Aztec (Apple II) review
"Aztec, the classic Apple II platform adventure game of tomb plundering excitement and bizarre glitchiness, was released in 1982. 'Nothing like it before. Nothing else like it now!' screamed the hectic looking ads in Creative Computing magazine. They were probably right. 1982 was the year after the arrival of Raiders Of The Lost Ark in cinemas, and was the same year in which the original Pitfall came out for the Atari 2600. Pitfall Harry presents as a colourful stick figure of girth..."
Aztec, the classic Apple II platform adventure game of tomb plundering excitement and bizarre glitchiness, was released in 1982. 'Nothing like it before. Nothing else like it now!' screamed the hectic looking ads in Creative Computing magazine. They were probably right. 1982 was the year after the arrival of Raiders Of The Lost Ark in cinemas, and was the same year in which the original Pitfall came out for the Atari 2600. Pitfall Harry presents as a colourful stick figure of girth who can run, climb ladders and jump. The hatted, jacketed hero of Aztec is a realistically detailed sprite cousin of Indiana Jones who can walk, run, leap, duck, crawl, climb, dig, fight with a machete (two different attacks), fire a gun and set dynamite on a timer, or drop it off a ledge as a bomb. All of these actions are controlled from the keyboard, making Aztec one of the major finger gymnastic events for the Apple II. Just apprehending the full control set can take awhile, but once you work it out, you realise that the keys' arrangement is about as well considered as could be under the circumstances. Your left hand rides over an inverted 'T' of keys to control movement while your right jumps about to poke at the modifier and combat keys.
Your goal in Aztec is to retrieve the fabulous Jade Idol from the bottom level of the the Tomb of Quetzalcoatl and escape with it as quickly as possible. The tomb's layout is randomly generated whenever you opt for a fresh game, and the idol's value drops over time and freezes when you exit the tomb to give you a score. You won't see that score too often because the vast majority of visits to the tomb end in your death, and dead men receive no score at all, not even zero. According to the game's introductory text, the dead man who discovered the tomb's location – and thus by implication might have managed to supernaturally convey its whereabouts to you in spite of his also having disappeared inside it forever – was one Professor G Von Forster. The game also warns you about Von Forster's 'nasty streak', which means that when you enter the tomb, you won't just be avoiding the dinosaurs, grapefruit sized spiders, Aztec warriors and disgusting tentacled things which live down there, but booby traps left behind by Von Forster as well, including the redoubtable 'Dynamite Falls From Ceiling When Chest Is Opened'. Many chests in the tomb actually contain bits of Von Forster's body, but thankfully you don't have to see the bits themselves. What happens is that when you press 'L' to look inside the chest, the text info window flashes up: 'PROF VON FORSTER'. You come across the professor in Aztec's chests about as often as you find sauerkraut in Castle Wolfenstein.
Playing Aztec is about outwitting and outmanouevring an endless succession of monsters, traps and unpredictable hazards that just won't give you a break, especially on the higher difficulty settings of the eight available. And it's not even about outwitting and outmanouevring these things just within the scope of sensible game mechanics. Aztec is one of the glitchiest games ever, but in a way that feels part and parcel of the experience. Some of the glitches stem from the programming methods used to create the game, and are weirdly democratic as a result. For instance, your character can climb up almost any lit pixel on the screen, whether this makes sense during any particular moment or not. You can scale chests, debris, the game logo in the bottom left corner of the screen (if you blast a path to it with dynamite first) or even a monster if you approach it from the correct angle and are fortunate. Another prolific bug concerns dynamite. If you light a stick of the stuff on one screen and then quickly run to another, you'll find the dynamite continuing to count down towards detonation in the corresponding position on the new screen. As it turns out, such exploits are often necessary to get you through impossible level configurations of pits and dead ends which the game does not prevent itself from generating. The glitchy elements and the dangerous ones complement each other and make for a game which is fun and action-packed, and which certainly invites a lot of creative play.
The display in Aztec depicts a cross section of three floors of the tomb at any time, or one level, and the tomb is nine levels deep. The tomb's width approximately equals its depth and the corridors eventually wrap horizontally. The floors are filled with numerous staircases, piles of rubble, chests and marauding beasties, and you need to balance your search for the staircases which will take you deeper into the tomb with the search for weapons and health. You enter the tomb armed only with a few sticks of dynamite, and these don't amount to a very practical or dependable method of fobbing off monsters. Their main use is for blowing holes through walls or the floor when you're trapped, cornered, or just feeling the pull of the corridor below you. The dynamite sequence is impressively detailed, the way you have to drop your hero into a crawl, get in position, have him extend his hand, then press 'P' to place the dynamite before hopping to your feet and dashing away far enough that you won't be caught in the blast.
Once you've found a machete, you can cut down most of the nasties in the size range between the tiny spiders and the cobras. There are a finite number of monsters on each level, so it can be worth killing any that are particularly dangerous or which you anticipate will block your path later. For anything bigger than a cobra (panther, croc, dinosaur, Aztec warrior with the temerity to defend his sovereignty) you may need pistols and bullets, or dynamite, or a combination of all of the above. However, due to the general glitchy weirdness of Aztec, you can't really depend on any particular monster being consistent in its nature or degree of dangerousness. Some monsters seem to have the wrong sprites attached, for instance a tiny 'super' spider which proves invulnerable to machete blows, and needs to be exterminated illogically by gunfire directed over its head, as if it were a dinosaur. Other creatures behave in bizarre and insidious ways, slithering supernaturally across chasms of thin air just to block off some staircase that's really important to you, even though they seem content to obey the laws of physics at all other times. When injured, your character falls briefly into a stunned and invulnerable state indicated by stars orbiting his prone body. As a result, the dinosaur which mows you down for walloping damage but gives you time to become un-stunned while you're in the clear is far less of a threat than some tiny innocent-looking snake which might touch your foot once and instantly stun and quadruple hit you into the grave. The population of anomalous / super monsters seems to increase by difficulty level, but you can never identify them by sight.
Since everything is so dangerous and unpredictable in Aztec, it's a good idea to turn to the game's glitches for help. Jumping propels your character horizontally at approximately five hundred percent of your running speed, and due to the nature of the animation routines used, also slows time microscopically for the duration of each jump. So leap as often as possible, but only after looking, of course. Next, since you can climb on almost anything, you almost certainly should. Climb up a chest as a shortcut to a staircase, or just use a protruding chest lid as an emergency ladder exit from the tomb's highest floor; you only have to get your sprite poking sufficiently off the top of the screen to have the program believe you've escaped. If there's a moving hole in the floor, you won't fall through it unless you're moving as well, so you can win this dumb logic contest by standing still and hovering in the air while the hole slides right under you. The methods for going downwards are even more entertaining. If you think you can get down to the next level faster by crawling around the glitchy screen border until you inexplicably fall through it, you should. Crawling on the game logo is fun too, but really just a distracter when you could be plummeting faster towards your goal even now. You can cheat your way downwards quite quickly, but stairs are important for getting back up later, so you have to make sure they aren't demolished. Sometimes you'll find a lit stick of dynamite in a garbage pile you're digging through, or one of Von Forster's traps will cause a bomb to fall from the roof directly above your character, and such random staircase-wrecking explosions can also wreck your game.
The major traps in the tomb, which usually occupy whole screens, are best avoided once detected, as their illogic can be at least as great as that possessed by your character. In the 'giant tap' room, the door seals behind you and water starts pouring in. Since the rising water contains pixels, you can walk on it if you initiate the Climb command by hitting 'C', and are careful and lucky. This will make you feel like some sort of trap-evading latter day Jesus for a brief period of time, and may even allow you to escape to a higher exit, but if you stumble even once, you'll probably drown. The room with closing-in crushing walls is perhaps the worst trap to activate, because even if you execute some obnoxiously clever glitch exploit to climb out of harm's way, or, less gracefully, blow a hole in the floor with dynamite and jump through it, what happens is that the crushing walls suddenly materialise on the floor you've now moved to, then continue on their way to inevitably killing you. As usual, avoiding activating the trap in the first place is the best policy. The traps alone are unlikely to nab you if you exercise a bit of caution in the long run. It is the interaction of the traps and the ever roaming monsters which proves to be tricky.
Aztec's particular brand of chaotic adventure is always tense and exciting. The graphics are largely monochromatic but make up for this with their realism and detail. A crocodile in Aztec isn't some Frogger-like sprite; it is clearly a crocodile as depicted in eight bits of black and white verisimilitude, complete with teeth and lashing tail. The game's creator, Paul Stephenson, had an excellent way with this visual style (also used in his Swashbuckler) and left the colour mostly for his hectic title pages. One tradeoff is that the Apple's XDRAW programming subroutine is used to handle all of Aztec's black and white sprite movement, which means that instead of preparing whole frames of animation before displaying them, the game quickly erases and redraws all moving sprites before your eyes, resulting in semi-constant flickering. Almost no commercial Apple II action games used this method once hi-res page-flipping and pre-shifted shape techniques became widely known, but Aztec wouldn't be Aztec if it looked or behaved any differently. It has an unmistakeable aesthetic, cool and creepy monsters, strong detail in all areas of its mechanics, and a great, wonky precipitousness which is inseparable from the larger experience, and which makes each game feel lively and a bit dangerous. Nobody would have baulked at releasing a game which was so detailed and obviously sensational-looking in 1982, glitchy or not. It also looked very much the way you hoped an arcade game about Indiana Jones's perilous tomb adventures might look. The game is still extremely entertaining and replayable almost thirty years later, and finding the idol and living to tell the tale certainly hasn't gotten any easier in that time.
Community review by bloomer (April 28, 2009)
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