Sunday, July 08, 2007

Videogame Classics - Montezuma's Revenge

Montezuma's Revenge
Created by some 16-year-old Kid for Atari 800

Montezuma's Revenge, one of the great milestones in platforming adventure games. It's striking to me that even in a post-Mario world, this is still a great game. I remember the first time it ran on my grandfather's Atari 800 computer, when that great title screen appeared and the music played. My only exposure to videogames at that point was Atari 2600. This was a revelation; something new and grand and exciting. Imagine playing E.T. on your Atari, telling yourself it's really not that bad...and then looking at this.

This game was always a favorite among Atari computer owners. It basically took the original premise of Pitfall and ran with it. You play as Panama Joe, running through an Aztec pyramid in search of treasure and adventure. The single-screen structure was standard for the era, but the game was loaded with elements of arcade action and puzzle strategy. There are rolling skulls to tend with, as well as bats, snakes, and the occasional disappearing platform.

Montezuma's Revenge is an exquisitely animated computer game, especially for 1983. Hell, it's better than most console platformers for many years. And maybe I was just corrupted by too many Road Runner cartoons, but I loved the death animations, especially the long drops. Land on your head, and poor Panama Joe lies crushed, with a twitching leg. Fall into a fire pit - poof! Away in a puff of smoke. I'd think anyone who would undertake a retro remake would want to study their Wile E. Coyote death scenes and incorporate them into the game.

There's a bit of mystery as to the origins of this game, especially the original 1983 Atari 800 version. For one thing, it appeared to be unfinished. Once you traveled deep into the heart of the pyramid, you encounter a boss screen - one of gaming's first. The boss is old Montezuma himself, as a two-floor giant who stomps his foot around, trying to knock you into the fire.

The problem? Nothing happens here. Clearly, this was meant to be some sort of climax, but whatever was planned was never completed. This became a mystery amongst Atarians for many years.

Thank goodness for the internet. With a little sleuthing, we can determine the answer. Montezuma's Revenge was created by 17-year-old Robert Jaeger, an impressively skilled computer game designer. He and his father took out a booth at the Consumer Electronics Show to show off his latest creation. This quickly led to talks with Parker Brothers, who were interested in releasing the game. They quickly bought the rights and set quickly to release Montezuma on the Atari 5200.

The problem was that Montezuma was a 48k - yes, that's right, kids, 48 kilobytes - and it needed to be squeezed onto a 16k cart. So many things were trimmed or cut out altogether. Things like animations and the score screen that appears when you gain or lose a life. The title screen itself was scrapped, some graphics were removed, and the game was completed with a set level structure. Now, there would be a definite finish to each pyramid, which leads to a coin-filled bonus room (obviously predicting Super Mario Bros) and then the next level. Later pyramids would be larger, and incorporate more screens in complete darkness.

Oh, and they changed Panama Joe's hat. No idea why. The old hat was much better.

The 16k version of Montezuma's Revenge was released on Atari 5200 in 1984 to great acclaim, and was quickly ported to as many formats as possible. There was even a 2600 version, which always seemed a little pointless to me. I knew a couple kids who had that version of the game, and, well, I always felt a little sorry for them. They never knew what they were missing.

As to the original 48k Montezuma, it was never officially released. I suppose it was just leaked out and spread the old-fashioned way. By making illegal digital copies and sharing them with your friends.

To be completely fair, I always liked Parker Bros version. It was a little quicker, a little looser, and there was actually an ending to the damned thing. But so many of those great little touches were missing. Strangely enough, it always believed this was an unfinished demo, perhaps a sequel. In terms of its presentation, it was always a step below Jaeger's original.

Montezuma's Revenge has even been ported to the Gameboy Color and Sega Master System, but to be perfectly honest, I never thought they were any good. The gameplay and swiftness - heck, the spirit of the game itself - was never there. The SMS version, especially, tried to give the graphics an updated, grittier look, something more akin to Indiana Jones than Aztec Mario. It was a hideous decision.

It's enough to make you want to track Mr. Jaeger and have him finish his old game. I think the Atari 800 would make an excellent candidate for the Virtual Arcade, don't you agree? Both versions - Parker Bros' official release, and the Atari 800 original - are wonderfully playable action games, and could find a new generation of fans today.

The screenshots from the original 48k Montezuma's Revenge are on the top. Here below are screenshots from the 16k Parker Bros version, released on Atari 5200. Like many 5200 games, it found its way onto Atari computers; file-shared, of course.


tinyarmada said...

This was one of my favorite atari games and had not seen it since I was 7 years old until I found your blog. I would love to see more frames from the game or even live action. I remember it seemed like there were so many levels on this game - at least to a 7 year old. Good times. Must still thank my computer geek cousins for pirating tons of games for our computer.

Karida Philana said...

I'd love.. hang on... LOVE to see this game available once again. Mac and PC compatible would be my hope but any version would suffice. I would buy a new computer even if it was the only game I could play on it. This game was awesome!