Montezuma's Revenge, an Atari Quest to Make Adventure Proud

By borrowing from Atari's action RPG, Utopia created a platformer classic.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

Walk around. Find a colored door. Walk around some more. Find a key of the same color. Walk back to the colored door. Open it with the key. Repeat ad nauseum.

In the wake of DOOM's success in the '90s, key hunts quickly became one of gaming's most tiresome clichés. But at some point, even the hoariest cliché must have felt fresh and original -- yes, even searching for colored keys.

That point, as it turns out, came approximately a decade before DOOM, way back in 1984, amidst the doldrums of the U.S. gaming industry's post-Atari-crash days. In an era where video games often consisted of single-screen designs and rudimentary challenges, the need to traverse an interconnected maze was a bit mind-blowing. It was enough to make bare-bones role-playing games like Wizardry and Ultima into massive hits; when those concepts began to trickle their way into platform action games, the genre changed forever.

This is what "ahead of its time" looked like in 1984.

It's a shame that this revolution didn't really begin until the U.S. games industry had bottomed out. Impressive American creations like Pitfall II and H.E.R.O. didn't develop nearly the sort of fanbase that their contemporary Jet Set Willy acquired over in the UK, where the games industry was thriving rather than cratering. So, too, did Utopia's Atari 800 platform adventure Montezuma's Revenge go relatively under the radar.

More's the pity, because of all the exploratory platformers that debuted around the world in 1984, Montezuma's Revenge arguably had the most sensibly and thoroughly realized game world to explore. The entirety of the adventure transpired within the walls of a nine-level Mesoamerican pyramid, with the player entering from the peak and descending to the base level where, it was rumored, Montezuma himself awaited.

Heads will roll!

The game bore a lot of similarities to other platformers of the time, most notably Tim Martin's Spelunker and the Donkey Kong series, but more than anything else Montezuma's Revenge called back to Atari's Adventure for Atari 2600. In both games, much of the journey involved backtracking through a labyrinth of screens in search of properly colored keys to unlock doors that led further into the maze. And, much like the the brave square protagonist of Adventure, Panama Joe could collect limited-use weapons and tools to aid him in his descent into the deadly ziggurat.

Despite the spiritual connections to Adventure, Montezuma's Revenge designer Robert Jaeger didn't look to RPGs for play inspiration; his game made use the of the full vocabulary of platformers. Joe did the usual running and jumping; he could climb chains like Donkey Kong Jr.; he battled the directional tyranny of conveyer belts; he evaded all manner of creepy-crawly monsters; he made mad timed dashes to avoid plummeting into flames when disappearing platforms vanished beneath his feet; and he died pathetically if he fell from too great a height. There's even speculation based on an early prototype of the game that the mystical amulet, an item which destroyed enemies, was originally designed to look and work like the hammers in Donkey Kong.

In other words, Monezuma's Revenge brought together just about every idea that had ever appeared in a platformer to date, then mixed in some RPG influences by way of Adventure. It was quite possibly the most elaborate and complex platformer of its time, and you can find echoes of its design even today in indie titles like Spelunky. Sadly, the Atari crash took its toll on this game like so many others; Parker Bros. ended up scuttling plans for an Atari 2600 version of the game, dooming it to relative obscurity on a handful of computer platforms, which were still coming into their own in 1984. (Oddly enough, it eventually made its way to Sega Master System, of all things).

While Montezuma's Revenge may not get the love it deserves these days, it was an impressive leap forward for a budding genre. Next time you slice your way through a latter-day Castlevania game or check to see the progress on La-Mulana 2's Kickstarter campaign, take a moment to say a silent "thank you" to the game that paved their way by borrowing the best of two genres and turning them into something greater than the sum of those parts.

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Comments 14

  • Avatar for davidbabb52 #1 davidbabb52 4 years ago
    I remember playing the DOS version of this game back on my 80286 in the 1980s. Oh the memories!
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  • Avatar for jmroo #2 jmroo 4 years ago
    You dang retronauts. You're always adding to my list of games to play. I remember looking at the GBC version of this a few months ago and passing it up.
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  • Avatar for alphajammer #3 alphajammer 4 years ago
    I had this for the Sega Master System. Never was able to finish it, but made it pretty far down into the temple. Tough as nails game.
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  • Avatar for DeeMer #4 DeeMer 4 years ago
    Also interesting: Robert Jaeger was only 16 when he started making this game.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #5 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @DeeMer I try not to think about stuff like that, because then I feel bad about myself.
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  • Avatar for Andy1975 #6 Andy1975 4 years ago
    One of my favorite Colecovision games. Never could beat it but it was always fun to try. Once you get into those dark levels, the game gets pretty nasty.
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  • Avatar for ArugulaZ #7 ArugulaZ 4 years ago
    Funny you should mention this... I just played Spelunky on my Xbox 360 for the first time today. Well worth the pittance they were charging for it in December.

    Montezuma's Revenge was a great game; best on XL/XE, still pretty good on the 5200, a little watered down on ColecoVision, and on the 2600... well, at least they tried! By the time it hit the Master System, it was a little dated next to all of the system's action-adventures, which had the benefit of five years of evolution.

    Kudos to Parish for resisting the obvious diarrhea joke. (I know I couldn't when I reviewed the game on my own site a few years back.)
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  • Avatar for Critical_Hit #8 Critical_Hit 4 years ago
    I remember seeing pictures of a Montezuma's Return N64 game back in the Nintendo Power days. Title never came out, but apparently was going to be a direct sequel to this. I wonder why a game like this just sort of... fades away. I mean, now I know the Atari Crash played a part, but if this made a mark anyone, it should've been returned to with new games on later hardware.

    Seems mind-blowing when next to some other games from the time. Why wasn't this properly nourished into a series? It would be interesting to see a modern title like Uncharted have a direct ancestor like this, y'know? There aren't enough decade-long series going on in this industry, boy....

    Now I feel like re-downloading Spelunker HD for the PSN. :)
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  • Avatar for Critical_Hit #9 Critical_Hit 4 years ago
    Btw, can I just say, "God I missed Jeremy Parish" :)

    Besides Giantbomb's Jeff Gerstmann, I feel like most journalists writing about games today have trouble remembering events that happened 3 months ago in the industry, let alone 3 decades. I love reading about this stuff, and I love seeing it featured alongside stories for newer games, instead of having to go to specialized sites like Hardcore Gaming 101 or Chrontendo all the time.Edited January 2014 by Critical_Hit
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #10 renatocosta90 4 years ago
    Man, I loved this game as a kid
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  • Avatar for docexe #11 docexe 4 years ago
    I had read about this game before in passing, but outside of the reference to the fabled treasure of Montezuma, I didn’t know much about it. And with a name like that, I didn’t exactly take it seriously. Who would have thought it was one of the most ambitious platformers of its time.
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  • Avatar for abuele #12 abuele 4 years ago
    Great article, and thanks for posting the play through. It really shows the main idea in your article.

    This is not a plataformer for me at this age, it is for me to observe and judge.

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  • Avatar for nemocatpage06 #13 nemocatpage06 3 years ago
    the best versions are atari

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  • Avatar for dranthony #14 dranthony 2 years ago