[PlayStation 5] The Making of Karateka Review

by EdEN, Owner

The Making of Karateka from Digital Eclipse is an interactive documentary experience that details the creation of this classic. Learn more in our The Making of Karateka review!

The Making of Karateka from Digital Eclipse is an interactive documentary experience that details the creation of this classic. It’s part of the studio’s new Gold Master Series – thus making this release 001 – which will aim to archive video game history in a very interesting, interactive way. The studio previously gave us a glimpse into how this new release would handle things thanks to their work in the excellent Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, which is certainly a must-play on PlayStation 5 and one of the best games of 2022.

Jordan Mechner, who you might know as the creator of the original Prince of Persia and its sequel, first got its start with Karateka. He programmed the game and released it way back in 1984 for the Apple II alongside publisher Broadband in North America and publisher Ariolsoft in Europe. But he didn’t just dive into Prince of Persi as his first project! Before that came Deathbounce, an arcade-style shooter he had envisioned during his teenage years. As a fun fact, his father, Franchis Mechner, created the soundtrack for not only Karateka but also Prince of Persia!

Our journey with The Making of Karateka begins with a look at Deathbounce as the first chapter of this excellent release. Once you start the first chapter, you’ll be presented with a timeline of events that looks very similar to how Digital Eclipse handled Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, all while feeling even more refined. This is due to The Making of Karateka focusing on one game – but not really – while also eventually leading us down the rabbit hole that is Jordan Mechner’s early years and the classic masterpiece that is presented in different versions – more on that in a bit.

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Deathbound is a game that Jordan Mechner submitted to Brouderbound for a potential Apple II release. Unfortunately, the game was rejected. Instead of being disappointed by this, Mechner continued to work hard at another project that would end up becoming the Karateka we all know and love. We’ll then learn a lot about Deathbound, Karateka, the game’s development process, as well as the impact the game had on many beloved individuals in the video game industry, thanks to a ton of video interviews. John Tobias, Tom Hall, Raph Koster, and Lauren Elliot are just some of the people who contributed to this new release.

There are also going to be lots of pictures and design documents in your future to browse, from a picture of a very young Jordan Mechner to design docs for Asteroid Blaster, which was another project that Mechner was working on along with Deathbounce, but which also never got a release… until now! While Mechner was paid for Asteroid Blaster for an Apple II release, the game’s launch was stopped by Atari, which was set on stopping other companies from selling what could be seen as Asteroids clones. But now you can play Asteroid Blaster on PlayStation 5 with save states and other bells and whistles!

You’ll look at an extremely crisp image of the Apple II, the home computer from 1977 that had a big impact thanks to its color graphics and ease of use that brought a great piece of technology into the homes of tons of families. Read the letters that Mechner sent to Broderbound about Deathbounce, the publisher’s reply, and play the different versions of Deathbounce as Mechner worked on polishing up the game while implementing some of the suggestions made by Broderbound.

And then, there’s Karateka. At first, Mechner thought of having two players duke it out over a karate mat. This later changed toward making Karateka a single-player game with a story. You are tasked with rescuing Princess Mariko, who has been kidnapped by the evil Akuma, who has taken her to his fortress. By defeating the different guards that Akuma sends your way, you’ll move closer and closer to rescuing Princess Mariko. As expected, your final opponent will be Akuma himself.

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When Mechner was having some issues animating the larger-than-usual – for the era – character sprites, Francis Mechner suggested to his son that he use an animation technique known as rotoscoping. This is a technique he would later revisit when developing Prince of Persia. Rotoscoping is an animation technique pioneered by animator Max Fleischer, whose work you know from projects such as Betty Boop, Popeye, or the adventures of Superman.

By creating the Rotoscope, Fleischer was able to take what is filmed with a live actor and then convert it into a gorgeously animated piece of art by tracing the individual frames from the video by projecting the images to an easel with the paper on which the final art is drawn. It allowed Fleischer to produce art that was way ahead of its time, and it’s a technique that allowed Mechner to turn Karateka into the final project that revolutionized gaming by offering the most lifelike animations ever seen in a video game.

Mechner recorded Dennis Holliday – his mother’s karate teacher – with a Super-8 camera, which served as the basis for animating the game’s actions to bring them to life on the screen. At one point, he realized that having the main character walk through the entire game while in a karate stance would not be viable, so he ended up filming his father – wearing a karate gi – as he ran through the woods. He was also filmed while climbing on top of a car, which was used for animating the main character’s arrival at Akuma’s fortress after climbing the mountain.

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The music for Karateka is a very interesting topic in video game history, considering that way back when the Apple II was all the rage, video games having music was very much not a thing! Franchis Mechner’s compositions play on Richard Wagner’s leitmotif. These are musical phrases that are tied as themes to different characters or different places or situations. For Karateka, these include the Karateka theme, the Princess Mariko theme, the Akuma theme, and the danger theme as the main ones. Once the game was ported to the Commodore 64, the game’s soundtrack could be expanded to better present what Francis Mechner had initially created on the piano. There’s a podcast episode included here that focuses entirely on the game’s music, and it’s certainly worth a listen.

And now, let’s talk about the trophies! The Making of Karateka has a full trophy list with a Platinum trophy waiting for you. The list includes 8 Bronze trophies, 2 Silver trophies, and 9 Gold trophies for you to work on. You’ll have to play through all of Karateka in its original version, the Karateka Prototype, the Apple II versions, the Commodore 64 versions, as well as the included Karateka Remastered versions. Along with that, there will also be a handful of trophies tied to Deathbounce: Rebounded, which is a new take on the final version of Deathbounce that Mechner worked on.

The Making of Karateka is much more than a look at how a video game masterpiece was made. It offers a glimpse into a big chunk of Mechner’s career in the video game industry while also allowing us to play games his other games that were never released – those would be Asteroid Blaster and Deathbounce – along with several versions of Karateka, along with a remastered edition. The Making of Karateka is a must-play experience that shines on Sony’s current-gen console. The Making of Karateka is out today on PlayStation 5 with a $19.99 price tag.

This The Making of Karateka review is based on a PlayStation 5 copy provided by Digital Eclipse.

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