This is the seventy-sixth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
It is happening again. The virtual dice have rolled once more, randomly selecting something from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. This time it’s The Adventures of Elena Temple: Definitive Edition, by GrimTalin. Its tagline in the bundle reads:
Play the classic platformer you never knew existed!
I can confirm that I did not know it existed.
The Adventures of Elena Temple is an homage to classic platformers from the 1980s, in a similar vein to You Have To Win the Game. More specifically, the early 1980s, before Super Mario Bros. came along with its smooth scrolling and character momentum that changed everything for platformers. These early games were navigated one screen at a time, often themed around exploring ancient temples full of traps. Protagonist Elena Temple is no exception, unashamedly an Indiana Jones type, plundering treasures hidden in dungeons and gleefully ignoring the colonialist overtones of her endeavors. That premise hardly matters, of course. It’s a game about dodging deadly traps, navigating the interconnected dungeon rooms, and finding gold coins. Simple pleasures.
Also pleasant was the discovery that The Adventures of Elena Temple does not just honor classic early 1980s platformer games, but also the hardware that ran them. Players can pick from seven different display modes, each representing an early home computer or video game console, and the game is actually displayed on an appropriate monochrome or two-color screen. It’s even possible to zoom in and out, either taking in the full scene of a computer monitor sitting in a room, or focusing in on the simple pixel art action unfolding on the screen. Each of these pieces of hardware is clearly modeled after a specific real-world counterpart, but I was surprised to find that these are not meant as substitutes, but as imitations or competitors that were commercial failures. In fact, the story of this (fictional) game is told over the course of each system. It first appeared in 1982 on the Pomo D’or 4, you see, and was a hit on that console. Unfortunately, everyone was buying the Commodore 64 instead, so hardly anyone actually got to play The Adventures of Elena Temple. Its intrepid developer then continued to have absolutely rotten luck with hardware platforms, always releasing on cheap knockoffs or subpar computers that never got any serious market share. Whether it was the obscure Maple computer from Canada, which was already obsolete next to Apple’s Macintosh, or Gameboy knockoffs from shady company Nintengo, Elena Temple never found a system where it could reach its audience. At least, not until long after its creator had given up game development, and the game resurfaced via emulation and ROM hacks.
I love all this detail. The Adventures of Elena Temple isn’t just blindly reaching for a vague nostalgia, it knows exactly the era of gaming it’s aiming for and revels in it. And it doesn’t forget that these old designs could be frustrating. Elena’s jump is quick and it can be easy to miss the target, and since just one hit from a spike or a nasty snake is enough to take her out, this could have easily led to frustration. But the game is actually very forgiving. Respawns are instant and usually just before the obstacle in question, and I soon came to view rooms more as puzzles than tests of my reflexes. Many feature buttons that trigger secret entrances, walls sliding away with a rumble and grating of stone, or platforms lowering into position to allow access to higher areas. These look and sound great, likely much better than could have been done on real hardware from the early 1980s. Other modern conveniences include a handy map screen for navigating the dungeon, and the ability to quit and resume exactly where Elena’s adventure left off. There are even achievements to try for, and unlockable modifiers that grant infinite ammo or a double jump.
There’s also some really excellent chiptune music from The Indie Devs Nation and JDB Artist. Capabilities for sound and music often varied considerably for these older computers and game consoles, so the music would have actually changed quite a bit with each release of the fictional game, but fortunately players get to listen to the unaltered score no matter which (virtual) system they are using. The music tracks struck me as more modern compositions despite their retro stylings, but it’s possible that systems like the Commodore 64 could in fact create music like that; I never owned these early computers, starting out on an IBM PC compatible (which infamously had terrible sound). Regardless, the music is a treat.
The dungeon that Elena explores is a single interconnected location, but there are areas within it that have themed puzzles. One bunch of screens, for example, features cacti which block passages unless Elena shoots them with her pistol. Since she can only carry two bullets at any one time, the challenge becomes working out how to move through the room such that she can pick up more bullets when needed. Other areas feature giant bats that flit about, often positioned such that Elena must navigate past them without being able to shoot them. Still other rooms focus on platforms that slide in and out of the back wall, requiring timed jumps to navigate. It’s all thoughtfully designed and enjoyable to play through. Find all the coins and the fabled Chalice of the Gods, and Elena can retire in style!
But wait, there’s more. This is the Definitive Edition, after all. That means it comes with two bonus dungeons to play, each slightly smaller than the original but with some fresh ideas. In The Golden Spider, Elena comes out of retirement in search of new adventures, seeking the titular Golden Spider in a new, dangerous dungeon. Here she finds platforms which swap in and out whenever she jumps, making for rooms that require careful planning to navigate. There are also gems that act like keys, opening up passages or rearranging platforms once they are delivered to a corresponding pedestal — but only if Elena can get it there without taking a hit. In “The Orb of Life”, Elena realizes that the Golden Spider she found in her last adventure is cursed, so she must now seek the Orb of Life to cure herself. She no longer has instant respawns, but a finite (but extendable) health bar and specific respawn points if she loses all her health. This wasn’t as punishing as I feared, however, with frequent campfires that replenish all of Elena’s health scattered around. More interesting are the new magical portals which let Elena teleport, creating interesting routes through the deadly traps.
The Adventures of Elena Temple is an easy recommendation. It’s not long, with each dungeon easily completed in a single sitting, but it’s slick and fun, and perhaps even educational for those who never played games from the early 1980s. These early platformers had a lot of charm, and so does Elena Temple. If you missed it in the bundle, The Adventures of Elena Temple: Definitive Edition is sold for a minimum price of $4.99, which includes all previous versions of the game including Early Access builds. There’s also a free demo if you want to try it before you buy.
That’s 76 down, and only 1665 to go!