As one of a legion of fans of the 1984 videogame classic, Karateka (Apple II and a host of other 8- and 16-bit platforms), I was both delighted by and cautious of the February 2012 announcement of a modern day reimagining. On the one hand, the game's original developer extraordinaire, Jordan Mechner, was going to be directly involved. On the other hand, Karateka was not your average game, so reimagining it could prove disastrous even with Mechner's involvement. As heavily stylized, Disney-esque in-game images began to roll in, along with camera angles that reminded more of a modern day Street Fighter, it seems our worst fears had been realized. So, it was with somewhat muted enthusiasm that I set the new game to download on my Xbox 360 at work to wait for me when I got home. I was sure to be disappointed. Luckily, I was anything but.
You see, along with my general agreement about the new art direction, I've said all along that if they got the gameplay right, everything else was far less important. Karateka was never a fighting game in the traditional sense, but a game where you had to pick and choose when you defended (dodged) and when you struck. It was all about timing. That's extraordinarily refreshing considering 99% of other fighting games are about being the fastest to mash the buttons or who can memorize the most complex moves. We got a clue that the developers understood this when the fighting elements were being compared to a game like Guitar Hero, but that still threw up an obvious red flag. It needn't have. The structure and pacing is just right--it is indeed a modern day reimagining of the structure and pacing of the fighting that made the original so special.
Now, with all that said, the visuals have grown on me. Stills don't do it justice and video clips don't convey enough of the "live" effect. It's still not the art style I would have chosen, but - and this is a big but - it's almost like the art style is necessary to convey the emotion they were attempting to portray. The original game featured sprites that were literally faceless and used for-the-time stunning animation and targeted audio (the origin system was the Apple II after all) during its ground breaking cut scenes to make you feel for the story. That same effect would just be weird with today's heightened expectations and how we've been conditioned. Surely as an Xbox LIVE Arcade game (and an upcoming iOS game) their budget was not up to something like the cut scenes in a Halo 4 or Forza Horizon (as just two recent examples), so they clearly opted for what would work within their constraints. Rest assured, it does work.
In short, if you're a fan of the original, this is a near perfect reimagining. The cadence of the fighting is spot on and there are a ton of in-game homages to the original (keep an ear out for the updated tunes, as just one example). The lives system is also genius, with each of the three new lives casting the player as a different character, which impacts the overall story. I beat this on my first playthrough, and that would not have been possible if I didn't put many hours into the original. Of course, I got the third (out of three) best ending and barely did it, so I'll have to keep playing. Happily. The only pity is younger gamers conditioned on the norm in fighting games won't get it, not even a little bit. Sad then that they're going to miss out on a new 28-year-old breath of fresh air for the genre.