An underwhelming Karateka demo

November 12th, 2012 1:31 PM
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I had marked November 17th as the date Jordan Mechner would return to the world of Karateka, his classic Apple II fighting game. Ten days early, Sean Fahey announced that my marked date was for the PC, iOS, and PlayStation 3 versions of the new Karateka, but that the Xbox Live Arcade version was now available.

As primarily an Xbox gamer, I was happy to hear this news and immediately downloaded the game, accepting of the fact that I'd be unable to load it upside-down. Up until then, I'd wondered as to the game's genre and nature: was it best described as a sequel? A reboot? A reimagining? Having played only the ten-minute free trial, I would describe the game as a remake — and one that doesn't capture modern gamers with its demo.

Karateka

How much has Karateka changed in the last 30 years?

With an art style and musical underpinning that harken back to the classic Apple II fighting game, Karateka is a visual and aural delight. The Japanese gardens and goofy goons that our hero encounters are evocative of another time and place. There is little freedom to explore these environments, though, as the protagonist (one of three) proceeds through it on two-dimensional rails, unable to move any direction but forward.

Once he engages with a foe, the opportunity for input becomes limited to three buttons: punch, kick, and block. It is impossible to strike an enemy without first blocking his own attack, at which point his guard is lowered and he is open to a chain of attacks. In an interview with Polygon's Samit Sarkar, Mechner describes the combat system as rhythm-based in which players "have to time your attacks to the score from Grammy-winning composer Christopher Tin". This was not my experience; my blocks were based solely on cues from the castle's keepers — tells that they were about to strike. A successful block then let me pound the punch and kick buttons, but there seemed to be neither functional difference between the two nor incentive to experiment with a variety of combos.

In an interview with Steve Peterson, Mechner indicates that the simplistic gameplay is intentional, allowing other aspects of Karateka to take center stage:

Mechner believes Karateka is an unusual design, one that will attract a broader audience. "It's not a fighting game in the sense of trying to rack up points, or fighting for fighting's sake. It's fighting in order to get to the happy ending in the story, and it's a love story. I think we're appealing to a slightly different audience than most fighting games," he says.

I can appreciate Jordan Mechner, as someone whose ambition has always been to write Hollywood scripts, wanting to focus on that aspect of Karateka. Storytelling has become an increasingly important part of both big-budget and indie games, with hits such as Braid, Portal, and even the BIT.TRIP series having set new milestones for their innovative and memorable plots.

But plot is also the hardest quality for a game to convey in a short demo. It is more effective to draw players in with engaging gameplay, then present them with an increasingly intricate and meaningful narrative. In that respect, the free demo I played falls flat. The only challenges I encountered in my time with Karateka was identifying a foe's pattern and timing my blocks accordingly. With digital distribution and mobile apps, there are much more involving experiences I could get for my $10, and demos that give me more confidence in that investment than Karateka has.

(Hat tips to Blake Patterson, John August, and Steve Melton)

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.

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.

Best computer games from the '80s

May 30th, 2011 2:45 PM
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Awhile back, TIME.com produced a list of the best computer games from the 1980s. Lists may be quick and easy ways to generate pageviews, but they're also enjoyable opportunities to reminisce and debate.

Time's list, which did not limit itself to the Apple II (see Retro Gamer for that list), consisted of the following apparently unranked one dozen games:

  • • California Games
  • • Ghostbusters
  • • Quest for Glory
  • • SimCity
  • • Prince of Persia
  • • Police Quest

I haven't actually played many of those games, or at least on their native platforms. But it does inspire me to jog my memory by consulting Wikipedia's list of Apple II games and list of Apple IIGS games to see which would make my must-play list. Here are my candidates:

And that's not even counting non-commercial games, such as GShisen or Silvern Castle.

What games top your memories of the Apple II?

Apple II gaming in Retro Gamer

June 17th, 2010 12:07 PM
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As recently mentioned on the Juiced.GS blog, and as first told to me by Andy Molloy, Retro Gamer magazine issue #76 features an eight-page profile of the Apple II as a gaming machine. As not just an Apple II user but a long-time gamer, I enjoyed this retrospective, which featured many of the games I grew up playing. The text focuses on the Apple II and its history and fate, while high-quality pictures of dozens of games capture the unique look of the era and genre.

I especially enjoyed reading quotes from Jordan Mechner (Prince of Persia), Bill Budge (Pinball Construction Set), and John Romero (Wolfenstein 3D) reminiscing about developing for the Apple II. As luminaries who acknowledge their origin, they're in good company. In my role as KansasFest marketing director, I'm often the first contact with potential keynote speakers. Everyone we've approached has always been kind enough to respond to our invitation, and of those who did not accept, each has cited scheduling or personal conflicts. Never have I heard anything akin to "Sorry, but the Apple II doesn't interest me anymore." The gentlemen interviewed in Retro Gamer are proof of the magnanimous spirit of those whom the Apple II made famous.

The article includes a Top Ten list of the best Apple II games, all of which I believe are 8-bit:

Retro Gamer #76

  1. The Bard's Tale
  2. Pinball Construction Set
  3. The Oregon Trail
  4. Karateka
  5. Choplifter
  6. Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness
  7. Lode Runner
  8. Prince of Persia
  9. Beyond Castle Wolfenstein
  10. Taipan!

Seven of the games spawned sequels and franchises, some of which exist to this day. That's a powerful legacy. The article's last two pages consist of a collage of 56 different Apple II games, many of which I've never played but am now desperate to. Apparently, I'm not the only one, given how popular the trend is to port Apple II games to the iPhone.

What are your memories of growing up gaming on the Apple II? How did it compare with other computers of the era?