…read the eye-catching advert for the Amiga puzzle-platformer, Gold of the Aztecs, in the run-up to the game’s hyperbolic launch in 1990. US Gold, confident that their latest title was “one of the toughest action adventures ever devised”, threw down the gauntlet, challenging gamers to “beat all-comers” to claim the unique prize.
Specific qualification criteria was supposedly detailed on the reverse side of the box, although not on any of the ones I’ve seen. Did you make the grade? Did anyone walk away into the simmering Mesoamerican sunset with the illustrious spoils? Blank-faced, Google can only shrug its shoulders, so it’s over to you.
Sadly, despite the overzealous press junkets, breathlessly flaunting the game’s vital statistics, Gold of the Aztecs turned out to be a bit of a turkey. Developed with an Apple Mac by one-game-wonders, Kinetica, these encompassed…
What sabotaged the seemingly impressive title is the unwieldy controls that render it totally unplayable to anyone other than ‘Maskaman’ who somehow managed to beat it and upload the longplay evidence to YouTube in July 2011. Fedoras off to you, sir!
We’re attacked mercilessly at every turn yet haven’t got a hope in hell of defending ourselves since Bret – the protagonist – is incapable of running and holding his Browning 13mm automatic simultaneously. A pretty basic prerequisite for any aspiring Indy Jones apprentice you’d have thought! Fine for the Prince of Persia… his princess-rescuing gig was a walk in the park.
On the contrary. Take a few potshots with our limited ammo hand gun, slip it into its holster to begin running, and before we know it we’re ambushed with no time to react. RIP Bret.
We’re resurrected, one life down, only to kick the bucket again before drawing breath, let alone a weapon! Let’s go Mr Driver! Oh wait, another fatal collision. Game over. Hmmph.
It doesn’t help that Bret ambles about the landscape like an arthritic newborn giraffe pitted against an army of elite ninjas armed with coconuts, blowpipes, bows and arrows, and spears. ‘Off the scale’ would be an appropriate way to describe the remorseless difficulty curve. I hope you kept the receipt!
It’s such a shame since the game showed so much promise in the previews, and gets off to a superb start with a compelling animated introduction depicting the arrival of Bret’s plane and his parachuted descent into the remote Mexican jungle.
Before he takes his first step into the bleak depths of purgatory, the main game is equally seductive, what with its alluring, exotic backdrops and bewilderingly monstrous sprites that trample us to dust while we’re still dazed in admiration of their technical prowess. In case you’re wondering what an elephant is doing in Mexico, they were introduced by Spanish nobleman, Don Juan, when he visited the New World in 1615 with his cavalry of 300 conquistadors to seek fame and fortune. Zoogeography, however, is the least of Bret’s troubles.
Boredom can be the death of you. No-one knows this better than our leading man, a penniless Vietnam war veteran with time on his hands. It’s the only impetus he needs to embark on an impossible pilgrimage, fearlessly risking life and limb to seize mythical lost treasure…
“For 400 years no-one has dared to take up the toughest challenge man has ever known – to find Quetzacotl’s GOLD OF THE AZTECS. No-one has dared, that is until today. Bret Conrad, ex-Special Forces Commander (and all-round great guy) is bored. His combat training has made mortal danger a way of life, and since he was forced into retirement for being a liability to himself and his men, he’s been looking for a death-defying mission that he can really get his teeth into. This time the odds are really stacked against him and you – in one of the biggest, most fascinating adventure games ever devised!”
Scooby-Dooby-Doo where are you? We’ve got some work to do. Hello? Coo-ee. It looks like we’re on our own for this one.
Sashaying along like a second rate, jaunty Basil Fawlty impersonator we push the screen to initiate scrolling (I thought he was a baby giraffe? Make your mind up. – ed). Rather than square up to them, we’re best advised to somersault over the shambling, trollish, head-hunting tribesmen and other deadly fauna and flora since ammo is in limited supply and gangly goofballs like Bret tend to be about as competent with firearms as Chief Wiggum. Your bulletproof dome is no match for my, er… bullets.
Thundering through the vegetation one gun-blazing achieves absolutely nothing. Not least because we’ll need to conserve a few rounds for activating lifts and opening pathways from afar. Gold of the Aztecs is a tedious exercise in repetition, memorisation of level structure and the placement of adversaries and keys. It demands patience and precision timing, while our shambolic hero lacks the critical dexterity and reflexes to pull it off. Notice that fun doesn’t really factor into the equation. Bit of an oversight that.
It’s certainly not without stylistic intrigue thanks to its intricately detailed pixel art and atmospheric audio, undercut with the distant, echoed clanking of chains and grinding gears seen through gaps created by the crumbling cement render. Anyone would think we’d stumbled into some kind of torture fetishist’s house of horrors. You know, I think that’s what they were shooting for. Tick!
Bret’s on-rails raft journey through a sepulchral cavernous swamp is particularly immersive in that it’s reminiscent of a carnival ghost train. Replete with snapping crocodiles and a member of the enteroctopus family, taking our eyes off the ball for a second isn’t an option.
I suspect that clawed bogie-men looming out of the shadows threatening to separate our head from its torso isn’t going to be good for our blood pressure either.
And we’re not the only one in danger of decapitation. A demonic, glowing-eyed canine creature towers over a damsel in distress strapped to a sacrificial table, biding its time, poised to dissect her with its scorpion-like pincers. Oh no, my mistake, it’s bitten her head clean off with its fangs in the traditional manner for an undead hell-hound.
Don’t expect one human head to satiate its appetite; we’re next on the menu! Once the beast from beyond spots Bret it’s on his tail ready to pounce at the first sign of a momentary stumble. King Kong looks like Bubbles the chimp next to this snarling, slathering reprobate!
This is where the previously more leisurely puzzle-solving becomes life-saving. As we flee, levers and pulleys must be triggered to remove or activate blockades to grant us safe passage while heading off the lumbering mass closing in on us. Linger a millisecond too long and we’re gobbled up like an After Damsel Mint. For anyone blessed with inhuman joystick-wrangling skills it’s sheer genius in terms of game design.
If we can sustain this acrobatic survival exercise for long enough we’ll reach a gap in the terrain, allowing us to duck down to the level below while the hell-spawn blindly forges onward and out of harm’s way. Phew! And breathe.
On route fallen conquistadors (some of them still clutching stolen loot) facilitate our quest from beyond the grave, their eternally entwined corpses serving as gruesome custom-made ladders. Others, wretched, barely alive captives remain strung up on the walls, spasmodically twitching against their shackles.
We made the mistake of blinking for a millisecond, our weary eyelids breaking a new dawn on a scene apparently straight out of a Clive Barker horror movie. Hellraiser maybe.
Suppressing our revulsion we must forge ahead as these human ladders are our only means of escape from Venus mantraps, bloodthirsty locusts, slithering serpents and delinquent monkeys with a penchant for hurling weaponised fruit.
Not to mention all the other hazards to our well-being I’m now going to list as if we’re playing one of those point-awarding ‘I Spy’ books we used to take along on long car journeys before smartphones were invented…
Descending spikes, ascending spikes, spikey spikes, fire breathing totem monsters, booby traps, stretchy wracks, a panther…
…bats, ghosts, vultures, rickety collapsing bridges…
He looks to me like a knight who might enjoy saying “Ni!”. King Arthur wouldn’t stand for this.
…stepping stone jaunts over toe-scorching lava, a quagmire only crossable via unstable lily pad pontoons…
…and human-sized cooking pots.
Ironically our exit strategy from this tomb of torture involves the release of a Raiders of the Lost Ark sized runaway boulder. Shoot away its stopper and prepare to sprint as if your life depends on it. It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch since it does.
Hold onto your hat, leap and latch onto a dangling rope just at the perfect moment like a bona fide archaeologist and we can haul ourselves clear as the irrepressible boulder rolls harmlessly by, bursting through the ancient cave wall as though it was crepe paper.
Squinting in protest at the blistering sunlight piercing thousands of years of undisturbed dereliction we savour our first taste of freedom in… in… who knows how many weeks since our solar watch last ticked?
Perched on a ledge gasping for breath, stranded between a labyrinthine cave system and a fatally steep drop over the precipice, our long-awaited extrication from this waking nightmare begins to sour.
Oh, hang on a sec, there’s a rescue chopper in yonder distance heading this way to airlift us back to civilisation. We’re saved, yippee etc. It must be responding to the flare we’d forgotten we lit in our fatigued delirium and elation at not being flattened by an escapee from Spielberg’s movie set.
Alive and now filthy rich courtesy of our glistening, grave-robbing spoils – not least the legendary lost holy chalice – the life of Riley awaits. Whoever he is or was. Judging by the closing scene this entails standing around in a wooden shack drinking cocktails with half-dressed women, and… erm… playing Top Trumps.
I suppose it beats teaching archaeology to bored university students while they play Candy Crush on their iPhones, slurping their ‘flat whites’. Whatever they are.