Aztec (1982)

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Aztec on the Apple II is probably one of the earliest examples of a platformer that sports a continuous, persistent world, at least until you’re sick of your current world and generate a new one. Your goal is do go down into a dungeon (called the tomb here), collect weapons, kill monsters, find the idol and then find your way back to the surface (like a platformer-variant of a roguelike).

It has lots of concept found in later Metroidvanias (exploration, usable items, a persistent world), but it’s more of forerunner for cinematic platformers, a related but slightly different genre. The game gives heed to (for its time) realistic, fluid movement: walking or running have their own momentum, jumps are very short, every small fall can knock your character out for a few seconds (even sometimes when you change direction too fast in too few seconds or when you run into a wall).

For a modern player, the biggest stumbling block is probably the utterly arcane control scheme, which is very untypical for what you’re used to in platformers. You have keys for either left or right direction, but to actually move you need to either trigger the run or walk key. You have a key to stop movement again. A key to get into a fighting stance, but then a different key to spin in either direction and another key to actually attack with your machete. Or ready your gun and then shoot (another key again). This really gets tiresome fast, and coupled with countless bugs that makes it easy to fall through walls or floors and lots of deads ends, made this more of a chore to play.

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The few contemporary reactions I could find were rather more positive about the controls and the game (“the control, game design, and animation are good examples of the state of the art in Apple arcades” Howard A. Shore Softline Jan-1983, p.45 / “The player controls…remarkably clean and logical… The excitement remains keen through game after game…” Electronic Games Jun-1983, p.56) and if you look at comments on some of the YouTube videos of the game, there’s lots of nostalgic gushing about it. So it definitely has its fans, though without any nostalgic attachment it becomes less compelling.

Like a lot of the very early platformers, it feels more like an experiment where new gameplay concept where born instead of a masterful execution of tried and true ideas. Which means some of the stuff they did just didn’t work out all that well or they didn’t get the mechanics exactly right to make it really fun to play, from a modern POV, but it’s still interesting.

Also ported to various other systems of that era: the Atari 8-bit computers (1982), the Commodore 64 (1984) and various Japanese computers, the FM-7 (1984), the PC-88 (1984) and the Sharp X1 (1985).

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Actually, there were strangely enough two ports for the Atari 8-bit computers, the one in 1982 for the US by Datamost (the screens above are from this one) and a UK port in 1986 from Databyte. Both ports share a simplified control scheme (only 5 buttons) and show your inventory on the screen all the time, but the flaws inherent in the original are present in these ports as well: dead ends, lots of bugs and a control scheme that while simplified, is still far too much trouble than the gameplay is worth it.

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The ’84 C64 port of the game reverted back to the more convoluted control scheme of the Apple II original, including the inventory you had to activate by key to see. The most obvious difference to the Apple II version is that instead of starting in a picturesque outside scenery you’re standing at the top of abstract, 2.5D looking stairs, from where you go down into the Aztec pyramid.

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Like the C64 port, the PC-88 port is an almost 1-to-1 copy of the Apple II game, it has the unwieldy control scheme and all the rest. Apart from its own distinctive color scheme this is pretty much the same game with no obvious differences.

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