Jordan Mechner Announces Karateka Remake
The acclaimed developer of Prince of Persia is working on a reinvention of his very first game, and we've got an exclusive interview with the game maker, Jordan Mechner.
Ask any classic gaming nerd, and you're likely to get some excited responses about the game Karateka. The 2D karate fighter had players fighting through an increasingly dangerous series of foes to save a kidnapped love, Mariko. The new game will mirror that original story with some brand new visuals and gameplay mechanics.
The new version of Karateka is set for release on PSN and XBLA sometime in 2012, but we had the chance to ask Mechner about his new game in advance of today's official announcement. While Mechner is not ready to reveal the visual style of the new game, he had lots to say about what he’s aiming for in development. Read his full responses below.
What made you interested in remaking Karateka?
After the 2010 Prince of Persia movie, I really wanted to shift gears and do something more “guerrilla.” I had just come off this intense media junket for a huge Disney movie that took six years from first script to release, with literally thousands of people working on the movie. The idea of making something with a small team was very appealing. And Karateka is just perfect for that.
Karateka was my first game. I made it on an Apple II while I was in college. It was the smallest, most indie project you could imagine -- the whole thing fit in 48K of memory. Totally the opposite end of the spectrum from a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. In many ways I owe my career to Karateka, because its success as an Apple II game made it possible for me to go on and create Prince of Persia after I graduated. And unlike Prince of Persia, in 27 years it’s never had a sequel or remake. And yet somehow people still remember it. When I was in Moscow for the Prince of Persia opening, at a press conference with Jerry Bruckheimer and Jake Gyllenhaal, Russian journalists raised their hands and asked me about Karateka. A game that was released in 1984! It’s amazing to me the affection people have for this little game! It really deserved to be revisited.
In recent years, we’ve seen a host of remakes of older games, but there’s a wide spread of what that means. Sometimes it’s the same game with new graphics. Other times it’s a completely new game with just a few nods to the original. Where does the remake of Karateka fall?
The new Karateka follows the story of the original game, but the presentation and details of the game play have been completely reconceived to take advantage of what’s possible – and also, of what’s fun – on today’s consoles.
In terms of the two poles you mention, if we think of the 2007 XBLA Prince of Persia Classic as representing one extreme, and the 2003 Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time as the other – the new Karateka falls somewhere in the middle. It is a remake that keeps the simplicity and compact scope of the original game, but it’s much more than just a port with updated graphics.
Many elements of game design and implementation have changed since 1984. What aspects of the original Karateka remain fun and worth drawing out into the new version?
The original Karateka was a game that anyone could pick up and play, and I was determined to recapture that simplicity in the remake. Even in the 1980s, a lot of games were so complicated that you had to read the manual or screens full of text to get started. I wanted Karateka to have a story that was so simple and universal, even a little kid could instantly grasp what was going on and know what he (or she) was supposed to do.
That’s part of why I felt a downloadable game was the right space for Karateka now. To expand it into a kind of huge triple-A retail console title, or a modern fighting game where you have to remember dozens of button combinations, just seemed like it would have gotten too far away from that original simplicity.
Elegance, creating a sense of depth and richness – and also emotion – with an economy of means, is a value that meant a lot to me in the Apple II days and still does today. Just because you can make something bigger or more complicated doesn’t always mean you should.
What new features can fans expect to uncover in this remake of the game?
Without getting too much into specifics, the basic gameplay mechanic of the new Karateka is quite different and is something that wouldn’t have been possible on the Apple II. The core idea that you are progressing on a linear path through a series of fights is the same, but the details of how this unfolds are new.
One of the features I’m proudest of – it’s a very simple thing, but in its way, fairly innovative – is the way the new game handles failure.
In the original Karateka, if you lost a fight, it was “The End” – there were no saved games and no checkpoints. You had to play the game again from the beginning. That was harsh even by Apple II standards. It was my way of wanting to keep the player immersed, and not break the reality of the world by the artificial device of multiple lives. That’s why I chose the words “The End” instead of the usual “Game Over”; I wanted players to feel as if they’d lived a story, not just played a game.
Today, of course, you can’t make players start the game over every time they make a mistake. No one would tolerate it. But that basic philosophical problem of how do you handle failure without yanking the player out of the fiction of the story – that’s something I’ve continued to wrestle with as a game designer. It was the impulse behind the creation of the rewind clock in The Last Express, and the Dagger of Time in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Those were different ways of addressing the same problem.
For the new Karateka, we’ve come up with a different solution that is unique to Karateka. It’s not a rewind, it’s something new, but it fits well with the story and I hope players will enjoy it. And that they’ll be a little bit surprised.
What is the storyline of the new Karateka? Does it mirror the moments of the original game, or does the new version head in a different direction?
While visually the new Karateka is a vastly different experience, the core philosophy and story line of the original is very much still there. The evil warlord Akuma has kidnapped your beloved Mariko and taken her to his palace high atop a craggy cliff. You are the nameless hero who must fight a horde of karate-trained warriors to rescue her. We’ve put a few more twists on the story, which I won’t give away here, but that’s still the thrust of it.
The medieval Japanese setting and atmosphere of the game were inspired by Kurosawa’s films, like SEVEN SAMURAI, as well as the woodblock prints of Hokusai, and the style of early Disney animation and silent movie storytelling. All of those inspirations informed the original game, but of course I was limited by the 280x192 Apple II screen with its four-color palette. Now, on today’s consoles, we can evoke the world of Karateka with a richness and subtlety I could only have dreamed of then.
[NEXT UP: How do you pronounce this game name, anyway?]
Presumably, the creation of the original Karateka was a somewhat solitary experience. Who are you working with to create the new version? How is it different developing a similar game concept but with a larger team?
It’s funny to think of Karateka as having a large team, because it’s so tiny compared to the team I worked with at Ubisoft Montreal on my last Apple II game relaunch, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. That was a triple-A title for the last console generation, Xbox and PS2, and of course since then, on the current-gen Prince of Persia titles and Assassin’s Creed, the teams have gotten even bigger.
But it’s true that as small as the new Karateka team is – about a dozen people – it’s still an order of magnitude bigger than the core Apple II Karateka team, which was basically me. (I got a lot of support from friends and family, including my dad, who composed the Apple II music.)
Between small indie games, triple-A games, movies and graphic novels, I’ve pretty much spanned the gamut of every size project there is. And I hope I can continue to do that. I’d hate to give up doing either big projects or small ones, because they’re rewarding in different ways, and each offers its own special brand of creative freedom.
With Ubisoft on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, we had the resources to push the limits, to break new ground technologically with a real-time rewind, and in animation and in certain other ways. It was tremendously thrilling to work with such a talented team and be a part of that.
The Disney/Bruckheimer Prince of Persia movie was big on another scale, but there as the first screenwriter I was really just a small cog in the machine. Still, it feels amazing to write the words “desert” on a page and then find yourself in an actual desert in Morocco, with hundreds of people and camels and horses, shooting the scene.
What I love about doing a smaller-scale project like Karateka – the new one – is that, though you’re more constrained in terms of resources, you have more freedom to maneuver artistically. You can make something very individual, without having the marketing constraint that it has to appeal to ten million people. And that is very freeing.
The ultimate extreme, of course, is a project with a team of one. I haven’t made a game that way since my Apple II days. But I still experience that stage of solitary creation when I write the first draft of a screenplay or graphic novel -- before it moves on to the collaborative phase, which is exciting and creative in a different way.
That’s part of the reason I enjoy working in different media. Whether I’m writing a game or graphic novel or a movie or TV show, my goal is to create a world -- characters and a story that come alive, that spark people’s imaginations. It’s about having an idea that excites me and then finding the right way to share it with people. Sometimes this can mean a large project and sometimes it’s a small one.
What have been the biggest challenges you and the development team have faced while making the new game?
It’s always a challenge to make a great game. Whether it’s the Apple II or the Xbox 360, you try to push the envelope artistically and technically with the resources you have. It’s about making smart design choices that will add up to a game that’s fun, beautiful, and that also engages players’ emotions. We didn’t have the resources of a big game studio with a triple-A budget, so we had to find other ways to be innovative.
The biggest challenge on Karateka, for sure, was the pressure I put on myself and the team to make a game that will live up to the expectations of the fans who remember the original. I’ve been so moved over the years by people sharing their stories of playing Karateka and what it meant to them. I wanted to honor that and create something that was true to the spirit of Karateka and would do justice to the original game. At the same time, I knew that if I did a straight update of Karateka that was just the same game with spruced-up graphics, with all the old “surprises” you remember from 1984, I’d be taking the easy way out and missing an opportunity. The true spirit of Karateka, to me, includes taking risks -- making creative choices that other games haven’t made before, so there’s no way to really be sure in advance if an audience will embrace it. I did that on the Apple II in 1984, and I knew that to make a Karateka that would stand out and really engage gamers in 2012, we had to be bold.
The game is initially targeted for release on PSN and XBLA. What is attractive about those platforms?
I really felt downloadable was perfect for Karateka now -- partly for the reasons I just mentioned. There are aspects of the new game that are unexpected and to a degree, experimental, and it’s harder to take those kind of creative risks in a retail game.
Also, Karateka at a game that at its heart is very simple. The original 1984 game was compact and linear, and that’s part of its charm. Doing it as a full retail game would have demanded vastly increasing the scope and complexity, and that didn't necessarily feel to me like the right direction. Karateka isn't about having a lot of different fighting styles and characters and special moves, like a Tekken or Mortal Kombat. It's about engaging the player through a human story that people can understand and empathize with.
PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 interested me because they're not only used by hard-core gamers, but also by younger players and family members who maybe don't play games so often. I wanted Karateka to have that broad appeal to all ages. And doing it as a downloadable game for PSN and XBLA gave us the potential to really tap into the power of those consoles, to create the world of Karateka in a visually distinctive and cinematically beautiful way. Sound, music, and the visual look of the game were areas in which we could push far beyond what was possible on the Apple II, while retaining the simplicity of storytelling and gameplay that is the essence of Karateka.
When you hear people talk about Karateka, it’s surprising how many different pronunciations you’ll hear. Which one is correct?
Over the years I’ve heard it pretty much every way you can imagine. The strangest pronunciation had to be the one in that old Atari TV commercial. I say Kara-TEH-ka. But I won’t argue with anyone who says it differently.