Friday, May 8, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Emotional Scars - Memory Log #31

Raiders of the Lost Ark

I've been a big fan of the Indiana Jones series ever since I got my first taste of its swashbuckling, serial-style action back in 1984. That was the day my father took me to the theater to see a movie that featured everything I'd come to love about the genre: An authentic replication of an earlier point in history, an adventurous search for mythological artifacts, mystical undertones, and a bristly, capable hero who could solve the great mystery using either his brawn or his intellect. The movie I'd seen was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which was my formal introduction to a series I'd known about since I was four years old but for some reason never delved into until this day.

Now, you would think that my newfound affinity for Indiana Jones and his engrossing world of history and exploration would be motivation enough for me to seek out the series' progenitor, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and indulge myself in a campaign to find greater appreciation for the ideas and themes that spawned Temple of Doom, but in doing so you'd be overestimating the younger me. No--as was my propensity, I didn't bother to take the time to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark all the way through until sometime in the early 90s, long after I'd seen both Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade. It was a regretfully idiotic decision to wait that long considering we had it on VHS as long as I could remember.

Before then, what little I knew--or thought I knew--about Raiders' subject-matter was gleaned from the 2600 video game of the same name. 

So nothing, really.

Though, I should note that it did introduce me to John William's Raiders March, which was burned into my memory not for its memorable digital recreation but because it's all my family and I heard of the game for the first couple of months. See--the 2600 was home to a variety of game types: You had your competitive sports games, reflex-oriented shooters, goal-based adventure games, racing simulations, and other easily categorized titles; and then you had that emerging classification of "thoroughly inexplicable," a special group that may have well been best represented by Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Raiders was one of the most challenging 2600 titles we could remember not because it challenged our brains or our reflexes but because we couldn't figure out how to get get past the friggin' title screen, which featured an animation of Indiana Jones being lowered down via a lift while the Raiders March blared. Nothing we did would move us past it, and the sequence would restart over and over again following our every action, welcoming and re-welcoming us in an all-too-familiar way.

♪ Doo - doo - doo - doo - DOOOOOOOOOOOOO - doo-doo-doo

We'd hit the joystick's action button.

♪ Doo - doo - doo - doo - DOOOOOOOOOOOOO - doo-doo-doo

We'd try again with the control stick pressed in a specific direction.

♪ Doo - doo - doo - doo - DOOOOOOOOOOOOO - doo-doo-doo

We'd toggle the console's Game Select switch back and forth, believing that there existed some special combination that would allow us to continue.

♪ Doo - doo - doo - doo - DOOOOOOOOOOOOO - doo-doo-doo

We'd mess with the Difficulty and TV Type switches, setting random permutations.

♪ Doo - doo - doo - doo - DOOOOOOOOOOOOO - doo-doo-doo

Anything we'd do...

♪ Doo - doo - doo - doo - DOOOOOOOOOOOOO - doo-doo-doo

It was only by accident, after several weeks and numerous failed attempts, that one of us happened to hit the action button on the second controller while the game was switched on, which turned out to be the correct solution for advancing to the actual game portion. No other game had ever required that we do as much, and it was our shared sense that we'd just witnessed the single most unnecessarily confusing, arcane game mechanic ever. 

Well, until we tried the game, itself.

At the time, I wasn't all that interested in playing it, since I had no real concept of the movie on which it was based and was otherwise intimidated by its baffling gameplay systems, so I would usually watch on as my brother (who, as per usual, complicated matters by throwing away the box and manual immediately upon removing the cartridge) struggled to figure it all out. When I finally mustered enough courage to try it for myself, he helped me out by teaching me how to progress past the first two screens, demonstrating for me how you could use the grenade to blow open a hole in the opening area's right wall and proceed to the four rooms in following. And, really, that's as far as either of us ever got.

For one, we weren't sure what anything was supposed to be. We could deduce that the squiggly gray thing was a deadly snake and that the giant red check was Jones' whip, but beyond that, nothing. The room below the starting area was supposed to be a "market," but it looked more to me like some sort of sports field with all of those "scoring baskets" littered about and the two giant floating heads that might as well have been referees ("Is Jones a sports star on the side?" I wondered); all I knew was that you could walk over the baskets to empty their contents, filling my inventory with the grenade, a gun, and a key--pretty much the first and the last of the game's identifiable items.

In my alone time with the game, I pieced things together as best I could. The whip and the gun, I learned, were useful for poking small holes into the walls of the blue room's bottom-left barrier--the matching obstruction on the room's opposite side strangely mirroring the same signs of abuse--allowing me to easily breach it. Though, neither was much help against the room's guardian--an amorphous red entity I liked to call "Kryptonite" due to how closely it resembled the twinkling menaces in Superman--which would send me back to the room's starting point if I made contact with it. For that matter, touching any of the room's constructions would send you back.

To the right was a black room containing what appeared to be a pile of hay or, maybe, a sideways Atari logo, and touching it would net me a "basket" item in addition to spawning a completely random artifact; one of them appeared to be a camera, and the others might have been a "bridge," a "chicken" and a "deformed baby," respectively. ("What the hell is this movie about?" I might have wondered.) It didn't matter what they were supposed to be; I could find absolutely no use for any of them, nor could I properly highlight an item with the second controller without accidentally discarding it, forcing me to start over and collect more chickens and one-eyed babies.

The only other location available was the yellow room below the sports field, but attempting to move in that direction spelled instant death; merely entering the room would suddenly activate a transitional sequence wherein Jones would helplessly fall into a large abyss with a tree branch sticking out of its left side (a "stick with a green basket") and land in a similarly designed green room, where he'd be double-teamed by an incapacitating fly swarm and an indistinct bipedal black creature (the "black devil," as I called it) that would soon come along to steal his items one by one and then kill him with repeated contact until the game was over. After many desperate, failing attempts to navigate my way to safety, I came to assume that this room was the game's inescapable version of Hell and decided to never walk upon its surface again.

And that small collection of rooms and items was all Raiders of the Lost Ark ever was to my young self. After making my usual rounds and accumulating the same purposeless set of unidentifiable articles, I'd spend ten minutes fruitlessly searching about for a new location before giving up and moving on to better games. I'd return to Raiders every couple of months or so, still intent to unravel its many mysteries, but I'd predictably meet the same result. After, oh, a half-decade had fallen off--after which it finally became apparent to me that Raiders wasn't meant to be understood by mortal man--I turned away from it and didn't look back. 

I didn't look back, that is, until the mid-2000s and the dawn of Internet video, when available was the opportunity to watch a completed play-through of Raiders and find out what, exactly, I was supposed to be doing. I remember finding it amazing how truly inexplicable the puzzle solutions seemed compared to even the whacky computations I dreamed up ("Hmmm--maybe if I tie the whip to the chicken, I can fly over to the green basket and then hop down into that crevice!"). Most of it is so unfathomable that I won't even strain myself attempting to put into words what the game's designer expected of me, so I'll instead sum it all up by saying that I wouldn't have figured it out had Atari supplied me the assistance of the era's smartest computer AI and ten thousand lifetimes with which to work. Ultimately, since it was my only chance at victory, I followed the video walk-through and completed Raiders for the first time--just to say that I did.

Raiders concluded the same way it began, its ending scene almost a direct duplicate of the opening title-screen animation. It was as if I accomplished nothing and was consequently time-warped back to 1982 and my brother's room on 83rd Street in a sequence that I feared might loop endlessly.

Thankfully, it was just my imagination at work.


[clicks "Publish"]

♪ Doo - doo - doo - doo - DOOOOOOOOOOOOO - doo-doo-doo

Oh dear.

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