Making a documentary is relatively easy: put together interviews, facts and it is done. But what makes videogames unique is the fact that they’re developed in order to be played and interacted with. Without that possibility, it feels like something is missing. Digital Eclipse rose up to the task of re-contextualizing Jordan Mechner’s Karateka, an often glossed over 80s classic, giving it the attention it deserves. Let’s take a look at the treasures hidden in the first release of the Gold Master series in our The Making of Karateka review.
After the brilliantly done Atari 50, Digital Eclipse had the perfect framework to continue looking at seminal game releases of the past. In this case, Mechner kept a very detailed journal of his early days in college and the work that led to Karateka, along with all correspondence with publisher Broderbund. It was just about putting the pieces together, but they went beyond that.
Most interesting of all, and heartwarming, is Jordan sitting with his father, Francis, as they talk about those distant years and play back some of the musical themes his father wrote. Francis recalls encouraging Jordan in doing what he felt most inspired to. That is a profoundly beautiful thing, how he still stands behind the work of his son and doesn’t care about his little interest in college. Jordan worked on several prototypes, before starting Karateka, and they are all presented here in their original Apple II versions to play. But that’s not all.
Most interestingly, Digital Eclipse has given a new layer of paint and gloss and the previously unpublished Death Bounce. Now, along with the original version (which is okay), it can be played in a reimagined new release which transforms it into a modern twin stick shooter. This is surprisingly well done and will keep fans of simple, but addictive, arcade games quite satisfied. Who could have guessed an unreleased game could be this fun?
In order to efficiently contextualize the impact of Karateka, there are interviews with developers such as former ID Software Tom Hall and Mortal Kombat designer John Tobias. Their own work was definitely influenced by playing Karateka at an early age, being impressed by how different it felt from anything else. This was modern storytelling at its finest, the likes of which had never been seen, not on an Apple II at home.
But, then, we come to the meat of the documentary: Karateka. We get access to several prototypes that Jordan worked on during several months, so we can see the music being added, the intro, the enemies. It is also possible to just watch gameplay, if one does not feel like playing. The re-release perfectly hits the spot offering not only the original versions as they were, but also quality of life improvements, most importantly a framerate fix, since the Apple II did run a bit slow, at least compared to modern framerates.
There are also the best conversions of Karateka as well, its C64 and Atari 800 counterparts, coupled with interviews with the programmer who worked closely on these ports with Mechner. Finally, there is Karateka Remastered, developed by Mike Mika, it brings a more updated and modern experience. There are now challenges, a revamped soundtrack and it even restores some content that was cut by Mechner. While perhaps it won’t win over anyone who is not a fan of the original, it is a quite interesting experience.
Digital Eclipse did a great job in bringing back Karateka for modern audiences. By recontextualizing its impact on the home computer scene, one can easily understand how important it was in modernizing storytelling in videogames. Taking cues from cinema, as opposed to other arcade games, it told an emotional story without using any dialogue and with little bits of sound. Almost forty years later, this masterpiece has finally been given justice.
The Making of Karateka review was made possible with a key provided by PR. The Making of Karateka is available on Steam, Xbox and PlayStation (Switch to follow soon).
The Making of Karateka: The Making of Karateka is an incredibly well done journey in gaming history that manages to be interesting both for nerds and casual fans of 80s gaming milestones. – Damiano Gerli