Reading through an article on Eurogamer by Rich Stanton in which he covers the rise and fall of gaming developers, Free Radical, it was an eye opening piece given the honesty of those involved in relating what went down with Lucasarts. It was also a sad reminder of where Lucasarts is now compared to what they had accomplished in the eighties and the nineties.
In those two decades, Lucasarts became a juggernaut among gamers reaching into the two things that George Lucas’ films were tattooed with: action and adventure. With ties to Star Wars and the idea factory behind it, it seemed like the kind of development house that had nothing but the horizon to contain the worlds it came up with. When people yammered on and on about Silicon Hollywood with CD-ROMs, Lucasarts seemed to be in a better position than most to dive right into the revolution.
Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, Raid of Fractalus, The Eidolon, X-Wing, Maniac Mansion, Outlaws…games so different from each other that today, some might expect for these to come out from five different development houses. But back in those days, companies like Lucasarts danced to a much different tune and weren’t afraid of experimentation and pushing the envelope on gaming.
One of their best games, at least in my mind, was Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis in 1992. If it weren’t a game, I’d almost expect it to stand in for a new movie. One that didn’t have anything to do with aliens or nuked fridges.
Fate was an incredible adventure game driven by their SCUMM scripting language with ear candy supplied by their iMUSE sound system. It was a classic point ‘n click, but from the very start as the title and credits come up onscreen to his mini-adventure amongst familiar relics, I could tell that this wouldn’t be any ordinary experience.
Fate took place in 1939 with the world teetering on the edge of war. That places it after his trip around the world in The Last Crusade (1938) and many years before Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (1957) as it had nothing to do with any of the movies.
Before he knows it, Indy is soon caught up in a chase to discover the truth behind Atlantis before the nefarious Nazis do and unleash its buried power against the rest of the non-goosestepping world.
To help him out is Sophia Hapgood, a former student of his who turned her back on archaeology to become a psychic. Yeah, Indy isn’t too happy about that, either, though she does have a good head on her shoulders as well as being the only other person who can make sense of the trail of clues that they need to crack wide open before the Nazis do the same to their heads.
The story by Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein seems pulled from a scrapbook of ideas that Lucas and Spielberg must have hidden away in its own vault somewhere. It was that good and it wasted little time in getting the player right into the action. Or the adventure. Or a little of both if you preferred.
That was one of the great things about Fate – it adapted to your play style in its own way depending on what you decided to do. A rudimentary, 2D punching mini-game created its “Fists” path which would make it so that Indy would often match his pugilistic skills against whoever was in his way.
But suppose you like puzzles instead? There was always the “Puzzle” path to tease Indy’s brain with more conundrums than crushing blows. And if you really hit it off with Sophia, there’s always the “Team” path to try out. Each path had its own unique challenges and this was one of the few games that I really enjoyed playing through more than once. It was an incredibly innovative step forward for gaming in general, something that few other titles in any other genre would attempt even today.
The puzzles were quite fun to figure out and weren’t brutally difficult. They also made use of the manual as a form of copy protection. They were also blended into each locale and felt as if they belonged there and worked with their environments in a way that made you feel as if you were there with Indy in trying to figure out why the ancients would go to so much trouble. The end sequence, in particular, stood out for showcasing Indy’s wits and the score by Clint Bajakian and his team fit each scene like a glove right up until the sunset at the very end.
Clever animation work also let slip each character’s personality adding another layer of welcome detail whether it was the way Indy puts his trademarked fedora back on his bruised head, punched his way through Nazis, or how Sophia twiddled her fingers in working her magic to summon unseen spirits. There’s also a subtle bit of comedy where it’s appropriate, such as how Indy gets a Nazi sub to do what he needs it do, before a splash of drama and adventure weighs in later when a discovery pushes them closer to Atlantis.
The traditional mysticism and pseudo-science of the Indy films is also stitched into each scene. The Nazis are convinced that Atlantis hides something that could give them even greater power than splitting the atom could ever provide, while Sophia’s psychic powers and the occasional brush with the unexplained throughout the adventure keeps the game even more grounded in Indy’s world. The “Indy Quotient”, or IQ, was the scorekeeping system that tracked the points you earned for overcoming the challenges in Indy’s and Sophia’s way encouraging even more play.
The game came in a nicely sized box, the kind that you rarely see anymore on store shelves, wrapped in art. The concept for the front of the box was inspired by artist, Drew Struzan, whose movie poster work became the signature style seen plastered at theaters around the world for Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
The game also had an “all action” version come out. Fate would also later take advantage of the CD-ROM race by featuring full voice overs for all of the characters and a few enhanced sound effects. Doug Lee, who does the voice of Indy, is nearly spot on and delivers a solid performance throughout the game as does everyone else. Though it stuck to PC releases for awhile such as on the Amiga and the Mac, it more recently came out for the Nintendo Wii and is also available on Steam.
The map of the world faintly seen in the backdrop of the ad below is also on the game box itself with the centerpiece being the cover art. Plenty of text provide compelling reasons for heading off into this pseudo-sequel and a number of screens hint at what armchair adventurers can expect in the game. It’s a good looking ad for one of the best adventure games ever made.
Sadly, a sequel was planned but due to its subject matter that would have seen players taking out a resurrected Hitler in a way that makes Bionic Commando’s head asploding seem trite, Germany was a little leery on seeing it in their country. Being a major part of the adventure game market, that didn’t bode well for its fortunes so the sequel came out as a four issue comic series from Dark Horse called Indiana Jones and the Iron Phoenix which wasn’t bad.
But it would also herald a changing market in the lattter half of the nineties as consoles rose up and first-person shooters began dominating the profit margins. Along with flight sims and space sims like Tie Fighter and X-Wing, the market began shifting away from adventure games as well spelling the slow death of what had been two of Lucasarts’ creative outlets.
Looking at Lucasarts today from a fan perspective, one that had seen what they were capable of doing back in the day and who celebrated storytelling and experimentation the way that Activision and EA had in the eighties, it’s hard not to say that what they’re doing now pales to what they reveled in doing before.
Indy has also had a rough time of it in gaming. Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine in ’99 reunited Sophia and Indy in an pure action adventure that suffered from a serious case of consolitis (it also appeared on the N64). If you thought the controls from Tomb Raider were rough, Infernal Machine might make you change your mind. The story wasn’t that great, either.
Emperor’s Tomb was a bit more decent, though it also focused primarily on fisticuffs and action than on pure exploration and mystery. Even with its media blitzkrieg (and one of the best illustrated manuals ever made), it couldn’t stop Indy from relinquishing the gaming crown to the likes of Lara Croft and Nathan Drake who had left far behind.
The worst was yet to come with the cancellation of a next-gen Indy game that was teased with a tech-demo for Euphora (a physics system boasting realistic material and body-oriented effects). It was scrapped and in its place, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings for the Wii, the PSP, Nintendo DS and even the PS2 was all that was left. The only good news that came out of this was that unlike a few of the other games, the story was actually solid stuff and the gameplay wasn’t bad. A2M did a really good job here, especially with the wild climax.
Indy is far from finished in gaming, I think. He’ll be back and I wouldn’t mind seeing him return in an adventure game akin to Fate of Atlantis. A few fans have also felt the same way and are still hard at work on an unofficial sequel featuring the same gameplay and well crafted story that Fate is known for called Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Youth. There’s even a short demo that you can try out that’s actually inspiring stuff that brings back the same spirit of exploration.
Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft is getting a reboot later this year with a new game, so no one can say that Indy can’t pull of the same thing and retake the adventure crown on whatever platform he shows up on. The question is whether Lucasarts can find it in themselves to take the first step. And this time, stay the course.