Sunday, August 28, 2011

Castiglione Celebrates the 30th Anniversary of the Release of His Favorite Movie of All Time by Playing Games Inspired either Directly or Indirectly by Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark hit the big screen in 1981, making 2011 the 30th anniversary of its release. Given my recent discussion of Captain America: The First Avenger, in which I noted references made therein to the Indiana Jones movies, and my fondness for retro video games, it seemed only fitting to spend some time playing and discussing the video games inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The first game on my list is an obvious one: Raiders of the Lost Ark for the Atari 2600 designed by Howard Scott Warshaw.

But I can't.

For me, playing Raiders of the Lost Ark was a frustrating experience because I really wanted to like this game. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my all-time favorite movies and I could remember seeing the TV commercial for the game back when I was a kid and experiencing a sentiment that I, as an Apple II+ owner, had not felt before:

Envy of Atari 2600 owners.

Because here was a chance for Atari 2600 owners, and only Atari 2600 owners, to be Indiana Jones.

To say I was green with envy would be an understatement.

Flash-forward almost thirty years and I finally got to play Raiders of the Lost Ark and I was more than a little bit underwhelmed. There were many factors that contributed to my feeling of disappointment but the first one that comes to mind is that the game features an “arbitrary puzzle”, or a puzzle which can not be solved using only clues provided within the game. The second was how the game would change from a top-down to a horizontal perspective when you entered the mesas, as you will fall when this happens, presaging, perhaps, the frustration experienced by many who played another Howard Scott Warshaw game for the Atari 2600: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

E.T. after he's fallen in a hole – something which happened a lot in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and something which happened to Indiana Jones a lot (the falling part, at least) when I played Raiders of the Lost Ark

To make matters worse, the graphics in Raiders of the Lost Ark are, to put it politely, quite interesting, requiring either a great deal of visual interpretation in order to decipher the function of the sundry objects that populate the game world, or a thorough reading of the manual (and even then, you would probably want to keep the manual on hand as a Rosetta Stone).

My lamenting the deplorable graphics in Raiders of the Lost Ark is somewhat damning since I don't usually pay much attention to graphics at all; to give you an idea of how unimportant graphics are to me, let me say that some of my favorite games are roguelikes and text adventures. However, I do require that, at the very minimum, the graphics in a game serve their intended purpose of helping the player identify the various objects in the game world with which they are supposed to interact.

People may mock the graphics in Warren Robinett's Adventure, but the representations used in that game were either easily identified or quickly learned and remembered.

Such is not the case in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Compounding the problem of its “interesting” graphics is the fact that Raiders of the Lost Ark is a more complex game than Adventure, containing many more objects for the player, as Indiana Jones (who, by the way, is charmingly rendered, complete with signature fedora), to interact with, which makes the identification of said objects of paramount importance. With the exception of Indy, it's pretty difficult to make out what the various game objects are supposed to be and some of them resemble each other enough to making learning and remembering their hieroglyphics somewhat time-consuming.

Indiana Jones in the Marketplace – unless you're willing to constantly refer to the game manual, you'd be hard-pressed to identify the objects on the screen

Given how I longed to play Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was a kid, imagine how I felt when I discovered that I had waited over twenty years to play a game that sucked!

Now, I wouldn't say that my childhood got raped when I played Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time; if I had to categorize the experience, I would have to say that my childhood got flashed, which, while bad, wasn't like the mind-searing experience of the time my childhood did get raped.

Frankly, I think a better Raiders of the Lost Ark game could have been designed by simply taking Adventure and modifying the graphics; just change the Enchanted Chalice to the Ark of the Covenant and Yorgle, Grundle and Rhindle to, say, a snake (gotta have snakes in an Indiana Jones game), Major Arnold Ernst Toht and the big guy with the scimitar that Indy shot to the delight of audiences everywhere; the magic sword could be changed into either a bullwhip or a pistol, the Golden Castle to Katanga's ship and the kleptomaniacal bat to the monkey that narced on Marion to the Nazis. Just put a fedora on the square representing your character and you're set. I know, this is somewhat lame but even after factoring in the lameness inherent in re-skinning a pre-existing game and releasing it as an ostensibly new game, such a game would have been more fun and less frustrating than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Fortunately, if you want an Indiana Jones themed game to play on the Atari 2600, you need look no further than David Crane's Pitfall! Pitfall! is basically an Indiana Jones game in spirit; all that it's missing are the Nazi thugs and some means of punching their lights out. However, it has booby traps (if you can consider rolling logs and natural hazards like quicksand to be booby traps) as well as snakes and other fauna intent on inflicting bodily harm upon Indiana Jones, er, I mean, Pitfall Harry.

There isn't a whole lot of difference between a giant boulder...

...and a rolling log

When I gaze upon the awesomeness that is Pitfall! and then turn my gaze on the convoluted mess that is Raiders of the Lost Ark, I can't help but wonder at what might have been had Activision, not Atari, been approached to bring Raiders of the Lost Ark to the Atari 2600. After all, all Pitfall! is missing to truly be worthy of the Indiana Jones label are some Nazis, or at least some enemies that don't belong in a zoo (although, I guess one could argue that Nazis do belong in a zoo).

Well, such a game exists, although not on the Atari 2600. This game of which I speak is Em Busca dos Tesouros, or Treasure Hunter in English, which was released for the ZX81 back in 1986. Treasure Hunter was designed by Tadeu Curinga da Silva, who was a teenager at the time, and it's basically Pitfall! ported to the ZX81 except the game features these strange enemies (who, alas, can not be punched, only evaded) which resemble the eponymous Sneakers in Mark Turmell's classic horizontal shooter for the Apple II, Sneakers, and the same Sneakers in Mark Turmell's Fast Eddie for the Atari 2600.

I'm not sure what this guy is supposed to be...
...but he looks a lot like these guys...

Sneakers menacing the player in Mark Turmell's Sneakers

Sneakers menacing the player in Mark Turmell's Fast Eddie

So close, yet so far!

If only that villain looked less like a Sneaker and more like a Nazi!

Oh, well, you can't always get what you want.

While we're on the topic of ZX81 games inspired directly or indirectly by Raiders of the Lost Ark, we might as well discuss Timeworks's Robbers of the Lost Tomb.

If the title alone weren't enough to tell you where Robbers of the Lost Tomb got its inspiration, one need only read the game's overview: You're a special archeological consultant to the CIA (in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones was an archeologist working at the behest of US Army Intelligence) on a mission to recover four sacred tablets from a tomb in Eygpt (in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones was in Egypt attempting to recover the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed).

So far, so good.

Your obstacles are snakes, bottomless pits...


...and ghosts and mummies.

Errr...okay...this is beginning to sound less like Raiders of the Lost Ark and more like The Mummy's Hand.

Well, maybe I shouldn't complain. After all, the inclusion of ghosts and mummies is certainly consistent with the film serials of the 30's and 40's which inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Unfortunately, Robbers of the Lost Tomb doesn't live up to its promise.

It's basically Gregory Yob's Hunt the Wumpus except with five times more rooms.

Frankly, I think that one can plot a sort of Laffer curve with the amount of “fun” one can have playing a variant of Hunt the Wumpus plotted as a function of the number of rooms in such a variant.

Laffer curve showing government revenue as a function of tax rate - it could just as easily be a plot of "fun" versus the number of rooms in a Hunt the Wumpus variant

I don't know where the plot of fun versus rooms maxes out in this hypothetical Laffer curve but judging from the dreary time I had playing this game, I'm pretty sure 100 rooms lies far to the right of this maximum. Whereas mapping out a cave network of twenty rooms was fun, doing the same thing with a 100-room network was just tedious.

In addition to the problem of having too many rooms, there are also gameplay issues resulting from moving mummies similar to what I ran into when I initially set about designing Wumpus Plus; in Robbers of the Lost Tomb, you can increase the difficulty of the game by permitting the mummies to move; unfortunately, since you can detect mummies from only one room away, it's possible to end up in a room with a mummy (a usually fatal experience) without having received any clues to help you avoid this outcome, which results in your fate being entirely in the hands of Lady Fortune, something which makes for a very unsatisfying gaming experience.

At this point, you're probably tiring of my griping and wondering how one can play these games, your impatience fueled, no doubt, by the desire for some old-school gaming goodness (in the case of Pitfall! and Treasure Hunter) and, perhaps, morbid curiosity (in the case of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Robbers of the Lost Tomb).

Well, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pitfall! can be had for reasonable prices on eBay if you happen to have an Atari 2600 and this is certainly the best way to play Atari 2600 games. However, if you desire an option that's a little bit more “portable”, I would recommend the z26 and Stella emulators for Windows and Linux users, respectively. ROMS of the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pitfall! cartridges will be needed to play these games.

To play Treasure Hunter and Robbers of the Lost Tomb, you will need the cassette tapes for the games as well as a ZX81. You can also play Robbers of the Lost Tomb on-line. To play these games on a ZX81 emulator, you will need the .p files for Treasure Hunter and Robbers of the Lost Tomb. The instructions for Treasure Hunter are in Portuguese but they're fairly self-explanatory.

Robbers of the Lost Tomb, despite being a Hunt the Wumpus variant, is different enough from its inspiration to warrant some discussion of its instructions for those masochists out there who want to give this game a try.

The game is set in a tomb of five levels, each of which contains 20 rooms. You will be notified when you are one room away from pits, snakes, ghosts and mummies.

You're armed with a certain number of knives that you can throw at snakes and mummies if they're occupying the same room as you; you can also throw a knife at a mummy that's in an adjacent room.

Pits send you down to the level below but if you're on the 5th level, they'll kill you instead. Snakes will kill you if you don't kill them first with a thrown knife; however, more than one snake can occupy a room so it's probably best to try to avoid them altogether since entering a room containing more than one snake spells certain death. Ghosts will carry you off to a random room like the super bats in Hunt the Wumpus. Mummies will almost always kill you when you run into them but sometimes, you'll survive ending up in the same room with them, which will give you a chance to kill them with a thrown knife.

In addition to the hazards mentioned above, rooms can also contain ladders, which can be used to climb up or down one level, a magical blue ruby, which will instantly kill all mummies that are in the same room as you, and the sacred tablets for which you are searching.

Once you find all four tablets, you will need to return to the room where you started the game in order to win.

“M” and “T” are used to move from one room to another and to throw knives, respectively. To climb up or down a ladder, press “M” and then when asked for your destination room, enter “LU”, to go up the ladder, or “LD” to go down.

That's the bare minimum of information you'll need to play Robbers of the Lost Tomb.
Have “fun”.

But don't say I didn't warn you.

During the course of playing Treasure Hunter on my Linux machine, I discovered that vb81, the ZX81 emulator that I had mentioned in my discussion of 3D Monster Maze, wasn't up to the task because it could not seem to handle more than one keyboard input at a time and in order to jump horizontally (as opposed to straight up), something which is crucial for leaping heroically a la Indiana Jones over deadly chasms, the computer (or in this case, the emulated computer) will need to be able to process two keyboard inputs (corresponding to a direction, i.e. left or right, and jump) simultaneously. Fortunately, I had stumbled upon XTender128 which can be run in Linux using DOSBox; however, you may need to play around with your DOSBox speed settings as I found that Treasure Hunter ran a little bit too fast on my netbook.

Truth be told, I had stopped using vb81 as my emulator of choice on my Linux system since it introduced some graphical glitches in the excellent Virus from Bob's Stuff, a game which I hope to discuss in the near future. Until then, have fun sampling these games of bygone years and, heck, while you're at it, you might as well sample some movie magic from those same bygone years and fire up Raiders of the Lost Ark (the movie) and celebrate its 30th anniversary!

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