Game and Book Retrospectives

Indiana Jones: The Action Games

Lucasarts, 1989/1992

Both Indiana Jones adventure games had spin off action games to complement the more cerebral point-and-click brethren. No one remembers either of these, for very good reason. Last Crusade: The Action Game is a forgettable platformer that could have been any other 80s platformer with an Indy title screen. The main activity throughout Fate of Atlantis: The Action Game is punching casino staff until they give him chocolate.

The Action Games! Sound exciting, don't they?

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Action Game

Multi-Platform - Lucasarts, 1989

Last Crusade is a pretty standard cash-in platformer for the time, the only notable part being its licensing and the fact that it’s on the higher end of the difficulty scale, a common design choice used to extend the play time. There are a lot of perfect runs, jumps and ducks needed to survive here, with classic annoyances such as bullets coming off screen from enemies you can’t see or attack. Little stands it apart from its peers, some of which were legendary.

Commander Keen was just around the corner, Super Mario Bros. 3 already released in Japan. More comparable in style perhaps is Shadow of the Beast, or Ghouls and Ghosts, which were both leagues ahead in every way.

Atari vs. Amstrad versions - MobyGames

Lucasarts made a deliberate compromise here, in the form of a multi-platform release. Alongside the DOS PC game were versions for ZX Spectrum, Amstrad, Atari, Commodore 64 Nintendo NES and Game Boy, Sega Genesis, Master System and Game Gear. All systems with very different capabilities at the time. While not all identical, the base game is the same in most of the ports, meaning the game had to be designed for the lowest common denominator.

The Atari version seems to have had the most care and attention while the NES version is particularly bad considering the hardware and its platforming pedigree of the time. It's the same as the Game Boy version (the first handheld Indy game), complete with annoying timer and weird sprite outline. To complicate matters further, in 1991 Taito released another Last Crusade action game on the NES which was quite different, with varied gameplay sections akin to future Lucasarts game Star Wars: Rebel Assault. A year later, yet another different Crusade game was released on the Mega Drive. Three years after the first, and probably the best of the bunch overall. Full disclosure, I didn’t complete any of these as I value my sanity.

Although reviews were mixed, it was a lucrative model for game development and it was a success at the time. So they decided to do it again, but weirder.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis: The Action Game

Multi-Platform - Lucasarts, 1992

The Fate of Atlantis action game was a bit more ambitious, with an impressive looking isometric viewpoint where you can switch between multiple characters in real time. Indy works alongside Sophia Barwood, just as in the adventure game and the ability to switch characters would be commendable, but in fact there’s no reason for it to exist. The two are in the same locations and you don’t need them to work in tandem to solve puzzles. You are simply babysitting one and then the other through the levels. Each can rescue the other if they get captured, but in practice this is just a glorified extra life and double the work getting through the levels.

Indy incapacitates casino staff and takes their chocolate in FOTTAG.

The isometric viewpoint could have been even more interesting. It feels a bit like a tactics game such as 1994’s X-COM: UFO Defense, but as it’s real-time, no tactics are possible with your team of two. Movement and combat is slow and fiddly, using tank controls to move your character 90 degrees at a time. There are so many interruptions to change items, perform actions, swap characters and talk to people, that it’s hardly a thrilling romp. I feel they have missed a trick by not slowing it down or making it turn based, but then it couldn’t be called an action game.

Just in case you are still able to have fun, the levels do not scroll. As you walk to the edge of the screen you will get a screen transition as it scrolls to the next part of the map. With such a very short space between them, this gets old very quickly. Worse, often you’ll get near the edge of the screen that doesn’t yet trigger a transition, stuck there unable to see what you or the baddies are doing. Now you have to deliberately move and trigger the transition, which may get you beaten up and captured.

There’s no story in the game, unless you count the utterly ludicrous dialogue, which is served to the player via symbols in a speech bubble. You then have to look the symbols up in the paper manual every time you talk to someone. Bad game design, or an immersive metagame system to make you feel like Indiana Jones translating some ancient cuneiform symbols (every 10 seconds while in a casino eating chocolate)? You decide.

Ah, yes.

Because of this, you progress through the levels with only the vague missions the manual explains to you. The levels cross over somewhat with the adventure game, but the opening casino level bears no relevance to the Monte Carlo visit, and is a strange choice for Indy. Later levels feel better, but you’ll be doing the same thing: repeatedly punching and kicking men for their chocolate.

The enemies don’t die. Even if you shoot them, they just fall over for a few seconds and then get back up and rush you again, adding to the tedium. Their unconscious bodies also block doorways, so you will often need to try and coax them out and try again as best the controls will let you. And, as you always take a bit of damage while you fight them, you’d better hope they have another secret stash of chocolate somewhere next time you punch them.

It's not just the mechanics that are handled indelicately. In its sister title, Fate of Atlantis developed in tandem, Sophia was a relatively progressive character for a 90s game. Here, while Indy has his fists, Sophia's primary weapon is her red high heels. It’s Ms. Pac Man’s bow all over again, although I don’t think this particular game was on the radar during #Gamergate. Happily, Sophia is every bit as capable as Indy in all other respects.

Atari vs. Amstrad versions - MobyGames

That’s a lot of bad, but there is good too, for the time. The isometric viewpoint and character switching did feel quite novel, and it wasn’t just another platformer, so it has that going for it. There were some surprising quality of life touches that you don’t often get from such old games. You automatically get a cutaway of the buildings as you enter, allowing you to see inside. If you get attacked, you are automatically turned to face the enemy and switched to the default weapon so you’re not just wildly throwing pieces of chocolate around the room. They’ve included the Indy Quotient score tracker as well, in the assumption that people would play this through more than once. The puzzles you have to overcome are actually not bad, and fit well enough with what Indy would be doing in the movies as well.

If it’s action you’re after and you have money in your pocket, 1989 was the year of Street Fighter II on the SNES, Streets of Rage 2 on the Mega Drive, or Wolfenstein 3D on the PC. Compared to those games there is not a lot of action to be found here, and you can see again it’s likely that the cross-platform release has compromised this game as well. At the same time that Alone in the Dark was pushing the graphical envelope on PC with a foray into 3D, Fate of Atlantis: The Action Game had slightly better graphics than it’s Commodore 64 version.

What's that, boy? Sophia has fallen down a well?

Lucasarts was ahead of their time with these titles again, but this time it was in compromising game releases to make the most money on multiple platforms. Luckily it was a commercial failure and they didn’t make any more Indy action games, developers and gamers alike putting it all behind them.

There must be a non-zero number of sad parents who bought the wrong Last Crusade or Fate of Atlantis game for their children on a wishful birthday or Christmas morning. I think as a child I would have preferred you beat me up and take my chocolate.

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