2023 Thoughts on “The Making Of Karateka” Digital Ecplise
(Note: This is an update to my book review of Jordan Mechner’s ‘The Making Of Karateka which is included at the end of these thoughts)
By Steve Fulton
The dog woke me up at 3:30 this morning, and then, instead of going back to sleep, I went to the PS5 store purchased the new “The Making Of Karateka” by Digital Eclipse, the master game archivists who produced last year’s, phenomenal “Atari 50 Celebration”.
I never got back to sleep.
Instead, I was engulfed by it’s glory.
This title is an interactive adaptation of Mechner’s book (see review below from 2020), expanded in innumerable ways while following the same basic format of “Atari 50th Celebration”.
The UI/UX of the title is an interactive museum-like timeline cut into chapters. There are Video clips, photographs and documents.
Interspersed is a sample of diary entries from Mechner’s original book.
The best part, along the way, similar to Atari 50th, there are emulated games to play that highlight the story.
But this time, instead of a selection of Atari’s games that I’ve played many times before, there are multiple versions of Mechner’s early, unreleased Apple 2 games: an Asteroids clone and his great white whale: Deathbounce.
This is compelling stuff. I can never seem to get enough of playing through early “when there were no rules to break” computer games and reading the backstories of how they were developed.
It’s a compelling and entertaining way to spend an early morning, and probably the rest of the day too.
Of course, The real show here is Karateka, and for that, I was not let-down. There is massive detail here centered on how the game emerged in the mid-1980’s as a singular creation. The depth of ephemera displayed is nothing short of shocking. There is so much, it’s hard to believe Mechner saved it all, but thank God he did.
Of course, you can play multiple in-progress iterations of Karateka plus the final released versions for Apple, Commodore 64 and Atari 800. Believe it or not, Much of the content (original artwork and digital ephemera) were archived directly from Mechner’s own collection of old floppy disks.
There are also brand-new reimagined versions of both Deathbounce and Karateka developed by Digital Eclipse that are easily, individually, worth the price of the whole package ($19.99)
Mechner’s story is both is unique and iconic.
He was an individual auteur with few equals at a time when those were in short supply.
That fact is juxtaposed against the very humanistic and comfortably mundane details of his thought and development processes.
For instance, there is moment in “The Making Of Karateka” that transcends time for me. One diary entry struck as the heart of the entire enterprise. It is Mechner’s journal entry from August 1983.
Mechner, who would one day be a giant among game designers, was not immune to thoughts of inadequacy. Even he was afraid all of his work might be overshadowed by technology advances and market forces he could not control.
I connected with this detail in a way I was not expecting. It unearthed some emotions I’d buried for 40 years.
This literally describes every feeling I also had in 1983. I was only 13 years old, desperate to get my hands on a computer so I could learn to make games for Atari. That was my life goal.
While I loved video games, I felt like I was missing my chance, like time was passing me by. The era was amazing to live in, but it also rushed right by. I would do anything to catch it and be part of it, but I didn’t know what to do. I was too young, and had too few resources at my disposal.
When Atari folded a year later in 1984, I pretty much stopped and gave up. It’s part of what I call The Vertical Blank: the “what could have been” that nags me every day. It was almost 20 years later before I got out of my own way tried to make to make games for real again.
Mechner appears to have felt a similar feeling in 1983: that his time was passing him by. He saw the amazing animation of laser disc games and believed would make his work obsolete.
He felt like he was missing his chance.
But he kept going.
Mechner was a special individual, but even he was no “magic wizard” shooting games from his Elder Wand. He had talent and did not waste his opportunities but he failed with his Asteroids clone and with Deathbounce.
I watched people like Jordon Mechner, Chris Crawford, and Dani Bunten through the years, living vicariously off their work. I marveled at their success and travails, and celebrated their games because they came from the era that I so wanted to be part of.
I’ve always felt that if I had only known their “secrets” , maybe, just maybe, I could have done it too.
But the “secret” shown here, in gloriously, gory detail, is that there was no real secret after all.
Mechner’s “secret” (along with being gifted with raw artistic and technical talent), is that he never stopped.
It’s a tale comfortably and mundanely human.
But at the same time, let’s be honest, it’s also quite amazing.
Mechner’s work was pioneering.
He was one the first to develop roto-scoped animation and story-driven action games, but to me, that’s all part of the process AFTER he “never stopped.”
He was one of the first to mix story and action into a formula that transcended the simple action games of the golden age, and bridged them to the new age of late 80’s and beyond.
But his first step was to get out of his own head, and quiet the demons of failure and set-back. Then he forged hard work and opportunity into success.
If he had stopped at the asteroids game, or Deathbounce or when Dragon’s Lair showed-up in 1983, we would have never had Karateka.
But instead, he made his way, and the results were amazing. To me that is the real revelation of Digital Eclipse’s “The Making Of Karateka”.
It’s a lesson I can still use on daily basis.
I’m no Jordan Mechner of course.
But I can use the message and inspiration of his success in whatever I try to do. When the demons of failure are howling behind me, it would be so easy to quit. So easy to say “I can’t do it”, and shut them down.
But instead of giving in, I’ll try think “What Would Jordan do?”
My own personal “WWJD?”
I’ll think of two simple words that are so very human, and so very mundane, but also so very special and, oh so amazing:
But I digress.
This is not about me, of course.
This is about Jordan Mechner and the fine work of Digital Eclipse to preserve it.
I love the type of work that The Internet Archive does, but the archival work here is much different. The Internet Archive is like a dump of everything, that you have to sort out yourself. A giant museum with no real map and no limits. Sometimes that is fantastic. But many times, what I’m looking for in history, is exactly what I found in “The Making Of Karateka”.
Digital Eclipse has not just curated an engrossing history of a single computer game, they have revolutionized the medium of “game” itself. By creating a system where “true meaning” for an individual can emerge from the material presented, the have developed a framework for gaming history that is nothing short of transcendental.
Like Karateka itself, it’s a work of art.
I hope “The Making Of Karateka” is as successful as it should me. I hope Digital Eclipse reap the benefits of their amazing work. Maybe people are not ready for this, or maybe they are. Maybe it won’t earn back enough money to cover production costs, or maybe it will earn so much they don’t know what to do with it.
But either way, the work stands by itself: it’s a compelling and meaningful formula that begs to be used many more times in the future.
So I ask of you Digital Eclipse, no matter what happens, take the lesson of Jordan Mechner to heart.
Book Review (first published Sep. 9, 2020 on Gamsutra)
I’ve always been a huge fan of Jordan Mechner’s Karateka. Released in late 1984, it was one of the major games that bridged the gap between the pure arcade games of “Golden Age of Atari” and the richer story telling of the “Nintendo Age.” Written for the Apple II, the game became a #1 hit, was released on every platform available at the time, and has since been re-released on iOS, Android plus re-imagined on XBLA and PSN. While I always found the game fairly difficult, I loved the cinematics, the animation, and the challenge the game offered. It was head and shoulders (plus a second head and shoulders) above nearly any game of the type I played at the time, and is one of the true classics from that era.
Since the game was released by Broderbund, a well-known game company, I was never especially curious about how it was made, how it was programmed, or the story behind’s its’ creation. At the time, I was a 14 year-old aspiring game programmer when Karateka was released. I loved reading stories about people who made their own games, put them in baggies, and sold them to computer stores all by themselves. I was just getting started, writing public domain games in BASIC for my Atari 800 and uploading them to BBS systems as manner of distribution, pretty much as indie as you could get. I could not be bothered with the origins of a game from major company like Broderbund.
Since it came from a big software house, I just figured Karateka was one of a slate of like-games Broderbund had in production pipe-line. Also, I knew the game was made for Apple II and Commodore 64 first. Since I was an Atari fan through and through, it was difficult for me to get my head around the fact that this amazing game was not an Atari-first product.
That’s the hell of being a life-long Atari fan.
When playing this game on an Apple II for the first time at my friend Eric’s house, I noticed the name “Jordon Mechner” . I had no idea who he was, but, to me, the name seemed “important” and I never forgot it.
I would come to associate Mechner’s name as an “inspirational auteur” but I never knew the story of how the actual game was made.
It took me 30 years, but I finally got around to finding out the origin story the game by reading Jordan Mechner’s book “The Making Of Karateka.” Now I wish I had studied this game and its’ story a long time ago, as I found it an essential narrative for indie game developers.
Presented in diary format, the story does not start in the glass and wood paneled halls of a successful Marin County software company as I expected, but instead, in dorm room behind the CRT glow of an Apple II monitor. Jordan Mechner was a college student at Yale in 1982, trying his hand at writing computer games in assembly language for the Apple II. Since this is purportedly Mechner’s actual diary (and there is no reason to disbelieve him), we don’t get a full back story of how he got to this point in his life. It starts abruptly, as the reader is dropped into his thoughts about game development from the very start.
When we meet him, he’s toiling away programming an arcade game named Deathbounce for the Apple II, attempting to apply lipstick to his pig in any way possible, hoping to shape it into the game he always hoped it would be. It’s not that Deathbounce is bad game, it’s just a game whose time has passed. By 1982, the arcade game era was over. “Arcaders” (as “gamers” were called back then) had seen and played almost every combination of single-screen action games. They were looking for more, and so it seems, was Jordan Mechner. Eventually he gives-up on Deathbounce, as a better idea takes over: a karate fighting game with movie-style story-telling.
From the very beginning of the story, I was struck by the universality of Mechner’s plight. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but the ending is never in doubt. Anyone who knows the history of computer games knows that Karateka was an institution in the 80’s. It was the type of game that computer owners booted-up to make their game console owning friends green with envy. However, Mechner’s journey is the real star of the show here, and there are tons of great lessons within the text for indie game developers. I personally took away a lot of inspiration and validation of my own experiences. Mechner’s Deathbounce story is great example. He puts so much work into the game, but eventually cuts his losses with it, and puts it aside for good. Any game developer that has a stack of unfinished ideas on their hard drive will instantly recognize the experience.
Mechner is obviously a smart and artistic guy with the advantage of attending an Ivy League school. But even for him, Karateka becomes quite an achievement. The way he describes using every resource at his disposal to create the game play, graphics, and sounds for Karateka is inspiring and not unlike the methods that many successful one or two-person game shops employ today.
Mechner also describes in detail, the struggle between programming a game on contract, and finishing his work on Karateka. Anyone who has tried to run an indie game shop, attempting to bring their ideas to life while funding them with outside work will instantly recognize the situation. At the same time, Mechner’s struggles with self-doubt, insecurity, and the feeling that he has somehow “missed the golden era” should ring true with anyone who has ever made game in the ever-changing technology landscape.
Eventually Mechner does join-up with the “big game company” Broderbund, after many months of working on his own, but even that experience mirrors the modern world. The in-house programmers Mechner meets at Broderbund feel over-worked and unappreciated. Everyone seems to be looking for a way out and a chance to make it on their own. However, Mechner loves the camaraderie of making games with a team, and nicely juxtaposes his life as a dorm-room coder to his life meeting fellow developers and coming out of his shell at while trying to finish Karateka at Broderbund.
Karateka was not a game made overnight, and this is another great lesson for indie game developers in the mobile/digital age. At first, Mechner believes it will take just a few months to develop, but as he gets further and further into the project, he realizes just how much work is involved in creating such an epic contest. If he produced only the basic Karate game he planned at the outset, and then sold it to a publisher, he would have made a little money, but the game could (and would) have been easily copied by other programmers and made for other systems. Instead, he poured 2 years of hard work into a game that was so advanced for the time in every possible way, it was almost impossible to clone without great effort.
While the story is more than 30 years old, the parallels in The Making Of Karateka to developing indie games today are uncanny. For me, reading it was an experience of universal truth, validation, and exhilaration at the unfolding story of struggle and success. Technology always changes. Platforms rise and fall. Companies go in and put of business. However, the drive of a single person with a unique vision is at the heart of making great games. Reading about Jordan Mechner’s struggle to bring Karateka to life is at once both inspirational and cathartic. It should be required reading for any developer currently toiling in the modern game industry.