Crypts of Chaos (20th Century Fox, 1982)
This game made me wonder if it’s fair to give extra points to a game for its attempts at innovation even if in execution those same attempts fail miserably. Crypts of Chaos is a very early first-person “dungeon crawler” adventure game. Like most adventure games – dungeon crawly or not – your goal is to find treasure, slay monsters and manage resources and weapons. Pretty much the format of Adventure. The difference here is you guide yourself through a very-pseudo 3D maze that, according to the manual, comprises several levels and will require you to map your progress out on paper. Sorry, I don’t have the patience for that. The game does not fluidly lead you to decision points such as corridors, intersections, stairways and dead ends; instead, it relies on a non-intuitive, confusing colour-coding system. I had no idea where I was going half the time. The controls are difficult. Frequently, you spend precious time scrounging for your preferred item or weapon while a monster quickly descends upon you. Crypts of Chaos may have been a little too ambitious for its own good considering the era and the system – many of its worst problems could have been solved by ditching the first-person thing altogether and going for an Adventure/Haunted House-style overhead view. That may not have been as original but it would have certainly made it more playable and fun. I’m giving it a D+ (rather than its deserved F) for its ambition and for the fact that more patient players than I may get some enjoyment from the game.
Crystal Castles (Atari, 1984)
The year was 1985. Despite being two years past the video game crash, the “good” (meaning newest and most popular) games at my local Atari retailer still sold for the mortgage on your first home plus your firstborn for good measure. My parents assured me they were never going to be caught dead paying over $20 for a video game, so I was stuck with the bargain bin. That was okay in some cases because I was able to get some good older games like Space Invaders and Berzerk, but it also meant feigning gratitude for the likes of Sky Jinks and, yes, E.T. (okay, I admit I actually wanted E.T.). So it was to my shock that my birthday present that year was none other than a freshly-minted copy of Crystal Castles, which sold at the time for a whopping $40. I popped the cart in my VCS and to me it was worth every penny Mom and Dad spent. The graphics, the music, the sheer number of levels – all defied my expectations of what was possible on the Atari 2600.
However, there was always an elephant in the room when it came to this game: incredibly frustrating gameplay. Even though it would frequently anger me, as a kid I chose to overlook this major flaw out of my awe for the game’s more superficial trappings. For example, it was often unclear whether it was safe to jump over an enemy or whether you would wind up landing on top of one. The gem collecting mechanics were frustrating; rather than just letting Bentley the Bear pick up the gems by smoothly gliding over them, you have to make sure he touches them with his feet, creating an annoying up-down motion. Both of these factors were present in its coin-op predecessor, the difference is that the arcade game was controlled by a precision trakball rather than a clumsy joystick. I guess you have to give Atari a perverted sense of credit for being true to form and retaining the feel of an already somewhat flawed game. In both formats it’s one of those games that expects precision from the player but not so much from itself.
Technically, I retain my opinion that Crystal Castles is an awe-inspiring release graphically and soundwise. In some respects it might even be more sophisticated than Pitfall II, which in my mind represents the limits to which the VCS could be pushed. The difference is Pitfall II plays flawlessly while Crystal Castles offers much flash but little substance. C+
Custer’s Revenge (Mystique, 1982)
Well, here it is. The worst of the worst of Mystique/Playground’s series of “Swedish Erotica” (what the hell is that even supposed to mean?) for the Atari 2600. Notice I have not included the all-too-familiar screenshot of pixelated historical rape – it can be easily found online for the curious. It’s exactly the ubiquitous presence of these “adult” games online, but particularly Custer’s Revenge, that drives my strong dislike of them. It started out as funny online memes ridiculing the notion of porn on the Atari 2600, but in the process the games achieved far more cultural cache than they deserve. Maybe I’m taking it all too seriously, but I can’t help but feel these games have helped tear down the console’s legacy with it. Trust me: very few people – and especially the 2600’s primary audience of children – were even aware of the existence of these games back in the day. How would one even have gone about buying them? Mail order or adult book store, I imagine. I want to re-emphasize that I am not a prude – the Leisure Suit Larry series proves there is room for sexual themes in video games. But Mystique/Playground’s games were so ill-advised, in such poor taste and all just such plain awful games that they bring the Puritan out in me (appropriate, being that I’m coincidentally posting close to U.S. Thanksgiving). I have to admit, though, that virtually anything to do with the Baby Boomer generation (which these games were no doubt designed by and marketed towards) and sexuality kind of turns my stomach. F
Dark Cavern (M Network, 1982)
Playing Dark Cavern got me thinking about just how punishingly hard video games used to be in the Atari-NES era. Most of today’s games offer a bit of a cheat (even the most brutal FPS of today will usually allow you to duck away from the action to replenish your health), but back then you were expected to perform the impossible. I think game producers of the time loathed children and loved money in equal measure. Anyway, it’s not that Dark Cavern is an especially hard game, at least not in its “B” setting, which if anything could have used a little more difficulty. In the “A” position though? Hoo-boy! In that setting Dark Cavern is the kind of game where your enemies will shoot at you even after you’ve destroyed them. The game is a Wizard of Wor-style maze shooter in which you stalk killer robots even as they stalk you. The only option is to shoot them in the back because – much like Berzerk – it’s very hard to dodge their bullets if you attempt a frontal assault. Your bullets are limited but more are periodically made available. The game is the 2600 version of Night Stalker for the Intellivision, by most accounts one of the better games for that system. I like this game well enough, but like I said the “A” game is virtually impossible. The most fun (and Wizard of Wor-like) aspect of the “B” game is figuring out ways to sneak up behind the robots and shoot them. The “A” setting offers no such leeway – the robots shoot almost continuously in both directions. Dark Cavern is good, but seeing as there is already a pretty good port of Wizard of Wor available for the system, you might just want to stick with that. C+
Dark Chambers (Atari, 1983, 1988)
Meet the game that put the “crawl” in “dungeon crawler.” Say what you will about the square avatar in Adventure – at least it zipped along quite nicely. In Dark Chambers your guy takes forever to move from one room to the next. Even at that pace, the various “ghouls” (skeletons, zombies and whatnot) are pretty easy to kill, which should give you an idea of the kind of challenge the game offers. Like most dungeon crawlers, Dark Chambers has you collecting treasure, unlocking doors, slaying monsters, etc., in this case over 26 levels. It’s the kind of game you pretty much have to map out, which is something I know a lot of old school gamers enjoy. I don’t mind doing that as long as there’s a clear objective, such as in Adventure or Pitfall II. But Dark Chambers is just tedious. I just kept playing, going from room to room and level to level looking for something to happen, like a boss to battle or something. When it comes right down to it, unlike most crawlers, Dark Chambers is a score-based, rather than objective-based, game. That would be fine if the various ghouls you have to battle were any challenge whatsoever, but they’re not. This game is a lost opportunity; with a little more effort (and it’s not as if there wasn’t plenty of time to work on the game – it was designed in 1983 but not released until 1988) it could have been the true follow-up to Adventure that the Swordquest games were not. Extra points for those who may find the mapping aspect enjoyable. D