The Karateka Kid

So my relationship with video games can be summed up in two words:  I suck.

No, seriously.  I suck.  On levels not known to normal men.  It took me fifteen years–yes, a DECADE AND A HALF–to beat Super Mario Brothers.  I don’t think I have ever won a single game of Madden.  Shit, I can barely beat two or three stages of Pac-Man without using all of my guys.

I blame my parents for this one, honestly.  If they had listened to my demands when I was a seven-year-old and bought me an Atari 2600, I would have had plenty of time to improve my dexterity and my hand-eye coordination, and also would have had more time to practice for when I had to be good at stuff for the Nintendo.  Instead, I got my NES system at the end of elementary school and what little exposure to video games I had before then came through being at friends’ houses or having a pocketful of quarters whenever I went to a birthday party at the local bowling alley (at a future date, I will write about my love of the Star Wars video game machine at the Sayville Bowl).

Granted, my crap record with video games a) isn’t all crap because I kill at Tetris; and b) isn’t all bad because I also love a good round of pinball.  So it’s not like I was deprived or anything.  I just wasn’t one of those kids who was exposed early on to home systems, either on an Atari or a personal computer.  Although during those first few years of my discovering entertainment for what it was, absorbing movies and television (and later music and comic books), my parents did at least give it a shot.

I think it was my father who wound up getting the computer when I was about seven or eight.  It was manufactured by the Franklin computer company, whose forte was creating clones of Apple computers.  I am not sure what the exact model of the computer we had was, but it was a clone of one of the Apple II series, so it was either an Ace 500 (the Apple IIc) or the Ace 2000 (Apple IIe).  The computer had a 5-1/4″ internal floppy drive and an orange and black monitor that turned on like a television, and when it was time to load the game, you had to make sure the floppy disk was in the drive and since the computer had been second-hand (I don’t think he purchased it so much as they were unloading it at work — my mom would do something similar with a computer late in high school, but that one had a green screen) it always didn’t  boot up when you wanted to.  You’d turn the computer on and wait … and wait … and wait …  Then you’d turn it off again.  And you’d turn it on again.  And wait … and wait … and wait …  Then you’d turn it on again.  If you hadn’t given up and left the computer alone, it might boot up on the third or fourth try.  Then you’d get the “Broderbund Presents” screen and you were off and running with the only game we had:  Karateka.

How Karateka appeared on my Franklin computer.

Karateka was a karate fighting game that was created by Jordan Mechner, who is most famous for creating the game Prince of Persia.  It had a pretty simple premise:  an evil samurai lord named Akuma is holding Princess Mariko hostage in his castle.  You, as the player of the game are a karate master–the black belt around your white robe lets you know about this–and your mission is to fight all of the people who are guarding the castle until you get to Akuma and have to fight him to save the princess.  You cannot advance in the game until you defeat someone and at the bottom of the screen are both your life meter and your opponent’s life meter, something we’d see in just about every fighting game, like, ever.

The first few guys are pretty easy.  Well, that is if you don’t fall off the cliff and die:

And trust me, I did it several times.  But sooner or later I learned how to not fall to my death and actually make an attempt to fight my way to the princess.  There were four or five guys to fight while you were outside of the castle and they got a little more difficult, especially on those first tries.  You could run up to them but you had to make sure that you stopped at a certain point and walked up slowly because if you ran into them and got punched or kicked, you’d get killed.  And if you stood too close to the guys while fighting they could take you out very easily.

And then there was the bird.

Once you beat the last guy in front of the castle, there is a quick interlude where Mariko is sitting in her cell crying her eyes out … and I am just going to chalk it up to primitive graphics the fact that Mariko looks like a 1980s-era porn star and not a princess in feudal Japan.  Then you fight the first guy in the castle, beat him, and before the second guy comes out, this bird comes out of freaking nowhere and bites you in the crotch.  I can never remember actually being prepared for it, either, and I think that bothy Nancy and I screamed at that bird repeatedly because usually by that point we were in pretty bad shape and we’d either get killed right then and there or would wind up losing to the next guy.  And if we beat the next guy?  Well, we had to deal with the gate.

Now, in the real world (or in the modern video game world), if you were standing in front of a gate that was opening and bumped into it, you’d get a little bump and it wouldn’t be a big deal.  But in Karateka, if you tried to move too soon after the gate started to open, you died and then had to start over in the beginning of the castle, where you fought guys that had way more life bars than you did and that damned bird.

Fighting Akuma, the big boss at the end of Karateka. Sadly, I never reached this level.

I think we got past the gate once or twice a few times but never got past some of the tougher guys in the sub-levels of the castle.  Apparently, you would wind up fighting your way to the room where Akuma was waiting, guarding Mariko’s cell.   That is, after you defeated that bird, and if you had enough life left you took on Akuma himself and were reunited with Mariko:

Unless you did the wrong thing, that is …

Okay, I have no idea if that actually could happen in the game but if it could, that’s even funnier than falling off a cliff.

Our love of Karateka (which, btw, we could never pronounce. For years, we called it “Kahrahtika” and then heard it advertised as “Karateeka”) would eventually fade away, which was due to both our losing interest and the Franklin crapping out on us. A number of years later we would play it again on my cousin Jason’s system, this time in color. Then, I wouldn’t see it again until I was in my twenties and downloaded a Commodore 64 emulator (once again, I will save the “I so wanted a Commodore 64” post for another day) and several games. I played Karateka for a few days, got into the castle … and got killed by the gate. Then it stopped working. Perhaps one day I will seek it out again and finally rescue Princess Mariko. But for the time being, she’s crying her eyes out in a room.

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