Raiders of the Lost Ark introduced the world to the globetrotting adventures of Indiana Jones and sparked the imagination of generations of would-be armchair explorers. It’s a fantastic movie filled with incredible stunts, grinning villains, vulnerable heroes, and enough tongue-in-cheek humor at the right moments to offset the grit filling Indy’s shoes every time he steps into the line of fire to save history from the Nazis.
Atari thought it was great stuff, too, and adapted the film for the Atari VCS/2600 which utilized a number of innovative features appearing in other games — notably adventures like King’s Quest — such as an inventory and the use of specific items to solve puzzles and being scored on your performance. All in a tiny cartridge that could hold a maximum of 32 kb.
Although the Video Game Crash of ’83 pummeled North America and especially Atari’s fortunes, they continued to pump out arcade titles and one of those was an adaptation of 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which arrived in ’85.
It ran on Atari’s System 1 hardware which, prior to Capcom and SNK’s efforts, attempted to do what they would later try with an upgradeable setup. Instead of reinventing the cabinet every time a new game was made, it would provide something of a standard with games swapped in and out on a separate board leaving the main hardware alone.
Like a lot of arcade hardware at the time, the System 1 used tried and true parts in its architecture — a Motorola 68010 (an updated iteration of the reliable 68000 series), YM2151 for sound (Yamaha), and a MOS Technology 6502 which was the sound CPU working with the Yamaha. The System 1 was responsible for hits such as Marble Madness and Road Blasters and, of course, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Unfortunately, unlike Capcom’s CPS hardware, Atari’s System 1 didn’t have quite as many dedicated games before its successor came out.
Atari wanted to wow crowds with the Temple of Doom’s arcade adaptation and resorted to a number of clever tricks to do just that. On top of a digitized version of John Williams’ score, the game also included digital voice samples which few games did back in the mid-80s. Lines from the actors (Harrison Ford as Indy and Amrish Puri as the wicked Mola Ram) were integrated into the presentation straight from the movie. Hearing things such as Indy saying “I’m not leaving without those stones…” to Mola Ram declaring “Kali Ma will rule the world!” added plenty of atmosphere.
The game roughly followed the plot of the film’s climactic ending scenes as Indy frees children enslaved by the Thuggee cult and steals back the Sankara Stones. It also offered a novel option for players beginning the game — depending on how many credits they put in, they could select to start with three or seven lives. Then they could also decide which difficulty level to start at, something that Atari had also done with their adaptation of Star Wars and Return of the Jedi.
Gameplay was split up into three rotating sequences players would need to play through at least three times before the final stage on the famous rope bridge from the movie. Each of the three sequences went like this:
- Free the children from the Thuggee mines
- Race your mine cart to safety at the end while avoiding danger
- Steal one of the Sankara Stones from the temple
…and then rinse and repeat two more times. After the third time, players repeated the first two sequences (the Thuggee mines and the mine cart race) before escaping, and fighting, their way across a rope bridge to finally put an end of Mola Ram just as he did in the movie. After that, it was bonus stage time.
The game could be a lot of fun — and very challenging. During the mine sequence, Indy had full 8-way movement onscreen as he made his way across mine paths, whipped posts to swing over traps and across gaps, and cracked open locks to free enslaved children. Thuggee guards would also try to stop him but Indy could only knock them senseless for a few moments with his whip.
That full 8-way freedom, however, could take a little getting used to when it came to aiming the whip as enemies came at Indy from every direction. Take too long in rescuing your quota of children, and Mola Ram will start popping up to throw a flaming heart in Indy’s direction. The only way to save him is to whip them and they will home in on him like missiles. At the higher difficulty levels, like Hard, conveyor belts and chutes provide additional challenges in getting around.
The isometric mine sequence could also be a bit dodgy with the controls since the ‘stick handled how fast or slow the cart raced on the tracks, which tracks it could switch to, and the aiming of the whip as enemies and obstacles got in Indy’s way to freedom. Most of the lives I’d buy with those tokens were usually burned on these sequences alone, but the game was forgiving enough to restore the player right where they had died to keep going.
Along the way, there were guards Indy could whip for extra points along with special obstacles he could whip to put into the way of enemies behind him from fuel cans to rock bins. There were also “big” guards that he had to whip if he didn’t want to be “stopped” by any of them which could be tricky since you had to aim a bit downwards (and may accidentally speed up your cart) and swing Indy’s whip just right to nick them.
In the Sankara Stone stage, Indy’s at the Temple and must either swing across the flaming moat from the sides or brave the opening and closing trapdoor in front of the Sankara Stone while trying not to fall in or get killed by the puff of flaming smoke that jets out. After he steals the Stone, he has to make good his escape through the doors behind the statue of Kali as guards continually try to find their way over to him.
In the rope bridge stage, Indy has to fight his way across the rope bridge while being chased by guards and having to whip the flaming hearts thrown by Mola Ram on the other side. Once he gets far enough, the climactic scene from the movie plays out as the bridge splits sending Mola Ram into the waiting jaws of death far below while Indy makes it the rest of the way across by climbing over what’s left of the bridge to safety. And then it’s bonus stage time for more points as Indy races through a Thuggee mine level rescuing not children but golden idols for points. As long the players has lives (and can beat the clock by collecting idols), this pretty much constituted the “end” of the game.
Temple of Doom had a number of ports covering a range of platforms from the Commodore 64 to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Unfortunately, some of the ports left a lot to be desired in comparison to the arcade game, notably the NES version by Tengen, which suffered from poor graphics and terrible AI. At least the box art took the same cue that the arcade flyer did above — only flipped in reverse.
Although Atari’s fortunes were on the rocks when it came to video game consoles, in the arcade, it was still hungry for hits and Temple of Doom was a great effort in that regard. With voiced lines from the film, John Williams’ music accompanying the action, and a decent amount of challenge as long as you could deal with the sometimes clunky feel of Indy’s movement across the screen, Atari did their best to make sure that his adventures outside of his famous films were just as exciting.