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Raiders of the Lost Ark (Atari 2600) artwork

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Atari 2600) review

"Markets are kind of cool, as you collect money in the game and can use it in these places to buy bullets and other useful things. In this one, you also can try to interact with a giant head plastered on the left side of the screen. Which will then kill you. Ha-ha…you have to love trial-and-error puzzle solving! You're not supposed to interact with it…or walk above or below it. In fact, you should pretend its third of the room doesn't even exist."

Even today, I play many games I feel are ambitious titles, but could have been better. Maybe the designers didn't implement certain things as well as I expected or the project could have been rushed to meet a release deadline. Nowadays, games are huge. When I download one onto my 360's hard drive, it will eat multiple gigabytes of space -- which means that even with massive amounts of memory to work with, it's hard to create a truly satisfying title. So, just imagine how easy it was for those ambitious games of old to fall short of the dreams which led to their creation.

Such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was released in 1982 for the Atari 2600. That system didn't deal with gigabytes or even megabytes. It was a four-kilobyte console, meaning there just wasn't sufficient memory to make games much more complex than single-screen maze chases. Raiders of the Lost Ark was much more complex. It wanted to be a prototype for future adventure titles like The Legend of Zelda or the eight-bit Metal Gear titles. In reality, well…Wikipedia says that it was the first ever movie-licensed video game, which has to count for something! Even if that "something" entails little more than all your muttered curses as you realize that most games licensed from movies over time come off as lazy and rushed (if not downright horrible) so that companies can wring a few extra dollars off the movie's publicity. Thank you for starting all of this, Atari!

Like I said, this game is ambitious. There are a bunch of different screens containing obstacles and items as you control Indy as he searches for the lost Ark of the Covenant. You could compare it to Adventure, released three years earlier, except it was a step back in most ways.

The only notable improvement by this game over Adventure was the graphics. Instead of controlling a mobile square dot, your hero actually looks like a crude representation of a person wearing a hat! And…uh…well, that might actually be the only notable visual improvement, as the screens tend to be sparsely decorated and the other inhabitants of the game's world tend to fall into the "exactly what the hell is that?" category more likely than not.

This may not come as a surprise when you consider the technical limits of the Atari 2600, but Raiders of the Lost Ark rivals the NES' Total Recall in the category of movie-licensed games that barely have anything in common with their subject matter. You control Indy and you're looking for the Ark. On one particularly dangerous screen, there's a black-garbed adversary who might be Toht…if the squat Gestapo magically grew to the size of a hill giant.

Essentially, only lip service was given to the movie. You know how Indy had that debilitating fear of snakes. Well, they're in this game as a weak, unimposing monster that can easily be dispatched by either his whip or gun. Much more dangerous are certain foes I don't remember seeing in the film. If you make a wrong turn at one point, you'll end up in a little dead end room with no treasure. However, there is a giant blob-like thing representing a spider, which will fire paralyzing webs at you and then attempt to savage your unmoving body. It's probably for the best that movie-Indy never ran into this beast -- all those Nazi-types would seem far less threatening after overcoming SuperSpider!

Later on, you'll reach a second, more secret marketplace. Markets are kind of cool, as you collect money in the game and can use it in these places to buy bullets and other useful things. In this one, you also can try to interact with a giant head plastered on the left side of the screen. Which will then kill you. Ha-ha…you have to love trial-and-error puzzle solving! You're not supposed to interact with it…or walk above or below it. In fact, you should pretend its third of the room doesn't even exist. Like the giant spider, Mr. Crazy Face is just an easily-avoidable death trap.

Those death traps are only really a factor the first time or two you play this game. Raiders of the Lost Ark is the sort of painfully linear experience that really makes me appreciate the foresight used in creating Adventure (which was, I feel compelled to mention again, released three years previously). In that game, there was a third level of play which gave you the full world, but placed everything randomly, so you'd have a new experience every time you played. Because of this, it took me years and years before I finally retired that cartridge.

You don't have that hook in Raiders of the Lost Ark. You will search the right rooms to find the necessary artifacts. Then you will go to a particular room to use a medallion to find out which mesa in a large area contains the Ark (more lip service to the actual plot). Next, you use a grappling hook to reach whatever mesa's your objective and follow that up by falling off it and using a parachute to avoid a tree limb, so you can reach a hole. This part of the game might take players longer to master than the "find the necessary items in markets" part, as you tend to need absolutely perfect timing and positioning to avoid death and other minor setbacks.

But eventually, you will. It's not an impossible challenge; just one that can feel cruelly unfair. Now, you only have to traverse one little room to get the Ark. All you have to do is avoid a few scampering thieves and use your shovel to dig up the Ark. The first time I got this far, I was so excited that I blundered into a thief. He stole my shovel. It took months before I'd emotionally recovered enough to try again.

The sad thing: It really wasn't worth it to try again. Raiders of the Lost Ark simply isn't that fun. It has the same sort of maze-game adventure style that older titles like Adventure and Haunted House had, but without the sense of randomness those games provided, you have a linear quest littered with out-of-the-way death traps and other things that artificially raise the difficulty. Finding items and figuring out how (and where) to use them is a fun challenge. When the only thing that changes from game to game is which mesa holds the Ark, that fun quickly dissipates. And when things conclude with a tricky "succeed or die" arcade-like challenge and a room where thieves can instantly steal your dreams of victory, that's just a cheap conclusion to a blah game with virtually no replay value.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (April 21, 2012)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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aschultz posted April 21, 2012:

I remember trying to enjoy this game and failing. I figured it was my fault. Thanks for helping me put that aside.

And oh, yeah, Atari 2600 games based on a movie/video game never, EVER fell short of or cut out huge chunks of the original. Especially before the game market crashed and they could put out any old variation they pleased (Hello, Pac-Man!)

Though some were neat variations.
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zippdementia posted April 25, 2012:

How about the levels where you can't touch ANYTHING?
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zippdementia posted April 25, 2012:

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overdrive posted April 26, 2012:

lol...that room (where you can't touch anything) was a bitch. Until watching that, I'd forgotten how easily it was to "touch" something.

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