Kick, Punch, Perfection

HIGH A well-produced interactive documentary with a wealth of info and playable prototypes.

LOW A nearly 10 minute video on the music will be inaccessible to the Deaf.

WTF The “bad” ending of Karateka is pretty funny, if a little frustrating.

In late 1984, Jordan Mechner released Karateka and introduced many elements to videogames that players now take for granted, such as in-game cutscenes and musical leitmotifs.

The game became a hit in 1985, and players were amazed at the seeming blend of movie and game. This fusion led to a revolution in development and many aspects became standard in videogames that came after.

Digital Eclipse, the developers of many classic compilations such Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection and Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, decided to take Karateka and use it as the focus of a new type of interactive documentary. Dubbing this new docuseries style of historical video games, interview footage, and development materials the first in the “Gold Master Series”, Digital Eclipse has delivered The Making of Karateka.

I had never played the original Karateka, as it debuted on old hardware that was tough to access by the time I had gotten into playing videogames in the ’90s. However, through The Making of Karateka, not only was I able to play the game for the first time, but I also gained appreciation of what Jordan Mechner’s work brought to the medium. As such, it’s good to give players like myself an appreciation for not only this game, but also for other titles developed during the ’80s.

What helps this documentary is the sheer quantity of historical artifacts — particularly the video footage. The clips are comprised of interviews between Mechner and his father, Francis, but also from former personnel at Broderbund Software (Karateka‘s publisher) and industry leaders like Raph Koster, lead designer of Ultima Online, Tom Hall, co-founder of id Software, and John Tobias, a designer for Mortal Kombat.

The more intimate conversations between Jordan and Francis were my favorites, as they help to flesh out how important Francis’ support was to his son. Francis was the composer of the music, using his experience as a classical pianist to create a score reminiscent of Wagner’s operas, particularly The Ring Cycle. This helped to cement the cinematic quality of the experience Jordan was hoping to accomplish. Francis also assisted by being the target of the rotoscoping capture footage used to give the game its fluid animations. This is fascinating, since Jordan’s use of rotoscoping was a primitive form of motion capture. The drawing, rotoscope footage, and spritework can also be viewed in the Rotoscope Theater in Chapter 3 to see how all of this work translated to the game itself.

The presentation style of the documentary is laid out so that players can experience it in any way that they like. For example, I focused on the videos first, then the images, and finally the games. Besides these options, the staff at Digital Eclipse also released a remastered version of the original Karateka, with optional commentary that will stop the action and Mike Mika will narrate on various aspects of the development and why certain design decisions were made to replicate the experience of the original, and why that was important to the team.

However, this remastered version of the game is not the only way to play Karateka. There are three official versions (Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari) plus various playable prototypes. These are important for preservation, but they also help paint a picture of the development cycle of older games like this. It’s not often players get to experience these early versions, so these are a nice treat.

Also included are several prototype versions of an arcade title Mechner never released, Deathbounce, as well as clones of Atari’s Asteroids he developed, Asteroid Blaster and Star Blaster. There’s also an option in nearly every game to watch a playthrough of each title, which is helpful to players who may not be good at older, and often more difficult games such as these.

The overall package has to be commended for its value to videogame history. By choosing to focus on the documentary, a fuller picture of the Karateka’s development and success is allowed to be told, and it’s also incredibly helpful to have the wealth of preserved development documentation, as these are things we generally don’t see from this early stage of gaming history. The footage also insures that everyone has a chance to relive a piece of gaming cultural heritage, particularly since the lessons from Karateka were later applied to Jordan Mechner’s next and most popular work, Prince of Persia.

One downside to this collection is that there is a nearly ten minute section of the documentary focused on the music that may be inaccessible to hard of hearing and Deaf players. The narrator does try to discuss visualizations of the musical notations and shows them on screen with an oscilloscope. This can only do so much, however, so this one section can leave some players feeling left out. (The video can be skipped.)

It’s a bold strategy to focus on the documentary aspect of a game or series, specifically the features normally used as bonus materials in many game compilations. However, due to the nature of the subject matter, this is an excellent blend of movie and game, much like the topic of the documentary. The collection is packed with hours of video footage, images, documentation, a gushing fan letter from John Romero of DOOM fame, correspondence, early art, and even early prototypes of Mechner’s original versions of Karateka, as well as fully playable versions of other games Mechner developed, but never was able to publish. This is easily one of the best and most complete historical documentaries of a videogame, ever, and should be held up as an example for future collections.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

— Justin Grandfield

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Digital Eclipse. It is currently available on PS4, PS5, mobile devices, Xbox One, and Xbox Series consoles, as well as PC. This copy of the game was obtained via a publisher code, and reviewed on PS5. Approximately 5 hours were devoted to the documentary, and the game was completed. There is no multiplayer mode.

Parents: This game has an ESRB rating of T for Fantasy Violence, Language and Mild Blood. There is no official summary from the ESRB, but the games and videos included in the documentary feature a fan game called Karateka II, which featured over-the-top violence and blood. The speakers will speak profanities rarely.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game offers subtitles and closed captioning. The text size cannot be changed. (See examples above.) Captions can be added in the video documentary section. There is one section of the game that greatly focuses on the music of the games and may not be easily understood by hard of hearing or Deaf players. This game is not fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game’s controls are remappable. This can be done in each game.

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Jeff Ortloff
2 months ago

Agree completely – this was fabulous and I want to see more of this style documentary (minus the accessibility issues) in the future!