Review by 16-BITTER
Reviewed: 03/10/17 | Updated: 03/25/19
Tomb Raiding: Old-School Edition
The original King's Valley was a game rife with potential held back by the meagerness of its hardware. Released exclusively for the MSX computer by Konami, it could be summed up as an archetypal "collect all the stuff and reach the exit door" puzzle-platformer with unique digging mechanics and persistent enemies; however, with stiff, exacting controls, simple graphics, and a little over a dozen stages, it was never going to be much more than a quaint diversion. Fast forward a few years to its MSX2 sequel (which also was available in a downgraded MSX1 version) and we've got a much different story to tell: King's Valley II (王家の谷 エルギーザの封印) expands on the puzzling foundation, enriches the aesthetics, and more than doubles the length to provide one of the finest puzzle experiences of the whole MSX computing family.
Similar to the original, the objective in King's Valley II is to acquire a certain number of Soul Stones per stage to unlock the exit door and make it out unscathed by the tombs' colorful denizens. The game takes place on single screens, like many other MSX games, but while levels start off as single rooms, they eventually can span to 4+ interconnected screens, some of which wraparound unexpectedly. Some of the Soul Stones are in plain sight and can be reached just by walking or jumping to them, but most will require you to utilize the game's digging mechanics. Like the previous title, most of the game's platforms are made of a material you can dig into, although with clearly defined boundaries compared to the smooth pixels of the original (that would often cause you to dig where you wouldn't intend, frustratingly spoiling a puzzle attempt). Expanded from the previous game, you now have four different tools with which to excavate: a hammer to bash through one layer of wall, a jackhammer to bash through two, a shovel to dig through one layer of floor, and a pickaxe to dig through two.
The main puzzle component of the game is in utilizing these tools as efficiently as possible so you don't run out of tools before completing a level or get yourself trapped in an inescapable situation. The player must learn exactly how the tools behave and the strict limits of their character's abilities (his jumping height/momentum, for instance) in order to progress farther than a level or two. And you must not simply figure out where to use your tools, but more importantly when to use them. Many a seemingly successful puzzle attempt will be foiled several minutes in when you realize you've royally screwed yourself by digging prematurely! But these are part of the rules you must overcome: once your realize your character can't jump while holding tools and that a tool can't be placed down until it is used, the game engine opens up to reveal a dazzlingly complex set of challenges; on at least one occasion I had to improvise an abstract maneuver with a throwing knife to manipulate the order in which I picked up a series of sequentially ordered tools! Later levels will also introduce one-way doors, trap walls, and ladders and bridges that will mysteriously seal up/disappear after a few uses, upping the ante proportionally.
There's also the possibility that you can fail a puzzle because of the tomb's inhabitants. In lieu of an arbitrary time limit, enemy guardians like mummies and golems will spawn and wander about the halls and ladders. You can pick up weapons like throwing knives and boomerangs to keep them at bay, but they'll always respawn after a short time and your weapons are subject to the same rules as your tools (although they are infinitely reusable). No luck trying to trap them either: they'll warp back to their spawn points if they ever get caught in a single area for too long. Most of these creatures serve as a mere nuisance, but you may find the golems become quite useful as a makeshift platform from time to time.
Aesthetically, the game is a huge step up from the blocky low-res first entry, featuring colorful sprites travelling about bizarre puzzle rooms with backgrounds that look more like something out of an H.R. Giger nightmare than any stereotypical Egyptian tombs. The music is sprightly and catchy and, dodging a common pit that designers of these long, regimented, tile-based puzzlers consistently fall into (looking at you Eggerland staff!), there's more than one tune to hear as you progress on your journey. Not much of a story to follow here, but do you really need one for this kind of game when simply facing the next, greater challenge should be enough?
And challenge you will indeed face, as the game's sixty levels ramp up to infuriatingly devious heights. This sequel utilizes the same silly lives system as the first one, but thankfully, the designers have also implemented passwords. Simply put, you will not beat this game in one sitting. I personally have logged at least a dozen or so hours playing on and off over the last couple weeks!
There's a little bit of tedious downtime as you must sometimes wait for your enemies to respawn or move into specific positions to complete some puzzles and the strict controls take a few rounds to get used to, but otherwise, this is one of the better efforts in the style I've played and I highly recommend it for any and all fans of similar games (Fire & Ice, Lolo/Eggerland, The Castle/Castlequest, etc.).
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: El Giza no Fuuin (MSX2) (JP, 08/27/88)
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