Love Is a Backward Kick: The Romance of Jordan Mechner’s ‘Karateka’

Jordan Mechner

It was 1984, and I was one of those kids whose mother worked at my school (she was the school secretary). What that essentially meant was that I had to be at school earlier than anyone else (other than my fellows in suffering, the teachers’ kids), and I would never be able to see anything but the first 10 minutes of an episode of Inspector Gadget before me and my piece of toast would have to be out in the car and off to school. Luckily, there was the Apple II and Karateka. God bless you, Jordan Mechner.

Much like other games of that decade, for me Karateka was largely a study in gaming as trial and error. Featuring a robust combat system (within the context of the mid-’80s), Karateka offered the opportunity to step into the shoes of a martial artist with six distinct attacks: low, medium, and high punches and low, medium, and high kicks. The protagonist of Karateka also had two stances, a combat or defensive stance, which allowed the player to punch and kick along with a highly vulnerable running stance, which allowed the player to stand erect and then advance rapidly within the game world but had the disadvantage of the threat of a one shot death if the character should be hit while running.

Basically, a player would run forward in the game until he or she encountered an enemy, then drop into the more defensible, combat stance before engaging the foe. Running recommenced between combats to move forward in this side scrolling world. It was necessary it seemed to attempt to limit the number of foes that the martial artist faced while attempting to enter the castle holding the captive beauty, Mariko.

This was the other element that set Karateka apart from other games of the era, not only did it boast robust combat but also a robust narrative. It wasn’t as if “damsel in distress” adventures didn’t exist in gaming. But the nameless “girl” that occasionally yelled “HELP!” from atop the girders of Donkey Kong’s tower did not suggest the misery and suffering of a character like Mariko. What Mechner’s game did was tell a simple story through images in a way other games had yet to do.

While Karateka begins with a scrolling Star Wars-inspired text that explains the background of the adventure (something about a craggy tower where the evil Akuma had managed to secure the kidnapped Mariko), it was melodrama provoked by the visuals and sound that made the goal of Karateka so compelling to my pre-adolescent mind (and heart).

A sequence in which Akuma stood with his back to the player and pointed the distraught Mariko to her cell in his dungeons was heartbreaking. Mariko’s head hung as she slowly followed the indicated path to her prison. In this same downcast position, she entered the cell, where a spill of light crept from the open door behind her. A flourish of synth-music indicating despair marked her halting in the cell. The door shut as Mariko whirled around to look at her now closed prison door and was punctuated with yet another doleful bit of synthesized music. Then, she collapsed in a heap to more mournful synth.

As noted before, this probably all sounds very melodramatic. Of course, it is. But like much melodrama, it is also highly effective at tugging at heart strings. Moreover, it was also a much more compelling emotive evocation to drive the player to succeed, especially given the stakes of life and detah presented in Karateka‘s gameplay.

Karateka did feature one of the first “life bars” that I had ever seen in a video game, a line of arrows running across the top of the screen, that was diminished when the character was hit while in the combat stance. It also offered only one measly life and, of course, no continues. There was only one chance to save Mariko.

The trial and error element of Karateka was tied to this single life especially as there was a couple of ways to lose instantly in the game. Upon first taking up the challenge of Karateka, the first hurdle was simply getting accustomed to battling a wave of individual martial artists that had the same capabilities as yourself. While limited AI made these fights a less than equitable affair, managing your own life bar was critical to success as it was all you had to get through the adventure. There were no hamburgers or health kits to stave off imminent doom, only skill and the occasional bit of rest between battles.

Practice was required to beat your foes, and soon enough, my “karateka” was pretty capable of dispatching the minions of the evil warlord Akuma. The next hurdle was “the gate.”

The gate stood between the player and the dungeons of Akuma. If its pointed spikes fell on you, you were dead. Having gotten good enough to beat my enemies, I remember cautiously stepping in defensive stance towards through the gate and being immediately impaled. With a sigh, it was back to the start of the game, back to fighting several waves of enemies, and back to the gate. I directed my avatar to stand to get ready for a run (thinking speed would propel me through the gate in time) and was immediately impaled again.

I spent several days trying to figure out how to get through that damned gate. No existed to explain it, and no other of my peers had done anything more than been run through by the gate themselves. I tried stepping forward and back any number of times in an attempt ot get the gate to fall, so that I could slide through while it reset itself. It may sound foolish (but I was a kid), but it took me nearly a week of “before school starts” game sessions to figure out that kicking under the gate would set it off and allow me to quickly run underneath and proceed in my attempt to rescue Mariko.

Next up: the eagle. A commenter at The Great Games Experiment says of the encounter with Akuma’s feathered side kick, “When I killed that damn bird I wept.” I can relate.

Following the encounter with the gate, the game moves to Akuma’s dungeon and encounters with more enemies. These foes are dispatchable by any karateka that has honed his skills earlier in the game, but what my friends and I came to refer as “the eagle” (generally this name was punctuated by an aggravated snarl) was the encounter that would more often send my character back to the cliff side where the game began. Akuma unleashed the eagle to harry the player and only a precisely timed hit at the proper level (low, medium, or high) would turn the eagle around. Multiple hits would bring the bird down (five if I recall correctly), and the first time that I saw the eagle dissolve into an explosion of feathers (rather than myself eventually crumble under his ferocious attack), I may have wept in relief as well.

Once the eagle was down, Akuma himself presented a considerable challenge as well. He was faster and stronger than the other enemies previously faced and multiple encounters (all beginning way, way back at the start of a level) would be required before actually getting skillful enough to bring the big man down.

The kicker lay in Mariko’s cell, though. It was easy enough, having just downed Akuma for the first time, for a player to remain in a combat stance as they entered Mariko’s cell. Approaching Mariko slowly with fists at the ready should seem logically problematic (and it is a stroke of genius for Mechner to consider that Karateka‘s world should have an internal logic to it), but given the dearth of reasonably coherent game worlds encountered at this point in gaming history, it was very easy to make the mistake of not worrying about which stance that you approached Mariko in.

Reasonably, if approached in this aggressive manner, Mariko would kick the player in the teeth and kill him instantly. Such a response after all the work necessary via trial and error to get to the poor girl was teeth gratingly irritating. I may have wept at this point, too. However, as I said, it was reasonable and suggested a world where characters respond as they really might. Some karate guy that you have never seen before approaches you in a dimly lit cell in an aggressive fighting stance — forward kick to the teeth.

Thus, the next encounter with Mariko and the results of wading through the challenges of invading Akuma’s stronghold become eminently more satisfying. Standing over the body of Akuma, the player switches to a running stance and runs into Mariko’s arms.

She kicks again, but this time it is a backwards kick of the leg as you embrace and kiss. The kick is brief and not sustained throughout the kiss, but again, to my pre-adolescent brain it spoke volumes. It was a visual cue that I knew, that I had seen in movies and on television. A woman might kick up a leg if she was kissed very well, right? I had defeated scores of enemies, figured out the insidious mechanisms of the gate, downed the eagle, downed Akuma — all for this moment. And she responded.

It was enough to blow my pubescent mind. This then was romance. Work, effort, trial and error, approaching like an idiot, approaching with caution, then you figured it all out, and it came together with a simple response that I could read in a simple visual cue.

In a sense Karateka‘s romantic sensibilities are simple, traditional, and cliched, but they are also simple, relatable, and supported by the gameplay itself, which boils romance down to one thematic interest: how does effort fit into the equation?

Countless rom-coms have supported this same simple version of heterosexual normativity. Guy sees girl, guy goes to a lot of effort to meet girl, guy might get kicked in the teeth (and probably deserves it), but with persistence and a little demonstration of skill, he might end by provoking a backwards kick.

It is a boy’s story. Frankly, it is a little boy’s story. But it is still charming and Mechner is able to achieve it in such a clean and elegant way by making the player have to achieve something himself through blood, sweat, and a bit of kicking.