Karateka may operate under the dustiest premise known to video games — “dude saves princess” — but, even in 2012, there’s something refreshing about its immediacy. In direct defiance to its cinematic aspirations, Jordan Mechner’s remake of his career-creating Apple II hit doesn’t concern itself with dialogue or lengthy cutscenes, nor does it require its hero to embark on an epic quest to reach the Big Bad’s HQ. Instead, after a single paragraph of context-establishing text, the protagonist’s destination sits just a few miles away, as well as the final foe that dwells within. Though Karateka comes nearly 30 years after the original, it still takes just half an hour to cruise through the game — now a much easier task thanks to significant advances in user-friendliness over the years. And rather than presenting this remake as a one-and-done semi-lengthy adventure, Mechner’s 2012 Karateka takes the form of a brief experience meant to be played multiple times until the player achieves perfection; a novel idea, but one hampered by a few decisions that make replays less enjoyable than intended.

As with the original, Karateka’s 2012 remake concerns itself with nothing but fighting; regardless of which direction the control stick moves, your character will only press forward. The game boils down to a few dozen one-on-one encounters that rely on a fighting system not unlike Punch-Out!! with a little bit of Rhythm Heaven thrown in for good measure. You can’t attack opponents directly; rather, to gain an opening, you first have to block their incoming blows. And to figure out a successful defensive strategy, you’ll have to listen closely to the musical sting (with era-appropriate instruments) that plays right before an enemy attack; a string of three notes means you’ll have to block three times, while a musical flourish indicates a mega-combo headed in your direction. It’s not as simple as just mashing the button the appropriate amount of times, though, since making it through a fight also requires careful judgment your opponents’ tempo. With its focus on defense and reliance on visual and audio cues, Karateka’s fighting system offers a unique take on what could otherwise be a straightforward and uninspired brawler.

Enemies in Karateka start off rather simple — as you would expect — but soon amp up the speed and frequency of their attacks, which at times require the player to strike first and immediately block an incoming offensive flurry. To add a bit of variety to the player’s fighting options, the hero slowly builds up chi as he pulls off successful attacks, which can then be used to execute a stun move that allows for an effort-free combo on a dazed opponent. Karateka takes a score-based approach to analyzing your skills, with the ultimate goal of making it to the end without taking a single hit. And unlike its 1984 predecessor, Karateka gives the player three lives in the form of three different player characters: the True Love, the Monk, and the Brute, who each have a progressively easier time fighting incoming foes. Lose your last scrap of health with the True Love, and the Monk will immediately take his place — and if the Monk keels over, the Brute will appear to plow through any remaining enemies. While just about anyone can finish the game with the overpowered third character, Karateka’s true challenge lies in getting to the end with a single “life –” and, refreshingly, the princess’ compatibility with her rescuer determines the happiness of your ending. Needless to say, she’s not very excited about a future domestic existence with a hulking, brainless mass of muscle.

While the fighting system works well and feels responsive, Karateka barely develops the many possible options of a rhythm-based brawler; later enemy attacks may demand a bit more of your reflexes, but even the final boss doesn’t offer any surprises. Your character has the option to punch and kick, but no meaningful difference separates the two, making the controls feel like they’ve been tailored more towards iOS and other touch-friendly mobile devices than the XBox 360 controller. And for a game that places an emphasis on replays, those early, tutorial-heavy minutes do their best to make starting over more annoying than it should be, especially when the game repeatedly freezes the action to teach you the basic skills of fighting and blocking — strange that there’s no way to skip past these moments after your initial playthrough. Late-game pacing issues also take a little of the fun out of playing through Karateka’s 30 minutes, especially during a fight with the antagonist’s feathered friend, who can only be defeated by slowly batting away his incoming divebomb attacks over the course of minutes.

It’s to the credit of Karateka’s excellent rhythm fighting system that the final product feels so lacking. While this remake remains extremely faithful to Mechner’s original work, the half-hour of gameplay present could easily act as the opening stage for a slightly larger adventure, and one that fully develops its unique mechanics. But even in the span of 30 minutes, Karateka could stand to be a little more inventive; by the halfway point, you really start to feel like you’ve seen it all. The expressive characters, context-sensitive music, and surprisingly tolerable Jeff Matsuda art help carry the underdeveloped gameplay, but they can only carry it so far. Karateka contains a collection of interesting and unique ideas straight from the forward-thinking mind of Jordan Mechner, but they’d be better served in a game that paid them proper attention.

By Bob Mackey