Rick Dangerous is a platform game with a few minor puzzle elements. Thematically the game and its main character are loosely based on Raiders of the Lost Ark, set in 1945 with Rick being a British Agent who raids tombs and fights the Nazis (who are never mentioned by name).
The game is based on linear progression through four separate levels. The levels have their individual themes and contain many traps with no visible warnings which will instantly kill the player, making the game more about trial & error pattern memorization than most platform games. What little story exists is told before each level in two to three paragraphs of text with a small film strip animation.
Rick can walk, jump, crawl and has a revolver, dynamite and a stick (used to set of certain switches and stun enemies). The revolver and dynamite both have limited ammunition, a maximum of six each, and although more can be found throughout the level ammo is generally quite scarce.
- South America: Rick's plane crashes over the Amazon while he is in search of the Goolu tribe. This level is based on the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (including a boulder chase sequence at the beginning), set in a cave with Goolu tribesmen and golden headpieces as collectable treasures.
- Egypt: Rick heads to the pyramids at the request of London to retrieve the Jewel of Ankhel from a group of fanatics who are threatening to smash it if a ransom is not paid.
- Schwarzendumpf Castle: Rick must rescue a group of captured allied prisoners from the castle. This is the first level which introduces the pseudo-nazis.
- Missile Base: Upon rescuing the allied soldiers in the previous level, a plot to attack London from the enemies secret missile base is unveiled.
Rick returns to London after thwarting the Nazi's plans to destroy it, only to find that it is under attack by aliens. This leads directly into the events of Rick Dangerous 2, which drops the Indiana Jones motif for a Flash Gordon inspired aesthetic.