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Jordan Mechner returns to his indie roots with Karateka remake

Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner tells Gamasutra about his return to independent game development, and why 1984's Karateka has held up for nearly three decades.

February 15, 2012

9 Min Read

Author: by Eric Caoili, Frank Cifaldi

Jordan Mechner is one of those guys that defines categorization and can only be properly described as a "creator." From his humble roots as a dorm room coder in the early 1980s through graphic novels, scripts, books, sketch art, and even feature films, Mechner's contributions to the creative arts have just about run the gamut of expressive vehicles. Fresh off of contributing to Disney's major motion picture Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which itself was based on the series of games he created, Mechner announced his next venture on Wednesday: he's returning to independent video game development. Mechner is leading a small team developing a remake of Karateka, the Feudal Japan love story that was his first major commercial video game. The original was published by Broderbund way back in 1984, after being coded entirely by Mechner (except for the music, his dad wrote that) while he was supposed to be studying at Yale. This new version, due on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network this year, has a larger team than that, but Mechner is deeply involved in day-to-day game development for the first time in years. Why return to Karateka now, nearly 30 years since the last release? Was returning to Karateka something that was always on your mind while working on Prince of Persia? Jordan Mechner: After the 2010 Prince of Persia movie, I was itching to do a different kind of project that would feel a little more "guerrilla." We had just finished up with a cast and crew of literally thousands for that movie, and I wanted to do something on a smaller scale where I could interact with every member of the team every day. Karateka was the perfect project for many reasons. In the 27 years since its release, it's never had a sequel or an adaptation. And yet it's stayed in people's minds all this time. It seems to hold a special place in many gamers' hearts, as it does in mine. It's the game that started my career -- you can't get more indie than the Apple II -- and its compact design, simple story and pick-up-and-play philosophy made it perfect for a downloadable game.
Princess Mariko sits in captivity in Akuma's fortress, awaiting rescue at the hands of the player in the original Apple II version of Karateka. Why develop a remake instead of a sequel? The original Karateka was such an archetypal, almost iconic love story, and it was told so simply, it didn't leave a lot of loose ends to lead into a sequel. Also, much like when Ubisoft and I began to craft the story for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in 2001 -- but to an even greater extent, because that one was 10 years after the original game, whereas Karateka is almost 30 -- after so much time has passed, at some point it becomes more interesting to reimagine the story from the ground up, to ask who those original characters might be with today's technology.
Karateka's painted box art is iconic to computer game enthusiasts.Were there things you couldn't do in the original game [left] that you're excited about exploring with the remake? The Apple II was a bit limited, in that a game could be acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece of fluid animation while actually it was struggling to eke out eight frames per second -- or even less, if the palace gate happened to be on screen at the same time. The music could only play one note at a time, no chords, and I couldn't animate the characters and play a note at the same time -- given the 1KHz microprocessor it was one or the other. So I'm especially excited about what we can do with the graphics and animation and sound in the new Karateka, given the power of today's consoles. Above all, the music. Have other developers/publishers approached you about creating a new Karateka in the past, with or without your involvement? Why did you turn them down? It's funny you should ask, but in 1986, shortly after the huge success of Karateka on the Apple II, Broderbund approached me about a sequel. I said no because I'd already started work on my next game, Prince of Persia, and I wanted to focus on that. Broderbund would much rather have had a Karateka sequel than a new unproven IP, and they kept asking about it all through the time I was making POP.
Inspired by film, Mechner drew storyboards to plot out Karateka's cinematic scenes. You can read the whole story in my old journals from the 1980s, which I've published as a book, "The Making of Prince of Persia." Some things about publisher-developer relations never change. Many veteran designers who are returning to game development have been taking their new projects to emerging platforms like smartphones. Why did you decide XBLA/PSN would be a more desirable platform for Karateka over those? For me the magic of Karateka has always been in its combination of simple, fun, straightforward gameplay with an immersive, cinematically beautiful human story that engages your emotions. I wanted to take advantage of XBLA and PSN technology to push this game to its production limits, and use graphics, sound and music to really put players into the world of feudal Japan in a way we couldn't on the Apple II.
A young Jordan Mechner poses with the computer that launched his career.Karateka's simple sprites and look are iconic, easily identifiable and referenced numerous times over the years. How do you approach updating the game's graphics, giving it a more modern style while capturing the original's essence? The essence is still there. The original Karateka was inspired by the strong, clean lines of old Japanese wood-block prints and the stylized look of Disney animated films, and we've remained true to those sources. Basically, I've tried to make Karateka the way I would have made it in 1984 had the technology been available, and had the Apple II been able to display more than 280x192 pixels and four colors. Karateka's storytelling and cinematic cutscenes were groundbreaking at the time. Having worked quite a bit in the film industry since the game's release, are there still ideas from movies that you think should be explored more in games, and plan to explore with the remake? As much as I love movies and film storytelling, a game is a game, not a movie. Games are designed to be played, not watched, and the best game storytelling is storytelling that unfolds naturally within the game play. This was the philosophy I brought to designing the story for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and it hasn't changed. A lot of what I've learned from filmmaking has to do with cinematic language -- the ways sound, music, camerawork and other elements can affect us emotionally, regardless of whether what's happening on the screen is interactive or non-interactive. And of course, collaborating with people who are amazing at their crafts in so many different aspects of production has been a tremendous learning opportunity.
The hero of Karateka had to fight his way past Akuma's guards to gain entrance to the fortress. There has been a lot of talk lately -- especially from God of War director David Jaffe -- about developers needing to focus more on "the language of interactivity" instead of trying to emulate cinema so much. What are your thoughts on that argument? If David is referring to long, drawn-out cutscenes, I couldn't agree more. I prefer games that focus on the gameplay and don't try to be mini-movies. The best cutscenes are short, visual, with a minimum of talk, and flow naturally within the gameplay so they don't take you out of the story for long. You were able to make a hit game like Karateka in-between classes, all by yourself, but this remake is developed by a team you're heading, that will presumably be spending a lot more time and money on the project. Can you talk about the differences in what you can accomplish with this huge increase in resources available to you?
The Japanese version of Karateka for Nintendo's Game Boy had box art not seen outside of that region.It’s funny to think of the Karateka team as large, because it’s so tiny compared to the team we had on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The team on Karateka is tight-knit, very collaborative, and there's a lot of back and forth. But it's true, small as it is, it’s much bigger than the team of one (two, if you count my dad who composed the music) that I had on Apple II Karateka. From small to medium to mega-large, every size team has its special rewards and challenges. In my work over the years, from games to films to graphic novels I've been lucky enough to span the gamut. The bigger the team, the more you can do, but the harder it is to change direction. It's like riding a bicycle versus a Humvee. One is more powerful, the other is more maneuverable. Working as an indie again, how is it different than when you were developing games on your own nearly 30 years ago? I really feel that we're once again living through a period like the 80s -- this time on a global scale, and with tech that would have seemed futuristic to us then (who in 1982 could have predicted the iPhone?) -- but similar in that as fast as things are changing, the next big hit game could conceivably come out of someone's bedroom. It's a tremendously exciting time for indie development, and I'm glad that Karateka can be part of it.

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