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Jordan Mechner returns to his indie roots with  Karateka  remake
Jordan Mechner returns to his indie roots with Karateka remake Exclusive
February 15, 2012 | By Eric Caoili, Frank Cifaldi

February 15, 2012 | By Eric Caoili, Frank Cifaldi
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Design

Jordan Mechner is one of those guys that defines categorization and can only be properly described as a "creator." From his humble roots as a dorm room coder in the early 1980s through graphic novels, scripts, books, sketch art, and even feature films, Mechner's contributions to the creative arts have just about run the gamut of expressive vehicles.

Fresh off of contributing to Disney's major motion picture Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which itself was based on the series of games he created, Mechner announced his next venture on Wednesday: he's returning to independent video game development.

Mechner is leading a small team developing a remake of Karateka, the Feudal Japan love story that was his first major commercial video game. The original was published by Broderbund way back in 1984, after being coded entirely by Mechner (except for the music, his dad wrote that) while he was supposed to be studying at Yale.

This new version, due on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network this year, has a larger team than that, but Mechner is deeply involved in day-to-day game development for the first time in years.

Why return to Karateka now, nearly 30 years since the last release? Was returning to Karateka something that was always on your mind while working on Prince of Persia?

Jordan Mechner: After the 2010 Prince of Persia movie, I was itching to do a different kind of project that would feel a little more "guerrilla." We had just finished up with a cast and crew of literally thousands for that movie, and I wanted to do something on a smaller scale where I could interact with every member of the team every day.

Karateka was the perfect project for many reasons. In the 27 years since its release, it's never had a sequel or an adaptation. And yet it's stayed in people's minds all this time. It seems to hold a special place in many gamers' hearts, as it does in mine. It's the game that started my career -- you can't get more indie than the Apple II -- and its compact design, simple story and pick-up-and-play philosophy made it perfect for a downloadable game.

Princess Mariko sits in captivity in Akuma's fortress, awaiting rescue at the hands of the player in the original Apple II version of Karateka.

Why develop a remake instead of a sequel?

The original Karateka was such an archetypal, almost iconic love story, and it was told so simply, it didn't leave a lot of loose ends to lead into a sequel. Also, much like when Ubisoft and I began to craft the story for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in 2001 -- but to an even greater extent, because that one was 10 years after the original game, whereas Karateka is almost 30 -- after so much time has passed, at some point it becomes more interesting to reimagine the story from the ground up, to ask who those original characters might be with today's technology.

Karateka's painted box art is iconic to computer game enthusiasts.
Were there things you couldn't do in the original game [left] that you're excited about exploring with the remake?

The Apple II was a bit limited, in that a game could be acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece of fluid animation while actually it was struggling to eke out eight frames per second -- or even less, if the palace gate happened to be on screen at the same time. The music could only play one note at a time, no chords, and I couldn't animate the characters and play a note at the same time -- given the 1KHz microprocessor it was one or the other.

So I'm especially excited about what we can do with the graphics and animation and sound in the new Karateka, given the power of today's consoles. Above all, the music.

Have other developers/publishers approached you about creating a new Karateka in the past, with or without your involvement? Why did you turn them down?

It's funny you should ask, but in 1986, shortly after the huge success of Karateka on the Apple II, Broderbund approached me about a sequel. I said no because I'd already started work on my next game, Prince of Persia, and I wanted to focus on that. Broderbund would much rather have had a Karateka sequel than a new unproven IP, and they kept asking about it all through the time I was making POP.

Inspired by film, Mechner drew storyboards to plot out Karateka's cinematic scenes.

You can read the whole story in my old journals from the 1980s, which I've published as a book, "The Making of Prince of Persia." Some things about publisher-developer relations never change.

Many veteran designers who are returning to game development have been taking their new projects to emerging platforms like smartphones. Why did you decide XBLA/PSN would be a more desirable platform for Karateka over those?

For me the magic of Karateka has always been in its combination of simple, fun, straightforward gameplay with an immersive, cinematically beautiful human story that engages your emotions. I wanted to take advantage of XBLA and PSN technology to push this game to its production limits, and use graphics, sound and music to really put players into the world of feudal Japan in a way we couldn't on the Apple II.

A young Jordan Mechner poses with the computer that launched his career.
Karateka's simple sprites and look are iconic, easily identifiable and referenced numerous times over the years. How do you approach updating the game's graphics, giving it a more modern style while capturing the original's essence?

The essence is still there. The original Karateka was inspired by the strong, clean lines of old Japanese wood-block prints and the stylized look of Disney animated films, and we've remained true to those sources.

Basically, I've tried to make Karateka the way I would have made it in 1984 had the technology been available, and had the Apple II been able to display more than 280x192 pixels and four colors.

Karateka's storytelling and cinematic cutscenes were groundbreaking at the time. Having worked quite a bit in the film industry since the game's release, are there still ideas from movies that you think should be explored more in games, and plan to explore with the remake?

As much as I love movies and film storytelling, a game is a game, not a movie. Games are designed to be played, not watched, and the best game storytelling is storytelling that unfolds naturally within the game play. This was the philosophy I brought to designing the story for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and it hasn't changed.

A lot of what I've learned from filmmaking has to do with cinematic language -- the ways sound, music, camerawork and other elements can affect us emotionally, regardless of whether what's happening on the screen is interactive or non-interactive. And of course, collaborating with people who are amazing at their crafts in so many different aspects of production has been a tremendous learning opportunity.

The hero of Karateka had to fight his way past Akuma's guards to gain entrance to the fortress.

There has been a lot of talk lately -- especially from God of War director David Jaffe -- about developers needing to focus more on "the language of interactivity" instead of trying to emulate cinema so much. What are your thoughts on that argument?

If David is referring to long, drawn-out cutscenes, I couldn't agree more. I prefer games that focus on the gameplay and don't try to be mini-movies. The best cutscenes are short, visual, with a minimum of talk, and flow naturally within the gameplay so they don't take you out of the story for long.

You were able to make a hit game like Karateka in-between classes, all by yourself, but this remake is developed by a team you're heading, that will presumably be spending a lot more time and money on the project. Can you talk about the differences in what you can accomplish with this huge increase in resources available to you?

The Japanese version of Karateka for Nintendo's Game Boy had box art not seen outside of that region.
Itís funny to think of the Karateka team as large, because itís so tiny compared to the team we had on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The team on Karateka is tight-knit, very collaborative, and there's a lot of back and forth.

But it's true, small as it is, itís much bigger than the team of one (two, if you count my dad who composed the music) that I had on Apple II Karateka.

From small to medium to mega-large, every size team has its special rewards and challenges. In my work over the years, from games to films to graphic novels I've been lucky enough to span the gamut. The bigger the team, the more you can do, but the harder it is to change direction. It's like riding a bicycle versus a Humvee. One is more powerful, the other is more maneuverable.

Working as an indie again, how is it different than when you were developing games on your own nearly 30 years ago?

I really feel that we're once again living through a period like the 80s -- this time on a global scale, and with tech that would have seemed futuristic to us then (who in 1982 could have predicted the iPhone?) -- but similar in that as fast as things are changing, the next big hit game could conceivably come out of someone's bedroom.

It's a tremendously exciting time for indie development, and I'm glad that Karateka can be part of it.

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Bryn Bennett
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Wow, that box art really brings me back.... right back to when the princess kicked me in the face. Awesome game.

Jakub Majewski
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"The original Karateka was such an archetypal, almost iconic love story, and it was told so simply, it didn't leave a lot of loose ends to lead into a sequel." - couldn't the same thing be said about Prince of Persia?

Todd Boyd
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...played the ever-lovin' CRAP out of Karateka at the local library as often as I could get my hands on it. Same w/ PoP (until I got a PC and the PC version).

E Zachary Knight
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Yeah. Karateka was one of my favorite things ever on the Apple II. We had a strange glitch on our disk, one side of the disk, the game crashed once you beat the boss, so you couldn't go to the girl. So you had to play it on the other side, which was hard mode. Not sure if that was intentional.

Jordan Mechner
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Zachary, do you mean to say that instead of calling Broderbund tech support for a replacement disk, you just re-inserted the disk on side B (which contained the secret upside-down version) and beat the entire game playing upside down? Now THAT'S the way of the warrior.

E Zachary Knight
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Jordan, I don't recall an upside down version of the game, but I do remember one side being harder than the other and the harder one actually let you get to the ending of the game.

Also, I think my copy was a bootleg version as was most of the Software my mom got for the Apple II. Sorry about that.

Frank Cifaldi
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Jordan did you intentionally lock the last room as some form of copy protection? That would be awesome. Serves you right, Knight!

Ken Love
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Great game! Great times! Spent many hours in Math lab playing this game. A follow-up from the original game designer / programmer is long overdue.

Jorge Gonzalez Sanchez
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This is great news to me.

If you happen to read this Jordan, please, pretty please keep it true to what it was.

And by that, I mean that "zen" feeling the original had. Less is more. Now I know that it was because the machine would crawl otherwise, but it was so damn elegant!

Steven Rosenthal
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My friends and I played Karateka endlessly in middle school. I had a sluggish IBM XT with a 4 color CGA card. Sometimes it would take minutes for the cutscenes to load, but it was worth it just to punch that eagle in the beak one more time... Can't wait for the remake!

Atussa Simon
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I have waited almost 30 years for this day. I CAN NOT WAIT!

Bob Johnson
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Also enjoyed this game back in the day and also didn't pay for it. I think 99% of my Apple IIe games were pirated.

Luis Guimaraes
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Ah, guilhotine traps, we'll met again.

Greg Douglas
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"Games are designed to be played, not watched, and the best game storytelling is storytelling that unfolds naturally within the game play." Excellent quote! I appreciate all forms of electronic interactive entertainment, but this is what makes games unique.

MaurŪcio Gomes
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PC version! (win/mac/linux)

Please? I know you read the comments Jordan ;)

Seth Robinson
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Nice article.. but I think "defines categorization" isn't what you meant to say... defies, perhaps?

David Boudreau
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Not if he's the one that made the category in the first place, himself. Although often used complimentarily for subjective fields like singers, "defies categorization" isn't necessarily a good thing. For example, lots of people seem to be offering public challenges for categorizing Whitney Houston going "and ahhhhhhhhhheieieiiaii, will always..." and think I can't categorize that, because it "defies categorization". Oh, I can categorize it alright! How about, I file that under, I've heard this a million times this week, or My ears are starting to hurt, Where's that mute button, Oh no it's worn out cause I pressed it so many times this week. In any good study, analysis, or critique, it is often very critical to get right, of all things, the categorization.

Kris Dunlop
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Man, I'd love to remake this game in Flash. An update with all the bells&whistles on the graphics and maybe work the game mechanics a little bit. I reckon I could code it in about 3 weeks; might just give it a shot for sh*ts and giggles.


Michael Hannemann
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Oh, my. Okay, I'll be getting this one. Karateka was the first game I remember finishing, back in my middle school's math classroom. We're talking 1985 or so, and I was twelve. I think Zork was a few years later for me.