« Daily Linksplosion: Sunday, June 05, 2011 | Fling mini pledges to make the iPhone a little more playable »

Fear and Shadows: a Mountain King retrospective

Atop the mountain where the perpetual flame burns: Mountain King's 5200 & 8-bit rendition.

Video game horror—that is, really effective, interactive horror—comes in all forms. Maybe good horror stems from easy, visceral jump scares, or from the anxiety of a timer, steadily counting down to zero. Maybe it owes to the dread of a moody atmosphere—eerie music, a creepy setting. Perhaps real feelings of fear come from an impotent or nonexistent combat system.

The Famicom game Sweet Home is often acknowledged by hobbyist historians as one of the first examples of the survival horror genre, and it may well be. But those of you with longer gaming histories know the truth—you might remember that unsettling adventure into the depths of a mountain, stealing treasure that ought never have been disturbed, and trying to escape with your life. This is the tale of Mountain King.

Mountain King was a multiplatform release primarily by CBS Electronics in 1983—with versions appearing on the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Colecovision, Commodore 64, VIC-20, and the Atari 8-bit computer line—though much of my personal experience came from the Atari 2600 port.

E.F. Dreyer Inc. is credited as the copyright owner for all these iterations, with Robert Matson generally credited as the program’s creator. Another programmer, Ed Salvo, put together the 2600 version in a mind-boggling six weeks as a contractor through VSS. (“I had an 800 version of the game, which I was to emulate,” Salvo told Digital Press’s Scott Stilphen.)

The game’s objectives are rather complex; without an instruction manual, however, they are downright arcane. As a child, I only knew that I had to collect these diamonds lying around the silent mountain corridors, the sole sound being the “ding” as the explorer treads across clusters of those gleaming gems.

In Mountain King your explorer is armed with nothing but a flashlight which, when its beam is trained on the darkness ahead, can sometimes reveal a shadowy chest full of treasure. Traveling the bottom floor of the cavern puts you in the domain of the giant spider, which will encase you in webbing as it skitters past. If you mash the joystick back and forth you might escape, but should the spider return while you are still trapped, you will be sucked dry as a spider meal.

As a child I had already played Pac-Man and Mouse Trap. I knew how to jump around from platform to platform, seeking items for points. I figured I knew what I was doing; Mountain King seemed easy enough, but more than that, it seemed safe.

Safe, that is, until you collect 1000 points’ worth of treasure and diamonds.

At this point, all sounds cut out entirely, which is already a little disconcerting, a little lonely and dangerous. You continue wandering around, not entirely certain what to do next other than collect more diamonds, when you hear an ominous melody, straight out of nightmares. (What you hear is, in fact, the Atari’s strangely discordant chiptune rendition of Edvard Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance.”) The melody starts quietly but soon swells (or ebbs again) in volume and intensity as you edge along these cavernous halls.

Some distance down the mountain, there is a shrine, with a crown perched atop some sort of altar or throne. I remember how, despite all my best efforts to jump into the throne and grab the crown, my explorer would be violently repelled, bouncing away from the altar and knocked flat on his ass. Stunned, the explorer would very slowly climb back up onto his feet.

This was as far into the game as I could get for years: between my aunt’s dimly-lit basement, the ever-shrinking timer, and this unearthly song, it didn’t take much more for me to shut the game off, put it back on the shelf, and charge back upstairs into the light and affection of family. Even when my aunt ended up giving me her Atari and her games, I still couldn’t figure out the damn thing, and so the cartridge sat in a box, taunting me with its intriguing, opaque gameplay.

Thanks to the Internet, however, I was recently able to make sense of the game and its objectives, and it gets even stranger than I could have guessed. As it turns out, you must follow the crescendo of “Anitra’s Dance” to its source, a small object called the Flame Spirit. The Spirit is almost completely invisible—it flickers only intermittently onscreen—but when the flashlight is shone upon it, it appears: a silhouette, or shade, of a dancing Flame.

Once you’re standing on it, you can pick it up, which leads to the next goal of the game. You must carry the Flame Spirit to the bottom of the shrine and bow before the Skull Spirit, offering up the Flame—and I presume your soul—to the beast. The Skull Spirit appears, letting you pass, and you must scurry up the face of the skull before it vanishes and forces you to go through all the routine of collecting points to get the Flame Spirit again. Now you climb up the arms of the altar until, at last, you can grab the crown.

Upon your seizing the crown, the Atari will bust out with an unsettling rendition of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and you must escape the caverns back to the surface, ultimately bringing the crown to the Perpetual Flame that burns atop the highest peak.

As the timer presses on, the song becomes more frantic, as if an unseen force from a dead civilization is indeed chasing after you with malevolent intent. After only a few repetitions of the melody, the crown will magically return to the altar, forcing you to do the whole game over. Bats, flying past, will attempt to steal the crown—and on a higher difficulty setting, they’ll even steal the Flame Spirit itself—forcing your weary explorer to try, try again. (The giant spider is also a big thief.)

When you reach the Perpetual Flame, the game will tally up your points, and in true classic gaming fashion, loops again, now with even less time on the clock to work with.

It’s Mountain King’s music that makes the game truly creepy. The limitations of the 2600’s sound capabilities tend to make any real-world song sound slightly off and mechanical, as with the Toccata and Fugue in the port Gyruss, or with “Ring of Fire” in the homebrew title Gunfight. The 2600 especially gives Grieg’s compositions the feeling of something alien, some dread lurking just out of sight, the whispers of a dead age who will drag you into its depths should you meet it face to face.

“Anitra’s Dance” has a sense of foreboding, almost as if the mountain itself were trying to warn you away from your expedition. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” suggests escaping with something you should not have, be it knowledge or the crown, with every effort being made to stop you. (This is true to its source material: Grieg’s score was explicitly written to describe the action in a nightmare chase scene in Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.) That the onslaught of the bats in the caves picks up at this point is no coincidence: they are the final guardians of these ancient treasures you were never meant to have.

Though the bulk of the 2600 version takes place in this underground dead kingdom, there is a secret Kingdom of Heaven that you can explore as well. Thought for years to be simply a glitch, Salvo confirmed he had purposely added it. By completing a series of jumps, the explorer will go sailing up into the air above the mountain, finally landing on a couple tiny platforms with access to some ladders. Up there, the game starts generating map data out of things in the code that are not intended to be map data, resulting in chaotic realm that shifts based on which controllers and switches are active on the console itself. While it can be, and indeed has been mapped out, it remains an enduring Easter Egg among retro gamers, and a fascinating domain to actually explore.

The Atari 5200 and 8-bit computer version ultimately feels much more full-featured compared to its lower-tech 2600 brother. The graphics and music are better on the more powerful 5200 hardware, unsurprisingly, and the game maintains most of its eeriness. Notable changes include a more dynamic world as the game goes on: as the timer runs down fires will burn throughout the mountain, which can burn your explorer to death. You can also run much faster thanks to the 5200’s analog controller, and the game even has a little opening sequence in which the explorer dances to the main theme.

This version of the game also features its own glitch-filled Easter Egg realm. But here, instead of scaling the Heavens, you descend into the furthest depths of Hell, your thieving hubris bringing you low into a domain of garbage data. By fulfilling certain criteria, you can actually slip through the spider’s lair and down below the mountain. You initially drop down onto programmer Robert Matson’s own name, before slipping further for several minutes into an undiscovered mountain. Making your way down to the bottom of this without being burned to death by the flames licking your heels in this indecipherable mess drops you onto another, larger mountain. By surviving this new hell and dropping to the bottom, you will finally make your way back down to earth, where your adventure began.

Like the best horror films and stories, Mountain King is scary not by what it shows, but by how wild your own imagination can go. Except for the bats and spiders, you are alone in these dark corridors. The eerie music and the foreboding atmosphere that permeates these dusty, abandoned halls all contribute to a chilly disquiet, despite—or perhaps because of—the dated graphics and sound.

Would Mountain King still be so effectively eerie in an HD makeover with a symphonic orchestra playing the music? I doubt so. The shadows in the dark are always much more sinister in the player’s mind.

3 responses to “Fear and Shadows: a Mountain King retrospective” »

  1. Jenn Frank says:

    Mountain King really is my personal Lucky Wander Boy.

    Thanks for this, Kevin.

  2. zack says:

    Awesome. No game has ever scared me as much as System Shock 2 did. The graphics were never amazing for the time, the gameplay was never totally fluid, but the sound design really nailed it.

Leave a comment

Psst... This site supports gravatars and OpenIDs. You may also format your comment using Textile markup, if you'd like. Comments may not immediately appear.