[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED FEB. 24, 2011]
It’s not an overstatement to describe Aztec as graphically dazzling, an action-adventure game released originally for the Apple II and Atari 8-bit computers in 1982, and then a couple of years later for the C64. Aztec is all the more remarkable when you consider that most adventure games of the era, such as those of Infocom, were limited to mere text to create the atmosphere, or the limited slide-show animations of Sierra On-line.
Aztec was designed by Paul Stephenson and distributed by Datamost, a company that produced a few other classic gaming gems, such as Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory in 1983. Stephenson himself also designed Swashbuckler for the company, released the same year as Aztec… and you can definitely see familiarity in the combat modes between the two games.
A colourful (if one had a colour monitor or TV set attached to their Apple) opening title screen greets you while the game loads. Further pages of white text used to set up the story fool gamers into thinking that perhaps the graphics were a big come-on and that Aztec might be just another text adventure. The text explains that apparently the famed (but unstable) Professor Von Forster found a lost Aztec temple, but disappeared without further contact.
The player is then presented with a few options, such as choosing either to start a new game or load up a previously saved one. A difficulty setting is then requested, ranging from 1 if you want to take things easy, all the way up to 8 if one is feeling suicidal. Charging you with following in the Prof’s footsteps, Aztec then puts the gamer in the scuffed shoes of a fearless adventurer, cutting through all that “red line representing travelling by the air from country to country” rigamarole by opening the gameplay with you standing right outside the Aztec tomb of real-life Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl. With the tap of a key, you descend into the mysterious depths.
The game is essentially a platformer, with large sprites for the adventurer and the various creatures he must dispatch or avoid. It’s quite a menagerie down there, with spiders, snakes, alligators, Aztec warriors and even dinosaurs calling Quetzalcoal’s tomb home. While the animations are pretty limited, it’s the details of the artwork that really makes things pop.
The layout of the tomb is randomized each time you play, and most of your time is spent searching for, opening and looking through boxes and piles of trash on the ground, which can contain weapons, health potions or just the scattered remains of poor Prof. Von Forster. As you delve deeper the creatures get more dangerous, and the traps more cunning. The end goal is to snatch a valuable jade idol that is hidden somewhere in the tomb, and then get out with your life.
Helping the creatures in their fight to finish you off is the game’s clunky control method. Each action is assigned a specific key, so to walk you press “W” and then a direction key, and you’ll keep walking until you hit “S” for stop. You can also crouch, crawl, plant dynamite, jump, run, climb… it gets to be a bit much fumbling around for each key on the keyboard, although once you get the hang on it you can navigate the tomb quickly while playing the keyboard like a virtuoso pianist. You also can enter a fight mode, where you wield either the machete or a pistol, but often it is unsure why you hit or miss something. The sound isn’t any great shakes either; just the bloops and bleeps from the Apple‘s internal speaker, but this somehow adds to the game’s spartan charms. And being able to blow your way out of a jam with a well placed stick of TNT is a play mechanic that is still fairly unmatched in adventure gaming, decades later.
I have a particularly fond memory of Aztec, because when I was going to high school the first computers we got were two Apple II‘s for the science class. For some reason there was a copy of the game in the library of disks, so every chance I got I put that bad boy into the floppy drive and loaded it up. After a few times of him catching me and telling me to stop playing games with the computers, the science teacher banned me from the keyboard for a week. I learned my lesson well; when I regained computer privileges I was more careful he wasn’t around when I played.
Sure, it’s no Uncharted, but at the time, this was as close to living out the Indiana Jones dream as you could get on a computer, with Raiders of the Lost Ark having been released just the year before. Aztec, complete with all its bugs and quirks, makes for an unforgettable Apple II gaming treasure.