Karate for Life

Prince of Persia creator, Jordan Mechner, talks to Steven Balbirnie about his upcoming remake of classic beat ‘em up Karateka, and how the gaming industry has changed over the last thirty years

Jordan Mechner began his videogame career in 1984 while still an undergraduate at Yale. During his time in college he developed Karateka and quickly followed it with the classic adventure, Prince of Persia; both of which were commercial successes. In 1997 Mechner released The Last Express, a thriller set aboard the Orient Express on the eve of the First World War. Returning to the Prince of Persia franchise in 2003, Mechner was creative director for the award-winning Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and also wrote the screenplay for the 2010 Prince of Persia film, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Otwo catches up with Mechner as he returns after almost thirty years to remake the title that launched his remarkable career, Karateka.

When asked why he has decided to return to Karateka after such a long time, Mechner’s answer is straightforward, “Karateka is close to my heart – it’s the game that started my career. I programmed it on a 48K Apple II when I was in college. I’m excited to revisit it with today’s technology, because it’s now possible for the first time to make downloadable games on a modest budget that have beautiful, cinematic, immersive graphics and sound at a level that was previously only seen in triple-A retail console titles.”

While Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a radical reimagining of its predecessor, Mechner assures Otwo that “the new Karateka will stick close to the structure and story of the original game, but the visual aesthetic and flow will be very different. We’ve reconceived the gameplay and look and feel to make it an experience that will be inviting and fun for today’s gamers.”

Karateka is one among various titles from the 1980s to see a recent revival. Mechner has a convincing theory for the reasons behind this renaissance. “I think the incredibly fast pace of technological change in the last ten or twenty years has created a kind of nostalgia for earlier eras, even among young people. Look at two of the most celebrated films that have come out this year, Hugo and The Artist, both about silent films. They’re fascinating to us because they recall a time when films were handmade, before CGI and all the summer blockbuster digital manipulation we take for granted now. I think something much like that is happening with video games. Those early games were handmade; they were individual personal expressions in a way that today’s mass-marketed triple-A console titles aren’t. The video game industry has grown and evolved so fast, even within the lifetime of someone who’s twenty years old now, that we can already feel nostalgic about its beginnings, and about the games we played then.”

The films of earlier eras have also provided a source of inspiration for Mechner. For Karateka and Prince of Persia, Mechner explains that “both games owe a lot to classic adventure movies. In Karateka’s case, it was the films of Kurosawa – most especially Seven Samurai, which is still at or close to the top of my all-time greatest list. For Prince of Persia, it was Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks in films like Robin Hood and Thief of Baghdad.” Some of Mechner’s other influences are more surprising. “Both Karateka and Prince of Persia were deeply inspired by early Disney animation – the way films like Snow White and Pinocchio were able to tell stories and create such powerful emotions through simple, hand-drawn animation. I learned a lot from those great Disney animators, and even borrowed a few tricks, like using rotoscoping live-action footage as an animation aid.”

Interestingly, it was Disney that distributed the Prince of Persia film over two decades after the release of the original game. Mechner had the task of writing the script and was placed in the unique position of adapting his own videogame for the screen. This doesn’t seem to have fazed him however; “I approached writing the Prince of Persia movie as I would any screenplay adaptation. You can’t fall into the trap of literally copying what worked in another medium, whether it’s something you created yourself or whether it was created by someone else.” As both a game developer and a screen writer, Mechner is astutely aware of the respective strengths and limitations of both mediums. “The Prince of Persia game story is a story I wrote to be played, whereas a movie is meant to be watched. They are very different art forms, each with very specific craft and structural demands, and what works in one often doesn’t work in the other.”

Despite his passion for cinema, Mechner is glad to be back working on a game for the first time since 2003. He is very enthusiastic about how Karateka is coming together and about the opportunities offered by the gaming industry’s shift towards digital distribution. “I think Karateka is ideally suited for a downloadable game because the original was such a compact, straightforward, pick-up-and-play experience, yet it also had a real human story that was told in a cinematic way.” Mechner sees great potential in the rise of digital distribution; “the shift to digital downloads, with games now being available to much of the planet through gaming consoles, PCs, tablets and smartphones, has liberated developers – particularly indie developers – in a way that’s tremendously exciting. For the first time since the 1980s, it seems possible once again that the next transformative mega-hit could come from someone working out of a garage or bedroom. We’re living through a thrilling time for the game industry, and I’m glad that Karateka can be part of it.”

As one of the industry’s key pioneers, it is encouraging not only to see that Jordan Mechner is returning to video games but that his passion for the medium remains as strong as ever.

Karateka will be released later this year on XBLA and PSN.