Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for a long forgotten and obscure game
Playing a game that was iconic to you as a child is risky territory; we all know that the distant past, on the very edge of our memory, is at the least viewed through rose-tinted binoculars… And at most a complete lie, built upon a few grainy memories filled out by a young imagination. Writing about it is an equally fine line which needs to be picked out between overselling a mundane title, or losing the reader in the same level of detail that you saw as a child.
The Atari St is the first system I clearly remember gaming on. Watching, heart in mouth, as my uncle completed “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Action Game” was a defining moment in those early gaming years. In the generations before ‘twitch’ and ‘let’s play videos’, kids everywhere were indulging in the reflected victory and defeat of friends/siblings/peers from the sidelines. I was no exception, being unable to even get past the circus train on the 1st level; Indiana Jones (or just ‘Indy’ as the box-art proclaimed) was both the hardest and most amazing game that I had ever played. So I revisited it recently, decided to complete it, scratch an old itch, and discovered that whilst it is a flawed, short, and underwhelming experience compared with the memories I have, I nevertheless enjoyed the experience, so before I get all gushy and ‘soft-focus’ nostalgic, I’m going to hit-it with where it goes wrong.
First off, take a look at the game screen; the status bar fills almost a third of what is already a fairly low-calorie pixel count. Your remaining lives are confusingly represented by a bar (hinting at a lack of secondary school stats understanding regarding discrete and continuous data), the items are just far too large and I don’t know why the player needs to be reminded of what game they are playing… not that the programmers havn’t had a decent attempt at a pixilated Harrison Ford.
Screen layout aside, the second flaw is revealed the very first time you press ‘up’ and make Indy jump… And the vast majority of the remaining problems also suddenly start to dawn on you. Indy doesn’t move quickly, but his footspeed is vastly superior to the leisurely pace he chooses to move through the air. Jumping causes Indy to adopt a full-stride legs-apart stance and somehow propel himself vertically upward; do the same whilst pushing left or right and that overly glamorous archaeologist will begin a gentle arcing jump in the desired direction. All this takes place with absolutely no air control or ability to vary how far you jump. To make matters worse, Indy ‘lands’ somewhere between those two splayed legs so it’s easy to assume that your front foot will make the jump and fall to your doom the first few tries. Later on when your getting used to that mystical (yet very specific) distance Indy jumps, you’ll undoubtedly end up being too cautious and overshooting some of the trickier platforms. This jumping frustration is most evident in the second section of level 1 (the previously mentioned ‘circus train’) where you need to successfully jump between carriages whilst not landing on the ‘rhino horn’ or ‘awkward giraffe’ (seriously, gunshots and knives drain a small amount of health, but if you even graze one of these animals you will instantly fall to your death). The awkward giraffe is a particularly nightmarish childhood memory; you can jump them whilst their long slender necks are not extended, but the sheer dimensions of their head means that you must start from exactly the right place to avoid catching your front foot on ‘take-off’ or your tailing foot on landing.
My third complaint is the implementation of Indy’s iconic whip (it’s inclusion being an absolute necessity). First off, the whip is unnecessarily a consumable item, the number of whips remaining is listed on your novelty oversized status bar. As far as I know you only pick them up early on in the 1st level and a couple of times when scaling the castle walls in level 2… Level 2 is the only time that you need it, and swinging between platforms scaling a castle wall in a thunderstorm is a worthy Indy gaming moment. As a weapon however it is useless, it has a little more range than your default punch, but the animation is so lengthy that it’s difficult to time and ultimately combat with the whip just feels awkward. By contrast, the punch is very responsive, actually has a reasonable range and has a pretty classic retro sound to go with it.
So without literally asking myself a question in the text to begin a new paragraph (that is my ‘goto’ segue) I’m going to move on to why this flawed, obscure title was worth the effort to relay and blog about.
A big draw was is the faithfulness to the source material; those early movie tie-ins (well, many tie-ins really) weren’t known for their attention to detail or respect for the source material. So to see a game based on the last crusade follow specific movie events and locations was pretty cool. There are only 4 levels, in the first you play a young ‘scout’ Indy, raiding the abandoned mine to save the ‘Cross of Coronado’ before escaping on board a circus train. The second sees Indy exploring the crypts to find the shield… Which then, confusingly, links seamlessly with climbing the walls of Castle Brunwald. The third stage sees you aboard the Zeppelin trying to find your father’s diary and finally you must survive the trials to claim the holy grail. Even the annoying copy protect interlude between the first and second level is themed as you must look up the symbols and go through the correct doorway based on the faintly printed key supplied in the game box. 4 levels doesn’t make it a lengthy title, but there is a distinct amount of variety which deserves a little more explanation.
Level one is probably the hardest level; it contains some of the trickier jumping sections, the only enemies that actually attack Indy and an abundance of rope climbing sequences. During the cavern section of the level, Indy must regularly pick up flame torches in order to stay alive. As each torch burns down, the screen dims – it’s an old trope, but adds some urgency to up the pace of the game. Aside from pit-hazards, breaking walkways, and falling stalactites, there are 3 types of human enemies, all of which will kill you instantly if you touch then, I’ll call them the ‘cowboys’, ‘knifemen’ and ‘farmers’. The ‘cowboys’ walk back and forth, shooting at entirely random moments; your best tactic is to crouch in their path and just hope that the moment you choose to stand up and clout them isn’t when they pull the trigger. The ‘knifemen’ are the worst; they stand, throwing knives (either high or low), past the ropes you’re attempting to navigate. As with the ‘cowboys’, there is no pattern to the attacks, your only hope is to wait for a knife to pass then go for it, but there is every chance that he’ll just send another one your way causing you to fall. The ‘farmers’ are the weirdest of the enemies, these faceless, dungarees wearing enigmas always have their back to you and relentlessly climb up and down the ropes, touch them and you fall.
Level 2 begins in the catacombs with the same flame torch mechanic. Here Indy must dodge falling fireballs and scurrying rats (and occasionally rats on fire). Aside from a few cheap traps, where the restricted view prevents you seeing a pit, the difficulty has been wound back here and after the frustration of the first level the player should quickly progress onto the second half of the level – scaling the castle walls. As previously mentioned, the transition from catacombs to Castle is bizarrely seamless, however the moment is marked by the substitution of the flame torch mechanic for a lightning countdown timer. Periodically as you scale the castle walls the lightning will strike and remove a section of walkway. Indy must navigate these unlucky bricks, swinging between them using his whip and climb ladders to reach the top. As a kid this was pretty much as awesome as games came, whip-swinging-Indy in a thunderstorm, and even playing it now it jumps out as the highpoint.
Level 3 is disappointing, Indy must navigate a labyrinthine Zeppelin interior, pick up his father’s diary, and escape in a biplane. It’s the classic “maze-like” level, lots of dead-ends, ladders and essentially no variation in the stage background. The enemies here simply walk back and forth and kill you instantly if they touch you. It sounds treacherous, but as a single punch will take them out (which they will just walk into), there’s very little threat here. As with the other levels, there is a timing mechanic; your travel documents are slowly ‘disintegrating’ and you must find replacements before they disappear entirely otherwise the alarm will be raised. Again the description is far worse than the reality as the alarm simply makes the guards walk a little faster.
The final level shakes things up, the game moves into an isometric view, up and down no longer jump and couch, but move Indy towards the background or foreground. The action button now jumps and the level is essentially a series of jumping challenges to get to the grail before Dr. Jones’ (Sr.) heart stops beating. There is a neat section mirroring the film where you can only stand on specific tiled letters, and platforms with circular saw blades echoing the trials faced by Harrison Ford onscreen. As with the circus train, the big difficulty here is judging the jumps, made even trickier playing as a 2D sprite in an isometric world. The stage is very short, and I can’t help but wish that more of the game looked like this, as a kid I remember watching this stage thinking how amazing it looked.
… And that’s it… a very brief ‘Congratulations’ flashes up as the Indy theme kicks-in and then you’re back to the title screen.
The experience left me with mixed feelings, it’s pretty clear that a lack of gaming experience (or indeed availability) when I first encountered it left me forever bewitched by its charms. That enchantment has stuck around until now so my natural urge is to defend it as some sort of ‘retro-classic’, but it’s really not; the game has largely been forgotten, and with good cause. The jumping is flawed and the lack of character momentum makes movement feel robotic. The enemies are poorly conceived and implemented, the stages are too short and success feels more like trial-and-error than skill. Even so, I can’t bring myself to post this without finishing on a couple of positive points. The designers really packed a wide selection of stages and ideas into, what must have been, a very limited platform. They created something unmistakably ‘Indy’ and obviously cared about the source material they were portraying.