1984. The Karate Kid was making millions at the cinema (and we're not talking here of whatever the hell it is that Will Smith's son is doing with the franchise), but if you were a computer gamer, a different kind of martial arts was diverting you from your dollars. Forget crane kicks or waxing on. This was all about animation rarely seen in a computer game, high kicks to the head, and being suddenly murdered by an eagle that you've seen coming for you all game.
This was Karateka.
What systems was Kareteka available for?
The first version of Kareteka was an Apple II game, back when the Apple II was a high level competitor in the games field.
Here's a quick nostalgia hit for those who were around during Karateka's heyday:
Karateka was widely ported to other systems, including the Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, DOS, Nintendo Entertainment System, ZX Spectrum and Atari ST.
What's the basic plot?
Does it matter? At the time, you might reasonably have said, "not much", as the plot for games such as Pac-Man never really bothered with emotional subtleties. There is a plot for Karateka, for what it's worth. The evil Akuma (presumably not the Streetfighter character, although anything's possible) has kidnapped the evil princess Mariko, and it's up to you to save the day by fighting your way through the castle and rescuing the princess.
Unlike Mario's predicament, the princess is actually in this castle, although whether she'll welcome you with open arms depends on a key decision made late in the game. Although we won't say more, as this is one of videogame's earliest spoilers.
While the plot is derivative, what was revolutionary was how the game developed the storyline. Outside a text scroll at the start of the game, everything was delivered with sound and smooth animation.
Why was it relevant?
Karateka was relevant on a number of levels. It brought a level of animation rarely seen in computer games to the fore at a time when text indicating that you'd been eaten by a Grue was still fairly cutting edge. The plot might not have been much to speak of, but the game's use of animation, cut scenes and musical cues pre-dated just about everything in terms of giving a game a cinematic feel.
It launched the career of Jordan Mechner, better known as the creator -- five years after Karateka -- of the Prince Of Persia series of games. His interest in cinema in such that he was one of the early draft writers of the recent film version of Prince Of Persia. There's not too many video game creators who not only hold onto a property for twenty-odd years, but also write the movie adaptation!
Karateka was also hugely influential, not only in the areas of animation and game design, but in the direct influence on other notable game creators. From Mechner's own page dedicated to Karateka, Sims creator Wil Wright notes that Karateka "gave me the sense that I was seeing a new form of interactive storytelling". David "God Of War" Jaffe notes that "Karateka showed that storytelling during gameplay was not only possible, but powerful. Even today, the storytelling of Karateka still works better than many of today's mega-budget action games."
For a game that's rapidly approaching thirty years old, that's not bad going.
What's it worth?
Because it's been ported to many systems (or, if you prefer, because it's been and was highly pirated) the asking price for Karateka isn't terribly high. Outside one hopeful seller looking for fifty bucks for a sealed copy of the Atari 7800 version, we struggled to find one going for more than about five dollars.