Despite how well it sold and how significant it was, I’d never heard of Karateka until this compilation.
But as soon as I heard the brilliant Jordan Mechner was involved, and it was a clear inspiration for his magnum opus, Prince of Persia, I was immediately invested.
What I was rewarded with is one of the smartest, best presented, arguably most important game preservation products I’ve ever seen.
This new Gold Master series from Digital Eclipse is a beautiful look back at the origins of an extremely important game in the history of our industry. And if this is what we can expect for future installments, you’re going to want to grab each and every one.
Jordan’s approach to animation. His father’s approach to music. The way the game was presented had never really been done before and Digital Eclipse take you on a fascinating five chapter journey explaining how it got there.
But this is as much the story of the Mechner family as it is Karateka, looking back at Jordan’s early, never before seen prototypes – Deathbounce and Star Blaster – and his early inspirations from games like Asteroids.
As you might expect, it is also a touching tribute as you see through various clips Jordan sitting down with his father, discussing their time working together. I actually got quite emotional listening to them talk in earnest about the enormous impact they’ve made on games. But also how the process of Karateka brought them close together as a family.
I don’t want to give too much away, but watching the Super 8 recordings of Jordan’s dad dressed up in his wife’s Gi, recording the infamous walking, running and climbing animations Jordan was renowned for in his games was incredible. Being able to super impose the images on top of each, watching how it all comes together is like a mini Eureka moment and you wonder how much patience, time and effort was spent just to do something taken completely for granted now.
But equally seeing Jordan’s sister getting involved too, acting as the princess Mariko, was a lovely touch and it truly does make this a family affair. A rare find in this industry.
Jordan was just eighteen years old when he was working on Karateka and throughout the entire process, we’re treated to little snippets from his journal, filled with his ambitions, his doubts and observations of the time, like how he was worried Dragon’s Lair would steal his thunder but also how he was juggling multiple different concepts at the same time, unsure which to proceed with.
In the early chapters, you see Jordan’s earliest inspirations, playing Asteroids at the Arcades, then realising he could translate that on a home computer easily enough. And it really kickstarted his appetite and energy for building a video game that ended up changing the world and led him to making a breakthrough.
He pitches to leading publishers at the time and even back then, they recognise his talent and ability but sense there’s something bigger and better in him than just recreating what’s already been done.
As the chapters progress, so you see his journey, gradually putting the Karateka pitch together, but it also runs in parallel to a story of ambition, of family, of passion. But also a story any aspiring artist can connect with – a young adult building a vision through inspirations, understandings and interpretations of the world.
This compilation is full of never before seen concept art, pitch documents, letters, fan mail, marketing material, even sprites and footage that show how the game was made. You can even play Mechner’s games at different stages of development and finally, take on a remastered, remade version of the game for a 2023 audience.
There’s even gems in here about a never-made Karateka 2 which will be must-sees for those who loved and grew up with the original.
But I think what this Gold Master Series achieves best of all is the perfect platform for preservation. This is a game I knew nothing about coming in, but now I feel totally informed, inspired and enthusiastic about it having gone through all chapters, brought together by a timeline of activity where you can flick through a mix of playable and viewable assets, quickly, easily, seamlessly.
Hearing industry legends talk so fondly about the game also makes for some wonderful moments, including John Tobias who clearly took some inspiration for Mortal Kombat from Kareteka. But also reading a hyper enthusiastic letter from John Romero to Jordan Mechner after playing Karateka, asking how he made the game then telling him about his own projects and inspirations. Digital Eclipse quite clearly build a timeline where you can see the industry shifting and along with it, some of the most famous developers of the day finding their feet.
These are incredible nuggets, mini-stories we’ve never had access to, but give us a deeper connection to the game and really underscore its importance.
Honestly, I cannot wait to see which game Digital Eclipse do next. There’s a hint Prince of Persia could be coming in the future – it’s only briefly touched upon in this collection, rightfully so – and I’d absolutely be ok with that as Mechner and his family come across wonderfully here.
That said, I’d also love to see other industry legends have an opportunity in the limelight. And while licensing could get in the way of some of these, you can imagine incredible series with the likes of Hideo Kojima, Shigeru Miyamoto, Roberta and Ken Williams, even Romero himself.
It’s not just a story of a game and a family, though, but also an industry in its infancy. There’s some great historical overviews of the Apple 2, Commodore and IBM. But even marketing in the early days and how a game didn’t really get traction until months after it launched. That seems almost unfathomable now because if a game hasn’t caught alight in week one, it’s quite often left for dead.
There’s even a fascinating letter late on when discussing a potential Karateka 2 and it seems the publisher – Broderbund -had an initial disagreement with Mechner over profits and may have even been trying to steamroll him. Mechner indicates there’d been a phone conversation where Broderbund said the sequel would be written by someone else and very little of his original code would be used. But he instead tried to fight for an equal share of profits, understanding Broderbund’s risk, but making sure they realised the work he’d done.
It’s letters like these that have probably helped shape the marketing contracts we see today. While not perfect, these are a lot more fair and, in fact, sometimes lean more in favor of the developer. Either way, it’s so interesting to have eyes on information like that and take a time capsule back to what life was like in the early days.
I absolutely loved The Making of Kareteka. It’s a game/product/collection – whatever you want to call it – which absolutely deserves the acknowledgement and recognition. This does such an excellent job introducing a game to a whole new audience and Digital Eclipse have even gone as far as to remake it, as well as one of Jordan’s older prototypes – Deathbounce. Both of which are actually really well realised and respectfully reinterpreted.
If I could criticise one thing, I’d maybe want to see a little bit more interactivity within the timelines for future releases. Perhaps a mini quiz at the end, more things to play around with like the frame in frame actions or for future titles, some more footage of the times I can watch and observe what culture was like in the arcades and offices. But these are super minor criticisms and completely subjective as everything here is as good and enjoyable as is.
The Making of Kareteka is another very important step in video game preservation. A game like this could very easily be lost to time and forgotten about forever. But without it, there would be no Prince of Persia and the platform genre would probably look very different indeed. Maybe the cut scene would take on a different form as well as the use of music.
Much like people look back at Snow White for its importance to Disney and Animation, Psycho for horror films, and War of the Worlds for storytelling and audible reading, video games are mature and relevant enough to have their stories told and celebrated like this. And it’s about damn time.
It’s no surprise the legendary Jordan Mechner is right at the forefront of such a pivotal, important moment that could change the way preservation is done for years to come. Quite poetic, actually.
The Making of Karateka is a fantastic ride from start to finish, full of heartwarming moments, incredible gaming history, and never before seen looks at one of the industry’s most important games. Complete with a solid reimagining of the game for a 2023 audience, along with a surprise redo of an early Mechner prototype, this is a great start to the Digital Eclipse Gold Master Collection. We cannot wait to see what they do next.
+ Wonderfully presented
+ Some fantastic assets to dive into and digest
+ Excellent reimagining of Karateka and a way to play it through various stages of porting and development
+ One of the best treatments for game preservation I’ve seen
The Making of Karateka is out now on PC, Xbox, and PlayStation. Switch releases next month
Code Kindly Provided by Digital Eclipse for review purposes
Played on Xbox Series X