2D VERSUS FEATURE
Montezuma’s Revenge is a game by Utopia Software for a variety of home computer systems, originally released in 1984. Midnight Mansion HD is a game by ActionSoft for PC and Mac, originally released in 2011.
In the early days of the industry, video games were comprised of a small number of core gameplay mechanics, and the introduction of a single new mechanic – even a small one – could mean the creation of an entirely new genre. For instance, the core mechanic behind Pong was to bounce a ball back and forth between two paddles. By changing the orientation of the gameplay and putting a row of bricks across the top of the screen, the game becomes Breakout. Allow the bricks to move back and forth and shoot at the player while the player shoots back, and the game becomes Space Invaders. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but it shows how a few relatively minor tweaks in the formula allowed for the creation of a number of distinct games, each falling into their own genre.
As is the case even in today’s game industry, whenever something hit big, there were plenty of other developers who followed it up with similar games of their own, offering a few new tweaks to the formula, or sometimes just copying it outright. While these games were certainly cashing in on the successes of their predecessors, they were also establishing many of the genres we know today. For instance, Taito’s Space Invaders led to Namco’s Galaxian, which led to the more polished Galaga, helping to set the stage for the entire shmup genre.
Now that some time has passed and technology has grown, revisiting and tweaking classic gameplay mechanics is no longer considered a cash-in, but rather an homage to the source material. This happens via official publisher-led projects as well as smaller indie games. So, while Taito has continued to revisit and revise the gameplay from Space Invaders with Space Invaders Extreme and Space Invaders Infinity Gene, developers like Radiangames have put their own spin on the gameplay with titles such Crossfire.
A number of developers have released their own takes on the world of Pac-Man, while Namco has not only repackaged the game (many times over), they have also made tweaks of their own with Pac-Man: Championship Edition. Namco also pushed Galaga forward with Galaga Legions, while developers such as WAM Games have released their own take on the classic with Retrofit: Overload.
It is with that in mind that we take a look at Midnight Mansion HD, a game that is built upon the foundations of Montezuma’s Revenge, while also offering some changes and additions to the gameplay that set it apart from the 1984 title.
Montezuma’s Revenge stars a treasure hunter called Panama Joe on an adventure through the ancient Aztec tomb of Montezuma II. Of course, the only reason he’s exploring Montezuma’s tomb as opposed to anything else is so that the developers could use the name “Montezuma’s Revenge”… a euphemism for the terrible and potentially life-threatening diarrhea that comes from drinking the water in Mexico. This puts the game on a very short list of quality titles named for bodily functions. (ed note: All Montezuma's Revenge screens were taken from the C64 version of the game.)
Montezuma’s Revenge is a game of fast-paced exploration across a series of single-screen rooms littered with enemies, obstacles, and items. Among the enemies are snakes that sit stationary and must be jumped over, spiders that move back and forth and sometimes climb ladders, and skulls that can roll along the floor or bounce high into the air.
Fortunately, the player has some tools at his disposal to help him deal with these enemies. First, Joe can pick up swords, which fill his limited inventory space. Each sword can be used to kill a single enemy – except snakes – and disappears upon use. There is also an amulet which temporarily turns all enemies gray, allowing Joe to run straight through them without getting killed. If he touches an enemy without one of these items equipped, he dies instantly, but the enemy will be removed from the room as well (on lower difficulty levels), allowing for safe passage on the next attempt, provided that he has any lives remaining. Getting killed will respawn Joe at point where he entered the room.
Joe starts the game with six lives, earning a new life for every 10,000 points. Points are gained by collecting gems, killing enemies, and opening doors. Colored keys are spread throughout the tomb and are used to open doors of the corresponding color (also one-time use), which is the primary means of progress in the game.
The goal of each level is to make your way deeper into the tomb until you reach the treasure room at the bottom. Upon leaving the treasure room, Panama Joe re-enters the temple at the next higher difficulty level. Here, certain walls are moved, altering the route needed to make it to the treasure room. Also, items are moved, the number of enemies increases and some of them move faster, and more dark rooms appear. In all, there are 9 difficulty levels.
In a dark room, the player cannot see the floor or the walls; he can only see enemies, obstacles, and items. This can make the going very tough, although the repeat playthroughs of similar areas should help the player determine where he needs to go. Having a torch removes the darkness from all rooms.
In addition to dealing with enemies and darkness, the player must also contend with pits of fire, disappearing and reappearing platforms, deadly laser gates, and conveyor belts, which press the player to make careful jumps and well-timed runs… and the margin for error is quite slim. Joe has a 1x jump, which is slightly lower than that of a typical platformer, although his head goes up through the ceiling when he jumps, allowing for a full range of movement even in tight quarters. However, Joe is disadvantaged in that he cannot fall very far. Falling much further than his jump height will see him squashed against the ground, much like the hero of Spelunker and its indirect descendant Spelunky. This makes careful movement all the more necessary.
In addition to precision jumps, Joe must climb up and down ladders and chains, and slide down poles. Ladders can be accessed from their highest or lowest rungs only, while chains and poles may be grabbed in midair. Once Joe has grabbed a chain, he is free to climb up or down, or jump away, but he cannot jump from ladders. Grabbing a pole will cause Joe to slide down, with no direct way to climb back up. Poles are also used to line the edges of the treasure rooms at the end of each level, forcing Joe down into the next set of levels if he misses a jump between chains.
Punctuating the adventure are a number of lighthearted sound effects, such as the shuffling of Joe’s against the ground as he runs, a quick “La Cucaracha” theme (authentic Mexican tunes!) when he grabs a gem or key, “Olly Olly Oxen Free” when he gains an extra life, and a victory tune that plays as he moves from screen to screen through the treasure room.
Midnight Mansion HD
Midnight Mansion HD builds upon the gameplay foundations established in Montezuma’s Revenge, while offering some new elements to the mix. In this adventure, you play Jack. No, not Panama Jack… Jack Malone. Jack is, like the spelunkers who have come before, a brave adventurer. Rather than exploring an ancient tomb, he is exploring a series of mansions, but they’re just as filled with enemies and treasure, and quite a few more traps.
At the start of the game, the player is free to select from 10 different mansions, with one (Spider Palace) remaining locked until the others have been completed. Mansions range in name and theme from the horrors of Nightmare Mansion to the ancient Tomb of Princes to the medieval Knight Mansion to the Chateau de Medusa, and number of user-created mansions are available for download as well. One mansion, called Hint House, is specifically set aside as a tutorial level, and is very much recommended to players who are not readily familiar with games of this nature. The ultimate goal in each mansion is to make it to the treasure room at the end.
Basic environmental navigation is the same as that found in Montezuma’s Revenge. Jack has a low jump height, though his head passes up through ceilings in the same way as his predecessor, and he cannot survive long falls. A medium-length fall can be endured, although Jack will grunt and be stunned for a moment when hitting the ground. Falling much further than Jack’s jump height will kill him outright. Jack also has the added ability to duck and crawl, which can help him avoid enemies and access areas that Panama Joe could not.
Ladders can be climbed by grabbing the topmost or bottommost rung, while vines (replacing chains) can be grabbed in midair. Jack is free to jump away from vines but not from ladders. Poles make an appearance as well, allowing Jack to slide down with no direct route back up.
Disappearing/reappearing platforms are also present. Some operate as if by magic, as in Montezuma’s Revenge, but others more realistically jut in and out of the wall. Laser gates appear as well, taking on the appearance of walls of electricity, and often appearing in more complex arrangements than those seen in Montezuma’s Revenge.
The mansions of Midnight Mansion have conveyor belts, along with the added complexities of inertia. Panama Joe was impacted by the direction of the conveyor, but was free to jump away in any direction just as if he were jumping from a stationary position. Jack Malone, however, will jump a much greater distance if he jumps in the same direction as the conveyor, and a much shorter distance if he jumps against it, and there are situations where a moving conveyor can allow or block access to a passage based on this jump distance. Inertia must also be accounted for when jumping from moving platforms. This requires some additional strategies, and the use of objects not present in Montezuma’s Revenge, namely switches and levers.
Jack Malone has a much greater impact on the environment than his spiritual predecessor. Clever operation of switches and levers allows Jack to open doors, cause platforms to move, disengage laser gates, cause floors to open (dropping whatever items or enemies were on them at the time), and reverse the direction of conveyor belts. This seemingly simple addition adds a layer of complexity to the overall experience and allows for some fairly intricate puzzle designs, requiring equal parts brainpower and platforming prowess. As such, Midnight Mansion falls more into the puzzle-platformer category than Montezuma’s Revenge.
Keys are once again the primary form of progression, and as before each colored key can be used to open a single door of the same color, although there is also a special rainbow key that can be used to open any door. The player has limited inventory slots. At the start of each mansion, Jack can hold 6 items, but he can also find a backpack which will increase his inventory by 2 slots.
In addition to keys, players can grab shields, each of which takes up one slot in Jack’s inventory, and they are functionally identical to swords. If Jack touches an enemy with a shield in his inventory, the enemy will be destroyed, and the shield will disappear. The same was true of swords in Montezuma’s revenge, except that they could not be used on snakes. In Midnight Mansion, however, snakes can be destroyed with shields, but there is an enemy that is immune to them, namely the giant spider.
Giant spiders descend from above when you run beneath them, and if one manages to get a hold of Jack, it will grab his body and pull him back up, killing him. However, this also disables the spider, allowing Jack’s resurrected self to run safely past. Spiders can also be baited to eat passing birds, which will disable them and allow for safe passage. Or you can just run like mad and hope for the best.
There are several types of enemies that the player must deal with, and each has its own movement and behavior patterns. Some of the enemies you’ll encounter are scorpions that run back and forth and fall of edges. Birds fly back and forth, with red and blue birds operating differently. Spiders dangle from their webbing, slowly bobbing toward the bottom of the screen and moving back up again, while skull spiders simply move back and forth on solid ground. Medusa heads fly straight toward you, passing through walls, but they will be engulfed in flames if they touch a torch, so you’ll either need to run away or lure them to their doom. Snakes, as in Montezuma’s Revenge, simply sit still and require you to jump over them, and just as in Montezuma’s Revenge, common enemies are destroyed upon killing the protagonist, allowing safe passage on the next attempt.
Players must also avoid falling into lava, and must be careful where they step, because switches may be accidentally triggered, potentially sending Jack to his doom. Switches can also be used in the same manner as levers, opening doors, and triggering laser gates, so the player must be more aware of his surroundings.
Players must also contend with a variety of platforms, from the moving variety, to ones that appear and disappear with the use of a lever, and even falling platforms. But falling platforms can be used to the player’s advantage as well. In a new gameplay twist, Jack can stand on a falling platform and ride it down into a lower area that he could not have reached by falling. Most platforms reappear after a few seconds, although skull platforms only reappear upon leaving and re-entering the room, and they’re usually placed in an area where backtracking is required, meaning that the player has to be extra careful to leave some platforms in place for the return trip.
There are many puzzles and hidden paths that will reward the player with treasure when explored. Every 1,000 points yields an extra life, and players must balance the dangers of exploration with the potential rewards of an extra life. As before, there are some pitch black rooms, which reveal only enemies and obstacles. Finding a lantern will light up the rooms in the surrounding area.
This is no short experience. Mansions are significantly larger and more complex than the tomb of Montezuma’s Revenge, and while it’s certainly possible to complete a mansion in a single sitting, the player is offered some respite in the form of save points. Each can only be used once, but they prevent the frustration of losing 20 minutes of gameplay upon watching that last Jack get his lifeblood drained by a giant spider. As an added advantage, save points also restore the player back to 6 lives (unless he has more), so timing is important as well. You may wish to go for a particularly troublesome key before activating the save point, to allow yourself some additional cushion in your lives cache.
To compensate for the large environments and added complexity, the player is afforded the use of a map. The player can access a map at any time, showing all previously-explored screens, along with the enemies and items contained therein. The player can also pick up a map item, which will show all of the rooms in the vicinity, whether they have been explored or not, allowing the player to plan some additional strategy.
Players are rated at the end of each level for their total score, the amount of time it took to complete the mansion, the percentage of treasure found, the number of remaining lives, and the difficultly level (easy, medium, or hard, which determines the level layouts as well as enemy and item placement in each mansion), which can be submitted to the online leaderboards.
From a presentation standpoint, Midnight Mansion is very different from its predecessor. Where Montezuma’s Revenge was necessarily chunky with limited effects, Midnight Mansion is presented with high definition artwork. So, while the gameplay is certainly very similar, lost are the charming retro feel and lighthearted sound effects, in exchange for a deliberately cartoon-like world. Jack is presented as a young man, rather than an adventure-worn tomb raider, emphasized by his design, and a number of idle animations which see him doing things like playing with a yo-yo. A number of death animations appear as well, still presented in a somewhat cartoony fashion, although you will see Jack scream as he is burned alive in lava, and he will be reduced to a pile of bones when killed by an enemy.
Midnight Mansion HD was developed by ActionSoft, which is a company founded Vern Jensen and built upon a foundation of retro-inspired gameplay. Midnight Mansion HD was inspired by the likes of Montezuma’s Revenge (as detailed above) as well as Dark Castle and Prince of Persia.
Midnight Mansion was originally released on the Mac in 2005, and the HD version combines the original content and several new mansions in an HD presentation, officially labeled as Episodes 1 & 2. There is also a full-blown sequel called Midnight Mansion 2: The Haunted Hills, released in 2010, which features Jack’s continued search for treasure in a variety of new trap- and enemy-laden environments.
Also released under the ActionSoft label in 2009 is a game called Insectoid, which is a 2D starfield shmup inspired by the likes of Galaga. At the start of the game, the player is free to select from one of four ships, each having their own movement speed and firing rate. Each ship also has a special ability, such as deflecting enemy fire or launching an extremely powerful attack. One of the selections is a pair of ships that operate in tandem, with the special being the ability to split apart.
As in Galaga, the player’s ship is restricted to the bottom of the screen and can only move to the left or right as it takes on the insect-like enemies on the field above. As in many of the Galaga sequels, enemies no longer move back and forth across the top of the screen in simple formations, but rather appear from all corners, moving rapidly in a variety of patterns.
There are still enemy formations and dive bomb attacks to be had, but they don’t all move in the standard left-to-right march established by genre grandfather Space Invaders. Some formations have enemies swirling around a center point or moving in arcs, others will send Centipede-like creatures marching downward, and some will see the player destroying asteroids to access the primary forces.
The game takes place across five solar systems, consisting of 10 levels each, and each culminating in a boss encounter, where the player must work down the boss’ huge life bar while avoiding attacks from the boss itself as well as supporting enemies. Additional lives are awarded at every 50,000 points, and collecting coin drops – and shooting them for higher values – adds some risk/reward as the player may need to place his ship in harm’s way to collect them.