Jordan Mechner is a video game designer, author, screenwriter and filmmaker, best known as the creator of the Prince of Persia franchise. But before his POP success, Mr. Mechner brought Karateka, a cinematic action game, to the gamingverse. Recently, Mr. Mechner announced a remake of that storied martial arts game for modern audiences. We reached out to him for a few questions, and he was happy to oblige.
When people discuss the origins of fighting games, the conversations usually begin and end with Street Fighter II. But for old timers like me, Karateka, Yie Ar Kung-Fu, and other early titles set the stage. Where do you see Karateka’s place in history?
Karateka came out on the Apple II in 1984, a few months before Karate Champ and Kung Fu Master — and three years before the original Street Fighter. So it was certainly among the very first martial arts games, and could in a sense be considered the prototype for later games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.
To me, though, Karateka is a cinematic action-adventure game first and foremost. You’re not fighting for the sake of fighting, you’re fighting to rescue the woman you love from the warlord who has kidnapped her. The karate gameplay is how you advance in the story. So I think of Karateka as more of an early spiritual predecessor to story-based action-adventure games like Prince of Persia and Uncharted, than to straight-up brawlers like Mortal Kombat and Tekken that are all about the fighting.
Will the new Karateka be a HD remake of the original? Or can we expect significant changes?
The new Karateka is more than a remake. It’s not as radical an overhaul as, say, the 2003 Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which was really a different game with an entirely new story and vastly expanded scope. But — to continue the Prince of Persia analogy — the new Karateka is a bigger departure from the original than the 2007 XBLA HD Prince of Persia Classic was from the original Prince of Persia. While staying close to the original Karateka storyline, we’ve reinvented the visual presentation and the gameplay to take advantage of what’s possible with today’s technology, and how gamers’ expectations have evolved since 1984.
The original stuck to the basic tenets of martial arts with kicks and punches–did you feel any pressure to include special moves in the new version ala Street Fighter to make it more appealing to the contemporary fight fan?
The essence of Karateka for me is that it’s a game that anyone can pick up and start playing right away. Adding a lot of special combo moves and button sequences to learn just didn’t seem like the right kind of complexity. That said, the new Karateka goes well beyond the original game in the variety of animations, characters and fighting moves — but we’ve deliberately kept the controls very simple. Karateka isn’t trying to be a brawler like Street Fighter. The fun of the game lies in the story and atmosphere as much as in the fighting.
The shift to digital downloads in just the last few years, with games now being available to a wider market than ever through gaming consoles, PCs, tablets and smartphones, has liberated indie developers and made the scene extremely vibrant and unpredictable.
One big difference is that now we have amazing tools to create the game — art, animation, sound, music. When I started making the original Karateka in 1982, I had to spend months creating my own tools in machine language. I couldn’t even draw a simple rectangle on the screen until I had programmed the drawing tool that would let me do it.
Another difference is that now I work with a team of highly skilled collaborators — engineers, artists, animators, game designer, sound designer — who are really good at their jobs and have been doing it for years, and I learn from them every day. On the original Karateka, there was my Dad who composed the music (and I had to figure out how to translate his score from handwritten sheet music into assembly language code), but other than that, the core team was me, learning by trial and error.
But most important, the food has gotten way better.
You’ve decided to go the indie route with the new Karateka. What was the motivation behind that?
I’ve worked with big teams, small teams and everything in between — you can’t get much smaller than Apple II Karateka, or much bigger than the Disney/Bruckheimer Prince of Persia movie — and they all have their appeal. I had a fantastic experience doing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time with Ubisoft as a AAA title. Ultimately, for Karateka, doing it as a smaller downloadable indie game just seemed like the right way to go. The original Apple II game was so compact and linear, its simplicity was part of its charm. Expanding it into a huge full retail console title didn’t feel like it would necessarily be the best way to honor what fans remember and appreciate about the original Karateka.
Also, coming off a giant movie that had taken many years and literally thousands of people to finish, the idea of doing something more “indie” with a small team really felt appealing to me. I was in the mood to get hands-on and roll up my sleeves, and Karateka felt like the perfect way to reconnect with my roots as a game designer.
What’s your opinion of today’s indie scene? How does it compare to the indie scene that was in place during the days of the original Karateka?
When Karateka was published in 1984, games were still sold on 5.25″ floppy disks. We’ve raced through CDs and DVDs in a couple of short decades. The shift to digital downloads in just the last few years, with games now being available to a wider market than ever through gaming consoles, PCs, tablets and smartphones, has liberated indie developers and made the scene extremely vibrant and unpredictable. It’s a challenging time to run a business, but it’s great for creativity. For the first time since the 1980s, it feels possible that the next big hit game could conceivably come from one person working out of a bedroom, as well as from a big studio triple-A franchise. It’s an exciting time for indie development and I’m glad that Karateka can again be a part of it.
The PS3 and Xbox 360 were the announced platforms. Will a PC version come down the road? Or portable version?
We’re absolutely not ruling out any platforms. We want to make sure that every version of Karateka we release is well thought out in a way that does justice to the platform it’s on.