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A Captivating Interactive Documentary on Video Games

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The Making of Karateka is the debut title in Digital Eclipse’s Gold Master Series of interactive video game documentaries. It delves deep into the creation and development of the landmark game Karateka, released in 1984 for the Apple II computer. The game, designed by 20-year-old Jordan Mechner, was inspired by Kurosawa movies and Disney animation, and it was one of the most cinematic games of its time.

Karateka’s Distinctive Approach: Bucking Arcade Trends

The documentary reveals that Karateka was not Mechner’s first attempt at creating a game. He had previously tried to create an Asteroids clone called Deathbounce but faced rejection from publishers. This forced him to innovate and create something unique rather than follow the trends of the arcade industry. The documentary showcases every surviving document from Mechner’s early game attempts, including publisher feedback and excerpts from his college journal.

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The interactive aspect of the documentary allows players to explore a timeline, watch video interviews and featurettes, view historical documents, and even play prototype and full versions of the games mentioned. Mechner’s father, Francis, a research psychologist and concert pianist who composed the soundtrack for Karateka and Prince of Persia, plays a significant role in the documentary. It highlights the full family effort behind Karateka and the support Mechner received from his parents.

The documentary also provides historical context, showcasing the rapid advancements in early PC gaming during that time period. Mechner was apprehensive about releasing Karateka in time to have the impact he desired, as innovation moved swiftly in the industry. Thankfully, Karateka found the audience it deserved and paved the way for Mechner to create Prince of Persia, his magnum opus.

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The collection includes three versions of Karateka: the original Apple II release, along with the Commodore 64 and Atari 8-Bit ports. All versions are enjoyable to play today and come with commentary from Mechner and his father for the Apple release. The prototypes offer insights into how the game iterated and how publisher Brøderbund helped polish it into a classic.

The standout addition to the collection is “Karateka Remastered,” a reimagined version of the original game that incorporates ideas Mechner initially had to scrap due to time constraints and technical limitations. It showcases Mechner’s ahead-of-the-curve design and provides a more modern and challenging gameplay experience.

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What makes The Making of Karateka special is that it provides proper historical context for players. It highlights Mechner’s early career in detail and showcases the significant effort and work that went into creating the game. The documentary includes historical documents like fan mail from John Romero, the designer of Doom, adding to its immersive experience. The only downside is that the wrap-up section is relatively short, only briefly mentioning Prince of Persia and Mechner’s later career endeavors.

Overall, The Making of Karateka is a meaningful step forward for game preservation and history. It exemplifies what makes video games a fascinating medium and provides deep insights into the creation of a groundbreaking game. With its impressive attention to detail and the enduring appeal of Karateka, it is an excellent start to Digital Eclipse’s Gold Master Series.

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