Robert Bonifacio's Aztec Challenge was converted for the VIC-20, apparently by himself in 1982, and for the Texas Instruments' TI-99/4A by "RKH" in 1983, but both were released by Cosmi.
Paul Norman's Aztec Challenge was unofficially remade for the Commodore Amiga in 1993 by Christian Blaha and Ard Joosse of Bignonia, and a more recent port for the Atari 2600 by Simon Quernhorst was released in 2006 as "A-VCS-tec Challenge".
Whether or not this blog entry could be counted as a proper twofer is arguable, but since I'm the one writing the blog, why bother arguing? Now, Cosmi's games in general have always had a bit of an odd quality, and I for one have never really understood their charm. Perhaps that's the Spectrum fan in me talking here. Still, there is something very mysterious about Aztec Challenge that has always attracted me to it, and not only because of its dual game status. In a way, both of the games have the same sense of mystique about them - the kind of which makes you think "why on earth do I somehow like this game?"
The Atari 8-bit version has been rated with a grand 3.5/10 at Atarimania with 45 votes, and the Commodore 64 version has reached the #93 spot in the Lemon64 top 100 list with a score of 7.9 from 179 votes. I couldn't find any ratings or reviews from the rest of the official releases, but the Amiga version has a very respectable 7.27 at LemonAmiga, although it has only been voted 11 times.
DESCRIPTION & REVIEW
Since there are two almost completely different games here with the same title, we obviously need two descriptions. But let's start with a bit of history. Robert Bonifacio was a high school student at the time he created a game by the name of The Bonifas for the Atari Program Exchange in 1981. Within a week, Cosmi picked up the game from under Atari's nose, had a fairly major change made into the game by adding a simultaneous 2-player mode to it, and renaming it "Aztec Challenge". On paper, it sounded like a good idea: an automatically side-scrolling platformer based on reaction time and perception, with a 2-player mode. Well, according to the score at Atarimania, the realization of the game wasn't all that successful, but that's beside the point. The game was a hit for Cosmi, and later on, Bonifacio would make another modified version of Aztec Challenge for the Atari, featuring an instant replay mode. The Bonifacio version of Aztec Challenge would also make an appearance on the Commodore VIC-20 and Texas Instruments' TI-99/4A.
Cosmi had released another hit game during that time for the C64 - Forbidden Forest by a newcomer called Paul Norman. His second game would be a completely different version of Aztec Challenge. Whatever his reasons for not converting the original Atari game were, and instead creating a completely different sort of experience, were very much to his advantage. Paul Norman's Aztec Challenge was another one of his interactive mini-movies, featuring 7 completely different kinds of levels of simple arcade action based on a very few controls, and all the while basically being an avoid-'em-up of many varieties. This game is somehow more based on reaction times than the Atari game, but involves a great deal of luck in some levels.
Both of these games suffer from the same problem: repetition. Yet both of these games have very much the same idea: reacting to sudden disturbances in your surroundings, which makes both of these games have that one-more-time factor. However, after having seen everything there is to see in these games, you will be unlikely to pick either of these games up again and have a good session. But perhaps that's just my personal view on it.
It has to be said, that the side-scrolling platformer wasn't really even properly invented back in 1982, so the original Bonifacio version of Aztec Challenge (or more precisely, The Bonifas) was breaking some boundaries in a way. Not that it could actually be called a proper platformer quite yet - it's still more of an avoid'em-up. The screen scrolls at a set pace from right to left, and your mission is to get as far as possible by jumping on platforms and through gates and so on. Your controls are as such: pushing the fire button makes you jump, pushing the joystick up simultaneously makes you jump higher, and pulling the joystick down makes you jump lower. You have three lives to survive through the seven areas of the game: the Grounds, Columns, the Grounds and Columns, Fire Caves, the Batons, the Gems, and finally the Walls. Once you have completed them, you will loop the game until you have passed level 99. What comes after that is anybody's guess. The original APX version of the game, The Bonifas, is currently unavailable, so we can only guess how similar the 1982 Cosmi release is to it.
The other two versions of the Bonifacio game require some expertise to get them working. You need to write a couple of poke commands in the VIC-20 version before loading up the game with an 8k RAM extension, and manually RUN the program. VERY basic stuff there. It plays much the same as the Atari original, but with a much more basic scrolling method based on character block movement. The jump heights are more subtle than on the Atari, and more difficult to get them working as you would wish them to, but they are there. If you want to have a go at this version, you need to get WinVICE and a single-filed Pucrunched (whatever that means) version from the depths of the internet, because the tape image with all the poke commands it requires, doesn't respond to joystick commands. Searching for information on the internet, lots of other people have come across the same problem with missing controls, so the problem can only be fixed by downloading a pre-compiled version. Once you get a working copy of it, it's not really too bad, but the screen size forces you to react more quickly, and the basic, blocky animation really makes estimating the jump heights and lengths more difficult. This time, though, you will only get 5 stages due to the VIC's lack of memory. In order, they are the Grounds, Rocks, Gold, Stakes and Fire Caves. The Grounds is basically the same as what you get on the Atari, and Stakes is similar to Atari's Columns. Gold has some gold pieces falling through red diamond-shaped lines, which you must dodge, and Rocks have some randomly placed black rocks blocking your way, which you must somehow navigate through. Fire Caves is similar to the Atari version of the same level - you need to jump on platforms, avoiding the floor of fire. After you've done with all the five levels, the game will loop from the beginning and makes you run faster.
The TI-99/4A was even more mystical, since a complete newbie couldn't possibly get the emulated machine working without a proper manual. Apparently you would need an Extended Basic cartridge, but even with that, I couldn't get the disk image load up at all, at first, and TI system commands are completely unknown to me. There is no YouTube video of the game available either, so the only screenshots available are from the TI Game Shelf website. I contacted the TIGS website owner Walid Maalouli, to see if he could help me with this problem, and he was kind enough to help me get through this problem. So, once I actually got to play this game, the first instruction you should pay heed to is to turn off the Alpha Lock, because if it happens to be on, your man will not perform his jumps properly. So, as a newbie, I had to find out what the Alpha Lock was, and found out that my chosen emulator used Caps Lock in its place. Once that got working, the game certainly opened up properly, although I cannot say that it was overall a very pleasing experience, nor a consistent one in difficulty. As the original, the game has three types of jumps, controlled similarly with the joystick. From there on, the similarities start to vanish. Just as the VIC-20, this version only has 5 phases before looping the game with a more difficult mode. These 5 phases are: the Grounds, the Columns, the Giant Scorpions, the Spears, and finally the Crossfire. The Grounds have some randomly placed platforms in mid-air, without any actual space between them other than in the beginning of each screen -- and yes, this one is a flick-screen game. In the Columns section, you will get 3 randomly set columns, each with a hole you must get through. In the Giant Scorpions section you have to evade two giant scorpions for a number of screens by jumping between them, surprisingly. The Spears section is the easiest by far, and from my point of view, useless bit of programming, because I never once had to use any jumps. I just literally walked through the whole phase, while two spears were continuously chasing me through every flipping screen. The Crossfire reverses the lower flying spear from the previous section. After that, you get to a more difficult version of the lot, and all difficulty levels are characterized by a different colour layout. Honestly, I can't really praise this version as much as I would have liked to, but then again it's not really as bad as I imagined it to be. Still, it has a horrible collision detection which pretty much would ruin the whole game, if it didn't have unlimited continues. It also has the two-player mode from the enhanced 1983 version for the Atari, which could be a nice thing, if you can ever find someone to try this game with you on the TI-99/4A.
Although the TI-99/4A version has more variety and slightly less irritating visuals than the VIC-20, the collision detection what ruins this version for me, and at least the VIC version scrolls. While the two Atari versions are essentially the same, the latter release has the simultaneous two-player mode, and now less interestingly (even if it might have been a unique or rare feature back then), the instant replay mode. So, this is how I line them up:
1. Atari 400/800, 1983
2. Atari 400/800, 1982
3. Commodore VIC-20
4. Texas Instruments TI-99/4A
Moving on to Paul Norman's game, we suddenly get a lot more to think about in terms of controls, but since it's an episodic collection of minigames, you really don't need to concentrate on learning all the controls at once - especially since you don't even have a finite amount of lives to lose. If you happen to die one time too often, you just begin at the beginning of the current level. The first level places your unnamed hero running through a gauntlet of other Aztec warriors throwing spears at you from two altitudes, which you must either dodge by ducking or jump over. Once you have survived the gauntlet, you will have to climb the stairs while navigating your man through falling stone blocks by moving either left or right. The third stage puts you running through the temple with all its traps, which you must jump over by pushing the button or the joystick right, or wait for the traps to show themselves by pushing the joystick left. The heart of the temple is a giant hall with hypnotic wallpaper, flooding with all kinds of vermin that you must jump over - and this is one of the two bits that incorporate the same control method as the Bonifacio game with the three jump heights. Level 5, strangely titled Hopaztec, puts you at the back exit of the temple, where you must navigate through a room full of pressured tiles that might or might not have some arrow traps hidden in them. Once you hit one with a trap, though, you can't evade death, but since you have a few tries to go, you can try to memorize the path and get out before your lives run out. Of the last two levels I have some doubts whether they were implemented in the game in a very logical order, but you be the judge of that: Level 6 is where you swim across a lake full of piranha fish (although only six piranhas will show on the screen simultaneously), and you must keep going forward until you get to the next stage. You can dive for a second by pushing the button, but I have rarely found any real use for it. Then, the final stage is where you run across a bridge over a huge ravine. The bridge is in a fairly bad shape, so you need to jump across randomly occurring gaps of three kinds, and - yes, this is another variation on the Atari game. Once you complete this level, you are back to the beginning with a higher difficulty level. I have no idea for how long this game will go on like this, and if there is an ending to it, because I have ever only played it once through and given up because of frustration kicking in at this point - at the latest. Strangely, even the C64endings website has no information regarding this game, so I'm guessing they all feel the same about this game.
The first unofficial port of Paul Norman's Aztec Challenge came for the Commodore Amiga in 1993. A group of Dutch C64 enthusiasts that called themselves Bignonia were famous at the time for making rather faithful C64 conversions for the Amiga, with a big of extra usually as their trademark. In the case of Aztec Challenge, they gave us an extra level, just as difficult, if not more so, than the most difficult bits of the original. This extra stage places the hero in his "hometown", which in this case is unsurprisingly Amsterdam - and there he has to run through the streets, dodging and jumping over such obstacles as falling flower benches, space pods and skateboarding boomboxes, and collecting falling hearts while at it. Getting around the screen left and right happens by waggling the joystick left and right or leaving the Aztec runner motionless. After this level is through, the game loops from the beginning, just like the original. Otherwise, there are not too many differences compared to the C64 version: the only really notable ones were that you only have one attempt at a time, and when you die, there is a slight pause before going back to the stage description screen. The less notable one that I feel I have to mention is the more unforgiving collision detection, which can become more of a pain in the backside, particularly in the extra stage and the Vermin stage.
Most recently, or at least from what I happen to be aware of, Simon Quernhoost coded a very nice conversion for the Atari VCS/2600, released with the title A-VCS-tec Challenge. Much like the original Atari 400/800 version, this only featured one sort of level with some graphical and gameplay variations. This time, though, the entire gameplay is based on the Gauntlet level of the Paul Norman game. Considering that this is made for a machine with lesser hardware capabilities than the A400/800, while in 1983, the Paul Norman version of Aztec Challenge was thought to be impossible to code for the Atari 400/800 due to hardware limitations, says quite a lot about what have people learned over the ages. Anyway, you have three lives to help you survive this particular challenge, and once they're gone, it's game over and you have to start from the beginning. So in a sense, it's a mash-up of the two Aztec Challenges.
The unofficial Amiga version has the most content, and is surprisingly faithful to the original. However, the unforgiving collision detection slightly mars down the otherwise very nice conversion, and the one extra level isn't all that much to speak of when the game is so simplistic overall in playability and most other aspects. Then, the VCS version has been boiled down to just variations of the most iconic stage in the Paul Norman game, so it's more of an arcade experience, which suits the oldest Atari home console very well, but it still lacks content compared to the original C64 version. In fact, I shouldn't even compare it to the other two at all, since it's more in par with the Bonifacio version, but I can't really even compare it to that one. So, I'll leave that one alone for this bit and just say that the Gauntlet stage in the VCS is actually the best one around.
1. Commodore 64
2. Commodore Amiga
By even their contemporary standards, the graphics for either game weren't all that good. Then again, considering that in both cases, the games were breaking some sorts of genre boundaries, neither of them had any real previous examples to go by, so both Bonifacio, and Norman even more particularly, had to make something almost completely of their own designs.
|Atari 400/800 screenshots. Above: 1982 version / Below: 1983 version.|
Originally, The Bonifas was developed with a sci-fi storyline, and the player character was a robot. The 1982 Cosmi version had many other differences in graphics as well, but the basic layout and scrolling method were much the same as they were in the 1983 overhaul, released as Aztec Challenge. In the enhanced version, however, the colouring was more subtle and more thematic towards the Aztecs and the player character was changed to a man, by Cosmi's request.
|Commodore VIC-20 screenshots.|
From what I have seen of the old VIC-20 games, this doesn't look too bad, but still pales compared to the original, even if it's clearly based on the earlier Atari version. Note that the screenshots aren't exactly in their native form; I squeezed them up sideways some just to make them fit better on the blog, so if you really want to see how it looked like using VICE emulator, click here. (UPDATE, Jan 25. 2014: I could have used the "true aspect ratio" setting in VICE, but I didn't know of it until now.) There are some different graphics in accordance with the different levels here, but nothing major - the biggest difference usually seems to be with the colour schemes in each level.
The TI-99 version at first looks to be rather ungraphical, but once you get further in the game, you will start seeing some more things. Not much, but still more. As the game doesn't have scrolling, you will only see the strange pyramid-like multi-trapezoid object move from the right side of the screen to the left, as you progress through a phase. The first phase only has you jumping through some unimaginative platforms, and even the second only has very simplistic-looking columns, but the third has some fairly well drawn Giant Scorpions. The fourth and fifth phases again have only spears flying through the screen after and towards you, but at least there is some variation. The most interesting thing about this version, graphically, is the colour changes coming with the different difficulty levels. The highest difficulty, in particular, has a nice nightvision concept - you will only get to see the objects on screen for a brief period of time before entering the play field, and then you're blind.
Even if the TI-99 version doesn't have scrolling, it's just that bit easier on the eyes than the VIC-20 version, mostly due to not being that blocky and having a better set of colours. Out of the two Atari versions, the original isn't bad, but lacks the style and thematic details that the enhanced version has.
1. Atari 400/800, 1983
2. Atari 400/800, 1982
3. Texas Instruments TI-99/4A
4. Commodore VIC-20
For the Paul Norman game, the C64 original obviously set the standard, and since it was the only version of this version of the game having an official release, there's really no contest in that sense. However, taking into account that the Amiga conversion is basically the same game (with an extra level), you can't not compare the two. It would be too easy just to dismiss the unofficial versions in this case.
|Atari 2600 screenshots.|
But let's start with the comparison with the latest release, the Atari VCS version of variations of the Gauntlet level. Technically, it's the most impressive of the three considering the hardware, but since it's only colour variations of the first level, and characteristically for the A2600, quite blocky, you can only wonder about the next raising monument at the end of each gauntlet. Nice, but it gets monotonous, and due to the differences to the others, still cannot be included in the scores. I shall figure out some sort of final scoring for it, though.
|Loading and starting screens with level descriptions at the right end.|
Screenshots from the Commodore 64 (above) and Commodore Amiga (below).
Before we push on with the main event here, which is comparing the C64 and Amiga in-game screenshots, we should probably take a look at the intro screens and the "get ready" screens with level descriptions just for completion's sake. Already you can see here, that the Amiga version shows incredible faithfulness to the source material. The graphics are basically the same, if you don't look too close, with the Amiga having just a little bit of polish to make it look like a true tribute. Only recently I have noticed that the face logo thing in the C64 original is not entirely symmetric, and I believe the intention of this graphical detail was to make it look like a proper shaman's drum - they rarely are entirely symmetric. This little detail has been overlooked in the Amiga version, but if you don't care about the cultural references in the game all that much, then it's all the same. Of course, the level description screen has a very basic font of each machine, so there are no great surprises nor differences in essentials there, thus I cannot honestly prefer either version in this case. But I do like the shaman's drum look on the C64 better.
|Left: Commodore 64 levels.|
Right: Commodore Amiga levels.
CLICK ON THE PICTURE TO ZOOM.
Overall, I would have to say that the Amiga version wins this one. If it were completely different in graphics, it might not have had any points, but since it's so respectful of the original, only having polish where absolutely required, I have to accept it as a viable option. Even if the nighttime version didn't exist on the Amiga, which I have no idea of, the lack of glitches and the better quality overall makes the unofficial conversion the winner here.
1. Commodore Amiga
2. Commodore 64
Beginning with the original Atari game, as usual, there really isn't much to say. There are only four sound effects and no music at all, at least in all the four stages I managed to play it. The sounds are basically three different robotic clonky jump effects and a crash effect for death, and that's it. The 1983 version of the Atari game adds an intro tune in the mix, which is a brief segment of a rendition of Ennio Morricone's theme from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly; changes the four sound effects to be more fitting for a man who looks like he's jumping on a trampoline and his death would be marked by a very Atariesque aural presentation of a scream; another set of jump sounds for the instant replay mode, which sound more like regular jump sound effects, and a strange randomly generated bleepy chain of noises to mark the beginning of an instant replay mode.
On the VIC-20, all three jumps have a downwards playing arpeggio to mark each height. The lowest has 2 notes, the middle jump has 4, and the highest jump has 6 notes. The player's death is indicated with a fading crash noise mixed with a fading and cracking-up beep. All in all, this set of sounds is just a little bit better than the first Cosmi version.
The TI-99 version is a different beast in this regard. Although there is no music in the title screen, you get a small beep for all the options you enter in the menu. In the game, you will have a very different set of sounds than in all the versions of the Bonifacio game so far. Your man has a small noise for every step he takes, a lower-pitched noise for when he makes a jump, and a strangely muted downward arpeggio for his falling down from a jump. You will also get a unique sort of death noise, which sounds more like a machine gun fire: 8 back-to-back repeated brief noises.
Although the TI-99 version has probably the most charm out of this lot, it still has a lot less sound effects in its library than the Cosmi version on the Atari. Sound-wise, the two Atari versions couldn't be much more apart.
1. Atari 400/800, 1983
2. Texas Instruments TI-99/4A
3. Commodore VIC-20
4. Atari 400/800, 1982
Now, although it has become clear that the VCS version of the Paul Norman game has no place in the scoreboards of this comparison, I would like to point out at this point, that Simon Quernhorst's demake has a marvellous remix of the C64 tune in the game, re-written by Paul Slocum. That said, it has nothing else in terms of sounds, which goes nicely hand-in-hand with the lack of variation in levels.
The original theme tune for Paul Norman's Aztec Challenge starts with a distant thumping drum beat, setting a more action-based atmosphere to the game. Next comes a more threatening, scary version of the Morricone tune's whistling bit, which turns quickly into a more familiar Paul Norman sort of tune with a very horror movie-like melody, and the middle bit is more of a rock riff than anything else, but it all sort of fits together nicely. Other than the tune, the C64 version only has 3 sound effects during the whole game: one for flying spears, a second one for when the piranhas attack you in stage 6 (very watery one, this), and the third one for falling down from a bridge gap.
Bignonia's conversion for the Amiga sounds much like the original, only it seems to have one more channel with a previously unheard stem in the basic soundtrack playing almost constantly. Additionally, you get an arcade-like ditty for entering a stage, a new sound effect for landing your jumps in the bridge section and two new sounds for the bonus stage: a boombox blasting some drum beats on top of the main tune and a sound effect for collecing hearts. Whether or not it should be considered okay to have the new sounds decidedly 16-bit in style, is another matter entirely, but I think we can forgive them this once, when most of the game is so well converted from the original.
Somehow, it doesn't seem fair that the Amiga wins this battle so easily, without even trying much. Considering that most of the sounds and even the music have almost entirely been copied from the original C64 version, so as to get as good a tribute of a game as possible, you still cannot but admire Bignonia's decisions. They could have easily went for a much grander update, but decided to give the C64 fans what they truly wished for, because they respected the source material enough, and I think we, as retrogamers of today, have to respect that in some way.
1. Commodore Amiga
2. Commodore 64
For the fourth time in FRGCB's history, we arrive at the end of a Two-For-One comparison, and so we need two final scores. However, considering that this particular blog was about a game which was completely remade into an entirely different game, which inspired two unofficial remakes, the latter of which doesn't compare in much of any ways to the other games and their conversions... I do believe I should make another list entirely to go with the other two.
ROBERT T. BONIFACIO'S AZTEC CHALLENGE
1. Atari 1983: Playability 4, Graphics 4, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 12
2. Atari 1982: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 7
3. TI-99/4A: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 6
4. VIC-20: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
PAUL NORMAN'S AZTEC CHALLENGE
1. Commodore Amiga: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
2. Commodore 64: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4
Well, there you have the traditional mathematical results. Having now played all the seven variations of Aztec Challenge, I feel I have to list up my order of preference to compare with the math lists. Although I happen to agree with the Bonifacio list above, it doesn't really represent my vision of it. Of course, my list probably will not represent yours, but I dare you to try out all the versions and play them as long as I have for the past week. Never again.
1. Commodore 64
- the better one of the two originals, memorable original music and nicely varying gameplay
2. Commodore Amiga
- a very faithful conversion of the C64 original, but has an impossible extra stage, an annoying collision detection and arguably unnecessary extra sounds + cannot be sought out as an original boxed release, if you're a collector
3. Atari 400/800, 1983
- the better version of the first original with a good sound library and more appealing graphics
4. Atari 2600
- a great remix of the C64 tune and instant playability; technically very impressive; surprisingly, also has a physical cartridge release for the original A2600
5. Commodore VIC-20
- surprisingly good and enjoyable experience considering everything, but difficult to run it
6. Atari 400/800, 1982
- not nearly as appealing as the second enhancement, but gets the honorable mention for being the original, and more particularly, a huge development towards the side-scrolling platform genre
- horrible collision detection, little in common with the other versions and unnecessarily difficult to get working (or even find one) for the uninitiated
As a final note, there is still one more remake to be found. Paul Norman also remade his own Aztec Challenge as a browser game. I haven't been able to find the year of release for the game, but his DIGitTARIUS website has a copyright from 2003, and I might hazard a guess that the game is from the same period of time. The game was retitled "Azteca - Queen of Quetzalcoatl", and... well, see for yourself, click here to get to it.
That's it for now; comments, suggestions and corrections are welcome as always!
Thanks for reading, see you next time!