Hollywood writers work across film and TV all the time - and sometimes even games. But it’s rare for a game developer to just switch to penning blockbuster movies. Yet that’s exactly what Jordan Mechner, the creator of the legendary Prince Of Persia series, did.
And it’s even more surprising to find Mechner, used to leading huge teams on multi-million console games, going back to square one, putting aside a career in the movies and getting to work on an indie game for iPad, Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and PC.
Mechner, fresh off of writing the Prince Of Persia movie, has spent eighteen months working as creative director on Karateka, a remake of his 1984 game of the same name for the Apple II computer - the little beige box that made Steve Jobs a fortune.
The chopsocky sidescroller, set in feudal Japan, was one of the first ever video game beat’em ups, as well as one of the earliest blockbuster games on an Apple device full stop - it went on to sell 500,000 copies, beating the stars of the iPhone App Store by a full 25 years.
The concept hasn’t changed much: you play as one of three characters booting and punching their way through pagodas, castles and unfortunate samurai to rescue the princess. But in an unusual twist, this is more rhythm game than beat’em up: the focus is on tapping in time with the music, scored by Christopher Tin, who won a Grammy for his work on the game Civilization IV’s soundtrack.
“Modern fighting games have gotten a lot more complicated, with button combos and special moves to memorize, and I didn't want to go in that direction,” Mechner tells Red Bull UK.
“In the original Karateka, the combat was very simple. I wanted to keep the focus on the story and characters. You're not fighting to win battles, you're fighting to save the princess. The idea of alternating blocking and counterattacking seemed like something that could be simple and fun - easy to grasp but hard to master, like the original game."
Unlike his last major game project, the 2003 3D adventure reboot Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time, where he oversaw a team of hundreds, Karateka’s been pulled together by a tiny team of 12 at Liquid Entertainment in LA.
“With today's tools, it's possible for a small team to make a game with the kind of cinematic production values that until recently were only found in full-price retail console games. That excited me.”
“I thought doing Karateka as a small independent project for digital download was a really interesting opportunity, and a perfect fit given the compact scope of the original game,” he says. The new Karateka is ideal for mobile gaming as a result: it takes just 40 minutes to run through, but with three different characters and more than one ending, you could end up playing it over and over.
“I think there's a place for a game that is simple and fun, but still immersive and tells a human story,” he says.
Nevertheless, Mechner adds that the remake wasn’t quite the challenge it was a quarter of a century ago, when he programmed Karateka during college.
“When I started making the original Karateka in 1982, I didn't just have to make the game, I had to program the tools that would let me make the game, and do it all in machine language. Even on a small project like the new Karateka, the team is a lot bigger than in 1982, when it was just me and my Apple II.”
The original 1984 Karateka was one of the first true gaming sensations on an Apple computer
As if to show just how much has changed in those thirty years, Mechner actually managed to lose the original source code for the first Prince Of Persia game he made his name with: it’s hard to imagine, but a whole game was just gone. It took him ten years to track down a copy - Mechner hopes it doesn’t happen again.
“I never would have imagined when I was making the original Karateka, Prince of Persia, and The Last Express that those games would survive and still be remembered and played 20 or 30 years later, let alone on devices small enough to fit in my pocket.”
Still, you couldn’t blame Mechner for losing this Karateka too if he keeps working on all the projects he’s got lined up right now.
“I'm working on movie projects and also writing a graphic novel, Templar, which will be published next year in the US,” he says - the first book of the trilogy, Solomon's Thieves, is already out. “And my adventure game The Last Express has just been re-released for iOS. So in terms of gaming, this has really been a year of coming full circle for me.”
With so many different things on his plate right now, Mechner doesn’t know whether to call himself a game developer first and foremost, or an author - he’d rather not pick. “I'm really lucky to have the chance to be working in three mediums that I love, movies and graphic novels,” he says.
“To me, they're all valid ways of storytelling and creating an experience for an audience, and I wouldn't want to give up any of them. Switching between different media, and different team sizes and methods of production constantly recharges my creative batteries and helps keeps things fresh.”
Karateka is out now on Xbox Live and and out on iPad, PlayStation Network and Steam for PC later this month.