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Best Games - Aztec

Movement Mode
W- walk, R- run, J- jump, S- stop, C- climb, A- turn Left, D- turn Right, G- crawl(once), P- place and light explosive, T- take, O- opens box or digs in trash pile, L- looks in box, Z- inventory, F- goes into fight mode Control S- toggles main sound on/off
Fight Mode
S- spin around, A- move one to the left, D- move one to the right, L- lunge, M- strike down, G- draw gun, Space Bar- shoot, W R or J- move mode.

Games are defined by their verbs. The freedom that the player has to interact with a system of rules, opponents, and environmental obstacles is reduced to a few verbs. Run, jump, throw a ball, roll a die. The contrivance of a game necessarily constrains what we do and when we do it. A players verbs become very important. Look at that bizarre list of nonsense at the top. That wall of text is the collection of verbs presented to the player when you pause the game Aztec for the Apple II. It may not be the cleanest interface, but you have to admit, that’s a lot of verbs.
My friend had an Apple IIgs when we were kids. The gs stood for graphics and sound. It was a beefed up version of the Apple II computer that was ubiquitous in schools through the mid 80s, a computer not really known for either it’s graphics or it’s sound. While the Apple IIgs computer was certainly capable of producing a nice looking version of Tass Times in Tonetown or Winter Games, I always had a fascination with Aztec.
Of course, Aztec is terrible.
Aztec took the graphics and the sound out back and shot them. It was originally written for the vanilla Apple II. I can only assume that when the Apple II was created someone A/B tested the worst colors available with until the entire palette was composed of nothing but visual tragedy. I mean look at this.
That is the most god awful collection of pixels ever drawn to a screen. Even given the limited palette and low resolution, that is a sorry looking presentation. I have thought about it for decades, and I still have no clue what that blue mess on the right half of the opening screen is.
The sound is little more than mechanical squawks and digital farts. It makes sense that they put an option to turn it off completely in the main controls. Shutting off the audio is truly the most humane thing to do.
The controls are a finger contorting travesty. I have played flight sims with a more cleanly laid out interface, and in this game you only have to control a guy. Controlling a guy is something that game developers were actually pretty competent at in 1982. This advancement seems to have sidestepped Aztec. If you did manager to figure out the controls, getting the guy to move in a predictable manner was still close to impossible. Despite the existence of a run command, the guy has one speed, slow. If he collides with anything he will get knocked down and dizzied for a few moments. Fall and he’s knocked out. Hit a wall and he’s knocked out. Be in the room with an explosive and he’s knocked out. Bump into a pixel that the game thinks might be a wall and he’s knocked out. The end of game reward should be a CT scan.
One of the key innovations of Aztec was the procedural generation system. Each time you played, the game would create an entirely new set of maps for you to navigate, with different pathways, and different enemy and trap positions. Unfortunately the artificial intelligence laying out the maps was for real stupid. The system that created that maps didn’t seem to care if it was actually possible to complete the game, it just tossed objects and staircases around inside rectangular rooms until they were all full. Stairs would attach to other stairs with no way to actually climb them. Item boxes would be placed in inaccessible areas. Enemys would spawn inside a wall to remain stuck there for the duration of the game.
You might be thinking that this game sounds awful, and it is.
Games are about verbs. The verbs available to the players and the verbs that are built into the constructed world of a game. In Aztec, the verbs are more important than the game. If you place an explosive it will dutifully destroy entire sections of the level, even if that means the game is no longer winnable. If you shoot a the pistol, it might pass through the wall or hit some stray pixel cruft before striking your target, but it always does something. The game is glitchy and broken in ways that are impossible to predict, but there is always something happening, and the world is always reacting to your inputs. The game is ready for you to mess with it in all sorts of unintended ways. This was the first computer game that I had played that allowed that freeform approach. The rules of the system are really more like guidelines. It was as fascinating and amazing then as Minecraft and Terraria are today.
Aztec is a bad game. It’s also one of the best games.
This post is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by the author.
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