Thursday, September 1, 2022

Game 334: Montezuma's Revenge

If 1983 was a curiously solid year for computer platformers, with games like Alley Cat, Lode Runner, Jumpman, and Manic Miner offering richer set-piece and puzzle-oriented gameplay experiences compared to arcade offerings, 1984 brought a more curious trend; a nearly unprecedented explosion of exploration-focused platformers. Pitfall II, Jet Set Willy, Bruce Lee, Impossible Mission, the not-yet-covered Below the Root, and this post's subject, Montezuma's Revenge, all offer interconnected worlds of varying degrees of openness filled with collectable items, and all seem to have been developed without knowledge of each other, or of any obvious predecessor (1983's Spelunker and Pharaoh's Curse have been noted as earlier examples but I am not aware of any direct lines of influence). We're still a way's off from when Metroid codifies the genre with an emphasis on progression and unlocking permanent upgrades and tools through exploration, but for now, Montezuma's Revenge is the closest thing I've seen yet.

A partial map of Montezuma's pyramid

As fedora-wearing adventurer PANAMA JOE, you have excavated a lost pyramid somewhere in Central America, but to seek its priceless treasures you must also survive its corridors filled with spiders, snakes, and booby traps. If this premise sounds a little, shall we say, inspired by Hollywood's second-biggest movie event of two years prior, designer Robert Jaeger claims he never heard of Indiana Jones before making this. I don't believe him.

Two doors, one key, one rolling calavera. Which way first?

Montezuma's pyramid, entered from the top, consists of 100 rooms distributed over ten stepped floors, widening to 19 rooms at the base, which contains the exit in its very center. This is no quick descent to the bottom, however - walls, ladders, and other barriers make for a sprawling maze, and an abundance of locked doors can sometimes force you to backtrack to find the correctly colored key. Furthermore, the lower rooms are darkened, and deadly to explore without a torch. Not every room must be explored (and not every room is unique; many are just copies or variants of each other), but some of the most valuable treasure rooms are out of your way. Mapping is a useful and encouraged skill.

Gotta come back here when I have a key for the blue door.
There's one! Good thing I have a sword to deal with the bonehead below me.

Progress is gated by keys and torches (the only semi-permanent upgrade), but also collectable are coins, which award 1000 points each, hammers, which grant temporary invulnerability to creatures, and most valuable of all, swords, which allow a one-time disposal of an enemy in your way and a 2,000 or 3,000 point bonus for skulls and spiders, respectively. Depending on your path, you may even have an overabundance of these items - only five may be carried, the torch takes up one permanently once found, and for what I assume is a programming error that Jaeger didn't bother to fix, you can't even collect treasure when your inventory is full. Sometimes I would backtrack to use up items.

I'm still not sure how to get this key and live.

Passing this tricky room gains you passage to an all-important torch. Lucky thing you don't have to do it in the dark... yet.

Montezuma's Revenge is, despite some Metroid-like trappings, still very much born out of the Donkey Kong era of design and mechanics, and PANAMA JOE'S fragility is just something you need to deal with. Several rooms require knowing just how far you can fall with pixel precision, as dropping by anything slightly more than his height is lethal. The various critters infesting the tomb aren't too bad and can mostly be easily jumped over, but often the combination of them, short or moving platforms, and traps can make for a very tricky timing situation if you don't have a spare sword. That said, the game is generous with extra lives, awarding one every 10,000 points, but you can expect to use them up pretty fast. At least the death animations are pretty funny.

Complete the pyramid, and in arcade game fashion, you'll loop back to the beginning with an empty inventory and do it again after a brief bonus round intermission of looting Montezuma's vault. Subsequent loops are made more challenging with the addition of monsters, rearrangement of doors, barriers, and keys, and with each loop an additional floor is plunged into darkness, requiring you to either find the torch sooner or deal with navigating blindly. Paths that worked before become sealed off while other, longer, more dangerous ones open up.

In a clever bit of design, the first loop configures the barriers as such that only the pyramid's left half may be explored. The second loop allows only the right, and from the third onward, the whole 100 room pyramid is accessible, though the left and right halves remain partitioned in a manner that there's no way to traverse from one to the other without re-ascending to the upper levels first. You generally don't need to visit both halves to finish the pyramid - they both converge at the bottom at the very center, and contain enough keys to open their respective doors - but depending on the pyramid's configuration, one may be easier than the other, especially with regards to finding a torch.

The farthest I could make it is the sixth loop, at which point almost the entire pyramid is darkened, and you have no choice but to blindly navigate multiple floors before you find a torch. Not only that, but one of the game's few mercies - removing from the room the creature that killed you - is removed, and the increased creature population just turns so many rooms into frustrating death pits that no longer become any safer after repeated failures.


Rather than record a video of a multi-loop run, I made one showcasing a grand tour of the third loop, which can be selected at the start of the game. Here, I explore every room of the pyramid, and collect every treasure and item except for redundant torches, as they take up inventory space that you can't spare.


GAB rating: Good. Montezuma's Revenge does exploration-based platforming well, and I had fun tackling and retackling its ten-level pyramid maze, despite some repetitive elements and some frustrating rooms.


I didn't play it, but Jaeger's 1983 prototype is available as well, and has a few features that were cut from Parker Brothers' 1984 release apparently for space reasons. I don't understand why this was necessary as both versions require 48KB and no cartridge version was made for computers (a 5200 port uses 16KB ROM so perhaps features were cut to ensure version parity). The most notable feature is Montezuma himself as a final boss at the pyramid's base, not yet programmed in a manner that he can be beaten (but he can certainly kill you). Other features include:

  • An animated title screen that plays a POKEY rendition of Spanish Flea
  • A slightly different protagonist "Pedro" who wears a charro's sombrero and poncho
  • Extra ambient details around the pyramid, like cobwebs and pottery
  • Better door-opening animation
  • Burning ropes
  • A bat enemy that serves as a time pressure, attacking if you spend too much time in any given room
  • A post-death animation showing your extra Pedros standing in a line, one of them stepping up to take the deceased's place


Montezuma's Revenge was quickly ported to several platforms - Apple II, Commodore 64, & PC, but also to the contemporary consoles Atari 5200 & ColecoVision, and in 1989, an enhanced port to Sega Master System, but curiously, not the NES. A retro-styled remake hit mobile phones in 2012 and Steam in 2020, but furthermore, as of this writing, Jaeger's production company Normal Distribution LLC has completed and plans to distribute physical releases of a long-belated NES port, and has teased a "Director's Cut" of the original Atari version, restoring the features cut by Parker Brothers.


  1. I remember playing the heck out of this back in the day on the ColecoVision. One of my favorites growing up pre-Nintendo and PC gaming.

  2. I think I mentioned this in your last post! We spent many hours playing this on our Tandy 1000s! Young me never really keyed in on the whole concept of a pyramid and the map above though, I think... has been a while! Great stuff. Also loved your GATO post a while back.

  3. Well, I had heard of this game but never played it. Now I know what it looked like : what inspired games like Rick Dangerous.


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