Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1985 Arcade and 1988 NES Review)

For a franchise I love as much as Indiana Jones, it sure doesn’t have many actual products I like. In fact, I only really like two of the four movies: the first and third ones. Raiders of the Lost Ark is just about the perfect popcorn adventure flick, and Last Crusade is just about the perfect sequel to a popcorn adventure flick. Neither are particularly deep, but neither are entirely shallow, either. They’re the boilerplate action films that check every single box and are so fun. Do any two movies hold up to repeat viewing better than Raiders or Last Crusade? I can’t think of any. The rest of the Indy franchise is somewhere between frustrating or outright boring. While I don’t think Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that bad, it certainly isn’t as fun or exciting. Do you know what the problem with Crystal Skull REALLY is? No, it’s not aliens, Harrison Ford being old, or Shia LaBeouf. It’s that it’s so cheap looking, to the point that it feels like one of those direct-to-video type of sequels that spent the whole budget bringing a couple of the original stars in. It’s vaguely like the movies I like, but it almost feels fake. Like a movie that shouldn’t exist, but someone who had no claim to the legacy somehow managed to secure the rights. That’s especially weird, because it’s made by all the same people who did the original three. The same with Young Indiana Jones, which looks cheap, fake and is really boring.

The movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has this phenomena that I call “Chicken Syndrome.” The Back to the Future sequels introduce the idea that Marty McFly is triggered to the point of being stun-locked by being called a “chicken.” It’s the entire driving point of both Back to the Future II and Back to the Future III, to the point that it’s Marty’s defining characteristic. BUT, this never once came up in the first movie, even though it feels like it could have. Well, Temple of Doom does Chicken Syndrome by having Indy’s pursuit of “Fortune & Glory” be what drives him into the main plot. It defines his character, but again, “fortune & glory” never once came up in Raiders, or any other Indiana Jones movie. BUT IT FEELS LIKE IT COULD HAVE! It feels like his catchphrase. Chicken Syndrome. It’s a thing.

And then there’s Temple of Doom, which feels like it fits in with the movies I like, only it’s just so mean-spirited and joyless. Temple of Doom might be among my least favorite Spielberg movies. He and George Lucas blame getting divorces putting them in a foul mood for Temple of Doom being so dark and twisted and unpleasant. I don’t know about that, but Temple of Doom is just such a downer that I can’t even bring myself to watch it anymore. In that sense, the Atari arcade game is the perfect movie-to-video game translation. It’s a dark, joyless game with some of the most frustrating design of its era. To its credit, it actually feels like it captures the spirit of the Indy films, and I’m not being sarcastic. They got the setting and the vibe correct. It’s so authentically Indy that if Temple of Doom had just risen to the level of being average, it’d probably have been highly regarded. But, it didn’t even make it that far. Not even close.

In this picture, you will note that one of the enemies is falling to his death. I had nothing to do with it. I’ve never seen a game with enemies that have less survival instinct than Temple of Doom. I genuinely believe that more of the guards killed themselves than I directly killed. At times, such as in this screenshot, it literally rains them from above because they just walk off cliffs.

Temple of Doom’s levels are divided into three segments. In the first, you navigate the mines looking for children. This usually involves scaling ladders and shuffling across narrow ledges. The ledges are the problem. You can fall off them, and it’s too easy to. The movement parameters are too free and loose, and the number one thing that’ll kill you is slipping off platforms. Some games make you wish they didn’t use grid-based movement. Temple of Doom makes you long for it. It’s so haphazardly done that, as seen in the above screenshot, even the enemies can’t handle the ledges and will die more from them than by anything you do. The falls aren’t necessarily lethal, but judging the acceptable drop distance is tough. What I’m trying to say is the distance isn’t good enough to be a dream drop distance. In one area, you HAVE to fall off a cliff and land on a slide, but there’s a specific sweet spot for it. So much of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom feels like some greedy producer said “eh, don’t fix it. Players will need to pony-up more quarters this way!”

If the movement parameters were better, I’d credit Temple of Doom with really fun level design. At least in the “find the children” areas. They feel like a treasure hunt, which is exactly what Indiana Jones should feel like.

If I had to describe Temple of Doom in one word, it would be “sloppy.” Every single aspect of it feels like it needed a lot more development time. Even the act of whipping the enemies is garbage. The main foot soldiers don’t die when you crack them. They fall on their asses. You kill them by whipping them repeatedly until they fall off a ledge. The later NES game had a gun, a knife, and bombs as well, but in the arcade game, your only options are to either keep whipping or legging it. Running away seems cowardly, but it usually succeeds in causing the deaths of the bad guys since they behave like the Three Stooges and will inevitably self-destruct. The bigger problem is that Mola Ram, aka the main villain from the movie. He teleports around and throws heat-seeking fireballs at you, and in many instances, it results in no-win situations. This became especially obvious in the third section of each level. In it, you have to swing across a platform and grab a Sankara Stone. The stone is always placed in front of a platform that opens and closes into an instakill at a high velocity, so you have to time it. But, while you wait for a clearing, Mola Ram teleports around and shoots the fireball at you AND the endlessly spawning guards will attack you. Without any practical timing factoring in, even if you react fast enough, you can’t whip everything coming at you from all sides and something will eventually make it through and kill you. Oh, then you have to also get through the right door too. There’s different doors.

The second areas of each level are mine cart chases. Based on the best scene in the movie, they’re easily the worst part of Temple of Doom: The Game. They’re too fast and, honestly, I felt like I wasn’t so much making correct choices as I was hanging on for dear life. You can play them slower, BUT, then there’s areas where you need to build up speed, and since the sprites are so large, you won’t have enough time by the time you know such a moment is coming. Even then, the controls feel unresponsive, so you have moments like this, where I hit a dead end, because the margin for error is too strict while the controls are loose.

After three level cycles, the final stone stage is replaced by a stage that tries to mimic the climatic moment of film that takes place on the rope bridge, and on any difficulty but easy (there’s adjustable difficulties at the start), this might be impossible. When I do these retro reviews, I try my best to resist the siren call of just cheating my way through them with save states/rewind. Consequently, I’d burned through all my lives by time I reached the bridge. On it, you have enemies attacking you from the left while Mola Ram hurls fireballs at increasingly fast intervals from the right. By time I was close enough to barely see the edge of his sprite, he was throwing the fireballs so fast and the enemies were spaced-out perfectly enough that no amount of rewind or save state would allow me a chance. I just had to make it a half-screen further and I’d of beat the game. After close to an hour trying, I determined I couldn’t do it. Even if I went backwards as far as rewind would allow me and whipped the enemies coming in, more would spawn anyway, and they were always synced just right so that something would make it through. It was just timed too perfectly. There’s no ducking, jumping, dodging, or any way to defend yourself but the whip. I think MAYBE if I’d had one more life, it’d of cleared the guards out when I re-spawned and I’d just have to worry about the fireballs. But, I didn’t. Temple of Doom leaves players with one final quarter shakedown. A truly contemptible game.

 Hateful and joyless. By gum, this really is a Temple of Doom game.

Go figure such a terrible, unlikable, no good, very bad game would be ported. Actually, it was ported to many platforms, mostly PCs. Atari Games, under their Tengen label, released Temple of Doom to the NES in 1988. This really seems to have understood how bad a game the coin-op was in a way most ports of mediocre-at-best arcade games don’t. You can tell, because it actually does set out to right the wrongs of the original. It keeps the core concept intact: rescue kids, only this time, you also need to find maps as well. The levels are structured similarly: there’s posts to whip off of, ladders to climb, slides to weeeeeee down. Hell, sometimes the enemies still kill themselves. On the surface, it looks like a direct port, with the graphics being the best the NES could do at the time. But, it’s not actually a direct port. More of an enhanced one. You get a knife this time! You can jump this time! The mine carts don’t suck this time! You don’t die from falling this time! There’s an even greater sense of discovery and exploration this time! Even the platforms aren’t as dangerous this time! It seems like the arcade game, only fully realized.

I appreciate the effort to break-up the monotony, but golly, this has some eye-sorish graphics.

The problem is that they replaced all the mechanical problems of the arcade game with whole new mechanical problems, along with abstract design. One of those games where I quickly abandon my good faith effort at not using any cheating or a strategy guide, then spend the majority of my playtime switching back-and-forth between the game and the guide and wondering “how did anybody ever figure this crap out before GameFAQs/WikiStrategy became a thing?” It doesn’t help that this has one of the most clumsy item selection systems imaginable. Instead of letting you select items from the pause screen, you have to do it by holding down select and fumbling through the different stuff you’ve gathered. It’d been nice if I could just press select to go from the whip to the gun, then against to the knife, then again to the bombs. I think it was done to add challenge, since the game doesn’t pause while you select. If you need the gun to permanently take out the guards instead of just whipping them off the edge, you have to fumble through the inventory. Fine for the earlier levels, but in later ones where the screen is spammed by all manner of enemies, it’s just annoying. Any of you ROM hackers out there who want to do a quality of life mod: do Temple of Doom!

To NES Temple of Doom’s credit, it’s VERY generous with extra lives. In addition to retaining the arcade game’s score-based extra life rewards, these hats are all over the place. So, maybe calling this “Nintendo Hard” isn’t totally accurate.

There’s a lot of other issues too. In later stages, conveyor belts often have a sliver of lava at one end or in the corners, and the movement is loose enough you’ll inevitably walk into it. You’ll also encounter pathways covered by a different kind of lava. It’s an instakill if you touch it, but you can throw a bomb at it to remove it. It’s not the worst idea, but the way you throw the bombs is terribly executed. You sort of lob them, which requires you to align yourself a specific way. The blast radius isn’t big enough, so I was often clearing out only two squares of pathways that were a lot bigger. Like the arcade game, movement parameters are too loose. Even a quarter of a character length can be the difference between clearing all of the lava or leaving a still-lethal single square of it. Jump over it? Yea, good luck with that. You CAN, in theory, but Temple of Doom has some of the most miserable jumping physics I’ve ever seen. It’s hypothetically based around building-up momentum, so if you’re standing still, you can’t jump left and right unless you’re on the edge of a cliff. I think I made the jump once in my entire play session. The bombs are in short supply too. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’d feel more relief finding a bomb than I did a free life, even when I wasn’t cheating. I didn’t need more lives. I needed a lot more bombs, but the bombs are only found behind these taped-up walls that you have to cut with the knives. If they had also put them as the rewards for picking up the kids, the game would have been a lot less sloggy.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Unlike the arcade game, I didn’t finish the NES port. I quit on the ninth wave, which has these monster things that spawn out of the lava, and you have to kill them. You can’t jump to higher-up platforms (unless you’re jumping out of a mine cart), and since there’s lava all around, you can’t move diagonally. You’ll die if you try. So you have to wait for these things to spawn to make a bridge. BUT, instead of programming some kind of reliable pattern so it wouldn’t take long, they had them spawn randomly. Oh, and there’s a time limit. Oh, and your whip doesn’t work. Oh, and you still have to fight the endlessly spawning enemies. I wanted to scream when a single gap in the bridge I was making didn’t appear for several minutes. When the last thing appeared, I breathed a sigh of relief, crossed my brand spanking new bridge.. and there was even more lava and monsters. I checked a Let’s Play, and there was a LOT more ahead of me. No, I’m good. Atrocious design, and yes, I’m aware you can warp through it. THAT’S NOT A GOOD THING, YOU KNOW! Warps shouldn’t exist to skip boring sections. They should be a fun little easter egg, not a lifeboat you need to rescue you from the RMS Tedious.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You absolutely suck, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for the NES. This franchise is cursed. Last Crusade had two completely different games on the NES and they both stunk too. It’s weird that Indiana Jones, the definitive action movie franchise, has never had a truly great action game, or even one that I consider average. Some have defenders, but I think it’s probably the love of Indy keeping nostalgia goggles on tight more than genuine love. You WANT to like these games, and they resist it. And it’s not like the movie is a film like E.T. or Back to the Future where it’s like “exactly how do you make a video game out of this concept?” It’s Indiana Jones, for Christ’s sake! It doesn’t seem that complicated! What a sad state of affairs that the best game in the franchise is a point and click adventure. The only genre that has no action! There’s also the Lego Indy games, but they don’t feel like they count. It feels like LEGO is the franchise and not INDIANA JONES, you know? One of these days, someone will make the definitive action-based Indiana Jones game. Don’t say Greatest Adventures for the SNES. It’s average at best, and that’s being VERY generous. The best thing I can say about these games is they opened my eyes to the fact that Indiana Jones is the most overrated media franchise in the world. What does it have to show for its existence? Two good movies and one decent point and click game. It’s over forty years old now and it still hasn’t had a great action game. Will someone please fix this already?

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is not Chick Approved, for arcade or NES.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was developed by Atari Games

If my name was Anna Jones, then I’d be Indie Anna Jones.

That joke will never get old.

%d bloggers like this: