Karateka Classic brings legendary beat-em-up to iOS

Legendary game designer Jordan Mechner went back to his roots in 2012 with a reimagined Karateka, a brand new game based on his original 1984 Apple II hit (it would eventually make its way to just about every other common home computer platform of the day). Now the original has returned in all its eight-bit glory.

They've recreated the original gameplay experience right down to the sound of a floppy disk drive grinding away reading sectors off a 5.25-inch disk as the game first loads. What's more, settings let you adjust between color, green, or amber displays, since color displays were relatively rare back in the day.

Karateka Classic is, quite literally, the same game that appeared for the Apple II in 1984. It's the original game code running within an Apple IIGS emulator developed to work on iOS and other platforms called ActiveGS. The game runs natively on iPhone and iPad.

Karateka was Mechner's first game, before he created the Prince of Persia series that he's best known for. He programmed it when he was still a university undergrad, and it is, for its age, a real gem. It's a side-scrolling martial arts combat action game set in feudal Japan. You assume the role of the titular karateka (literally, a practitioner of karate) as you attempt to save Princess Mariko from the clutches of the evil Akuma.

Debug 7: Jordan Mechner and Karatekawith Guy English and Rene Ritchie

To do so, you must make your way inside Akuma's heavily guarded fortress, squaring off against opponent after opponent in karate duels. The game's original keyboard commands have been replaced with on-screen buttons that control your movement, your fighting stance, three punching positions, and three kicking positions. You can turn off the button overlay if you find it distracting.

Each time your opponent hits you, you'll lose a health point, and once you're down to zero, that's it - game over. You need to restart from the beginning. And just like the original Apple II game, there's no saved game or continue feature. Your health does slowly regenerate in between rounds, so sometimes it's a good idea to not rush into the next melee before you've had a chance to catch your breath.

In addition to other run-of-the-mill enemies you need to defeat, you'll occasionally be attacked by Akuma's hawk (which can be deflected with a well-timed punch), and avoid various pitfalls around the castle. Then, finally, you'll face off against Akuma himself in a boss battle.

The good

  • Bit-perfect recreation of the original Apple II game that first put Jordan Mechner on the map.
  • Inexpensive
  • Fun to play

The bad

  • No save game feature
  • Limited replay value once you've beaten the game

Bottom line

For a 29 year old game, Kareteka is surprisingly challenging, and it still looks good. Working within the significant technical limitations imposed by the hardware of the day, Mechner employed techniques like rotoscoping to get realistic animations for his characters. The simple graphics and color palette won't challenge gamers cut on today's sophisticated titles, but the gameplay more than makes up for it.

Peter Cohen