The final Game Boy release for 1989 was also, fittingly, one of the final games released in the 1980s. In many ways, it makes for a neat summary of how games had changed over the course of the decade.
Master Karateka offered gamers a conversion of a classic, American-developed 1984 PC action game to Nintendo’s Japanese handheld system. Jordan Mechner’s Karateka had been one of the first wave of great post-games-crash PC creations, a game that might well have debuted on a console had that market not imploded; it was much faster-paced and far simpler in structure than your typical PC game of the era, but there was no Atari 2600 or ColecoVision left to host it. And so Mechner designed it for Apple II. By 1989, more than five years later, Nintendo had revitalized the console market in the U.S., dominating it utterly, and had recently sought to expand its empire by launching a portable companion to its NES – where, eventually, Karateka ended up under the name “Master Karateka.”
Of course, this wasn’t the first console port of Karateka. And, strangely enough, it didn’t come to the U.S., remaining strictly a Japanese release. So there’s no great cosmic portent at work here; it’s simply a touch of synchronicity.
Master Karateka also speaks to the state of games in 1989 in a different way: Here was a portable conversion of a 1989 PC game, and the results were barely adequate. Meanwhile, Mechner’s long-awaited follow-up, Prince of Persia, had just debuted on Apple II, and it utterly shamed Karateka. While the humble Game Boy strained to reproduce a PC game from five years prior, the PC market itself was humming along at the cutting edge of design tech.
In all fairness, some of Master Karateka’s inadequacy can be pinned on the source material. Sure, Karateka had featured some breathtaking character animation when it debuted in 1984, it ultimately featured incredibly shallow play mechanics — a sort of prototype belt scroller, but far less entertaining than the likes of Double Dragon or Final Fight. Players controlled a lone karate master in his quest to invade a castle belonging to an evil warlord named Akuma, who sent his henchmen one by one to face off against the karateka in mortal combat. At stake, of course, is the love or freedom or virtue or whatever of an abducted princess (who, disappointingly, loses her ability to kill the player’s character in a single hit in this version — truly a helpless damsel).
There’s little in the way of depth to Master Karateka’s gameplay; your champion walks left to rights, changes into and out his combat posture when enemies appear, and can perform high, low, and medium punches and kicks. That’s the extent of it, and aside from a handful of traps (like the guaranteed cheap instant kill of the castle’s portcullis) there’s nothing more to the game than beating up a succession of dudes. The platforming mechanics and trap-evasion that would take root in Prince of Persia are practically nowhere to be found in its predecessor.
Developer TOSE, they of the infamous ghost-written versions of games, did at least try to add a touch of depth to Master Karateka. At the beginning of the game, players are allowed to assign skill points to the protagonist, customizing his strength, speed, and health. This results in a tricky trade-off — your needs as a combatant change over the course of the game, and while it might be tempting to bulk up on power to take out tough enemies more quickly, without sufficient speed you’ll never get a hit in against some of the more difficult foes, and too low a health rating means a top-tier enemy can easily take you out in a single hit. Unfortunately, due to the overall limitations of the game design, the point allocation system doesn’t feel like it lends any real depth to the action — it’s more akin to being hamstrung by default.
Honestly, it’s easy to see why Master Karateka remained stranded in Japan. The game feels horribly dated and clunky, and while its slick animation still looked great on Game Boy, the limited mechanics, shallow content, and overly difficult design don’t make for a terribly fun experience. About all it has going for it on this new platform is that a full playthrough lasts maybe 15 minutes, making for a perfect Game Boy fit… assuming you can make it that far, of course. While it’s interesting to see yet another PC conversion to Game Boy, and one so different from the rest, Master Karateka doesn’t have much going for it. It’s a bit of a letdown at the end of an otherwise strong first year for the system’s life.
And with Master Karateka, Game Boy’s first year of life comes to a conclusion. Please enjoy this recap of Game Boy’s life and times throughout 1989:
Master Karateka packaging
Master Karateka packaging contents
Master Karateka box front
Master Karateka box back
Master Karateka cartridge
Master Karateka manual