Karateka sequel’s unknown genre

September 17th, 2012 1:26 PM
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In February, I shared the news that Jordan Mechner‘s original Apple II game, Karateka, is being relaunched. But as discussed in the September episode of Open Apple, the direction this reimagining is taking could leave traditionalists perplexed.

When an iOS port of the new Karateka was confirmed, Touch Arcade reported this summary of the game:

In this rhythm-fighting game, players assume the role of three Japanese warriors attempting to rescue a kidnapped princess from an evil warlord. Players engage in frenetic one-on-one battles with various enemies, using timed martial arts moves (i.e., punch/kick combos) to stun opponents and drain their health meters. Matches are highlighted by battle cries, colorful light flashes, and slow motion effects; when players’ character is knocked out, a brief cutscene depicts him falling down the side of a mountain.

A rhythm game? One in which players time their input to match the game’s soundtrack — like PaRappa the Rapper?


At the time of PaRappa’s release for the original Sony PlayStation in 1997, I gave it a score of 8.0 out of 10 — not terribly compelling in today’s competitive video game market. But PaRappa has stood the test of time better than I expected, and most gamers who knew this quirky little title look back on it fondly. It’s often considered the first modern rhythm game, a genre that grown in popularity thanks to titles such as Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, and Elite Beat Agents.

So yes, rhythm games can be fun — but I’m having a hard time envisioning the hero’s ascent of Akuma’s fortress to rescue Princess Mariko as a music-based game. What sparse soundtrack the original Karateka featured was not central to the gameplay experience, so to introduce a core mechanic absent in the series origin strains the continuity of the franchise.

It’s also possible that Touch Arcade was fed inaccurate infomration. We’ll find out when the game is released for Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii U, and other platforms later this year.

Jordan Mechner releases Deathbounce

April 12th, 2012 8:38 AM
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(Note: I originally wrote the below blog post for Apple II Bits but ultimately sent it to PCWorld, with whom I now have a relationship to publish gaming articles after covering last month’s GameFest.)

Last week, Jordan Mechner was the keynote speaker at PAX East, Penny Arcade’s annual three-day celebration of gaming and gamers. Mechner kicked off the event with his personal story of how creating Karateka and Prince of Persia indirectly led him to fulfill his life goal of breaking into Hollywood, and how he has since revisited those properties many times across various media.

Mechner’s tale was one of persistence and perseverance. When he first tried his hand at programming in 1982, his debut game garnered the attention of Broderbund’s Doug Carlston. "Unlike in Asteroids, where you’re a triangle-shaped ship shooting at rocks," described Mechner, "in my game, you’re a triangle-shaped ship shooting at colored balls. It had physics and everything." Despite the wicked awesome name of Deathbounce, the game remained unpublished — "There’s a reason [Carlson] passed on that," said Mechner.

But once Mechner went public with the story of Deathbounce, PAX attendees demanded its release, going so far as using the Q&A session to hand Mechner money toward a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Hey, if it’s worked for Tim Schafer, Brian Fargo, and Al Lowe, why not Jordan Mechner?

Continue reading this story at PCWorld.com »

(Hat tip to Jordan Mechner, via Paul Marzagalli of NAVGTR)

Recovering the code of Prince of Persia

March 29th, 2012 10:18 PM
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Jordan Mechner, rockstar programmer responsible for Prince of Persia and Karateka and keynote speaker of next week’s PAX East convention, published a comprehensive journal of the making of Prince of Persia. In the book and on Mechner’s Web site are notes, sketches, concept art, demo videos, and more — a wealth of information he preserved from decades ago.

Yet for all that time, there was one vital piece of data he was missing: the original source code. Whether it had been overwritten, lent or donated, mistakenly or purposely trashed, or simply lost remained unknown to Mechner, despite his best efforts.

This week, that long-lost treasure fell in his lap when his father mailed him a box of assorted unidentified floppies. Contained therein was Prince of Persia in its rawest form.

It never occurred to me that Mechner didn’t already have PoP’s source code. Given that PoP has appeared on platforms as recent as the Xbox 360, I wonder what version or fork they were basing that port on. It makes even more recent independent ports all the more impressive.

Source Code

Jake Gyllenhaal followed his role as Mechner's Prince of Persia
with the lead in
Source Code... coincidence?!

Mechner’s next task is to verify the integrity of the floppies and migrate the data off them. New hardware like the FC5025 and Kyroflux are miracle workers in our ability to access vintage media via a modern operating system, but the fact remains that the floppy disk is a magnetic medium whose charge is dying. I started (but did not finish) my own floppy migration two years ago. It’s easy to dismiss it as a low-priority project compared to ongoing and more demanding tasks, but it will be all too soon that I’ll have put it off too long.

Once the code is recovered, I wonder what Mechner will do with it? It’s still copyrighted material, so will he continue to keep it a secret — or will he publish it under Creative Commons, allowing a variety of variations and ports?

All this reminds me: David X. Cohen, co-creator of the television show Futurama, reported almost five years ago that he too had programmed an Apple II game that needed rescuing from floppies. I wonder what ever came of that?

UPDATE (Mar 30): Jason Scott tells me, "You’ll be delighted to know I am leading this expedition."

(Hat tip to Sean Fahey)

Real-life Prince of Persia

March 8th, 2012 1:38 PM
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When Jordan Mechner developed Karateka in 1984, audiences were astounded by the fluidity and realism of his rotoscoped graphics — a technique more effectively executed five years later when applied to Prince of Persia. With the upcoming remake of Karateka, I’m left wondering just how much more realistic Mechner’s work can become. Will he go for a classic, retro look; something more modern; or a blend of new and old? Comedy troupe Karahat proposes the latter with their comedy sketch, Real Prince of Persia:

This fun skit employs the cutting edge of 1984 technology, such as cardboard and rubber bands. But I’m hoping the woman in this skit was expecting to be accosted and was not an unwilling participant. The potential of invisible theater to discomfort its unwilling participants is exactly what makes me so uncomfortable about watching many of Mega64’s videos.

Oh, and still wondering the correct way to pronounce "Karateka"? Don’t look for answers in Open Apple #13, in which each guest and host has his own idea about how to say the game’s name. Listen instead to 1:11 into Jordan Mechner’s interview with G4 / X-Play:

(Hat tip to — who else? — Jordan Mechner)

Karateka returns

February 16th, 2012 9:23 AM
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I recently asked why Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia has enjoyed more diverse success and adaptation than other Apple II originals. That’s now proven to be a prescient musing, as yesterday Mechner announced on his blog that his debut title, Karateka, will be re-imagined as a new game for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network later in 2012.

Like PoP, the original Karateka for the Apple II employed rotoscoping to create fluid graphics and animations. Its one-on-one martial arts bouts could be seen as a precursor to games such as Karate Champ and even Street Fighter. Yet despite being such an archetype, the game is being approached for a remake with a very different lineage than the many PoP sequels have been. As Mechner told Gamasutra:

In the 27 years since its release, it’s never had a sequel or an adaptation. And yet it’s stayed in people’s minds all this time. It seems to hold a special place in many gamers’ hearts, as it does in mine. It’s the game that started my career — you can’t get more indie than the Apple II — and its compact design, simple story and pick-up-and-play philosophy made it perfect for a downloadable game.

The new Karateka will not be a sequel but a fuller realization of Mechner’s original characters and plot using modern technology:

The Apple II was a bit limited, in that a game could be acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece of fluid animation while actually it was struggling to eke out eight frames per second — or even less, if the palace gate happened to be on screen at the same time. The music could only play one note at a time, no chords, and I couldn’t animate the characters and play a note at the same time — given the 1KHz [sic] microprocessor it was one or the other.

So I’m especially excited about what we can do with the graphics and animation and sound in the new Karateka, given the power of today’s consoles … I wanted to take advantage of XBLA and PSN technology to push this game to its production limits, and use graphics, sound and music to really put players into the world of feudal Japan in a way we couldn’t on the Apple II … I’ve tried to make Karateka the way I would have made it in 1984 had the technology been available, and had the Apple II been able to display more than 280×192 pixels and four colors.

But the remake won’t outperform the original in all ways. As Mechner told GameTrailers.com:

“If you turn both the video game console and your large flat-screen TV upside down, the entire game will play upside down,” Mechner joked. “We would have liked to make it do that if you just insert the disk upside down, like the original, but with a downloadable game unfortunately that wasn’t possible. See, 1980s technology was actually superior in some ways.”

The past three years have provided Apple II users with a bounty of opportunities to revisit their favorite classics as never before seen, with affordable downloads and remakes of games such as Choplifter, Lode Runner, and Prince of Persia. My own history with Mechner’s résumé includes more lends itself more to Karateka than PoP, and I’m eager to see how the creative force behind the original will remake such a relatively simple game as Karateka for modern platforms and audiences.

The legacy of Prince of Persia

February 13th, 2012 1:45 PM
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I’ve written several times about Prince of Persia, Jordan Mechner‘s seminal platformer that debuted on the Apple II and has since been translated, reimagined, and adapted across video game platforms, comic books, and Hollywood. At its core, the game and its plot are simple yet enduring, having survived across decades and dozens of reinterpretations. Why?

wallpaper_prince_of_persia_warrior_within_08_1600This is not the Prince of Persia you grew up with. What’s given him so long a life?

Ryan Lambie at the Den of Geek has an answer. In a thoughtful if occasionally rosy reflection on the original game, he points to Prince of Persia’s tension and challenge as its timeless qualities.

It didn’t matter that the levels themselves were a comparatively sparse amalgam of grey walls, blue tiles and white spikes — when the Prince hung by his fingertips above a precipice, or leapt through a closing gate with barely a second to spare, the experience was akin to stepping into the shoes of Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker.

[But] was the game’s challenge that made it so addictive. No other game could match its sense of danger, nor the horrendous sense of loss when the Prince was inevitably sliced in two, run through with a sword, impaled by spikes, crushed by falling masonry, or had his bones shattered by a precipitous drop. Even now, it’s difficult to think of a game whose animation, control system (which, looking back, was extremely fiddly) and level design merge so seamlessly.

As true as it is that Prince of Persia possessed these traits, I’m not sure they can explain what makes the franchise unique. Many early computer and arcade games possessed their own kind of anxiety and difficulty: who can forget being chased by stormtroopers through the halls of Castle Wolfenstein? That game inspired a 1992 first-person shooter and a series of modern sequels, but I’ve not witnessed it infusing popular (or at least geek) culture of the degree Prince of Persia has.

Is it just luck of the draw that made Prince of Persia succeed in ways that its contemporaries, such as Choplifter and Lode Runner, have not? Or has Jordan Mechner’s genius made his opus into something unquantifiable and irreproducible?