I never owned an Apple II, so Karateka originally passed me by. Granted, it was ported to a large number of systems over the years, but by the time it arrived on the Amstrad in 1990 (six years after its original release) I’d already moved onto Sega’s Master System.
It wasn’t until years later when I was writing a Prince Of Persia article for games™ that I played the game and I wished I’d experienced it back in the Eighties. It surprised me that Karateka predated games such as Way Of The Exploding Fist and International Karate and IK+ (titles I loved to play growing up). It’s also unusual because, unlike many of its peers, it focuses as much on story as it does on combat.
While no text accompanies your quest to liberate Princess Mariko, Karateka ensures that a narrative constantly flows. Fights are intercut with cutscenes of Mariko looking forlorn in her cell, or her captor, Akuma, sending out more of his best men to challenge you. They’re sparse, but do a great job of creating tension, more so when the game switches between you and your opponent running towards each other, ready to do battle.
The fighting is solid with the player having access to six buttons that represent high, low and medium punches and kicks. Early fights can be won with randomly placed kicks, but as later enemies move inside your defences you need to start relying on sly punches to keep them at arm’s-length. It’s a neat system, but lacks the later slickness of IK+ and its ilk.
Karateka show its age, but it remains an entertaining fighter and gives a good indication of the dramatic pacing Jordan Mechner would eventually achieve with Prince Of Persia.