One thing I’m genuinely thankful for is being just old enough to remember the first half of the 1980s. I got to bask in the warm, mercenary glow of He-Man, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, and the rest of the finest half hour toy commercials humankind has ever produced. And that’s not all! The Garbage Pail Kids? New Coke? Music on MTV? I was there, man. I was there.
Above all, I had the privilege of growing up more or less in tandem with video games as a medium of popular entertainment. My earliest memories are inextricably bound up with the height of Pac-Man Fever and the debut outing of a plucky barrel jumping carpenter named Mario. I recall being quite disappointed when my parents rejected both Pac-Man and Donkey Kong as prospective names for my new little sister. Why even ask me then, guys?
It’s because I’ve been in love with games since the heyday of Atari that I feel I can fully appreciate what made Mountain King such a standout when it was released in 1983. Originally programmed by Robert Matson for a small startup company called E.F. Dreyer Inc., CBS Electronics acquired the rights to this quirky little platformer and published versions of it for most of the 8-bit consoles and home computers of the era. I’ll be looking at the Atari 2600 edition today because it’s the one I actually owned at the time.
Mountain King’s claim to fame was that it was a video game…with music. Really. Two short passages from Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s 1875 work “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” to be specific. The game’s ad copy leaned hard into this, too. A portion of the sheet music is reproduced on the back of the box and the ridiculous commercial jingle proclaims “When you play Mountain King, music is everything.” In a little touch almost too quaint to be real, the commercial also displayed the text “actual game melody” on the screen as the tune played, as if to reassure a disbelieving tv audience that such a feat really was possible fourteen years after we landed a man on the friggin’ moon.
Ah, but I kid. While Mountain King is obviously not the first game in history to include music, it does more than just bleep out a simple public domain tune. In fact, the way its primitive soundtrack pulls double duty as a game mechanic proper was legitimately pioneering. I’m afraid I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s start at the beginning. I’m told it’s a very good place to start.
The star of Mountain King is an unnamed explorer character out to recover a priceless golden crown left behind by an ancient civilization from its resting place in the depths of a diamond mine situated beneath the titular mountain. Thanks in large part to Indiana Jones and David Crane’s Pitfall Harry, dashing explorers were the premier stock game heroes back then. It was khaki and pith helmets as far as the eye could see.
Not that you can make out any of your avatar’s wardrobe here. The graphics are basic even by 2600 standards, with a tiny stick figure hero traipsing around on a series of stark lines representing platforms and ladders. The nicest thing I can say about the visual presentation is that the game boasts smooth(ish) eight-directional scrolling. This sort of performance is quite rare on the limited hardware and likely only possible because of the additional 256 bytes of expansion RAM that came bundled inside the cartridge, a feature CBS Electronics billed as RAM Plus. Oh, and the animation on the explorer himself isn’t half bad. I enjoy how he (or is it she?) throws his arms up and shrugs his shoulders at you whenever you press up on the joystick and there’s no ladder nearby for him to climb. He’s giving you a little sass. It’s cute.
The quest for the crown is a timed exercise (between three and eight minutes total, depending on the difficulty setting) divided into three distinct phases. First, you must collect 1000 points worth of the diamonds that are scattered about the mine. The small diamond piles are worth a mere 25 points apiece, so it’s far more efficient to focus on hunting down the hidden treasure chests instead. Each chest is good for a cool 260 points, but the catch is that they’re only visible when illuminated by your flashlight beam. The bottommost level of the mine is especially rich in treasure. Tread carefully, though, as it’s also home to a giant spider that will trap you in its web and then devour you if you’re unable to escape in time via joystick waggling.
After you’ve gathered the requisite diamonds, things get interesting. Your next task is to locate a magical flame spirit that’s needed to enter the temple where the crown is housed. The spirit is located at a random spot in the mine and, like the treasure chests, is invisible unless you happen to be shining your light on it. It’s here that the much-vaunted music kicks in to help you out. When the tune starts up, you know you’re on the right track. The closer you are to the flame spirit’s hiding place, the louder it becomes. When the volume peaks, that’s when you want to start using your flashlight. It’s this musical scavenger hunt aspect that really captured imaginations back in the day and ultimately justified all the promotional hype. The effect stood out as genuinely innovative and fascinating. For once, players had an incentive to do more than simply tolerate the noises emanating from their game machines. It still has the potential to be absorbing and a tad eerie if you’re willing to look past the crude graphics and embrace the proper mindset.
Mountain King saves its very best for last, however. Present the flame spirit to the ghostly skull that guards the temple at the bottom of the mine and you can finally enter and don the crown. At this point, the music kicks into high gear and the game becomes a frenzied sprint to the finish. You’re given a scant 60 to 90 seconds (depending on the difficulty level) to exit the temple and carry the crown to the perpetual flame that burns on the very top of the mountain. As if all the frantic running, jumping, and climbing this requires wasn’t challenge enough, the mine is also suddenly swarming with fast-moving cave bats out to snatch the crown away. If you fail to reach the peak before time runs out or if a bat manages to touch the crown, things are reset to square one and have to repeat the entire cycle of diamond gathering, spirit hunting, etc. On lower difficulties, you might have enough time left on the main clock to recover from this setback. If you only have three or four minutes in total to work with from the outset, however, good luck. This climactic race to the top is a real barn burner of a finale, artfully emphasized by the calmer gameplay preceding it. Every missed jump and close brush with a bat is enough to make your heart skip a beat. Losing the crown is agony. Actually making it all the way to the top with your prize in tow is downright cathartic. Of course, this is an old school score attack game, so there’s no true final victory. Your reward for winning the crown is starting a fresh loop on a higher difficulty ad infinitum.
That’s Mountain King. Very simple by modern standards, it’s nevertheless remarkably involved for a 2600 title. Alongside Pitfall II, it was one of my first experiences with a video game that extended beyond the borders of a single screen. While not a true adventure game by any means, its intriguing scenario involving lost treasure, eldritch spirits, and a subterranean temple fired my nascent imagination and primed me for more elaborate exploratory games like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, not to mention tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. It’s not quite the forward-thinking masterpiece Pitfall II is. The diamond collecting interludes are pretty dull compared to the rest and smack of padding. Still, when Mountain King works, it really works. Following those faint notes in the dark and then scrambling like mad to reach the mountaintop before the clock or those damned bats can foil your run are both as fresh and compelling as they ever were. This is a thoroughly unique entry in the vast 2600 library and a must-play for anyone with an abiding interest in the system. You don’t have to be a fellow ’80s kid to appreciate it, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.