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Montezuma's Revenge (Commodore 64) artwork

Montezuma's Revenge (Commodore 64) review

"Back in the good old Commodore days of gaming, when a game took half an hour to be loaded from tape and 'shockingly realistic animations' meant some sprites went through two frames, graphics meant very little to us. I'd say they meant nothing, but that's not entirely true: we did want them functional. Colours were there to help distinguish what happened on the screen, not to make your jaw drop. As long as we could tell what was going on, we didn't really care about any eye candy. We preferred to..."

Back in the good old Commodore days of gaming, when a game took half an hour to be loaded from tape and 'shockingly realistic animations' meant some sprites went through two frames, graphics meant very little to us. I'd say they meant nothing, but that's not entirely true: we did want them functional. Colours were there to help distinguish what happened on the screen, not to make your jaw drop. As long as we could tell what was going on, we didn't really care about any eye candy. We preferred to see the Commodore's limited memory used for gameplay.

Montezuma's Revenge, a Commodore platform title of some renown, is an excellent example of an 'all gameplay and no fancy sights' title, just the way we liked 'em (and still like 'em). The story is the basic treasure hunter cliché: catacombs filled with traps, monsters and gold, and we are after the latter. Who cares whether or not that gold once belonged to the Aztec chieftain Montezuma II who was stoned to death by his own people? This isn't history, this is gaming, and the only concession Montezuma's Revenge has to the Aztec theme is that our character, clad in red and wearing a large yellow hat, looks vaguely Mexican. The manual identifies him as PANAMA JOE (and insists on spelling that out in all caps whenever his name comes up), a fearless treasure hunter. The simple story can be easily excused, not only because platform games don't need a good story to be worth playing, but because Montezuma's Revenge is one of the pioneers in the genre. Just like you can't blame the first RPG that had you kill a dragon for having a clichéd story, you can't hold the treasure hunting theme against one of the first video games to implement it. I'll take it over a round yellow guy eating dots any day.

From the title screen, we enter the first room of the catacombs. Every room takes up one screen, with exits to other rooms lying at the edges of the screen. The catacombs span 9 by 9 rooms and we start on the top row. The objective is to find a way to the middle room of the bottom row, where the entrance to a massive treasure fault lies. On the way there, we encounter the usual platform fare: ladders, ropes, disappearing platforms, laser beams, and enemies in the form of rolling skulls, ladder climbing spiders and stationary but equally deadly snakes. There are also items to collect: various colour coded keys to open doors with, swords to beat enemies with, torches to light the area, that kind of thing. Up to five items can be carried, and if your hands are full, you won't be picking up any new ones or even collecting any gold.

As might be expected, the catacombs are quite a maze when you play the game for the first time, and you'll need some time figuring out how to get down. This is a major part of the beauty of this game - if we compare to other platform titles of the same era (Pitfall in particular comes to mind), Montezuma's Revenge requires much more thinking. Run into locked door in room A, continue down another path, find matching key in room B - but we jumped off a platform that's out of our reach now, so how do we get back to room A? In some areas, you are constantly juggling keys to make sure you don't fill up your inventory, and getting a torch to light up the game's dark areas can be tricky as well (in later levels, the torch is usually hidden in the dark areas).

That doesn't mean it's all thinking and no reflexes - Montezuma's Revenge will test those as well. Beginning players will lose their lives at a frightening pace. The controls for running around, climbing ladders and jumping are smooth enough, but it takes a little time to get used to them. Your character runs a tad faster than you might be used to, and jumping off a ladder onto a platform is a little tricky. Though with practice, neither will really be an issue. It's all experience and no frustration with sloppy controls, which have broken more platform games than I care to remember. If you ask me, platform game designers should take a long look at the likes of Montezuma's Revenge so they get this part right.

Something that's harder to grasp or put in words, but was done equally well in this title, is the sheer fun of platforming. This becomes apparent when you play this old title on the same day you've played something recent with flashy graphics that takes up several CDs (or in the case of a PC game, eats 2 gb of hard disk space). Montezuma's Revenge doesn't look the same and there are usually fewer options to explore, but it's just as fun. Every locked door you run into invites you to start looking for the key, every monster filled room has you wondering how you're going to get through that without bumping into every one of them, and I still groan when I enter one of the game's most challenging rooms, like the one completely filled with laser beams or one with a huge fire pit at the bottom and lots of little platforms, and there is only one safe jumping route. Getting through a hazard like that is very satisfying, and sure to bring a grin to your face. It gives you that magical feeling of gamer immortality, filling you with pride and making you fool yourself that you just did what nobody else could ever do. If you've never known that feeling, you've missed old school gaming completely.

So let's say you've put in the first few hours, made your way through to the treasure vault, and plundered it for lots of points. The game now begins again at the second level - you start in the first room again, but the difficulty has been increased now. As the level increases, more rooms become dark, enemies become more numerous, and eventually touching an enemy kills only you, not both of you - which turns certain rooms into real nightmares. But in addition to this, there are subtle changes to the layout of the catacombs every time. A wall disappears here, a door appears there, the main route you used the last three levels closes up but a new one (with harder rooms, of course) appears instead. Why is this a feat worth mentioning? For one thing, the Commodore's memory is limited, and the Atari that this game originally came from has even less. The catacombs are about as large as memory constraints allow, and through these subtle changes, extra variety is introduced at a minimum of memory expense. The only other option would have been random level generation, which I've never liked. A computer can never generate mazes as clever and devious as those made by a skilled designer. Montezuma's Revenge chose the right approach here. In the first level, there is one route to the vault; in the second level, that route is closed up but a completely different one is open. From the third level on, both routes are open, but due to the subtle level changes that occur all the time, you'll never be able to get from the start to the end in exactly the same way twice. And no matter how good you get at the game, how many bonus lives you manage to save up in the earlier levels, you always get new challenges thrown at you. You should have seen the look on my face when in level 8, nearly every room in the game was in the dark, and all the torches were removed from the rooms they were supposed to be in.

Graphically, Montezuma's Revenge has chosen an effective middle road between overly simple, atmosphere-breaking graphics and overly fancy ones that would have pressed the Commodore's memory to its limit. There's a good use of colours and loving detail has gone into some of the sprites. In particular, the enemies look quite good, and in the rooms with fire pits, the fire is animated as well and all the movement really brings a screen to life. There is very little slowdown, only noticeable in rooms with a lot of enemies in them, and even then it's not so bad that your ability to play is impaired. The game has no background music, but it does have a lot of sound effects and short midi samples playing to accompany certain events, like killing a monster or gaining a bonus life. All in all, Montezuma's Revenge is still a small package, about a third the maximum size of a single-file Commodore game, which is a relief if you hate long loading times. Not that we did back in the day when we knew no better, of course.

All in all, Montezuma's Revenge is a solid platform title with the attention in the right place. The only problem I could possibly think of is that after five or six levels, the layout of the catacombs gets a little old. But they addressed that issue with the small changes made in each new level, so this is simple nitpicking from somebody who has played the game a little too often. In the end, Montezuma's Revenge is easy to pick up, great fun to play, and you won't reach and finish the final level any time soon. To anybody interested in reliving the Commodore legend, exploring a major title in the roots of platforming, or just having a great time, this game is one you do not want to miss.

sashanan's avatar
Community review by sashanan (January 13, 2008)

Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.

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