The Video Game Critic's
Indiana Jones Retrospective

Updated 3 August 2008

As a huge fan who's played many games based on the Indiana Jones trilogy, I decided it would be a good idea to assemble a nice retrospective coinciding with the release of the new film. Unfortunately, it wasn't until after I had put most of this page together that realized that most of these games really stink! Oh well, what the hell. Enjoy the reviews!

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Atari,1982)
System: Atari 2600
Grade: B-

cartridgeRaiders of the Lost Ark is a cleverly-designed mix of live action and puzzle solving. As in the film, Indiana Jones gets to explore caves, barter with merchants, avoid snakes, outrun thieves, and discover a hidden map room revealing the location of the Ark.

Outfitted with his trusty whip and trademark fedora, the smoothly-animated Indy bears a striking resemblance to Harrison Ford. l like the way snakes slither down the screen but the rest of the graphics range from painfully abstract to just awful. Characters like the thief, raving lunatic, and giant spider look so appalling you'll need to consult the manual just to figure out what you're looking at! There's a reason programmers don't do their own artwork anymore.

A nice rendition of the Indiana Jones theme loops at the beginning and end of each game, but otherwise the audio is sparse. The unusual control scheme requires two joysticks: one to control Indy and one to manipulate your inventory. You can carry six objects at a time, with typical items consisting of a whip, key, parachute, watch, shovel, and various artifacts. Juggling items is clumsy. There's nothing worse than trying to use the headpiece of Ra at a precise moment, only to hit the wrong button and drop it instead!

The contiguous screens can be irritating to navigate. Tsetse flies paralyze you, floating lights imprison you, thieves steal your items, and falling off a cliff is a regular occurrence. Still, the game is all about discovery. It's fascinating to explore and whenever you stumble upon a new room or item it's quite a thrill. Raiders is also modest in scope so it doesn't take long to figure out how everything fits together. And it is a pretty ingenious design.

Trying to determine the purpose of each item requires trial and error. Back in 1982 I was astonished when my little sister blew up a wall with a grenade, revealing a huge cave! Years later she admitted that she had peeked at the hints in the back of the manual! Despite its flaws, patient gamers will appreciate the intricate complexity of Raiders. There is a true sense of accomplishment when you finally uncover the Ark. I finished this game before the internet was an option, so it is possible!

Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (LucasArts,1988)
System: NES
Grade: D-

screenshotUnlike most Indiana Jones fans, my favorite film of the trilogy is the dark, brooding Temple of Doom. So you can imagine my disappointment when I sat down to play this ill-conceived crock of [expletive]. The stages are a series of underground caves full of platforms, conveyor belts, mine carts, and lava pits. Equipped with his trusty whip, Indy fights the bad guys, rescues kids, and tries frantically to locate an exit. It's mildly amusing to ride minecarts and swing between ledges using your whip, but the fun ends there.

The controls are abysmal. When you jump up or down, you never quite know where you're going to land, but it's usually red and rhymes with java. Indy's movements are so slippery that even climbing a frickin' ladder without falling off is hard! Your primarily objective is to free enslaved kids, but your escape route is usually a mystery. Sometimes you'll appear to have stumbled across the exit, only to discover you've returned to the previous stage! Ugh!

Temple of Doom's graphics are butt-ugly, with repulsive color schemes and pitiful animation. The Michael Jackson-impersonating thugs mindlessly fall from platform to platform, and often hurl themselves directly into the lava. The fighting aspect of the game feels like a complete afterthought. Switching weapons is awkward (hold select while moving the directional pad?!), and firing your gun will instantly kill a bad guy anywhere on the screen!

I also find it odd how you can grab the same item over and over again to rack up points. Indiana Jones Temple of Doom is so bad that it made me want to rip someone's heart out, tie them to a metal rack, and lower them into a lava pit. But wouldn't you know it - it turns out that's illegal in Maryland! Temple of Doom's only saving grace is the horrible Last Crusade game for the NES, which makes this look almost respectable by comparison.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Taito version) (Taito,1990)
System: NES
Grade: D

screenshotHow hard could it be to program a half-way decent Indiana Jones game?! This is one of two Last Crusade games for the NES, and I prefer this one only because it doesn't suck quite as much as the other. The structure of this game is good, with selectable stages that combine elements of fighting, racing, and puzzle solving. You'll trade punches with thugs in a German castle, on a freighter at sea, and on a moving tank in the desert.

The graphics look very sharp and detailed, but the animation stinks. Indy's movements are erratic, and you'll struggle to escape from regenerating thugs just because you can't get up the frickin' ladder! Indy can punch, kick, or jump-kick, but these moves look unintentionally hilarious. If Indy's jacket were red instead of brown, he'd look just like Michael Jackson doing a dance number. The enemy soldiers are hard to fight because they tend to hop around like fleas! Also amusing is how Indy's little legs wiggle as he scurries up and down ladders.

The German castle stage is particularly painful, with its never-ending maze of hallways and doors that all look the same! I can't tell you how long I languished in this stage, but it felt like days. The most bizarre stage is the catacombs, which amounts to one of those "slide the square" puzzles. I was never any good at those, so I really hated this stage. Last Crusade's highlight is the motorcycle chase stage. As you zoom up a vertically-scrolling road, you'll need to carefully adjust your speed to avoid hazards and leap over chasms. Best of all, you can whip soldiers that pull up alongside you.

The final stage is pretty good too, taking you through the three challenges of the grail. Intermissions are displayed between stages with nice illustrations and text dialogue from the movie. In terms of audio, the suspenseful music that plays in the castle scene is good, but the rendition of the Indiana Jones theme sounds totally off-key. The less said about the techno music in the ship stage, the better. Last Crusade has a lot of issues, but at least it makes an effort.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Ubisoft version) (Ubisoft,1993)
System: NES
Grade: F

screenshotWhen I showed this to my friend Chris, his incredulous reaction was, "Wait a second - is this a GameBoy game?!" Yes, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is an atrocity of outrageous proportions. Not only are the graphics horribly grainy, but the first stage is rendered in about two colors! Okay, maybe three - if you count black!

This is definitely the most hideous game I've seen on the NES. Indy looks even goofier than he did in Temple of Doom, if that's at all possible. The film provides for plenty of interesting stage ideas, but this shoddy game even makes jumping the cars on a circus train seem dull!

The first stage, entitled "Exploring the caves", is about as unimaginative as you can get, with all the obligatory cheap hits including falling stalactites. It's hard to grab onto ropes, and fights with bad guys amount to trading punches until somebody falls over. The controls are so stiff that I might as well be controlling C3PO. Last Crusade is one truly pathetic piece of trash, and for a 1993 game (by LucasArts no less), it has absolutely no excuse.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (US Gold,1992)
System: Genesis
Grade: F

screenshotSo many scenes from the third Indiana Jones film beg for an arcade game, including the circus train, catacombs, the boat chase, and especially the final scene with the three Grail challenges. But Last Crusade fails on every level. The controls are uncommonly poor. Jumping only works half of the time, and trying to leap at the edge of a platform sends you plunging into the abyss. Swinging on your whip is about as easy as picking up a watermelon seed!

The characters are poorly rendered with cheesy black outlines, and the villains of the first stage look more like a bunch of Jerry Garcia impersonators! The catacombs are loaded with flaming mice the size of cats, and the final level isn't even consistent with the movie, as ducking under the swinging blades results is fatal! It doesn't help that you instantly die from touching harmless objects like a bush, pile of bones, or even a puddle of water!

And when he dies, our hero unleashes a painful wale that's positively demonic! Even the Indiana Jones theme sounds cheesy. As the final insult, the picture on the cartridge shows Indy being chased by a plane, a tank, and a German convoy, none of which appear anywhere in the game!

Young Indiana Jones (Sega,1994)
System: Genesis
Grade: F

screenshotYoung Indiana Jones is a good-looking game that would be fun if it weren't impossible to play. The controls are just deplorable, which is surprising considering this was released in 1994. The game takes you to all the exotic Indiana Jones locales including Egypt, India, Tibet, Germany, and England. You can even select the order in which you play the stages, which is always a nice feature. The graphics aren't bad either. Young Indiana looks almost digitized in appearance, and when he uses his whip to climb, the animation is quite impressive.

Colorful stage backdrops include the Pyramids of Egypt, snow-covered Hymalayan mountains, and London Bridge on a stormy night. Sadly, the gameplay is frustrating and repetitive. Although your whip moves with fluid motion in any direction, it inflicts minimal damage on sword-throwing thugs and other converging enemies. Since you can't squat down while using it, you're pretty much a sitting duck. You'll face the exact same goons over and over again, and shooting them with a gun provides your only relief.

But the worst aspect of the game are the irritating small creatures like birds, snakes, scorpions, monkeys, and even fish that hound you from all sides. Not only are they impossible to avoid, but targeting them is an exercise in futility! Egypt is a nightmare, because after stumbling through all sorts of tedious hazards, a big windstorm can come along and sweep you all the way back to the beginning! It makes you feel very helpless in a game that never really gives you a fighting chance to begin with.

Indiana Jones' Greatest Adventures (LucasArts,1994)
System: Super Nintendo
Grade: B-

screenshotHaving watched the Indiana Jones trilogy about a dozen times, I was pretty psyched about a game that recreates all three of the films. The stages inspired by the first film include the famous boulder sequence, the streets of Cairo, and the snake-infested Well of Souls. From the second movie there's the Chinese Club, the Indian Palace, and even that rickety rope bridge. In the Last Crusade you'll explore catacombs, sneak through a German castle, and even ride a Zeppelin.

The high-quality look and feel is similar to LucasArt's Super Star Wars games for the SNES. The characters are well animated, and the lush multi-layered stages look terrific. The crystal-clear background music is lifted straight from the movies, and it really lends weight to the action. There are some nice voice samples, like creepy chanting in the Temple of Doom, and Indy saying "Let's go" at the start of each stage.

The side-scrolling action is typical as you leap between platforms, dodge traps, and whip enemies. Unfortunately, an endless army of small, annoying animals constantly nip at your heels and interrupt your jumps. These irritating creatures are present on every level, in the form of birds, bats, rats, and even jumping fish! In one stage you even have to contend with rock-dropping birds! C'mon now! You'll also deal with cheap hits like falling stalactites and spikes that rise from the ground, although you can often anticipate these. The difficulty is sky high, even on the so-called "easy" difficulty.

Three cool 3D sequences provide a welcome respite from the side-scrolling mayhem. These manage to convey an amazing sense of speed while effectively recreating harrowing raft, mine cart, and biplane scenes. Between levels you're treated to photo-quality stills from the movies and presented with a password. It doesn't play nearly as well as it looks, but for gamers with enough skill and patience, Indiana Jones offers a lot of adventure for the money.

Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine (THQ,2001)
System: Game Boy Color
Grade: D+

screenshotIndiana Jones was always great on the big screen, but how would he look on the smallest screen of all? The answer: like a little spider! Wow, these characters are small. Close examination reveals some interesting animation, but still.

Infernal Machine's gameplay features Tomb Raider-esque shooting and platform jumping, but the 2D environments are poorly rendered. Multiple shades are used to convey depth, but it's hard to tell where you can and can't go. It's not unusual to fall unexpectedly or run smack into an invisible wall.

The gunplay is unrealistic but effective - just face an enemy's general direction and unload. Sometimes you'll engage in comical shootouts with a Nazi standing right in front of you. The platform action is weak, but not as bad as the underwater mazes you have to swim through as your air supply depletes.

On a positive note, the stages are reasonable in size, and the user interface makes it easy to manage your inventory. My favorite part of this game occurred when I blew up a wall with a grenade - much like I did 23 years earlier while playing Raiders of the Lost Ark (Atari 2600) with my sister. But besides conjuring fond memories of other games, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine doesn't have much to offer.

Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine (LucasArts,2000)
System: Nintendo 64
Grade: F

screenshotDespite its first-rate license, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine was only made available as a Blockbuster rental - and for good reason! Infernal Machine's storyline is captivating enough, but its stage design is poor and its playability is rock bottom. It's the beginning of the cold war and the Russians are trying to locate an ancient machine capable of summoning demons from other dimensions. Brief cut scenes convey the narrative through blocky characters that make bold gestures to compensate for their non-moving lips. It looks hilarious as the female character removes her pilot cap and shakes out that pixelated, chunky hair of hers.

You'll travel to exotic locations around the globe including the Tian Shan River in China with its snowy mountains and howling winds. The control scheme borrows heavily from Zelda: Ocarina of Time, with context-sensitive action buttons, a Z-targeting mechanism, and the ability to assign items to the C buttons. Infernal Machine is a real nightmare to play.

The camerawork is totally manual, so positioning yourself for a jump is tedious. Sometimes Indy can leap over a 50-foot chasm without a running start, and other times he can't even hop across a three-foot stream without falling to his death! You'll often need to hang from perilous ledges, but it's hard to determine which ledges you can hang from!

The context-sensitive controls are real pain in the ass. When standing next to a ladder you'll often have to finagle with the thumbstick just to get the "climb" indicator to appear. Considering the difficult moves you're expected to make in the early going, such erratic controls are unforgivable. Even when you know exactly what to do, you'll struggle mightily and often fling the controller in disgust. In later stages demons materialize on top of you, resulting in instant death.

I was hoping the driving stages might redeem this game, but they have problems of their own. I enjoyed the rollercoaster feel of the minecart ride, but in the jeep I found myself driving up the side of a mountain before becoming suspended in some blue alternate universe. As buggy as it is infuriating, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine is for collectors only.

Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb (LucasArts,2003)
System: Xbox
Grade: C+

screenshotIt might be tempting to call this a Tomb Raider rip-off, except for the fact that it was Tomb Raider that ripped off Indiana Jones in the first place. Anyway you look at it, Emperor's Tomb treads on some very familiar territory, and sometimes teeters precariously on the edge of mediocrity.

Emperor's Tomb places Indy in a series of castles and ruins as he collects items, solves puzzles, pulls switches, and beats up bad guys. As an Indiana Jones fan I was hoping this game would capture the flavor of the films, but except for the trademark music, that's not the case. In fact, I suspect you could swap Lara Croft with Indy and nobody would even notice. Heck, the main character doesn't even look like Harrison Ford, although the voice is a close match.

The control scheme is very good, feeling more natural and streamlined than the classic Tomb Raider controls. Guiding your character around is a breeze and you can perform some death-defying stunts with relative ease. Most surprising of all, the camera never seems to be a problem. You can punch out the bad guys, but that requires an inordinate number of blows, so use a gun whenever possible. For some odd reason the machete is worthless during battle.

Although the first stage feels like a Tomb Raider outtake, Emperor's Tomb does ultimately deliver its share of intense moments, like creeping through a cave of giant bats or swimming to shore with a huge crocodile on your tail! These thrills make up for some of the game's more frustrating sequences. Periodic technical flaws tend to reveal the game's PC origins (gasp!), and these include clipping problems, collision detection issues, frame-rate stutters, and misplaced shadows. One time I even found myself walking on thin air!

But the biggest liability is the hit-or-miss controls. Sometimes you can grab a ledge, while other times you cannot. Sometimes you can pull a switch, and sometimes you can't. This is not the polish we expect in a console adventure. At least your game is saved automatically (and transparently) on a regular basis, which is a very nice feature. It doesn't capture the unique spirit of the films, but if you can accept Emperor's Tomb for what it is, you'll probably find it worth your while. NOTE: The instruction manual that comes with this game is amazing! Maps, newspaper clippings, hand-written notes... it's a handbook worthy of Indy himself!

Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures (LucasArts,2008)
System: Wii
Grade: D+

screenshotIndiana Jones is a pretty natural fit for the Lego games. Not only did the original trilogy offer plenty of exotic locations, but Indy usually had a sidekick or two, making it conducive to Lego's brand of tag-team action. The environments themselves are not composed of Legos, and look fairly realistic. From the blowing snow of the mountain stage to the rainy, neon-lit streets of Shanghai, the scenery looks exceptionally good.

Casual gamers can breeze right through the three stories, but dedicated gamers will want to uncover all of the hidden secrets in each level. It sounds like a winner, but Lego Indiana Jones isn't as fun as you might expect. The stages are inspired by movie locations, but some are very extended and tend to wear out their welcome. Each room has its own set of puzzles, which often involve repairing machinery, operating elevators, turning keys, and standing on buttons. The game constantly nudges you along, highlighting items of interest with spotlights and white arrows.

The platform jumping tends to be forgiving, but there's no camera control and some jumps are very hard to judge. As with the Star Wars Lego titles, you can destroy just about any object composed of Legos. This causes "cogs" to spill out, generating those "tic tic tic" sounds as you collect them. Although fun at first, destroying every last pot or table to maximize your score becomes tiresome after a while, and the constant explosive sounds are headache inducing.

The fighting action isn't much fun at all. Unlike the bright laser blasts of the Star Wars games, the bullets here are hard to see, and you'll often fall to pieces without knowing what hit you. There's little technique involved in fighting, and since Indy always regenerates, there's little challenge either. You'd expect the controls to be simple as can be, but I never felt comfortable with them. It's very easy to get the Z and B buttons confused. Z is normally used to manipulate items, but can also attack with your whip. The C doubles as "get in vehicle" and "switch character", and it doesn't always do what you intend.

I deliberately purchased the Wii edition of this game for the ability to swing Indy's whip via motion control, but the thrill is fleeting. The game's musical score is first-rate, and the mildly amusing cut-scenes try to water down the more graphic parts of the films. There's an auto-save feature, but even when you complete a stage, it doesn't save until you continue, so don't be too quick to hit the power button.

I hate to rain on the parade, but I found Lego Indiana Jones to be only moderately fun, and boring at times. It's interesting to see the game's interpretation of the films' scenes, but after a while you feel like you're just going through the motions.