Thursday, December 4, 2014

Karateka - Entry Wounds
Where I frequently met my bloody end at the steps of an obstruction far more frightening than any enemy.

There was an obvious pattern to how I discovered all of those Commodore 64 games--a method so simple as to entail flipping through a collection of floppy disks and loading up the one whose label bore the most interesting set of hand-written titles--yet there were times when even a planned sampling could still somehow feel like a chance encounter. That's how newly experienced C64 games tended to register with me, the battle of expectations versus reality often culminating with my arrival in unexpected territory. I might have been able to clearly make out the game's name and even stumble into its correct pronunciation, yes, but I could never accurately guess as to what the title was implying or what the game, itself, could possibly have in store for me. 

Sure--I could conjure up a list of expectations as born from either my imagination or my exceptionally limited knowledge of etymology, but it seemed that so many of these games existed for the sole purpose of shattering any mental construction I could possibly dream up. Such was the weird disconnect that so defined my experiences with the Commodore 64 and its games.

Karateka turned out to be one of the most notable exemplars of this phenomenon even though it strayed a bit from the formula. With Karateka, that is, I had a solid, well-conceived expectation of what it was likely about (a standard karate-based action game, as its root implied), but I couldn't have fathomed that something so contrarily unorthodox and world-challenging was waiting for me beyond its loading screen.

For one, Karateka was my introduction to "cinematic" games long before I could even comprehend what that label meant. The first hint could be found in the run-up to the intro; I watched on as the title screen's text scroll and main theme began working together in harmony, the appearance of primary information and important plot points synced to the music's most dramatic notes and its most striking tonal shifts. I'd seen that type of accentuation done in the opening credits of movies and TV shows but never in a video game; as intended, this unique, attention-grabbing presentation advertised to me that Karateka wasn't about conforming to convention.

In truth, I never watched the intro through to its end, since the text scrolled so slowly and I lacked the patience, but its spirit and energy resonated with me all the same. The only minor hitch was that I didn't have a full grasp on the game's story beyond "karate guy rescues his kidnapped girlfriend." Still, my ignorance on the matter didn't detract from the unforgettable impact as made by the opening scene, which created an imagination-stoking image that meant everything to me; it was picturesque rendering wherein the unnamed hero finished his climb up a cliff and onto solid ground--the base of the enemy's stronghold as surrounded by a vast ocean that stretched far into the background and provided boundary to the snow-covered mountain whose omnipresence, alone, provided a ton of character to an otherwise single-tone, sterile backdrop. The scene was further defined by an accompanying heroic-sound ditty, which colored the air and made his entrance feel all that more dramatic.

It made for a sequence that has been ingrained in my memory ever since, and it stands forever as another of my most beloved, iconic C64 mental images.

One a superficial level, Karateka looked a lot to me like Kung Fu Master, which I'd played many times in arcades, so I thought I'd take to it immediately. Instead, there was only confusion when the hero wouldn't react to any of my input as expected. "Is my controller broken, or is this one of those keyboard-only games?" I wondered, in fear of the latter. "Or maybe it utilizes a combination of the two?" As I tested my theory, tirelessly fiddling around with the keyboard and 2600 controller, I found that I could make the hero bow or enter into a fighting stance, but there was nothing to suggest that any of the keys or buttons were capable of initiating anything resembling meaningful forward progress. It had to be that the joystick and keyboard somehow functioned in tandem, I figured, but it was still unclear to me how even their combined input was going to maneuver me away from the same cliff edge I'd been standing at since the start. Also, how the hell was I supposed to juggle the two? 

Did they expect me to chew gum at the same time, too? Sheesh.

Almost every action game I'd played previously had me intuitively pressing left or right to move the main character forward and back, but here was Karateka's scheme demanding that I string together directional input and create movement through rhythm. This wasn't apparent to me at the start, so I just kinda stood there in place for about another hour or two doing what amounted to the Hokey Pokey. You know--just to let the enemy know that I was serious about this whole "rescuing" operation. After I figured out that you couldn't trigger normal movement out of an upright position--rather, you had to first enter into a fighting stance--I began inching my way along, making sense out of the controls as best I could. I stuck mainly to the 2600 controller, since its base input seemed to function well enough (mainly, I long had an aversion to keyboards, which I associated with the kind of "complicated" games I sought to avoid).

From what I could gauge, Karateka's every element, from its presentation to its control scheme, had a completely foreign flair to it, so I expected nothing less from its fighting system. And as I suspected, the first enemy didn't behave much like the typical video-game bad guy; in fact, this rather polite fellow surprisingly bowed to me before entering his stance, which I recognized as a sign of respect. However, I wasn't sure if I was supposed to reciprocate or if failure to do so would have repercussions later. As I recall, I never did bow to any of the game's combatants (mostly because I couldn't) and always felt bad about it, as if I was hurting the feelings of these fictional, pixelated characters. Sorry, guys!

The combat in following was like nothing I'd ever experienced--tactical in a way that seemed beyond me. I got the sense that I was in way over my head, immersed in a game that wasn't made for people like me. So in lieu of learning the system and showcasing actual skill, I mainly resigned to abusing what appeared to be the most "effective" ("cheap and effortless") offensive maneuver: Moving directly into my opponent's space and executing three low kicks in succession. (I didn't feel comfortable attempting as much with punches, since the controls for fisticuffs were mapped exclusively to the keyboard and out of my reach.)

It was a good enough strategy to take down this first gi-wearing karate guy (looking more like a doctor with his goofy nurse cap and protective breathing mask), who seemed apt to wander into my attacks. My victory was punctuated by short-but-empowering fanfare, which did a nice job of making me feel like I accomplished an impressive feat though I wasn't sure that I deserved an accolade.

If I took one lesson from this opening encounter, it was that moving in close and attacking preemptively was my best bet, since any hesitancy would leave me open to a counterattack. Considering how quickly a retaliatory combo could drain my already-inadequate energy meter, I couldn't afford to screw up my only offensive trick. 

The obvious warmup granted me unfettered access through a Japanese-looking gate and the screen's border, passing through which triggered another deeply ingrained cut-scene. In this sequence, which became an instant favorite, the main villain, who I was convinced was a bell-bottomed robot with a hawk on its shoulder, commanded the next minion (the next most readily available doctor on staff, I guess) to confront and challenge the hero by forcefully pointing toward the left door, the swift animation emphasized by the ominous ditty's crescendo--a high-pitched G-sharp closer that gave sound to my doom. This was set-up for Karateka exhibiting more of its cinematic prowess, the game building anticipation for the next fight via the camera cutting back and forth between the advancing hero and the minion as he determinedly charged out from the building and toward the stronghold's uninvited guest. 

Well, that was probably the designer's vision of how events should have played out. Under my direction, the hero instead moved forward at a more glacial pace, content to crawl along and arrive sometime next Tuesday. Because, really, figuring out how to run was apparently akin to rocket science.

Though, after this same scene had repeated a few times over, I realized that I was only artificially increasing the game's difficulty by not learning how run; that is, the more time you took to reach an area's endpoint, the more guys would inevitably show up. But I just couldn't pull it off; there were flashes, like when I'd get the hero to burst forward for two seconds at a time, but I couldn't parlay that into sustained motion, nor could I competently replicate the input that initiated the charge. So I walked the whole way. 

Really, I didn't find it that much of an inconvenience. After all--it gave me all the time I needed to test my theory that the karate doctors would soon run out of funny hats to display. Also, my cheap strategy of abusing low-kick combos was working quite well, so I felt like things were under control. It was a bit distressing that the enemies' growing energy meters were beginning to dwarf mine, yes, but I managed to devise some effective stalling tactics and use them specifically to buy time for my energy replenishment.

Karateka's was simply another case of the C64's sensibilities challenging my natural gaming instincts in new and intimidating ways. If it wasn't the profuse, exhausting button-mashing in Epyx's Olympic-themed sports games, then it was Cliff Hanger's arcane puzzles and ultra-precise timing element. For most of my childhood, Karateka represented the unlearnable. Yet for all of the lingering issues I had with its controls, I was never scared away; I found everything else about the game too captivating to consider leaving it behind. The only solution, then, was to work around the controls and somehow will myself to the finish.

Since learning how to run was out of the question, I had no choice but to face an inordinate amount of foes en route to the stronghold's innards; as a result, I'd always arrive in much worse shape than I would have liked. Progress to this point was rewarded with a touching cut-scene that continued the wonderfully crafted syncing of music and expression, the hero's jailed girlfriend lifting her head in hope as if sensing his arrival. It was an inspiring scene, yes, but it didn't make me feel any better about my chances of rescuing her.

This shadowy, darkly toned inner sanctum, with its dojo-style decor, had a more desperate feel to it, but its succession of windows at least allowed for slivers of skyline and the mountain backdrop to peek through and supply some sense of life. Otherwise, it was mostly more of the same: Engaging one opponent after another as they charged out, now, from a barred entrance at the hall's end. But the qualifier "mostly" rings heavy because it implies the introduction of another element, which, as it turns out, is one of the biggest nightmares in the history of games: That gray hawk previously seen perched on Robotron's shoulder. Suddenly, this horror of a winged beast began flying in at regular intervals (mainly after any karate guy was defeated) and directly assaulting the hero, the only warning that same four-note ditty usually reserved for normal foes.

The required means for countering the bird's airborne assault were absolutely ridiculous; it could only be repelled with a perfectly timed strike executed at the proper angle, since the bird would alternate its flight-level between appearances. Even if my reaction time was sharp, the hero's movements were so slow that it was impossible to strike as planned, and missing the mark resulted in a mandatory two pecks worth of damage. These attacks weren't so crippling early on, but they became increasingly irritating when diminishing returns on health started becoming the norm. At this point in the game--still apparently short of the halfway point--I couldn't afford to drop even one unit of health. 

I soon learned to dread the feathered menace, for which I had no answer. The only time I'd successfully land a blow was when I got really lucky; otherwise, I'd resign myself to the fact that I was likely about to drop two energy units. After failing so many times, I believe I simply gave up trying. The only thing I remember for sure is that I suffered more deaths at the beak of this cursed fowl than anything else short of the game's greatest nemesis.

Birds. Why does it always have to be birds?

Yet there was actually something worse. The bird, while certainly obnoxious, was still far from my most feared enemy. No--the greatest threat to my continued existence didn't have wings, nor did it sport a funny hat. It was something else. Something instantly deadly. Something much more sinister in design. Something that put a decisive end to my life more times than I could possibly count. Most people call it "a gate." I call it "The Human Pincer."

I'm talking specifically about the barred gate that lay at the hall's far-right entrance--the biggest hindrance to my progress and the reason I almost never saw the next part of the game. To safely pass through this gate required specific knowledge of how to bait it into closing before running beneath the bars as they slowly raised back up. Of course, I couldn't have known any of this the first time I played Karateka, so I carelessly strolled through the gate, all satisfied with myself, only to be crushed to death by its spiky protuberances, impaled at multiple points and left in a bloody heap. I found it particularly disturbing how blood would continue to flow out from the wounds in following, a growing puddle of the red stuff continuing to form around the fallen hero until mercy arrived in the form of a grimly composed "The End" screen. You'd think the embarrassment of being taken out by a gate would be scarring enough, punishable at most by an unceremonious, hasty retreat back to the title screen, but Karateka literally wanted to rub it in.

I assumed that the correct procedure for gate clearance was to stand at a distance and run forward, the momentum of which could carry me safely through. But even when I could successfully pull it off, the gate would still slam down too quickly. No matter how I approached it, it was a near-certainty that I'd meet my end right at this same exact point, killed in the same bloody fashion. "There has to be something seriously wrong with this game," I thought. I couldn't tell if there was a special control combo I was missing or if the game was bugged. But I kept trying anyway, often stringing together every possible permutation of keyboard-joystick input in the hope that one of them was the key to entry. At the least, I figured the gate might be so impressed with my improvised dance moves that it'd simply let me through.

On a fluke, I actually managed to make it through one or two times by running (probably thanks to a glitch), but doing so merely prolonged the inevitable. All I remember past that point was a trip downstairs to a bleak, barren basement area devoid of any background, as if the fortress' progression was simulating the stages of death. The only sign of life was a single, normally proportioned foe wearing a silvery horned helmet; I defeated him only one time, but by then I was too low on energy to realistically stand a chance against the succession of enemies that occupied the individual rooms ahead. Somehow, I made it as far as the second-to-last room, where the hawk made its surprise return, now apparently ready to engage the hero in a fight to the finish; the game was nice enough to award me an energy boost beforehand, but the indomitable bird still tore me to pieces without much resistance. It was a hopeless cause.

Sadly, I was never able to confront the bell-bottomed metalhead who kidnapped my girl. More than anything else, I wanted to reach the end just to see how he would fight in that tin dress! Alas, the only trace I'd see of mandroid--the only solid image I'd be able to recall--was a shot of him firmly planted in his dark chamber, one arm hooked against his side and the other pointing at a door.

It wasn't until years later that I learned a great many things about Karateka, including the true nature of the story: Our unnamed hero was on a mission to rescue his beautiful girlfriend, Princess Mariko, from the clutches of the "sinister Akuma" (robed, masked martial artist and not a robot) and his evil forces. What I found most amusing was that Mariko basically kills you if you approach her while still in a fighting stance, the sight of which causes her "perceive you as an enemy." This would have been a likely outcome for an 8-year-old me, but I'm not sure if I would have found it hilarious or infuriating; considering what this game had put me through, I lean toward the latter.

And still the most surprising find is that I was incorrectly pronouncing the game's name all along. It's "cara-tekk-a," not "carata-kuh." That one little bit of information changed my entire world.

No matter how you pronounce it, Karateka's greatest worth to me is as a series of memories. I wouldn't consider going back and trying to finish it legitimately, since even the thought of such is mentally fatiguing; the game moves too slowly and can feel so unresponsive (if you try to crowd an enemy as a setup for a combo, for instance, you'll sometimes be bumped back, the input rendered null, because you've crossed over an unmarked, largely imperceptible plane) that I question if the game's ultimate reward is worth that degree of frustration. I haven't played Karateka seriously since those early days, and I don't feel compelled to return to it now.

Rather, Karateka comfortably occupies a unique space in my pantheon, a charter member of a special class of games that I like thinking about and reflecting upon more than actually playing. I won't go near it, but I'll continue to have a strong appreciation for Karateka's pioneering of cinematic storytelling--how the adventure seemed to unfold in real time, every action having an immediately tangible reaction; how the synergized action and music so amazingly shaped the game's tone and atmosphere; and how these sequences were able to evoke from me palpable feelings of struggle and triumph. Whether I liked or not wasn't wasn't ever a debate; Karateka was worth the experience no matter how I felt about its gameplay. 

My strong affinity for Karateka's non-gameplay elements is the reason why I've chosen to no longer subject myself to the game's rigorous gauntlet; I prefer to remember it more as a purveyor of cherished memories than as an object of vexation.

In the physical sense, I have no more blood to give for Karateka. No--I've been squeezed drier than a belated Dumb and Dumber follow-up. Instead, I'm happy to enjoy Karateka in the abstract, in a world constructed by a collage of still-vibrant mental imagery.

After all--some things are best viewed from a safe distance. And all it took for me to realize that was the gates of reality crashing down on my head.

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