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Video Game / Karateka

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"Karateka for the NES, a nice little game where you have to fight a procession of people wearing increasingly silly hats. Then you get killed by a gate."

A Beat 'em Up game originally developed for the Apple ][ system by Jordan Mechner and published by Brøderbund Software in 1984. Karateka puts you in the role of a heroic karate expert who must infiltrate the fortress of Akuma, who has kidnapped the lovely Princess Mariko. To do this, he must initially climb a mountain and get through the bodyguards who hold the entrance. Once inside the fortress, he must fight still more bodyguards and Akuma's eagle and pass the infamous death gate, before fighting Akuma himself.

The game employed rotoscoping technology for surprisingly realistic movements, a technique which would be used to similar effect in Mechner's following game, Prince of Persia. It is more well known in modern times as an Internet meme featuring the titular hero dancing to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This". In 2012 for the 30th anniversary of the game, Mechner, alongside developer Liquid Entertainment, released a remake, for Steam and XBLA.

In 2023, a new re-release by Digital Eclipse named The Making of Karateka was released as the first of their "Gold Master Series". This version of the game features both the preserved original with a range of additional quality of life features, alongside a trove of interactive interviews, archive footage, design documents, and even playable development builds. This release also contains both Karateka Remastered, an updated version of the game with graphical updates and restored cut content, and Deathbounce: Rebounded, a twin-stick shooter based on an unproduced prototype for what would eventually lead to the creation of Karateka.

Not to be confused with Atari 2600's Karate by Ultravision, contemporary to this game and released 2 years before.

Karateka contains examples of:

  • Achievement System: The 2023 remaster has a list of tasks for each of the game's three acts.
  • Ape Shall Never Kill Ape: In the 2012 remake, just before the second boss you face a monk. If you're also controlling the monk, he's reluctant to fight you, and respectfully concedes and lets you pass when his health is low.
  • Auto-Pilot Tutorial: The Making of Karateka allows you to watch playthroughs of each version of the game. At any time, you can stop playback and start the game exactly where the recording left off.
  • Cutscene: Notable as one of the earliest games to include cutscenes to tell a more elaborate story than an Excuse Plot, which gave it an unprecedented cinematic tone, and in turn led to it being marketed as "a playable movie".
  • Damn You, Muscle Memory!: The Atari 7800 port's controls - move the joystick right to kick, left to punch, rather than using the fire buttons that most versions use.
  • Damsel in Distress: Princess Mariko, who is held captive by Akuma and whose rescue is the plot of the game.
  • Dynamic Difficulty: The 2012 remake has this, after a fashion. There are three different playable characters - Mariko's True Love, the Monk, and the Brute — but you don't get to pick. Instead, you start the game as the True Love. Losing as him causes you to continue at the point where you died as the Monk, who has more health and does more damage. Losing as the Monk causes you to continue as the Brute, who has the same amount of health as the Monk but takes less damage and does much more. Also, you can revive the Brute at the cost of the points you've accumulated.
  • Epic Fail: It's actually possible to die by walking backwards off the cliff at the start of the game.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Unlike Mariko and Akuma, the protagonist doesn't have a name, and is instead simply called the karateta. This also applies to the three playable characters in the 2012 remake: the True Love, the Monk, and the Brute.
  • Guide Dang It!: The infamous second level gate. How to get past it varies between versions. For instance, on the NES port, you have to stand a running step back, and run so that the gate closes in your face without killing you.
  • Implausible Hair Color: The karateka and Mariko are both blonde, despite being Japanese. According to Jordan Mechner, he was inspired by how blondes were popular protagonists in manga of the time.
  • Groin Attack: Mariko does this if you approach her in combat stance.
  • Kaizo Trap: If you approach Mariko in combat stance in the ending, she'll kick you into a Non-Standard Game Over. This is averted in the NES version; you can approach her in the combat stance, and she won't kick you.
  • Let's Fight Like Gentlemen: If you approach an opponent in a non-combat stance, they will patiently stand there and wait for you to challenge them; furthermore, if you bow to them, they will return the bow.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: "Akuma" means "devil" in Japanese.
  • Made of Iron: The Brute in the 2012 remake blocks punches with his stomach.
  • Mook Chivalry: The enemies all approach the hero one at a time and do not carry weapons.
  • Mooks: The protagonist has to face numerous goons before fighting Akuma himself. Said goons are tough in their own right, especially in the 2012 remake.
  • Multiple Endings:
    • Possibly the Ur-Example for video games. At the end of the game, your character either rescues Mariko or is killed by her, depending on whether or not you're in fighting stance when you approach her.
    • In the 2012 remake, they're determined by your character — Mariko wants to be rescued by her True Love and is overjoyed when he arrives. She is fairly accepting of the Monk, who secretly longed for her ever since catching a glimpse of her when she visited his temple. The Brute, however, slings Mariko over his shoulder caveman style, though Mariko doesn't really complain all that much. The game then states that while "Mariko appreciates the Brute's bravery," the player should try again "with a rescuer that will make Mariko even happier."
  • Leitmotif: The soundtrack, composed by Jordan Mechner's father Francis, was explicitly inspired by Richard Wagner and was a key factor in the game's cinematic presentation. There are four main motifs: the Karateka or main theme, the Akuma or evil theme, the danger theme, and the captive princess or Mariko theme. The entire soundtrack is built upon variants of these four motifs, suiting the on-screen action.
  • Mystical White Hair: The original design for Mariko, due to the limited color palette, has white hair. She is intended to be a blonde.
  • One True Love: In the 2012 remake, the first of the three playable characters trying to save Mariko is outright called the True Love and is the one she explicitly wants to be rescued by. Playing as him throughout the whole game earns the Golden Ending where Mariko is happiest.
  • One-Word Title: Jordan Mechner had called the project Karateka from the beginning; though he lamented that people kept thinking it was called "Caretaker", he stuck with the name for the final product.
  • Opening Scroll: The game opens with a scrolling screen providing the exposition that Akuma has kidnapped Mariko.
  • Point Build System: The Game Boy version gave you points at the start to distribute among power, health, and speed, plus a couple of them for each completed level.
  • Press Start to Game Over: The game starts near a cliff, and the protagonist cannot run backwards. But you can still use the combat stance to walk back and fall to your death. Alternately, if you haven't learned the controls yet, you may start running forward straight into the first mook's foot, which is a One-Hit Kill while running.
  • Rescue Romance: Complete with Standard Hero Reward and Foot Popping.
  • Retraux: The 2023 remaster retains the original low-res look of the game with more colors and smoother movement. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is upgraded to 16-bit samples similar to early computer sound chips.
  • Rotoscoping: One of the first examples in video games: the incredibly fluid and lifelike character animations were created by tracing over filmed performances by Jordan Mechner's friends and family.
  • Scoring Points: In the 2012 remake. Points are accumulated by defeating enemies (with a higher reward for less damage or better yet, no damage at all, as well as extra points for bosses), reaching certain checkpoints, reaching certain checkpoints with a particular character, among other things.
  • Shoulders of Doom: Akuma has these, as do some of his mooks.
  • Silliness Switch: The original floppy disk game had 2 slightly different versions of the game on both sides of the disk. If you accidentally stuck the floppy disk in upside down, the game would still load and play... upside down.
  • Sound-Coded for Your Convenience: In the 2012 remake, you'll hear musical notes right as an enemy attacks you. The number of notes corresponds to how many attacks you will have to block. However, bosses will not have these cues.
  • Take It to the Bridge: Several battles take place on a bridge, with enemies falling to their doom upon defeat.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Zig-zagged. In the remake's intro, Akuma holds out his hand to Mariko, who knocks it aside. He raises it with a snarl, looking like he's going to backhand her, then turns and leaves.
  • Video-Game Lives: Not in the original, where death is permanent, but the 2023 remaster has the option to increase the number of lives; when you die, your dead body stays where it fell and a new karateka runs in from the side of the screen. The 2012 remake, meanwhile, has you continue as an entirely separate character when you die.


Video Example(s):


Karateka gets kicked by Mariko

After defeating Akuma, going towards Mariko in your fighting stance will make her kick you down.

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Example of:

Main / KaizoTrap

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