The Making of Karateka Sets a New Standard for Game Preservation

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The Making of Karateka Sets a New Standard for Game Preservation

Game design is a mystery to most people who’ve never made a game. Hell, it still is for a lot of people who have made games, too. Even the most obsessive videogame fanatics have incorrect beliefs and distorted assumptions about how games are made; just check social media or online gaming forums for proof. That’s one reason something like The Making of Karateka—an interactive documentary that painstakingly tracks the design of the classic 1984 computer game Karateka—is so important. It shows, in exacting detail, how Jordan Mechner created the kung fu fighter, exploring Mechner’s work on both Karateka and his unpublished earlier games through contemporary video interviews, original design notes, correspondence, and multiple iterative prototypes. It reveals the give-and-take between Mechner and his publisher while showing how the then-college aged Mechner’s vision and mindset changed throughout development. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and a must-play for Karateka fans and anybody interested in game design. It’s also a format that should become standard across the industry.

Like last year’s Atari 50, The Making of Karateka was created by Digital Eclipse, a studio that has focused on preserving classic games for most of its history. After a run of excellent bundles republishing Mega Man, Street Fighter, and Disney games (among others), Digital Eclipse introduced its interactive documentary format with Atari 50; on the back of that title’s acclaim, it subsequently announced the Gold Master Series, a series of documentaries that debuted in August with The Making of Karateka. They’re shining a light on games that otherwise might be overlooked today, making them accessible for longtime fans who want to revisit them while also introducing them to new audiences who may not have been alive when these games originally came out. Additional games haven’t been announced yet, but according to an Xbox Wire post by Digital Eclipse’s editorial director Chris Kohler, the studio’s goal is to focus on “games that changed the world.” 

There are many games that are historically important, especially in the early days of the medium, that aren’t owned by one of today’s major gaming companies. Karateka is an example; originally released for the Apple II in 1984, Mechner’s game was a bestseller that broke ground for cinematic technique in games, with a clear storyline, cut-scenes, an original score (written by Mechner’s father, Francis Mechner), and editing and cinematography inspired by films. It’s also an early influence on the fighting game; it consists of a series of one-on-one karate fights, similar to Karate Fight and Yie Ar Kung-Fu, which were also both released in 1984. Karateka is like a playable ‘70s kung fu flick, complete with a shocking twist ending if the player isn’t careful.

Of course, some of the most important games ever—and perhaps most of the “games that changed the world”—are owned by companies that closely protect their copyrights. As great as it would be to see a Gold Master Series documentary about the original Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros., it seems unlikely that that would happen. And that’s a shame, because there’s no reason to think Nintendo, or any other major game company, would ever do as thorough of a job at a historical overview as Digital Eclipse. 

It’s no secret that the videogame industry is terrible at preserving its history. A recent study by the Video Game History Foundation and Software Preservation Network found that almost nine in 10 videogames aren’t legally accessible on modern hardware. Even when older games are reissued, they’re never as informative as The Making of Karateka; you can’t expect most studios or publishers to have kept records as meticulously as Mechner has. Meanwhile digital storefronts are routinely shut down when the hardware they were built for is discontinued, removing hundreds, if not thousands, of games in one fell swoop. If the companies that own gaming’s history don’t think it has any value, why would they work with an outside studio like Digital Eclipse to bring that history back to life? And, at the other end of the spectrum, if companies like Nintendo can continuously profit off rereleasing their oldest and most beloved games in barebones packages with no historical notes or development info, why would they bother to spend extra on something as well-produced and comprehensive as the Gold Master Series?

It’s in the games industry’s best interest for companies to focus more on preservation. Not only is the history of the medium important, but there are a number of game franchises that seemed forgotten or defunct before becoming top sellers again after a remake or reboot, so it’s in the publishers’ financial interest to keep their past available. And if they need a partner to make the best possible rerelease, they should reach out to Digital Eclipse. Hopefully releases like The Making of Karateka and Atari 50 will convince these companies of the value of preservation.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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