing off attacks in Karate Champ isn’t too terribly difficult, actually landing them is. Still, as a first shot in a genre Karate Champ is a decent game. A flawed early step into what would eventually be the last great arcade genre before home consoles overtook location based games.
In contrast, Karateka nearly knocks it out of the park.
Karateka, Karate Champ, and side scroller beat’em up Kung Fu Master, were released the same year so it is pretty much impossible that Jordan Mechner took any inspiration from them, or any other fighting game for that matter. Karateka is a fully formed singular creation. Punch and kick fighting was just in the early 80’s air. Even with that ‘first game in a genre’ deficit Karateka manages to nail the fighting game formula. It’s all about range and timing.
It’s true that Karateka offers no player vs. player mode, but in the game’s defence, it was programmed on an Apple II. Not a real powerhouse of computer hardware, even at the time. The best that could be accomplished was pitting the player against one solitary computer enemy at a time. It does help that this limitation plays into all the Kung Fu and Karate movie tropes of a lone warrior defeating a cadre of villains singlehanded. Only Karateka seems to be set in a world where no one ever learned to turn around.
The fighting system itself does seem like it would probably work in a player vs player mode, as evidenced by this patch to the game that lets a second person play as the enemies ( https://archive.org/details/karateka-two-player ).
Karateka is a smooth and deliberate game. You will quickly learn over the first handful of enemies that you can’t mash on the attack button and hope to win. You need to wait for your enemy to overextend themselves before you dive in to deliver a kick or series of quick punches. The whole game is range and timing. You can keep yourself a hair out of their range, rocking back and forth in a crossover step just waiting for enemy goons to slip up and launch a kick at the air where your head used to be. And if things are getting too hot and your health is dwindling you can retreat a few steps.
Jordan Mechner recounts in the journals he kept while making Karateka how he thought games needed to have two different but overlapping goals. In Karateka you need to balance the fights against individual enemies with the total ground you have to cover. You will need to start at the edge of a cliff and fight all the way through a fortress in order to battle the final enemy, Akuma. If you retreat more than you advance during a fight you won’t reach the next checkpoint before a fresh guard appears. Retreat too far, and you fall off the cliff. The faster you close the distance between you and Akuma, the fewer guards you will have to deal with. Some of the later fights can be very tough so you won’t want to retreat much if you can help it. Even the meta game of Karateka hinges on range and timing. It is a fighting game to its core.
Karateka might be one of the earliest fighting games, but it’s also one of the best games.