Karateka Classic adapts vintage martial artistry

This is Portabliss, a column about downloadable games that can be played on the go.

Karateka Classic is Karatik City come alive

It's rare for an iPhone adaptation of a classic game to work out at all; rarer still for said adaptation to be preferable to the original. Jordan Mechner's faithful iOS/Android port of Karateka accomplishes this task handily, partly because of convenient portability, and partly because of nice new features.

But more than anything else, Karateka Classic succeeds because the original's controls weren't that great to begin with. Karateka is, when you get right down to it, a game about shuffling your feet up to your opponent, and then mashing on the kick buttons until he falls over. Like every other pre-Street Fighter 2 fighting game, attacks are slow and connecting depends not so much on timing or frame counting, but the will of some capricious computer god.

Karateka Classic is a faithful reproduction of the Apple II game by Jordan Mechner, about an orange man who infiltrates the castle of the evil Akuma to rescue Princess Mariko, opposed by a series of evil blue men who must be kicked until they fall down. The storyline is, oddly, Prince of Persia in reverse, as your hero must fight his way into the fortress to rescue his paramour, rather than escaping.

But the DNA of Mechner's Prince of Persia is visible in this earlier game. The animation is painstakingly hand-drawn based on photographs, resulting in movement that looks natural even today. Mechner seems to have correctly identified early video games as analogous to silent movies, and presented the narrative similarly, in broad strokes. It's entirely in pantomime, with one paragraph of introductory text. Mechner adds touches that, if they don't deepen the story, make it richer. For example, you see Akuma order a few enemy karatekas to come attack you, something you never see in another video game.

Karateka Classic is Karatik City come alive

You never need to see that, of course. You know how henchmen work. But it's surprisingly nice to see that scene laid out – and the sight of Akuma's pet bird on his shoulder adds context to the random bird attacks every other video game just springs on you. Everyone wears a karate training uniform with a black belt, which handily conveys the idea that these people are good at karate rather than just kicking each other a bunch. In other words, Mechner uses visual detail to say more than needs to be said, but in an incredibly economical way. It's a paradox that modern game developers might do well to pay attention to.

The iPhone/Android adaptation replaces the keyboard or joystick controls of the original with the dreaded virtual buttons, and they are truly a nightmare to behold. My confidence was not inspired upon loading up a game with nine virtual buttons, including directions, stance change, and no fewer than six attacks. But the stilted, old-fashioned controls of the original game work in its favor. You don't really have to react that quickly to your opponent, so you always have plenty of time to hit the "fighting stance" button when one approaches, and then you basically slam on the general area of the high, mid, and low kicks until you win.

The buttons were large enough on my iPhone that I never had a single problem executing the moves I wanted to execute, though I probably would have appreciated the hilarity of bowing at a blue karate monster as he kicked me to the ground. They also don't get in the way of the beautifully animated action. While we're talking game design lessons, I don't want to give anyone out there the idea that virtual buttons like these are the way to go. That they work in this game is bizarre happenstance.

Karateka Classic is Karatik City come alive

While the controls are a successful adaptation, the mobile game also has a few genuine improvements to the original, which enhance the experience of playing an old game. At any time, you can change the presentation from emulated CRT to LCD display, and from color to your choice of vintage monochrome looks. You can't turn off the emulated floppy disk drive noises, but why would you want to turn off something so delightfully charming?

More relevant to gameplay, you quickly earn the ability to swipe left to rewind to your last defeated opponent. Karateka isn't a long game by any measurement, but losing all of your progress because that awful bird surprised you when you weren't in a fighting stance still stings (any attack that connects while you're not in that stance is an instant death).

I don't think Karateka has aged as well as Prince of Persia, whose original iteration remains brilliant today, not just brilliant for its time. But what must have been an expansive, epic adventure in 1984 turns out to be a good mobile game right now, and the presentation is still breathtaking.