From the pages of the past! Ads of yesteryear – Karateka

Currently playing Mass Effect 3 and it’s not bad especially when it lays into you with the story, though I wish it had a few more RPGish elements to it. Speaking of which, here’s another game that also tested the boundaries of how a game could present itself as an film and which had also left its mark on gaming history – Karateka.

This was a side scrolling martial-arts action game released in 1984 which pit you against a number of baddies in your quest to free the typical “damsel in distress”. Akuma, the warlord holding her hostage, won’t go down easily and will send men and his pet hawk at your Peter Cetera lookalike until only one of you is left standing.

The title was a landmark game in how smoothly the animation came across as well as the cinematic feel of the title which was no accident. Jordan Mechner (Prince of Persia) was also an avid film student and wanted to incorporate elements from that, such as an animation technique known as rotoscoping, into the game to create a wholly new experience. Blending with his programming chops, Karateka was the result after two years of hard work and became a sensation.

This was a tough game. You couldn’t just button mash your way through these fights. You had to actually time your blows and read your enemy to have any chance at winning. For a game as short as this (it doesn’t even take an hour to beat), its difficulty and the presentation were what kept you enthralled through endless tries and even replays. Arcade logic!

You and your foes had a health bar and yours could slowly regenerate over time as long as you didn’t get hit. But that’s all the charity you would get. Dying ended the game. As in “that’s it”. No checkpoints, no saves. Time to start all over again.

Players also had to assume a fighting stance before duking it out with their fists or feet. Failure to do so meant that you died as soon as a bad guy kicked your unprotected ass. Enemies also became tougher the further in you got, blocking punches and kicks while delivering their own combos. And then there was the twist ending that, depending on your stance, you either got the girl or a fast lesson in singing soprano.

Mechner hopes to bring the game back as a remake and while the project’s scope is nothing like what had followed his Prince of Persia series, longtime fans of his work and of Karateka may soon be able to relive this classic with modern touches.

As for the ad itself, it was pretty minimalist though the box art shown was amazing. The game clearly starred a strangely blond hero fighting for the hand of a blond princess held in an oriental castle. And this was way before anime exposed even more people to the possibilities of multi-hued hairdos.

As odd as that wounds, Mechner offered an explanation below when asked by Wired on what he thought of a movie made about the game:

“Honestly, I would do it with an Asian cast,” he said at the time. “The reason the characters had white hair in the Apple II original is because it was the only color that would stand out against the black background. It didn’t really make sense to have blondes in 16th-century Japan.”

It’s probably a good guess that marketing saw the screenshots and were told to come up with something and so a blond hero and a blond damsel-in-distress in feudal Japan were born. And there was always Clavell’s Shogun to point to, so these two might have arrived in Japan the same way. Or maybe they just live in a world where that’s not unusual at all.

Karateka ad

Karateka’s box art is fantastic stuff. One angry Akuma, Peter Cetera’s twin brother, and a not-so-helpless blonde. Not kidding! Also, Broderbund was awesome back in the day.


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