The player controls an unnamed protagonist who is attempting to rescue his love interest, the Princess Mariko, from Akuma's castle fortress. The game exhibits a combination of a side-scrolling platform and fighting game elements. The player uses punches and kicks to defeat Akuma and his guards and make his way deeper into the fortress. The game, as with most at the time of development, lacked checkpoints or the ability to save the game, making it a challenge to complete in a single sitting.
Karateka has been well-received, particularly for its realistic animations used for the game's characters. The game was considered a breakthrough success for Mechner, and would eventually result in his development of the Prince of Persia franchise. A high-definition remake, spearheaded by Mechner, was released as a downloadable title for the Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, with planned ports for the iOS and Wii U systems.