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Aztec Adventure (Sega Master System) artwork

Aztec Adventure (Sega Master System) review

"Paradise Lost"

The Aztec Paradise exists, yet no one knows exactly what it is or where it's located, but a certain someone is determined to find it within Central America. The young adventurer El Niņo, Spanish for... the Niņo, has set out to find numerous labyrinths in the hopes that one is hiding the supposedly unattainable, unfathomable treasures. Through forests, across deserts, amidst ruins, and other such remote locations, the sword-wielding "Child" must seek and fend off their wild inhabitants in order to achieve his dream in this Aztec Adventure. But if you think he's up against trivial wildlife like normal, dangerous bears or other such menacing animals then, well, you wish.

As you guide El Niņo across linear, guided paths in an overhead perspective, you will encounter the strangest of creatures, each one more weirder than the previous one. Turtles? Turtles can't be that bad? There are instances where you have to fight several spiky turtles on a single screen. You want bears? How about a rabid b... bear-like creature that moves by teleporting every few steps. Thankfully, these enemy types are short-ranged fighters that can be taken out easily; the ones you should be concerned about are opponents that attack from a distance with projectiles, since they essentially make up the more challenging encounters.

This game has a lot of projectile-based enemies, too. Not only are there a lot, but they're hard to describe. Every time you enter a new screen, you have to contend with the likes of leafy bugs that shoot while circle-strafing in a wide pattern, human-sized "tile" faces that fire bullets one after another, and lanky ancient sentinels who throw spears that make sudden sharp turns mid flight. What especially makes these tricky is how the paths usually encompass half the screen, with the other half being taken up by a separate part of the path. Now imagine encountering multiples of one type in a single screen. Now imagine encountering multiples of various types in a single screen. Now imagine encountering multiples of various types in a single screen and getting up close to each one to kill them... while the others shoot.

But why attack enemies if you can avoid most by walking around them? In perhaps Aztec Adventure's smartest design choice, every enemy drops helpful items, from money bags and iron balls, to spears you can toss. Granted, these extra weapons won't do additional damage to bosses, but they're definitely welcoming for when you want to deal with a distant foe without having to get close. Furthermore, each stage features a special item which you usually activate to make any real progress, such as collecting fireballs to burn away barricades or walking across water with special boots. Iron balls, spears, and fireballs are self-explanatory in an action title, but what about money? Surely you use currency to buy items?

It's not what you would expect, as Aztec Adventure turns money into a gimmick that sounds intriguing on paper. Each stage has anthropomorphic dogs, cats, and what looks like duck-rabbits in poncho garb, all of whom are enemies. However! Bribe them with money and they immediately become allies. Think of them as the equivalent of helper ships in a shoot 'em up; they mimic your movement and attacks. Sounds cool, but implementation is awkward. Considering the amount of enemies on screen, plus objects and obstacles taking up additional space, it gets cramped for your helper. It's also tricky timing your ally's attacks against an enemy parallel to your own movements, so they're terrible as backup. Worst of all, thanks to space being tight, your helper won't last long as they keep colliding with everything. It's an unfortunate waste of a gimmick.

Thankfully, the "bribe system" is something you can choose not to do, making it one of the least problematic aspects of this journey. As you may have deduced so far, Aztec Adventure is packed with features, gimmicks, and unique variety. It all sounds fun and challenging, but these assets are unfortunately squandered in a generic experience. This is likely due to the fact that about two or three stages into the 11-stage escapade, you more or less witnessed everything the game has to offer. Despite there being an interesting mix of enemies to fight, they really fall into two categories: weak melee fodder and projectile-based foes, the latter being more of a constant threat. Though, since you have a decent-sized life bar and wishing wells to replenish your health in each stage, a little bit of caution and grinding for additional items can help prevent loss of life in most scenarios.

Once you realize these two types and know how to handle them, the remainder of your adventure almost feels like a chore. It doesn't help that the game doesn't exactly go at a fast pace; everything, from El Niņo to all the normal enemies, move at a leisurely tempo. To top it off, the latter five stages just recycles enemies, environments, and hazards from the first half, granted with new linear paths. You know what would have been better than remixed stages? Labyrinth stages. At the end of each stage, you walk through a labyrinth entrance. Logic would dictate that the very next stage takes place within said labyrinth... but for some bizarre reason you're instead transported to the next outdoor stage. Another unfortunate waste of an idea.

Aztec Adventure is just a weird product. It has weird enemies, it has a weird money system that doesn't work, it has weird flaws, and it weirdly dodges aspects that could have made the game better. It gets weirder, too. Aztec Adventure is called Nazca '88 in the original Japanese release, which is referring to the original setting of the game: Nazca, Peru. If you manage to reach the final stage, this becomes even more obvious due to the appearance of "lines." But that's not the weird part; this was also released in Brazil, which is located right next to Peru, and yet... they retained the name Aztec Adventure over Nazca. Sadly, being weird is probably the strongest aspect this game has going for it.

dementedhut's avatar
Community review by dementedhut (March 29, 2022)

Alternative header: Rock and a Hard Place

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