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Old 08-31-2011, 10:40 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Retronauts: In The Hall of the Mountain King

I briefly referenced Mountain King in one of my previous blogs, but never went into detail about what made it special. Well, faithful Retronauts reader, it's time I got you up to speed. Designed by E.F. Dreyer and ported to a handful of different systems, Mountain King went out of its way to distance itself from the hundreds of samey shooters buckling store shelves in 1983. Instead of a laser, you're armed with a flashlight, and instead of vaporizing everything that moves, your goal is to capture the crown at the foot of a dimly lit mountain, then climb to its summit with the glittering prize. That's easier said than done, because the chamber where the crown is held can only be opened by an elusive fire spirit, and the bats that flit about the mountain have a nasty habit of snatching the treasure from your head as quickly as you've stolen it.

Mountain King is best remembered for its unprecedented scope and sense of atmosphere. While other games of the time locked the player into a single cramped screen, Mountain King offered an absolutely gigantic playfield that scrolled in all directions. Even Super Mario Bros., the Nintendo hit historians often credit for bringing freedom to the gaming experience, didn't offer nearly this much! Mountain King also wore its affection for Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg on its sleeve, using selections from his magnum opus In the Hall of the Mountain King for its soundtrack. It was impressive for a video game just to have music in those early days, but Dreyer went one step further, tweaking the soundtrack to highlight key moments. The fire spirit's playful melody gets louder as you approach him, and once you've taken the crown, the tempo of the lead track steadily rises, making the climb to the top of the mountain nerve-rackingly intense.

There was nothing quite like Mountain King in the early 1980s, or since. There have been no sequels, spin-offs, or revivals of this sadly overlooked release, and only the Ecco the Dolphin series has come close to capturing the spirit of Mountain King with its sprawling levels and gentle gameplay. This is doubly tragic, as a remake would not only be welcome, it would give developers a chance to tackle the game's most serious flaw. Bats have always been one of gaming's most obnoxious foes, but they've never been worse than they are here. You can't fight them, and you can't really dodge them, since the ledges are squeezed so tightly together. If a ladder isn't nearby, your only option is to watch helplessly as the bats leave a steaming heap of guano where your crown used to be. It's annoying enough the first time, but after the fifth, you'll be sorely tempted to tear the cartridge from the system and fling it out the window.

It's a problem. It's a pretty big problem, actually, and I'm not sure how I put up with it when I was a kid. Nevertheless, there's a spark of genius in Mountain King that can't be denied, and there's no telling how far it could have been taken if the game had gotten the attention it deserved.
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