Review by Sashanan
Reviewed: 07/26/01 | Updated: 07/02/03
Challenge is the keyword
The shortest possible summary of Aztec Challenge would be 'an exercise in coordination, concentration and patience disguised as a game'. You play the role of a young Aztec trying to make his way through a treacherous temple alive, navigating him through seven different levels. While very simple to control, the game manages to put up a real challenge for even the experienced gamer, and ranks among the most difficult Commodore 64 games ever created. With only a few design flaws and overall smooth gameplay, Aztec Challenge is the perfect example of a game that challenges you to the utmost in the right way - through difficult gameplay rather than sluggish control, an unfairly advantaged AI opponent, or a horribly complicated interface.
Each of the seven levels of Aztec Challenge is a minigame in itself with different controls, which are explained at the start of each level. They share one common characteristic: they are all very simple in theory but hard in practice. The first level, for instance, has you running to the temple entrance while rows of guards on either side of you throw spears at you. The running is automatic, you merely have to watch closely for spears coming from the left or right, and then either duck if they come in high, or jump if they come in low. It sounds very easy, but they come in fast, and you have little time to see the spear coming, have it 'click' in your brain if they're high or low, and then move the joystick in the proper direction. You'll need to do this 16 times in a row or it's back to the start of the level again, and the game does its best to break your concentration in the meantime: the temple slowly grows bigger as you approach it, the background music starts flaring up trying to break your concentration, and the waiting time between two spears constantly rises and falls trying to get you to make a false move. Make no mistake: as simple as the level is, it is devious.
The gauntlet, as the first level is called, is admittedly one of the best (and hardest) of the seven, but it gives you a good idea of the kind of game Aztec Challenge is. In every level you'll have to navigate your character past certain death using a few simple controls, and the challenge is in doing it for several minutes without making a single mistake, while the game does everything it can to break your concentration. You have an infinite number of lives, sort of; you get five tries at every level, and if you lose all lives, you are returned to the level's explanation and can give it another five tries. And again, and again, as often as necessary. Since you have to start at the beginning of the level with every death anyway, this doesn't really matter, but it serves as a friendly reminder of how often you've failed by now. And you will fail a lot, let me assure you.
Should you get through all seven levels - including a very tricky sixth level which involves swimming through a lake full of nasty piranhas - the game starts over at the first level but this time, the length and speed of all levels has been increased. The first level now has twice as many spears to dodge, which move faster now and give you even less time to react. The cycle of seven levels repeats four times in total, with the last batch inhumanly difficult. There is no special congratulations screen or anything to see if you get through the last one, and although the game keeps a score, it isn't entered into a high score list of any kind. As such there is no real goal to be achieved in Aztec Challenge except getting as far as you can.
Graphically, Aztec Challenge isn't particularly memorable but it is above average for Commodore games in general. Every level looks distinctly different from the last, providing good variety. Some levels look better than others, though. The booby-trapped chamber in level 5 and the mountain range in level 7 are examples of good-looking, well-drawn levels. The jungle of level 4 and the piranha lake of level 6 have a rather rushed look to them, though. Particularly the swimming motions your character makes in level 6 make you wonder how he manages to keep his head above the water. Overall the graphic are very acceptable, but it's obvious more time has gone into the diabolical gameplay than in the graphics. The sound is another story entirely. Sound effects are limited (not even all levels have any) and with a few exceptions not that memorable, but the music...now there's something. It's the same tune for all seven levels, but it's a good, haunting melody that immediately sets the game's mood and serves a distinct role in the gameplay as well. As you proceed through each level, the melody advances and becomes more nerve wracking. It *will* make your heart pound, your hands shake and more than once break your concentration and cause you to lose a level. The instinctive reaction is to turn it off, but doing so removes much of the game's atmosphere and challenge. Ideally, you want it on and loud. Aztec Challenge truly shines that way. Even though the selection of music is so limited with only a single tune, whenever somebody asks me what I consider good gaming music I immediately have to think of this game; I have yet to see any other one where the music plays such an important role in the gameplay itself, and where it makes you almost afraid to play. It has to be experienced to be believed.
Aztec Challenge is definitely a title that must be played, particularly by people who share the common notion that video games are getting too easy. This, at least, is one title that'll challenge you. Or perhaps you have a friend who thinks he can beat any game? Then you've got humbling material right here. One thing is for sure, though. While many games are great fun to play with 2 players, to perform at Aztec Challenge you'll want to play alone, or with somebody who can keep his mouth shut when it is your turn. Aztec Challenge requires your full, undivided attention to be played well. Who said video games have to be relaxing? If it's a solid challenge you're looking after, a video game that quite literally makes your heart beat in your throat and sweat run down your forehead, look no further. You just found it.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
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