Hello gentle readers, and welcome to the SwitchArcade Round-Up for September 5th, 2023. In today’s article, I wax a bit poetic about Digital Eclipse’s The Making of Karateka. Well, to be accurate, I kind of ramble on a lot. That’s how it goes sometimes. After that, we have a few new releases to check out. A couple of interesting titles today. Finally, we have some lists of new and expiring sales to look at. I’m running a bit late, so let’s get to it!
Reviews & Mini-Views
The Making of Karateka ($19.99)
Regular readers will know that I loved Atari 50 to pieces. I called it “an essential work for all fans of gaming history”, in fact. And ten months later, I still stand by that. There are a lot of different ways to handle retro re-releases in the here and now, and I’m not really here to say that any one approach is the right one. What I will say is that as time marches on, it’s getting more difficult for the gameplay of these classics on its own to capture the imaginations of players who are new to them. As the first generation of people who grew up with video games hits retirement age, the games they grew up with will have to connect with a new audience should re-releases want to continue being viable. Unceremoniously dumping games of a certain age in front of a modern audience isn’t a fully meaningless enterprise, but it’s not really doing any favors to them. We need to find new ways of doing this kind of thing, and Digital Eclipse is a good sprint down the right track here in my opinion.
Let me tell you my story about Karateka. My first game machine at home was a Commodore 64. In Canada in the 1980s, the Commodore 64 experience involved a lot of swapping around disks of dubious origins, packed to the gills with mysterious titles. Still, most owners had at least a few legitimate games, and I think all of them had that shiny gold-labeled Karateka somewhere near the back of the disk box. I did. My friends did. I have some theories that my dog did, but I never caught him in the act. Karateka was just there. And it was the same for any friends who were fortunate enough to own an Apple II. Karateka was there, as if it climbed up a sheer cliff to deposit itself in the collection of every computer owner.
I did not care for Karateka. Part of it was that omnipresence, which made it seem less special. Young Shaun also undersold Super Mario Bros. for similar reasons. Regular reminder that Young Shaun was a bozo. Part of it was that I was a kid, and its cinematic flair was completely wasted on my sugar-addled brain. At least some of it is down to the fact that it was a couple of years old, and in that era a game that was a couple of years old was just lame, man. After some years had passed, my rich classmate Randy C. brought some kind of laptop computer into school. This was a time when that was a rare sight. His parents were loaded, and he sure knew it. Smug dude, always took shortcuts and got away with it. He’s probably making six figures now. Anyway, Randy fired up that fancy-kid laptop in front of the Nerd Bunch (of which I was a low-ranked member) and what did he play? Karateka. Man.
I am telling you this story to establish something about myself, the person writing this review. I had no reverence for Karateka going into this. My feelings, if anything, were slightly negative. Logically, factually, I know Karateka is important. A Big Deal. It walked, Prince of Persia ran, and then there was some business with Lara Croft and Bono that doesn’t really have much to do with any of this except that in some way Karateka paved the way to defining a big part of the action-adventure genre. But I did not care for it. I do not get the chills when I hear that opening tune. I find the twist ending amusing, but I can take or leave the game itself. Alright, that’s probably enough of that. Shaun isn’t a big Karateka fan.
The Making of Karateka was one of the most engrossing things I’ve played in this entire bonkers year of fantastic, top-shelf games. I slowly absorbed every step of the history that Digital Eclipse laid out here. Production art. Notes. Animatics. Gosh-darned music theory analysis. Letters to and from the publisher, Broderbund. A ton of cute videos of interactions between creator Jordan Mechner and his equally talented father Francis. Prototypes! A letter asking for changes, and then a playable prototype reflecting those changes! Commentary that plays over playthroughs of a couple of the included games. Above all else, a story of a very determined young man who had to taste failure before he could find success, and the people who guided him along that path. I didn’t play anything else from the moment I started to the moment I finished.
The other funny thing that happened along the way is that I got a lot more respect for Karateka. Like I said, I’ve always known it is important. But having every piece of it laid out here, every intention made clear, and seeing the way it all comes together makes me appreciate the game on a level I never did before. I now know why the music is the way it is. I know some of the ideas that didn’t make it in and why. I understand why the scrolling is so smooth when that was a surprisingly tricky thing to pull off on some systems. I even know why we can’t see the color of the karateka’s eyes. I wasn’t there when this game was being made, but I now somehow feel like I at least understand the process in a shockingly intimate way.
A lot of this, it has to be said, is down to how meticulous Jordan Mechner appears to have been in documenting everything down to the last detail. Not every game has this much material available, and time is making that situation even worse. The people who were there are getting older. Paper is degrading. Disks are rotting. Time is ticking. If the industry doesn’t start taking all of this seriously, we’re going to lose a lot that we won’t ever be able to get back. And Digital Eclipse has certainly taken this seriously. The way the material is presented here is outstanding, and it never feels dry or boring.
It takes a long while before you’re playing anything that could be called a finished game, but it doesn’t feel like a slog at all. Rather, by the time you get to that complete Karateka, it feels like the logical destination for the journey you’ve been taken on. Then you learn about the ports, and you get to play a couple of them. That includes the version for my beloved Commodore 64, and it’s actually less impressive than I remembered compared to its peers. But you know what is cool? The game explains why, in the programmer’s own words. And if it bothers you too much, you can head to the options and speed the framerate up, which makes it feel a lot better.
This is not an exhaustive collection of Karateka ports by any means. Beyond the prototypes, you get the Apple II original, the Commodore 64 port, and the Atari 8-bit port. You also get a remastered version of the game whipped up by Digital Eclipse’s Mike Mika just for this set. To go along with that, you also get a completed version of Mechner’s abandoned Deathbounce. That game is a big part of Karateka‘s story, and one can’t help but feel a little triumphant playing a “finished” Deathbounce after reading so much about its trials and tribulations. There are a handful of protoypes for Deathbounce that you can play, and you even get Mechner’s first attempt at a commercial game, which is pretty much just Asteroids.
That adds up to a lot to play, even if that isn’t necessarily the point of The Making of Karateka. You’ll be playing a whole lot of Karateka, maybe enough to get tired of that opening jingle by the end, but each time you play it you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to appreciate the differences from the one you played before. Seeing Deathbounce shape up but ultimately fizzle out is as fascinating as it is heartbreaking, and that finished version is a really solid arcade-style score-chaser. The Asteroids game… well, who doesn’t like playing Asteroids? But these games are like the video interviews, the audio recordings, the packaging scans, the journal entries, the Super 8 footage that was used for the rotoscoping. They are part of a story that The Making of Karateka is telling.
Now, don’t get me wrong, if you just want to play Karateka and the other games on here, you can. You can even skip right to them if that’s what you would prefer. All of the versions are well-emulated, and the new remasters (or whatever you want to call them) are cool games on their own. The price is more than fair for the games alone, I think. But I passionately encourage you to do what the game wants you to do and head into that story from the start to the finish.
The Making of Karateka is a deep dive on a single game done in a way I’ve never seen the likes of before, presented like only our medium can offer. It takes you on a captivating journey not just of a legendary game but of a legendary game creator as he finds his strengths and blossoms. I want a shelf full of these Gold Masters from Digital Eclipse. Here’s hoping I’ll get that and more. What did I say about Atari 50 again? “An essential work for all fans of gaming history”? Yes, that sounds perfect here too.
SwitchArcade Score: 5/5
Rune Factory 3 Special ($39.99)
With Rune Factory 4 Special and Rune Factory 5 available on the Switch, you would think the thirst for fantasy farming action-RPGs would be well and truly quenched. Ha, just kidding. The thirst for fantasy farming action-RPGs can never be quenched, so here’s the third game in the series making a comeback. This was originally a Nintendo DS game, but it’s hard to tell that from these screenshots because, buddy, it’s looking good. If you played the original, you can look forward to new additions like Newlywed Mode and Hell difficulty. I’ll have a review of this one soon.
Chants of Sennaar ($19.99)
This is a narrative adventure based on the myth of the Tower of Babel. It has a very striking art style that you can enjoy as you explore its world. The setting is a tower where the people have forgotten how to talk to each other and indeed much of their past. You’re a traveler who comes to the tower and has what it necessary to restore the balance of things. Gameplay consists of exploration, some puzzle-solving, a bit of stealth when you need to slip into forbidden areas, and some deciphering of languages. It certainly looks promising, but I haven’t been able to play it yet to say how well it all comes out.
Kovox Pitch ($6.99)
A story-based rhythm game that, if I’m understanding correctly, has you trying to hit balls and other objects with your bat according to the beat. Reviews over on Steam seem to be quite positive, with most praising the soundtrack and gameplay while criticizing the story a bit. So I guess if you want to hit some balls and listen to some good tunes, this might be your ticket today.
True Virus ($8.99)
A fairly bland-looking horror-themed point and click-style adventure game from Ultimate Games. Wow, that’s a lot of adjectives. The art style is a little distinct, but otherwise I can’t see a lot to recommend this on. But I’m not the ambassador to your wallet, so I won’t tell you what to do.
(North American eShop, US Prices)
With as much on sale as there is at the moment, it stands to reason that today’s list has some odd ones in it. Chroma Squad, Piczle Cross Adventure, and ScourgeBringer are the games I will call out today, but give that whole list a bit of your time if you can. There isn’t a whole lot in the outbox, but the latest Thunderful sale is coming to a close so you might want to check and make sure you’ve got all you want there.
Select New Games on Sale
Nobody Saves the World ($12.49 from $24.99 until 9/11)
Pinball FX3 Walking Dead DLC ($1.01 from $2.99 until 9/11)
Sqroma ($4.99 from $8.99 until 9/12)
Alumni: Escape Room Adventure ($3.29 from $5.99 until 9/18)
Elypse ($15.99 from $19.99 until 9/19)
Gravity Circuit ($17.59 from $21.99 until 9/19)
Ghost of a Tale ($9.99 from $24.99 until 9/19)
Linelight ($3.99 from $9.99 until 9/19)
Children of Zodiarcs ($4.49 from $17.99 until 9/19)
Before I Forget ($4.79 from $7.99 until 9/19)
They Always Run ($12.99 from $19.99 until 9/19)
Double Kick Heroes ($9.89 from $21.99 until 9/19)
Out of Space: Couch Edition ($3.49 from $9.99 until 9/19)
Piczle Cross Adventure ($2.49 from $9.99 until 9/19)
PictoQuest ($2.49 from $9.99 until 9/19)
ScourgeBringer ($6.79 from $16.99 until 9/19)
Galaxy of Pen & Paper +1 ($4.37 from $12.49 until 9/19)
Chroma Squad ($3.74 from $14.99 until 9/19)
Astria Ascending ($19.99 from $39.99 until 9/19)
Dungeon of Naheulbeuk: Amulet of Chaos ($19.99 from $39.99 until 9/19)
Guild of Ascension ($8.49 from $16.99 until 9/19)
Cassiodora ($11.89 from $16.99 until 9/19)
Run: The World In-Between ($6.49 from $9.99 until 9/19)
Souldiers ($12.99 from $19.99 until 9/19)
Iris and the Giant ($5.99 from $14.99 until 9/19)
Healer’s Quest ($6.74 from $14.99 until 9/19)
Astrologaster ($4.49 from $9.99 until 9/19)
Ashwalkers ($9.99 from $19.99 until 9/19)
Foretales ($14.99 from $19.99 until 9/19)
Instant Sports Winter Games ($13.74 from $24.99 until 9/19)
Instant Sports Plus ($17.49 from $24.99 until 9/19)
Instant Sports Summer Games ($6.99 from $19.99 until 9/19)
Instant Sports ($5.24 from $14.99 until 9/19)
Vernal Edge ($16.49 from $21.99 until 9/19)
Letters: A Written Adventure ($9.74 from $14.99 until 9/19)
Ruggnar ($9.09 from $13.99 until 9/19)
Homebody ($9.99 from $19.99 until 9/19)
Void Scrappers ($2.59 from $3.99 until 9/25)
Koa and the Five Pirates of Mara ($15.99 from $19.99 until 9/25)
Sales Ending Tomorrow, Wednesday, September 6th
Cleo – A Pirate’s Tale ($6.74 from $14.99 until 9/6)
Curious Expedition ($3.74 from $14.99 until 9/6)
Cursed to Golf ($11.99 from $19.99 until 9/6)
Firegirl: Hack ‘n Splash Rescue DX ($4.49 from $17.99 until 9/6)
Hatsune Miku: Logic Paint S ($10.50 from $14.00 until 9/6)
Hatsune Miku: The Planet of Wonder ($21.00 from $28.00 until 9/6)
Holy Potatoes! What the Hell?! ($1.99 from $15.00 until 9/6)
LEGO Bricktales ($17.99 from $29.99 until 9/6)
Lonely Mountains: Downhill ($7.99 from $19.99 until 9/6)
Move or Die: Unleashed ($5.99 from $14.99 until 9/6)
Retro Rollers Bundle ($5.99 from $9.99 until 9/6)
Say No! More ($3.74 from $14.99 until 9/6)
Swordship ($11.99 from $19.99 until 9/6)
Wavetale ($17.99 from $29.99 until 9/6)
That’s all for today, friends. We’ll be back tomorrow with more new releases, more sales, perhaps a review, and maybe even some news. I’m really late with all of this today because I had my monthly lunch with my friends. I had some cheese curry, and it was quite nice. I hope you all have a terrific Tuesday, and as always, thanks for reading!