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Jordan Mechner's Karateka remake looks to modernize a classic story

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Revered game designer Jordan Mechner built his first game, Karateka, on an Apple II in his Yale University dorm room; it was released by Broderbund Software in 1984, during his sophomore year. Nearly three decades later, Mechner led a small team called Liquid Entertainment in developing a remake of the 8-bit classic.

The re-imagining of Karateka launches today on Xbox Live Arcade and later this month on PlayStation Network, Steam and iOS. Mechner's team hired Adam Lisagor and his Los Angeles-based production company, Sandwich Video, to create a promotional video for the game. As Lisagor explained in a phone interview with Polygon, the project was a great fit — he had developed a love for Karateka by playing it as a 6-year-old.

Sandwich Video produced the commercial you see above, a charming, funny spot that brings character models from the 1984 original and 2012 remake into a real-world Japanese garden. "I was fixated on the idea of taking this rich, beautiful world that was created for the new game and trying to recreate it in the analog world," said Lisagor.

Lisagor took the comedy further with the video's only human being, a Japanese man presented as the sensei who trained both the remake's three characters and the unnamed protagonist of the original title. Don't be fooled by the "flashback" within the ad — no Karateka commercial featuring a sensei wearing an '80s-tastic gi and sweatband actually aired on TV back in the day. The producers shot the video at a Japanese garden on the campus of California State University, Long Beach, and Lisagor spoke of the "ethereal lushness of the game environment" that the real-world location offered.

The Karateka remake features a brand-new art direction that differs greatly from the original game's unique visuals. Renowned comic book artist and animator Jeff Matsuda handled the remake's art, and Mechner told Polygon in the same phone interview that "it was very important to get the right look." They settled on stylized graphics — neither cartoony nor photorealistic — for what Mechner called the game's "heightened fantasy version of [feudal] Japan."

Asked to name the most distinctive feature of Karateka, Mechner pointed out that "more than the game being just an abstract point-getting exercise," it told a story. Its fighting mechanics were simply a means to an end, where the end was the goal of saving the princess Mariko from the evil warlord Akuma. For the remake, the developers wanted to add depth to that story without sacrificing the original game's simplicity.

Mechner noted that Karateka took about 40 minutes to complete, but since it only offered one "life," most players had to put in much more time if they wanted to make it to the end. "Gamers' expectations have changed," he said, adding, "I don't think 6-year-olds or any kind of gamer today, especially casual gamers, would accept [...] having to start over from the beginning" upon dying.

At the same time, Mechner praised the arcade-game philosophy of having one life per play-through. But his explanation is one you rarely hear: A story-based game doesn't make sense otherwise, according to Mechner. "There was an integrity to that concept which I wanted to find a way to keep," he said. "You can't just keep respawning and continuing and getting more points, because that breaks the reality of the story."

"gamers' expectations have changed"

Mechner and Liquid came up with a clever solution. The Karateka remake features three playable characters — the True Love, the Monk and the Brute — all of whom are in love with Mariko. You always begin as the True Love, a handsome hero, and if you can finish the game as him, you'll get the "most satisfying, happy, romantic ending," according to Mechner.

"But that's not gonna happen," said Mechner — at least not on most players' first attempts.

If you die as the True Love, you'll pick up where he left off as the Monk, a homely fellow who's stronger than his better-looking competition. But Mechner expects that most players will also fail to finish as the Monk, and will have to try to make it to the end as the Brute, "the most powerful and ugliest of the three." So right from the start, said Mechner, the remake delivers a comedic tale — Mariko is certainly appreciative of the Brute's rescue, but he's not the guy she would've picked to ride off into the sunset with. Mechner and Liquid are hoping that players will feel compelled to keep trying to improve their skills until they can complete the game as the True Love.

Player skill comes in during combat. Instead of forcing players to learn complex button inputs, Liquid implemented a unique rhythm-based combat system. You'll have to time your attacks to the score from Grammy-winning composer Christopher Tin; Mechner characterized the setup as a cross between Guitar Hero and a conventional fighting game. According to Mechner, "This rhythm-based combat mechanic translated really well to iOS," a version that's simpler than the console and PC experiences but still offers most of the same features.

mobile platforms are the "ideal way to experience a lot of these older games"

Mechner listed mobile platforms such as iOS among his explanations for the recent rise in retro remakes and their ilk, calling iOS the "ideal way to experience a lot of [...] older games." As the gaming industry moved toward bigger-budget console games, said Mechner, players developed nostalgia for "a time when games were more hand-crafted." He also believes younger gamers are curious about the classics, another factor in the success of retro revivals.

But for those who were around in the arcade days, said Mechner, "Playing these games kinda puts us in touch with who we were back then."

Karateka launches today on XBLA for 800 Microsoft Points ($10). The PSN and Steam versions will each cost $9.99, while the price on iOS has not been announced.

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