Following the success of the 80's original Karateka, indie developer Liquid Entertainment in conjunction with Jordan Mechner developed the remake to the classic game. Mechner, who would create Karateka almost thirty years ago, aimed for the remake to be as loyal as possible, designing the game in a way that it makes old school gamers reminisce, but at the same time deliver a refreshing improvement as far as the visuals and style of Karateka concern.
The game sets you in a peaceful feudal palace in Japan, but instead of sword fights, I had to avail from the martial arts expertise the protagonists possess. Three playable characters is what you can expect. The plot is one of love, a Warlord named Akuma holds captive Mariko, a young woman who under different circumstances has charmed the heroes of the story. There's really nothing more to it aside of the typical "rescue the princess" routine. This is not necessarily a bad aspect, it's well implemented and the game does a well storytelling job through cinematics, but lacks any voice acting.
Karateka plays as two different genres, both a fighting game and a platformer essence are present, but it's not quite either. You'll see your character walking and running around through a sufficiently linear set of environments, that add up to roughly 35 or 40 minutes of gameplay at most. Whilst short, Karateka is rather enjoyable at first. If you die with the first character, you get a go with a Monk with increased health, and if yet again you happen to fail, you take control of a grumpy ogre-esque figure, and from that point forward the Continue option is available for 3,000 score points, which you gather as the fights go on. To avoid these kind of penalties, you can recover some life lost in battle by finding blue flowers left by Mariko herself along the way, or at least I assume she did.
The fighting mechanics are designed to go along with the score of the game; you'll hear a soft tone for each blow your enemies will fire at you, and successfully timing the block button will trigger a counter attack stance that will allow you to punch back. The controls can't be mapped as desired, forcing me to play with the predetermined bindings. Nevertheless, the gameplay is simple enough, to the point of timing key strokes according to the sounds of the game will suffice to progress through.
Each playable Karateka has a different set of attacks, visually speaking. It's not like I could make great chains of combos to show off, due to the simplicity of the controls. Despite each suitor having different health bars and some do more damage than others, all of them do basically the same. You don't move with the typical WASD or, depending on your preferences, the arrow keys. Instead, the simple press of a button makes the character move forward while another key triggers a bow animation, and so forth. In all honesty, there were times when I felt I was playing a large, lengthy quick time event.
With modest graphics and a fitting art style, Karateka does succeed on setting an appropriate atmosphere to go with the overall feeling the game attempts to achieve, unfortunately that doesn't make a game. There are specific sections of the game that on the other hand kind of break the game, like the Hawk clash, as I like to call it. Basically it's just the main boss's pet who swoops down to assault you regularly; my guess is that's there to change the pace of the fairly straightforward action; twelve achievements for a few dozen minutes of entertainment and a somewhat decent replay value , since Karateka has three different endings, and are actually correlated to your skills and reflexes, depending on which of the three suitors you finish the game with.
Karateka runs smooth as butter just because it's not as graphically aggressive as it would need to be to go hard on your system. Now, I definitely know graphics don't make a game, especially talking about indie games, which constantly demonstrate that they can do even better than big titles, but I would have appreciated a little more visually. The main point of contention is the occasional missing textures found during the game.
The game rewards you by filling a chi meter as you connect karate chops or block the enemy punches. The better you do the faster you fill the Chi meter and once triggered you are able to stun your opponent, which in turn gives you the chance to chain fast and continuous striking blows. Timing is everything here. You can try and hit first. But if not well timed the AI will block and then slap you back. So it's pretty much waiting for the right moment, blocking and then smash your keyboard and cause some bruises.
I have to hand it to Karateka, rhythmic approach of the fighting mechanic is nicely executed, but that's about it quite frankly. The fighting section games of the game are rather good, and the fact of finishing the game with the second or third character, as a gamer, encouraged me to jump back and try to make it on the first try, and so that added to the replayability of the game, but even then it felt short. Your gamer enjoyment towards Karateka is directly proportional to how much you like fast paced games with limited gameplay options and a short duration of game time.