It's best to approach Karateka much as you would a haiku. Its short narrative follows the lives of three heroes that parallel the three lines of a haiku's English transliteration. In an earlier, simpler time, its short bursts of gameplay were exciting--innovative, even--but its charm doesn't hold up so well in an era that prefers long-winded heroic epics. There's much to appreciate in its unique mix of lush animations and nostalgic gameplay, but they're fleeting pleasures, much like a lotus that wilts not long after it blooms.
Karateka first saw life in the late months of 1984, when the craze over The Karate Kid was still sweeping the country after the film's release that summer. It was innovative at the time, designed by Jordan Mechner of Prince of Persia fame, complete with engaging cinematics and fluid combat movements that once seemed impossible considering the limitations of the Apple II. As was par for the course in those days, the story involved little more than saving the princess Mariko (a blonde, much like the hero himself) from the clutches of the evil warlord Akuma, but the whole experience benefited from touches of humor, such as the way Mariko could kill the hero in one hit if he had the gall to approach her in fighting stance. Elsewhere, if you inserted the floppy disk upside down, the action on the screen would unfold upside down.
In the modern incarnation, that humor is gone. Drawing on Karateka's inherent simplicity, Mechner instead attempts to transform the whole into an emotional mix of artistry and fun. Gone are the Caucasian protagonists, for instance; in their place, a cast of Japanese warriors and monks spar among pretty cel-shaded temples and pathways. It works, for the most part, and the occasional flashes of stunning scenery make it easy to appreciate. Even though you watch the heroes you control run up arcing passageways, Karateka is as bound to rails as Japan's Shinkansen lines, and you'll find that you can't even retreat to pick up the health-granting flowers your heroes may have passed along the way.
Still, the three heroes provide this incarnation's most intriguing feature, with each hero granting access to a different ending. The first hero is Mariko's true love, a dashing fellow with a ponytail who can take only about half as many hits as the others. Reaching Mariko with him affords the best ending, while his comparative lack of hit points afford the most challenge. Should he die, though, the monk steps up in his place. Karateka, already easy, suddenly becomes easier, because the monk can take many more hits than Mariko's dashing but flimsy boyfriend.