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Creating Karateka: Jordan Mechner’s journals describe his 80s quest for better game animation

Creating Karateka: Jordan Mechner’s journals describe his 80s quest for better game animation

Jordan Mechner is the legendary game designer who created Karateka, Prince of Persia, and designed, wrote, and directed The Last Express. In the early 80s, he was attending Yale, skipping classes, and chasing his dream of becoming a professional game developer. He also kept a journal.

He agreed to let us publish excerpts from that journal, beginning with his efforts to create an Apple II game called Deathbounce, which he hoped to sell to Brøderbund. That fell through, but it led to something very special, and his first hit. Mechner warned me about the angst, so please be gentle. He was a teenager changing the world.

APRIL 28, 1982

I know what question is in your mind. Is it finished?

The answer (drumroll) is a resounding… YES.

Deathbounce is viable.

One BRUNnable file, 30 sectors (and the TOPTEN file, 2 sectors). Wa-Hoo!

I took it down to the computer store on Temple Street to see it in color. It was so beautiful, words cannot describe… To see my Deathbounce, fruit of my labor, on a stranger’s Apple, an Apple II Plus with a fan and two monitors, one B&W and one color — oh, such beautiful monitors — to see my name in color in a computer store… What a great feeling. And yes, the colors worked fine.
The people in the store were very enthusiastic. I was happy.

I’ve written a covering letter and I’ll send it off certified mail tomorrow. Oh Brøderbund, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I’ve been getting advice and warnings from all sides about copyrighting and so on. I put COPYRIGHT 1982 JORDAN MECHNER on the title screen, the HELLO program and the disk label. I think that’ll be enough. My instinct is to trust Brøderbund.

Everyone’s been playing the game. Rich, Ben, Eduardo. It’s addictive, I’m glad to report. Rich says it’s as good as Asteroids; praise which would be more pride-inducing if the two games weren’t so similar. (To write a completely original game as good as Asteroids; now, that would be an accomplishment.)

Anyway, it’s great! and I’m very, very happy with the program and how it turned out, and the little good details keep sending thrills up my spine. It’s clean. Smooth. Fast. Neat. I’m proud. I did a good job. I like it.

Meanwhile, I’m working on Space War and the number game (What should I call it? Something abstract, like Sargon or Akalabeth?) and maybe even Star Sentries (Star Fortress?)

I’ll go to Applefest. Adrian, Adam, Ken might want to go too. Buy an Epson MX-80, if I have the money. I can buy more stuff when I get the first advance from Brøderbund.

By summer’s end (come September) I should have at least three or four more programs done and contracts signed with Brøderbund. Then pack up and come back for CLASSES and SOCIAL LIFE and NO MORE APPLE.

This is, of course, pure fantasy. I’ve no idea what will actually happen.

Deathbounce - Apple II from jordan mechner on Vimeo.

MAY 17, 1982

Ordered an Epson MX-80 printer from Orange Micro. They say seven to ten days.

It’s been eleven days since Brøderbund’s first letter was allegedly mailed, four days since letter number two. What’s up?

For the last couple of hours I’ve been re-allocating my disk space, cramming as many games as possible onto each floppy disk and re-initializing others. It’s hot, messy, tedious work, even with FID. I wish I had two drives.

Now I’ve got a lot of blank disks — but some may be years old, and I’m not so sure about their reliability. I wish all my disks were brand new, clean, never-been-used (Dyson or Verbatim or Scotch – not Maxell). Neatly labeled, with no half-removed stickiness of previous labels underneath. My crazy perfectionistic mindset.

I’m mulling over a new game idea: REFUGEE. Open and close bridges to allow refugees to get from left to right side of screen (where they’ll hop a fence), while making the cars that are chasing them fall into the water.

And then there’s Star Guards, and Revenge. Those other clown games, and grid games, and Plague, don’t feel too promising right now.

JULY 25, 1982

Adrian came over with his computer and we disassembled both of them and switched keyboards and cables in an effort to determine which of my components is at fault. Since the problem is intermittent, we were unable to come to a definite conclusion, but I’ve taken Adrian’s cable and he’s taken mine; so if the problem rears its ugly head in either of our houses in the following days, the cable will be either convicted or exonerated.

I hope, hope, hope it’s the cable. The cable costs $8 to replace, the keyboard around $300.

A note from Ben: Brøderbund later responded to Mechner. They were interested in Deathbounce, but said the game needed more work. Mechner would deal with a man named Doug Carlston from Brøderbund when discussing the progress being made on Deathbounce.

AUGUST 20, 1982

Adam and Dennis dropped by in the afternoon, Adam’s mom picked us up and dropped Dennis and me off in town. I spent $4 playing Tempest.

The thrill is gone. I don’t know whether it’s just that there are no good new games, or whether I’m just no longer susceptible to the standard video-game schedule of reinforcement. The only games I’ve ever been really addicted to are Asteroids and Pac-Man. I’ve had short flings with Star Castle, Qix and Tempest, and played lots of others just for variety or out of curiosity or because the others weren’t available. Now, even those five games have lost their appeal. I still play them occasionally, but nothing has replaced them.

I achieved 96,000 in Asteroids, 54,000 in Pac-Man, and 15,000 in Star Castle. The only one I can really say I’ve “mastered” is Asteroids – I think I know everything about it and, theoretically, have all the skills necessary to play indefinitely; now it’s just a question of concentration and frame of mind. At Pac-Man I got very good at improvising, but to truly “master” Pac-Man you have to play patterns, and I refuse to. Star Castle, Tempest and Qix I’ve played relatively little.

What about Apple games? I’ve been addicted to plenty, but now I play them the same way I play coin-op games: my heart isn’t in it. Losing a life still elicits an “Oh, shit,” but it’s not the exuberant “SHIT!!!!” of the old days when games were fun. Breaking my high score is still pleasurable, but in a small way, not the old ecstatic “HOORAY!!” Playing just isn’t enough fun any more. It’s ho-hum. Oh-shit, RESET, who cares.

I often quit now mid-game. Is it the effect of an achievement-oriented attitude (it’s not worth it if I can’t break my high score)? Is it the effect of playing similar games with the same themes, over and over again? Or is it me? Have I become less susceptible, have I stopped finding points and ships rewarding?

There’s a lesson in here somewhere.

Anyway: I called Carlston [from Brøderbund]  and told him “I think you’re right, it’s worth the extra work on Deathbounce.” He said he was “delighted.”

OCTOBER 20, 1982

Increased class-cutting. Decreased homework. Going to sleep later and later. Mess piling up on my desk. Putting things off. D- on German midterm, 4/10 on CS assignment.

Feelings: Lethargy. Aversion to work. Feeling of missed opportunities, of chances passing me by. Nostalgia, melancholy. Yep, all the signs are there. SLOTH is back.

Meanwhile, I’ve been poring over Softalk and Writer’s Market, daydreaming about having a bestselling game or novel. Dreaming about success.

You pride yourself on doing very little work, don’t you? You pride yourself on getting a B+ in Philosophy 114 after attending only three classes. “I’m so brilliant,” you say, “I can achieve in minutes what it takes other people days to do.” Well, you’re a fool. Because (1) nobody will ever know how little you work (and even if they did they wouldn’t care), and (2) since you squander the time thus saved anyway, you’re not even ahead of the game!

Look, Jerk: Ordinary mediocre people achieve a lot by working hard and diligently. If you’re supposedly so brilliant and talented, think about what you could achieve! Just DO IT! WORK! NO MORE OF THIS “MINIMIZE-EFFORT” GAME! TRY “MAXIMIZE-EFFORT” FOR A CHANGE! OKAY? Okay.

Update from the modern day: DRAW, and its descendants

In some cases Mechner had to create the tools he used to make his games, including a program called DRAW that was used for animation.

“Somewhat unimaginatively, I titled the program DRAW, and as I updated it, renamed it DRAW1, DRAW2, DRAW3,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. “After several months of that, I stopped incrementing the number and started incrementing the final letter instead. So it went from DRAW to DRAX, and from there to DRAY and DRAZ. No, I wasn’t a geek at all.”

JANUARY 6, 1983

Deathbounce, as usual, filled the day, but it’s lost its charm. I worked not out of excitement and enthusiasm but habit and a sort of desperation. I want to finish that thing and ship it off and be done with it.

Adrian came over and was less than bowled over by what I showed him. (He’s the most critical games player I know, if only because he has access to a pirate network that puts games at his fingertips before they even come out.) He showed me some new games that made me lose enthusiasm for Deathbounce: one a graphic adventure based on Raiders, called Aztec; and one the 3D maze game I’ve dreamt about since the days of Bob Bishop and MUSE, incarnated at last as “Way Out.” These games make me think, not “How can I hope to compete?” but “Why am I bothering to work on Deathbounce at all? Who even cares?” What I need to re-inspire me is a good dose of ordinary shoot ‘em/eat ‘em games: Serpentine, etc.

After the first two weeks of school things should have died down enough (bio exam, course selection, etc.) that I can start work on Alphabet in earnest. Then, with $3000 under my belt, I’ll buy a graphics tablet and get cracking on… KARATE! That game, everyone keeps telling me (Dad and Adrian, even), is going to be a winner. (What if it doesn’t work out? What if someone else does it first? Aaarrrgh!)

JANUARY 7, 1983

Stopped by the school today. I won’t be getting any more pirated programs from Mrs. Lee.

In the past our policy has been like this: She lets me paw through her disks for half an hour and copy whatever I like, and she “charges” me (in labor) for the cost of the blank disks I’ve used. Now, she wants to “charge” me for a fraction of the list price of the programs I copy! It’s funny, I’ve been able to rationalize pirating games as long as I’m paying nobody anything… but buying them from a pirate totally violates my sense of ethics.

That’s where I draw the line.

Worked some on Deathbounce. I’m happier with it now than I was last night. Tomorrow night, come hell or high water, it’ll be in a nice sturdy mailer, addressed to Carlston, with a cover letter inside. I’ll be SOOOOO GLAD to be rid of it.

FEBRUARY 1, 1983

Borrowed the Empire soundtrack from Tom Mugavero. Boy, is it up-psyching. I can’t wait for Return.

I love John Williams movie music. Star Wars, Raiders, E.T., even Close Encounters, even Jaws. I’m gonna buy the Raiders album next chance I get. I’m making that decision now, so that when I see the price tag ($7.98 or $8.98) I won’t be dissuaded. I will buy it.

MARCH 8, 1983

[Chappaqua] Worked on Karateka all day again. The main achievement today was mocking up some temporary animation routines to see what they looked like in motion. They looked surprisingly good, considering how rough they are.

Dad suggested filming somebody and counting the frames. Mom suggested Dennis [karate instructor] tomorrow evening. I remembered the film editing machine we had. Still have?

It was a very productive day. I know exactly what I’m going to do. Now I just have to do it. I’ll try to get all the pictures drawn this vacation and save the programming for when I get back to school. I haven’t been outside in two days.

MARCH 9, 1983

Went to the Elmsford dojo in the evening to watch the sparring and film Dennis. Dennis was extremely cooperative. He got the idea right away and did everything with perfect form, even falling down. I pray the film will come out all right. Mom is taking it to be developed tomorrow morning.

I called around, looking for a VersaWriter. No dice. Tomorrow I’ll try to order it from Versa Computing themselves, if they still exist.

Ohh, my heart will break if that film doesn’t come out. The film was new, the batteries checked out, and the camera made all the right sounds when I pushed the buttons. It ought to be OK.
In the meantime, I’ll work on the code. I know, last night I said different, but it wouldn’t make sense to do any more work on the images until I get that film back.

Dennis was so good!

Update from the modern day: The VersaWriter

Mechner was already fascinated with animation, and his journals discuss looking for, and ultimately purchasing, a piece of hardware called a VersaWriter. I asked Mechner about the importance of the device.

“The VersaWriter was awesome, and indeed, it was already antiquated by 1982—but still useful, as nothing had come along to replace it,” he explained. Mechner also pointed me towards this great blog post about the hardware.

“Creating pictures on the Apple II was a dicey proposition in early 1980, due not only to a dearth of usable paint programs but also to the lack of a suitable input device to use with them; mice were still years away, while drawing with a joystick, trackball, or keyboard was an inevitably sloppy, frustrating process,” that blog said.

“The VersaWriter was far too persnickety to allow for free-hand drawing. The user was rather expected to insert a sketch under the transparent surface of the drawing area, and then to trace it using the stylus. The device was marketed as a tool for getting diagrams — flowcharts, circuit diagrams, floor plans, etc. — into the Apple II; its packaged software did not deal very well with the irregular lines and patterns typical of full-blown pictures.”

“Very cleverly, it used the two potentiometers of the ‘game paddle’ inputs (which could also be used as the X and Y axes of a joystick) as the two joints of what was essentially a pantograph,” Mechner said. This proved to be perfect device for the new way of animating video games Mechner was about to create in the early 80s.

MARCH 17, 1983

I unpacked the VersaWriter and played with it for a few hours. It’s a wonderful object. It’s obviously ancient – the manual is copyright 1980; the disks are (believe it or not) DOS 3.2; the programs are written in BASIC – but it works, and I can tell it’s going to pay for itself very quickly. For one thing, I can now do Alphabet II in a jiffy. For another, I can trace the Dennis-shapes (fingers crossed!) from the screen of the Super-8 editor onto paper, then trace the tracings on the VersaWriter to get the general outlines, then touch them up as usual with DRAX. This technique would eliminate 80% of the drawing work – namely, trying to get the outlines and proportions right with DRAX – and improve the quality immeasurably.

The film should be ready by 12:30 tomorrow, if the lady told me true. I hope it comes out, I hope, I hope, I hope it comes out! If I’m disappointed a second time, I’ll be depressed.

Even if the image is hazy or dark, I can still use it. I just need to be able to see the rough outlines.

MARCH 18, 1983

The film came back.

The film came out.

The picture quality, on a scale of 1-10, is about a 7. Not bad at all. The main problem I’ve encountered so far is that Dennis did round-house kicks instead of side-kicks.

I’m doing one frame per 3 film frames, or 6 frames/second. I think it’ll work.

MARCH 19, 1983

KARATEKA status report:
Step, Punch, Turn, Bow, Walk traced onto vellum.

Step traced onto Versawriter [2], positioned on screen using VersaWriter “Inspect” function [3], entered into memory using DRAX, and animated with a temporary routine.

Until I typed $4000G and hit RETURN, I had no idea what it would look like. I had doubts: were my tracings too inaccurate? was VersaWriter too clumsy? would using one out of three frames work?

When I saw that sketchy little figure walk across the screen, looking just like Dennis, all I could say was “All RIGHT!”

It was a glorious moment.

Anyway, now I know: It is good. The technique I developed – film to vellum to Versa to Drax – works. I am reasonably confident that there has never been animation on the Apple as realistic as Karateka promises.

I now name Karateka my #1 priority. Deathbounce, Alphabet, and school are all #2.


A final note from Ben: Deathbounce was never released, but Mechner finished Karateka and it was published by Brøderbund in 1984. Mechner described how impressed he was by Choplifter selling 5,000 copies a week in an early journal entry. Karateka went on to sell 500,000 copies. A new version of the game is now available on iOS devices, as well as the Xbox 360, PS3, and Steam. You can also purchase your own copy of Mechner’s journals from the early 80s. It’s worth your time and money; they’re an incredibly fascinating look at the early days of game development.