*Review based on Atic Atac’s release as part of Rare Replay*
Back when Rare was still known as Ultimate Play the Game, they created the oddly-named but highly influential Atic Atac, which served as an epic adventure in a time before Zelda. Playing Atic Atac today, it of course can’t compete with most of the games it helped inspire, though some of its ideas still impress.
In Atic Atac, players must navigate through a haunted castle in search of the three pieces of the “Golden Key of ACG.” You can take control of either a Wizard, a Knight or a Serf. Each character has their own projectile move (the Wizard casts a spell, the Knight throws axes, and the Serf throws swords). Though all three control identically and the difference in projectiles is merely cosmetic, they do each have their own unique ways of finding shortcuts throughout the castle.
The Wizard, for example, can enter one bookcase to end up in another, while the Knight can do something similar with grandfather clocks. Why Wizards and Knights are only able to travel through such objects is anybody’s guess, but it’s actually a pretty creative way to add variety to the game. For being made in 1983, this is a concept that seems pretty ahead of its time.
There are other methods of traversing the castle, however, with most rooms featuring two or more doors, which will open either when a few enemies are defeated, or after a short time. Similarly, there are colored doors which can only be passed if the player is holding the corresponding colored key (so a green key for green doors, and so on). There are also pits you can fall down, which will take you to a different section of the castle.
Atic Atac was also forward thinking by including a survival element in the game. The character’s health is represented by a roast turkey on the side of the screen. Naturally, running into enemies will deplete health, but as you continue your travels, your character will begin to starve, and will need to find something to eat to prevent the all-important roast turkey from gradually depleting. You can find food pretty frequently, and it comes in a humorous variety of edibles ranging from soup cans to candy canes (finding such things in a fantasy setting seems like the kind of humor you’d find in a modern indie title, so that’s another way you could say Atic Atac was looking ahead).
Despite some genuinely great ideas, however, Atic Atac is nonetheless extremely prototypical, with much of its gameplay feeling shallow and unpolished when compared to adventure games released even just a few short years later.
The most obvious (and frustrating) aspect is the lack of a map. The castle is a labyrinthian beast, and given the primitive graphics, much of it looks the same. It quickly becomes confusing, and without any form of map to speak of, you’ll likely end up completely lost in a matter of minutes.
Another downside are the items you can pick up on your journey, whose uses are notably cryptic. It doesn’t help that you can only hold three items at a time (this includes the aforementioned colored keys), and you’ll frequently find yourself abandoning one item in favor of another (while hoping you can actually remember which room you left it in). But the vagueness of the items just makes it all the more aggravating.
There are certain monsters who are impervious to your normal attack, and require a certain item to be defeated, but you’ll never know what to use or how to use it. I ran across some kind of devil enemy (complete with horns and a hooked tail), and tried to find a way to beat him. I eventually came across a crucifix item, which seemed like an ideal weapon against a devil. So I made my way back, and the only thing I could do with the crucifix was drop it on the floor…which did nothing. I can admit I was probably doing something wrong, but the game really doesn’t give you any idea of how to go about these things the right way, so it’s like a guessing game.
I can forgive the game’s simplistic visuals. Given the 1983 release, you don’t exactly expect the timeless graphics of the 16-bit generation. Though perhaps less forgivable – even when considering the limitations – are the sounds. There’s no music to speak of (again, limitations), but all the worse are the two sound effects that are present. Every on-screen character, whether it’s the player or enemies, makes a constant “plinky-plonk” sound with every step, and the only other sound comes from defeating enemies. They may be all the game had back in its day, but for those use to more pleasing sounds of gaming in the years since, Atic Atac’s repetitious sounds may be a bit agitating.
I kind of hate that I have so many gripes with Atic Atac, because when you look at what it did for its time, it was impressively creative. But when the years have given us so many superior alternatives in the same genres, it’s a bit easy to see just how prototypical Atic Atac is by comparison.
I certainly wouldn’t call Atic Atac a bad game, but it is one where all of its praise will come with the words “for its day.” It can be revisited for historical purposes, if maybe not for the gameplay.