A Hidden Treasure in the Labyrinth of History
My history with this game goes back to its initial publication. I still remember looking at it through the glass case in some department store, its dragon coiling through a labyrinth, holding the key aloft. I vaguely remember my thoughts then, that it was probably too complicated for me to handle. I based this solely on the cover, which should be a lesson to all of you youngans.
Still, I was intrigued by the game, and regretted not getting it, even after I saw screenshots (which were usually concept sketches back then that you saw in the poorly formatted, bleeding print Sears and JCPenny catalogs). The idea that a thing that looked like a threatening version of Big Bird didn't deter me, and after cutting my fantasy teeth on the Rankin Bass version of the Hobbit, and gaming with Milton Bradley's beautiful Dark Tower, I couldn't get it out of my head, even when games like Dragonstomper and the more complicated games it predicted (ask Snide about it. They are legion).
It wasn't until the nineties, some 20 years later (yes, it blows my mind too), that I first got a chance to actually play the thing, when a friend of my brother's unloaded a ton of 2600 games on us. I don't remember too much of my impressions, except to say that I realized that it was yet another early game, nothing too spectacular.
This year, though, when I got a chance to revisit the game on the official Atari website, that I realized just how FUN this simple old game truly is. Given that a lot of games that are already accepted as addictive that you can find online now are simple even by 2600 standards, Adventure rewards your time with some pretty interesting situations that you don't find in games both old and modern that have few variables and straightforward, dumbed-down gameplay. For a simple game, Adventure has a lot more going for it.
Stuff You'll Have to Get Past
You take on the role of a hero, who can charitably be described as a dot, who can carry one item at a time. You search castles and the mazes within them for keys, a dragon-slaying sword, a bridge that allows you to pass through walls, a magnet that attracts one object to you on the same screen, and above all a shimmering goblet that, when brought to the golden castle, results in winning. Each object has different properties, the three dragons have different speeds (and the weakest is also scared of one of the keys, which can be a relief in some situations), and there's a bat in the second and third difficulty settings which can REALLY mess things up (by moving objects and dragons around the game world), despite it not being overtly deadly.
It's definitely an old game and all that may imply, in case you were hoping for some sort of grand epic. The objects and monsters you find are drawn simplistically, and the dragons I mentioned really do resemble Big Bird, although if he were this aggressive I'm pretty sure the whole of Sesame Street would have been condemned by the police a long time ago. There is a terrible problem with flicker when multiple items or monsters are on the screen at once (which actually affects sprite clipping, which can be to your advantage and your detriment, sometimes simultaneously), and the mazes never vary from game to game no matter the setting.
The game can also be difficult, especially for newbies, but I don't count it against the game. You just have to work at it, figuring out the logic of the mazes (it's really pretty simple once you get it down), making sure to use the game's helpful tutorial (read: manual) to understand the logic of the game world and how the things in it interact. Once you get enough confidence and become familiar enough with how things work, this is where the fun actually begins.
Difficulty Setting Three, a.k.a. Complete Frigging Bedlam
It wasn't until I was willing to challenge myself that I learned how fun Adventure can truly be. On the first two difficulty settings, every object is in a predictable place, but the third randomizes object and creature placement. I've not confirmed this, but it seems that once in a while these can create impossible situations, but most of the time I've had playable, if often gratifyingly messed up, configurations. In addition I flipped the two difficulty toggles, making the dragons afraid of the sword (instead of charging right toward you despite its presence, and thus often impaling themselves), and speeding up their bite attack, which means you're much more likely to wind up struggling in their gullet until you hit the reset switch.
What these all combine to make is a game that is involved and varied every time you play. Sometimes you'll begin and the sword is already nearby. This allows you to go on the offensive, placing the sword just off screen to try to bait encroaching dragons, or placing in a spot that allows you safe zone to hide in until you can alter your tactics. Other times you'll get a dragon in the face right off the bat, forcing you to run like mad trying to avoid it until you can outrun it, find the sword, have the dragon picked up by the bat (yes) or... well, die, basically. Throughout it all, the bat flies around, picking up items, trading them for other items, so that you can't quite depend on your best-laid plans.
What offsets all this randomness is a very useful feature called the "resurrect". When you hit the reset button, the settings from your current game stay in effect (only a cold reboot or a change in the main difficulty setting erases this particular world), and you start in front of the golden castle again, all the items and monsters where you left them. You can, then, tackle the same quest and try to beat it if you think you can.
Combinatorics Is the Real Key, Here
Knowing that you can return to life at any time turns it into a fun scramble for survival, much more complex than just about any other 2600 game from the console's initial run, and many of the casual games out there today. It's not easy, it's not for everyone, it can sometimes be frustrating (and thus rewarding when you manage to beat it), and it takes some getting used to, but as someone who has played a lot of games of varying sophistication over the years, it says a lot that a game like this entertains me more than a good chunk of the games that get a lot more attention because of their pretty graphics or their ticking off the current list of selling points. What works is the crazy combination of situations and game elements every time, making victory anything but routine.
The current manifestation of Atari has the game lovingly emulated in all its messy glory on their website here. As the game never had any way to keep score, they instead give you the time you took to complete it. Since it's not always fair, I'd put it on the level of a party game in terms of scoring, since you could wind up with the stuff you needed to beat it nearby, or have things scattered way too far apart to beat anyone's time, and use it as a measure of your own accomplishments if nothing else.
Ultimately I'd say that Warren Robinett' s Adventure proved to me that not all 2600 games (other than Combat and possibly Air-Sea Battle) could be conveniently forgotten as stepping stones for the games that would follow. Adventure does some crazy enough things that it's still fun after all these years. I'm really happy I gave it another chance.