One of the more memorable and innovative titles on consoles and home computers in the early 80’s was Mountain King by CBS Electronics. I knew it on the Atari 2600, but it existed on other platforms also, including Atari 5200, Commodore 64, Vic20, and Colecovision. It was atmospheric and spooky and mysterious and inspiring, and one of my favorite games of all time.
There were a number of things that made Mountain King special, and examining them in detail is worthwhile.
Non-violent, Yet Scary As Hell
There was very little death or injury in Mountain King. It had a theme of exploring, not violence. The biggest threat in the game was the clock running out. Things that would hurt or kill you in another game imposed a time penalty on you in Mountain King. Fall too far, and rather than die or take damage, you’re stunned for a length of time proportionate to the height of your fall, and slo-o-o-o-wly get back on your feet. The wait could be agonizing, making seconds seem like hours. On certain difficulty levels, there are time limits for accomplishing certain objectives, and in any case your remaining time rolls over and is added to bonus time which dwindles with each re-claiming of the crown, so you are always under significant time pressure and there’s a feeling of speedrunning when you’re playing for a high score.
There is one deadly threat in the game, a giant man-eating spider that inhabits the lowest levels of the mountain. You can’t fight it, only run from it, but it is not normally necessary to descend to this level, so it is mainly in the game to provide a sense of fear of the depths. If you accidentally fell to the spider level, the scuttling sound of the approaching spider would fill you with panic and dread, and make you scramble toward safety with new urgency.
Most home videogames of the day did not feature music at all, or if they did, it was little beyond an introduction jingle that lasted a few bars, or a repetitive loop that quickly became annoying. Mountain King not only used music, but integrated it into the game in a novel way. A special theme plays when it is time to find the Flame Spirit, and the music gets louder as you come nearer to its location. A mostly-invisible entity which blinks sporadically, can can only be seen in full in the beam of your flashlight, using the music volume to triangulate and home in on the location of the Flame Spirit was one of the more novel mechanics in a videogame, and holds up well to this day.
Upon taking the Crown, a well-done TIA chip rendition of Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King plays, signaling your time-limited escape run to reach the Perpetual Flame at the top of the highest mountain peak in order to advance to the next level. The music created a sense of frenetic pace and urgency as you raced to the mountaintop. During the ascent, bats appear, which (similar to the Bat in Adventure) would rob you of the Crown. To avoid them, you sometimes had to hurry, and sometimes it was better to wait. This heightened the tension and anxiety you felt as you tried to make it out without losing the Crown, a setback which normally left you with insufficient time for a re-attempt, and meant an inevitable game over. More than any other feature, possibly rivaled only by the scare factor of the Spider, this made the game memorable.
Mountain King used silence to great effect, as well, for most of the time you are exploring the depths of the diamond mine in pitch dark and in complete silence, apart from the sound effects of picking up diamonds and the squeaking of bats. And if you fell, the sound effect — a simple descending tone — effectively conveyed not just that you had fallen, but how far. When you fell so long that part of the drop was in silence, you just knew you were going to be in for a long recovery time.
Each of these audio elements combined superbly to create a great mood, one of the best on the Atari 2600.
Mountain King’s themes of mystery and exploration are enhanced in a number of ways. First, the instructions don’t tell you exactly what you need to do — rather, they hint and allow you to figure things out for yourself. Enough information is there to figure the game out, but enough is left out that it leaves the player with a sense of mystery and discovery. The Flame Spirit and the Skull Guardian and who placed the Crown in the mountain are never explained, leaving the player to wonder and speculate.
The game reinforces the mystery and discovery directly in game play, by making a number of things invisible — black sprites on black background, discoverable only by shining your flashlight everywhere. Treasure Chests, which are worth a lot of diamonds, are not essential to find, but are common enough that you are likely to encounter a few of them as you collect diamonds. The Flame Spirit is unique and critical to the game, and normally invisible, but the combination of the musical theme and its occasional flickering into visibility make it findable even without the flashlight, but by learning to use the flashlight to find Treasure Chests to boost your diamond score enough to find the Flame Spirit sooner, the game leads you to use it in discovering the Flame Spirit as well.
These mysteries are fine enough, yet pale in comparison to the Glitch World that hangs high above the mountain itself. It seems that not much is known for certain about the Glitch World, whether it is truly a bug in the game, or whether it might have been placed there by the programmers deliberately for unknown reasons. But there are platforms high above the mountain which are just barely reachable if you make a super jump from a specific place on the mountain.
I discovered this all on my own quite accidentally by jumping around aimlessly, and it was one of the most exciting things I had run into in a game before. In an era that predated the internet, there was little chance of learning anything about this but by discovering it yourself, and the excitement of this, and the intimacy of learning a secret that, for all you could know, was known only to you and (maybe) the programmers of the game, was very special.
In the early pre-Nintendo 80’s, kids would talk at school about accomplishments and discoveries they had made in video games, often times to incredulous schoolmates who would demand proof, or claim to have seen the same thing on their Atari. There were a few books and magazines out there, even then, but we didn’t have access to information the way we do today, and it gave us the opportunity to discover things ourselves. There were of course some kids who became notorious for lying and making up something in an effort to seem cool and special, as well, but the fact that you couldn’t 100% disprove a claim, and everyone would insist that they were not making stuff up. The only way one could verify extraordinary claims (in a still mostly pre-VCR-era) was if you witnessed it firsthand, so this made the rumors and secrets surrounding videogames something extra special, and if you were a witness, it made you special. I fear that era is gone forever, changed irrevocably by the Internet Age.
And for me, Mountain King might have been the most mysterious. Warren Robinett’s Adventure Eater Egg might have been cooler, but because it gave you a message, it seemed to have a purpose, and however cool it was, it just didn’t have the same mystery that the Glitch World in Mountain King had. We never found anything up there, no matter how high we climbed, but we never doubted that if we could only find some way past the impossible point, and get just a little bit higher, some great secret would be waiting for us, and all would be revealed.