12 things I learned from The Making of Karateka

By Jerry Bonner, Contributor
Jordan Mechner’s Karateka is a game that has lived rent-free in my head since 1985.

The martial arts-inspired title initially came out in 1984 on the Apple II, but I didn’t get to play until Christmas of 1985. That was when I finally got a disk drive (so much faster than the glacially s-l-o-w tape drive) for my beloved Commodore 64.

At its core, the game is essentially a side-scrolling beat ‘em up, but it was one of the first titles to navigate this now tried-and-true genre, along with Irem/Data East’s Kung Fu Master (which also debuted in 1984).

But the reason Karateka lives with me to this day is twofold: It was the first truly cinematic game I ever played. It was an experience that spoke the language of cinema as well as it spoke the language of video games. Back then, you were lucky if you got a title screen and maybe—just maybe—a little musical ditty that accompanied that. Karateka has an animated introduction and cutscenes that employ cross-cutting techniques that set up an expansive tale that's accompanied by impeccable musical flourishes.

The retro game development studio Digital Eclipse has done some truly excellent work over the past few years with titles like Medievil (2019), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection, and Atari 50: The Anniversary Collection. The Making of Karateka is the first in their newly christened “Gold Master Series,” which is essentially a Criterion Collection for video games. It's replete with prototypes, demos, documentary-style interviews, design documents, and game remasters.
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As an aficionado of Mechner’s work, I read the developer's journals when he released them digitally about ten years or so ago. Because of this, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about the whys and wherefores behind the construction of this classic title. However, that assumption proved incorrect on my part.

So, here are a dozen things I learned by watching and playing The Making of Karateka:

1. Jordan Mechner was something of a prodigy. Before his tenth birthday, he was already getting paid to draw caricatures at fairs and the like. By the ripe old age of thirteen, he was submitting math-intensive articles to Apple II magazines with scintillating titles like “In Search of Pi” and “Pascal’s Triangle: What’s It All About?"

2. Mechner's first paid game and/or programming work was for a clone of Atari's Asteroids initially called Asteroid Blaster. It was so good, in fact, that it was never published because the planned publisher (Hayden Book Company) received a cease and desist letter from Atari. Mechner altered the game a bit and changed the title (to Star Blaster and Space Rocks), but Hayden still never found the gumption to push that first game out the door.

3. After being sent a copy of another early '80s classic, Choplifter—by publisher Broderbund—Mechner was greatly influenced by the game. He started thinking in a new narrative-based direction for his next game, instead of the coin-op style of his previous ones.
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4. The title is pronounced Kara-te-ka, which is based on the original Japanese kanji. But Mechner himself realizes that people pronounce it in many different ways to this day, stating: “However you pronounce it is fine. It's all good.”

5. Karateka initially had a more modern setting, replete with a parachute landing, helicopter rescue, and time mechanics based around a digital watch that your character carried with him throughout his mission.

6. Mechner's brilliant father, Francis, contributed to Karateka in several ways. He composed the music (using the Wagnerian operatic technique called leitmotif), suggested the rotoscoping animation technique that was used to capture the lifelike animations the game required, and served as one of the rotoscoped actors. You can also blame him for one of the game's more infamous opponents, the predatory bird—who is certainly one of the first true jerk enemies in gaming.

7. Former Disney animator (and co-creator of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?) Gene Portwood helped Mechner refine his rotoscoped animations, especially those of Princess Mariko. He also drew the sinister exterior shot of Akuma's castle in the opening cutscene.
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8. Since Karateka (one who practices the art of karate) is an obscure word in English, Mechner considered several different titles for the game, such as Black Belt, Karate Death, Kung Fu Man, Feet of Fury, Ninja Attack, and... Zarfus. (We're glad he didn't go with that last one.)

9. I've always felt that Karateka didn’t control well with a joystick on the C64 and Atari computer versions. It was much easier to control using the keyboard—that's how I finally beat the game after several frustrating weeks of fumbling around with the joystick. (A classmate first suggested this method to me.) The Digital Eclipse Twitter/X account gave me this response when I asked them about the choice of controls: “Yes, your choice of keyboard or joystick controls. But it's worth noting that the Apple II originally started out as keyboard only, but was tweaked for two-button joystick as the primary control, with keyboard as an alternate. C64 only had one button, so there were trade-offs.”  

10. Many well-known masters of game design have fond memories of Karateka, and were influenced by it or Mechner's other work. John Romero (who wrote a rather endearing fan letter to Mechner), Tom Hall, John Tobias, and Raph Koster are among those who worship at the altar of Karateka.

11. The Making of Karateka also includes remasters of both the titular title and the unpublished game that Mechner created directly before it, Deathbounce, which is a kind of hybrid between Asteroids and Omega Race. These new versions are perfect updates for these two games, and it truly warms the heart of this old-school gamer that such care and devotion went into them.

12. There was a sequel for Karateka in the works at one time, but that concept eventually evolved into Mechner's best-known game, Prince of Persia, which was originally called Baghdad. That hypothetical Karateka 2 would have featured an evil warlord named Maurice, which may be the least threatening name on the planet.

You can check out The Making of Karateka on the Epic Game Store right here.