Subtlety and simplicity go well together. Media fit for consumption doesn't have to be long and complex to impart a lingering sense of depth. It certainly helps to load a song or film with nuance and detail, but it isn't necessary to get a point across. Applied to videogames, subtlety and simplicity are pretty difficult to execute properly. Games like One Chance or dys4ia can profoundly impact the player in just a few minutes, and Assassin’s Creed III can last thirty hours without relating a meaningful experience. As a subjective experience, ideally games shouldn't feel like wastes of time.
This is the line walked by the 2012 edition of Karateka. Karateka can be viewed as modern reinterpretation of Jordan Mechner's 1984 Apple II classic. From that line, it can also be understood as a means of conveying a clean story told with the deliberate absence of dialogue. It could be a nostalgia induction device with gameplay and narrative no more complex than its (almost) thirty-year-old origin. On the other hand, if you're blissfully unaware that Karateka was a thing from before Mario, it could feel like a flaccid waste of ten dollars that doesn't offer much beyond its thirty minute clearance requirement.
Oddly enough, the closest modern analog for Karateka would be either Punch-Out!! or, more appropriately, Infinity Blade. Gameplay consists of advancing along a linear path and dispatching a series of foes in a battle of fisticuffs. Each encounter revolves around waiting for an opponent to attack, blocking properly until his attack ends, and then commencing a beat down before they start to block your attacks. A chi move/interruption functions as a second chance, though most of Karateka is a back and forth of adeptly blocking and attacking until the opposition's life runs dry.
The manner in which an opponent’s moves are telegraphed is fairly interesting. Some of them might have more literal tells, like shuffling their hands or something. More often than not, though, their attacks are synced with a percussive instrument emanating out of the background music. Karateka boasts a devilishly small window of time to properly block attacks, and the progression of foes seems to advance at the same rate as my skill did.
Karateka's got a good rhythm to it. Though I was subject to temporary instances of clumsy slugfests, more often than not I was beating the piss out of guys. Giving my television a three foot, non-blinking death stare got me into a groove, and the feedback from mercilessly wrecking an opponent felt great. Doing this for two hours would have evolved into some weird form of torture, but at thirty minutes it felt like a satisfying one-off experience.
In terms of gameplay, that's really all there is to Karateka. It's over before it runs out of arbitrary ways to challenge the player, and, beyond an infuriating and sporadic appearance by a villainous eagle, it’s free of padding. Beyond climbing the leader boards (which are looking pretty vacant on PSN, guys) there isn't much reason to go back and refine your approach to Karateka.
Unless, of course, you can develop an application for its story. Karateka's call to arms is the classic damsel in distress; Princess Mariko kidnapped by a warlord, Akuma. She can be rescued by her true love, a dutiful monk, or an innocent lug-headed bruiser. To Karateka's credit the player can't directly choose which one gets to rescue the princess. The game begins with control of her true love. The monk taking over when he's defeated, and the bruiser taking over if the monk falls. The princess quite obviously doesn't want big the dumb guy whisking her away to glory, and this is intended to serve as motivation to go back and take another run at trying to preserve the life of the hero. This is no easy task, as her true love (followed by the monk) is the weakest of the bunch, but remains a smart way to handle difficulty. If you care, maybe you'll try harder.
Should you care? Maybe. The scattered definition of value makes Karateka’s worth a subjective proposition, but there’s certainly worse ways to kill half of an afternoon.