Inside the making of 'Karateka'
How Digital Eclipse hopes to reimagine the interactive documentary with this karate classic.
Karateka was one of the biggest Apple II games of its time. With innovative graphics and cinematic gameplay, the 1984 karate classic inspired a new wave of game developers.
Which is why it’s the subject of Digital Eclipse’s new interactive documentary coming this year. Wait, a what? An interactive documentary—a remastered game and a Criterion Collection all mashed up into one.
In an interview edited for length and clarity, Chris Kohler, director of editorial content at Digital Eclipse, shares how they rebuilt Karateka and how they want to reinvent video game documentaries.
What is an interactive documentary?
The interactive documentary concept is: Let's lead with the story. Let's not have a list of games over here and a list of bonus content over here. Let's pretend that all of those things have equal weight: games, design documents, video interviews, audio, screenshots, historical trivia.
When you walk into a museum, there's the title of the exhibit and an overview of what you're going to experience. They've laid things out in a certain way. So, if you walk through it, you get a story that they're telling you until you get to the end of that exhibit. But ultimately, it's down to you to look around, see what's interesting, and go check those things out and do it at your own pace. We don't want the player to feel like they're boxed into at [the experience] in a certain way. It can be kind of frustrating when you just want to look around.
Once you understand [the context of the game], and then you jump in and you play the game, you have much more of an appreciation for what you're playing. If you'd bought an Atari collection and took it home, you’d get a big list of games that’s just alphabetical: Asteroids, Astro Blasts, Astro Smash, Astro this, Astro that. You don't know which version is the real version that was done by the creator. You don't have any of that context, and the game itself is just not gonna be as interesting to you without that.
Last year’s Atari 50 collection was your first foray into the interactive documentary format, right?
Atari 50 was the first one that we released. But we'd been working on Karateka prior to that, [when we had] downtime when big projects weren't coming in. Then Atari 50 came in and we shelved [Karateka] to do Atari 50 in time for the 50th anniversary. Originally, Atari wanted something different, and we were able to come in and say, “Hey, like, you, you guys don't want just another collection.”
Why Karateka? What is about Karateka that warrants all this attention?
Karateka was a very important game. Jordan [Mechner], the creator, was a Yale college student and he was making this game. He started freshman year, and he was in the Yale Film Society and just watching tons of films all the time. And at first he started out wanting to make an arcade shooter, but eventually got to the point where he loved all these things about film, and wanted to put them into an Apple II game—which would be very difficult. Nobody had really done it to that extent.
Karateka made so many major innovations as far as like cinematic scenes, use of cinematic techniques like cross-cutting between two pieces of action that are happening at the same time—really developing that sense of a camera, wordless storytelling scenes with the characters, acting things out, a soundtrack that was based on like Wagner and the Ring Cycle.
And most importantly, he used rotoscoping; he pioneered the use of rotoscoping in video games. He filmed his mother's karate teacher, and he filmed his father, Francis Mechner. He used the frames of that film to get lifelike human animation on the Apple II. It was this incredibly laborious process that nobody else even did—even after he did it—because it was so laborious. For a lot of people, it was the first time they played a game that felt like a little movie.
When you look at video games today, you can trace that lineage back of these massive, cinematic video games back to Karateka specifically. It was massive in an age when video games didn't necessarily become worldwide hits. It was just very popular for a long time and inspired a lot of people. In the documentary we talked to John Tobias, the co-creator of Mortal Kombat. John Romero, co-creator of Doom, was so taken with Karateka in 1985 that as a teenager, he wrote Jordan a fan letter that we put in the game. So, when you look at the number of game designers who were designing major games in the ‘90s, the fact that they all point back to Karateka—it really just dawns on you that this is a very important game.
We have these great Netflix series about the history of games. We've got so many books about the history of games. Why are we not using this great storytelling medium that is the video game to tell the stories of video games? It’s surprising to us that nobody's really done it before.
Is there an official pronunciation of Karateka?
So, we actually deal with this in the game itself. In the 1980s, Jordan had never really heard anybody pronounce it. He always said “kara-taeka.” Back then there was no YouTube or anything like that. So, it's not like you could hear somebody pronounce the name of the game the way they were. Jordan was saying it. So, most people knew the word karate, and then they’d add a “ka” on the end of it. So, a lot of people said “kartate-ka” or “karatika.” Or “kara-teka” sometimes. So basically everybody pronounces it different ways, including in the product. Like, there's interviews people and they all say it different ways.
Everybody pronounces it wrong. Just say whatever you want. Don't stress about it.
Some fans may not have heard of Karateka, but they've probably heard of Jordan's other game, Prince of Persia.
After Karateka, Jordan went on to create the Prince of Persia series. Karateka was a worldwide hit, but Prince of Persia was a massive franchise launching hit. It’s funny. Prince of Persia was going to be his Apple II masterpiece. He worked for, I think, another four years on the Apple II version of the game. And it came out and it flopped because the Apple II, by that point—I think it was 1989, was dead in the water as far as software sales. But he had created this incredible game on it.
But because they had a feeling it was gonna be a hit, ports (to other systems) were already in the works. And so, Prince of Persia really became successful once it got onto the IBM PC, the NES, Sega CD. Then it started hitting consoles all over the world and becomes huge. But to really understand where all that came from, you have to look at Karateka. Karateka is like Prince of Persia zero, as far as the use of rotoscoping, as far as the use of storytelling and cinematic techniques that Jordan took the ball and ran with it in Prince of Persia. All of that was pioneered in Karateka. It was the test case.
Are there different playable modes in Karteka?
What are considered the Holy Trinity of Karateka versions is: Jordan's original Apple II version, the Atari 800 or the Atari 8-bit computer version, and the Commodore 64 version. Those were done at Brøderbund, under Jordan's direct supervision. The other versions and ports of Karateka—basically all of them were done without Jordan really being involved. Karateka is this very tightly designed game, and trying to replicate it on another platform is very difficult. Our studio president, Mike Mika, who is an old school game programmer himself, loves to make new games from scratch or do ports of things.
He wanted to do a port of Karateka for modern consoles, but do it in a way that really tries to understand why so many Karateka ports were so bad, and how to make one that's actually good. That's the fourth playable version. It's still the same sprites, but, with modern lighting and stuff like that. And also some cut content because Jordan [originally] wanted to put in a fight against a leopard, or a panther.
And they ended up having to cut that for time. But we've built an all-new challenge in there, where it's a Prince of Persia -style fight against this leopard.
What were the other challenges in kind of building this whole massive sprawling project?
Certain types of people look at [a remaster] and go, “Well, that's just emulation.” An emulator is the tool that you use to get something running on a new platform. It is the tool in the same way that if you have The Godfather on a film strip and you want to watch it on a Blu-ray player, you have an underlying technological framework that interprets that data and gets it up on your screen in a digital way.
An emulator is the same. But on the other hand, if we're talking about a vintage computer game and you're moving it to a console, it's a very different thing. How do you map all the buttons—if the player had all of these [computer] these keys to map? How do you deal with things like how it would display on a monitor versus how it displays on your display. Because when you look at a game on an Apple II monitor, you're not just seeing raw pixels. You're seeing raw pixels as interpreted through a CRT. And the CRT is the artist's original intent. So you want to try to get it looking as close to that.
One minor example is: for the ground [graphics in Karateka] on the Apple II, Jordan put in alternating rows of blue and orange pixels. The ground was not supposed to look like stripy blue and orange. It was supposed to look gray, because if you do the alternating rows of those pixels and then put that out to an Apple II color monitor, it doesn't have the resolution to show the division between those. And they all blend together into a nice gray, which is not a color that the Apple II can actually produce natively. So we went in and looked for that texture and replaced it with the proper gray color. So, you can see raw pixel output, or you can choose things that will get it closer to what the player at the time would've experienced.
What other special features are in there?
We have the film that Jordan shot of his father running around in his wife's karate outfit. And using the film and the tracing paper that he then used to get the outlines of the characters off the film frames, we're able to figure out exactly which frames of film were used. So, there's a rotoscope theater mode where you can go in and you can view the film frames, and then like Photoshop, you can overlay the tracing paper, and then you can look at like the rough Apple II sprites. Then you can look at the final, paint it over sprites and play with the opacity and start and stop the animation, speed up the animation. You can really understand how the rotoscope process worked.
Wherever we can, we even have director’s commentary on the Apple II version. There's a watch mode, which basically you don't even have to play the game if you just want to see what it's like to play through Karateka. And you can jump in at any time. So, you can use it as a chapter select if you want to jump to the final boss fight. But then for the Apple II version, we've got Jordan and his father riffing over what they're seeing on screen and bringing up even more development stories that weren't covered anywhere else. So you get to go wherever you want, but no matter where you are, we're not just putting you into pure gameplay. We're trying to build in the making of, and the behind the scenes and the context in every way that we can.
We're just like packing this one full of the kitchen sink.
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