The Making of Karateka and The Making of Prince of Persia
I recently finished reading Jordan Mechner’s two books – journals on the development process behind Karateka and Prince of Persia. These books are very useful to design scholars, game historians, and game designers, so I am very grateful that Mechner decided to publish.
As a game design scholar, seeing the development process behind two legendary titles in such minute detail is incredibly important, not only for better understanding the development process, but also the mind of a designer, the development of his creative process, and his evolution as a creator. It is interesting to see Mechner change from an arcade game designer influenced more by games such as Asteroids and Spacewar and thinking more along derivative lines to creating something brand new. We can also see how strongly the influence of film and Mechner’s ambitions to be a screenwriter influenced the creation of Karateka and Prince and ultimately lead to The Last Express. We can also see how Mechner created these games on nearly a daily basis, pinpointing key moments in time such as the first film recording of Robert Mechner for Karateka or Jordan’s arrival in San Francisco. Looking at the historical context of Broderbund and the PC software industry gives greater understanding to the world in which Karateka and Prince emerged from (including petty arguments inside Broderbund that had profound effects on the development process and marketing) as well as what games and ideas Mechner was thinking about at the time.
As a historian, I was also deeply interested in some of Mechner’s statements regarding the “death” of the computer games industry and how beginning in 1983 royalty payments were nowhere near what they used to be. This is another bit of insight into the Crash period since although personal computers seem to have been selling very well, the games software industry was not proving to be very profitable (probably partly due to piracy). Furthermore, Mechner’s journal entries regarding his royalties and sales from Karateka and Prince can actually be cross-referenced today from the Strong Museum of Play’s Doug Carlston collections, which show the actual sales figures from Broderbund and associated royalty payments. This is just another instance where a historical artifact’s value is greatly enhanced when placed in context with related artifacts. (Incidentally, Mechner’s continued mention of Billboard also lead me to a veritable treasure trove of articles from the magazine’s 1982-1984 issues.)
As a designer, Mechner’s journals underscore the importance of documenting the creative process and recording one’s thoughts and feelings during development. On the one hand, the young Mechner seems a little arrogant in his insistence that Karateka will be the greatest game ever made – how many other young artists have thought the same of their own work? – but he is also more than justified, considering the technical and artistic innovations he was implementing. Admittedly, I may be a little jealous and jaded at this point in my life, but the key point I want to emphasize here is that it is incredibly useful to students of design to have journals like this and that more designers should keep journals and actively record and reflect on the design practice.
I have to admit I have never played Karateka and Prince of Persia the entire way through (typically, such a statement is tantamount to suicide within game studies, but here I feel it is illustrative to how the journals have impacted me). When I first saw Karateka on the Apple II (can’t recall if it was pirated or not), I remember the game as brutally difficult so it wasn’t terribly appealing to my eleven-year-old self. However, I recalled the graphics fondly (and the amazing sound from the NES version), particularly the experimental use of cuts and the game’s overall cinematic quality, which were revolutionary and still stand as unique in my view. Needless to say, I included Karateka in my Art History of Videogames course. Incidentally, I am also curious why the panther doesn’t seem to have been implemented in the Karateka remake.
I had similar feelings from Prince of Persia. Once again, brutally difficult, but I was also playing the SNES version (I think) and was used to smoother action games like Mario and Castlevania. Oddly enough, I do remember playing demos of Flashback and Another World on the Mac and finding the science fiction settings far more appealing than medieval Persia – kind of ironic since Flashback is considered a ‘ripoff’ of Prince… (Incidentally, Another World was pretty disturbing since you could die in so many gruesome ways.) Watching playback videos sort of reinforced this idea since there is a lot of repetition in the set design and puzzle structure. However, hearing Mechner discuss the potions and Shadow Prince made me realize the game is far more dynamic and makes me interested in giving it a more detailed play, particularly looking at it from its context as swan song for the Apple II and poster child for the Macintosh.
I am also more than a little interested in whether the journals to The Last Express will be published. Surely there is mention of Myst somewhere, since Mechner keeps stating how he wants to revolutionize the adventure game…
If there is one thing missing from these books, I think it is more detailed reflections from Mechner on the usefulness of these journals. What did Mechner learn by reviewing the journals, and what sort of appreciation does he have for the work he did as a young adult versus a mature designer? And what did Mechner glean while creating the Karateka remake? (The journal and the game were both published in November 2012.) For instance, how was the panther that was cut from the original considered with regards to the remake?
These sorts of insights would help underscore the usefulness of journals to their authors rather than simply to other students of design, scholars, and historians and perhaps encourage other designers to be more reflective in their practice.