I’m amazed that I had ever managed to finish this game years after it came out. It was just that hard — or that the puzzles were so abstract — that it took me awhile to figure out what I was supposed to do even with the hints in the manual. But that was Raiders of the Lost Ark for the Atari 2600.
It initially came out in 1982, a year or so before the Video Game Crash relegated it and many other titles to bargain bins everywhere and a year after the epic film had come out.
The game was designed and programmed by Howard Scott Warshaw who had also worked with Stephen Spielberg making this, perhaps, the first collaboration that the famous director had with the gaming industry.
The game was also heavily limited by the hardware. Indy looked like one of those pogo stick things from the third stage of Donkey Kong, only now wearing a hat, and despite the descriptions for each area that the manual provided, were still the kind of blocky abstractions representing soaring mesas, enemy creatures, and dangerous valleys. But it still pulled in a number of places from the films such as the market and the Map Room though it took creative license with a number of others — such as a temple where Indy can steal as much money as he needed to buy stuff at the market.
It also made creative use of both joysticks. The right controller was used to move Indy about and make him do things such as shoot bad guys, pick up items, or dig up the Well of Souls once he found it (it’s randomly placed every time). The left stick was used for the inventory strip at the bottom of the screen showing everything that Indy was carrying. Although it had its shortcomings elsewhere, having a working inventory wasn’t one of them.
Enemies included strange grey “beetle” guys against a black screen, a walking pixel that I assumed to be Toht or another Gestapo-like guy who could steal your stuff and shoot you dead with the bullets bought with them, and snakes. There always had to be snakes, though with the flute, Indy could protect himself from them. The game also wasn’t shy about killing him, slowly disintegrating his body from the foot up with his hat being the last thing to go.
Indy also had a grapple that he could use to hop from mesa to mesa and once he found the right one, players needed to drop down and use their chute to slip into the cave on the side thanks to a branch catching them in mid-fall.
The puzzles mostly centered on what to do next with the items in the game making this almost like an ad. The “hints” weren’t as helpful as they might suggest, but were better than nothing in prodding you to think on what might have been missed. Sometimes you could literally find the Well of Souls and the mound of dirt covering the entrance by accidentally finding the right mesa only to realize that you don’t have the shovel from the Black Market needed to dig it up. Why the Black Market hoarded shovels, though, is just another mystery, but you could technically finish off the game without having to find the actual Map Room and use it.
Your score would be pretty crappy, though. Once you dug up the Well of Souls, the “victory” screen with a scintillating ark at the top of the screen and Indy being raised on what looked like an elevator platform measured how well you did. I actually found the Ark without doing a lot of other stuff so Indy was only raised a few feet off the ground instead.
The game has been razzed in the past for how “bad” it was. At times it could easily be a little too frustrating and confusing for what it wanted you to do, but it had a few mechanics that were pretty advanced for the time from its inventory system to the adventure-styled item based puzzles it walked players through.
And as the first game featuring the Man in the Hat, it also wouldn’t be the last time designers would try to find new ways with which to tell his story as technology continued to improve especially as Raiders, along with a few other of his famous films, found renewed life on platforms such as the SNES.