Seeing Raiders Of The Lost Ark in a theater in 1981 was a seminal moment for me. I was 12 at the time, still two years away from kissing a girl, three years away from learning how to drive, and desperately trying to figure out How To Be A Man. My father, with his tendency to focus on my inadequacies, wasn't much help, but Indiana Jones—this swashbuckler, this cad, this charming rogue—was.
With his granny eyeglasses and perpetual five o'clock shadow, he somehow managed to be bookish and physical at once. He was remarkably smarter than the equally charming yet more self-centered Han Solo. He was among the first male ideals I could genuinely identify with. And, having "met" Indiana Jones during a very formative period in my life, he forever became woven into the fabric of my psyche, and he helped to shape and define, for better or worse, my masculine identity.
Which is perhaps why Indiana Jones And The Emperor's Tomb felt instantly familiar to me. No, the gameplay isn't especially innovative—I've been swinging across crocodile-infested waters since Pitfall—but as soon as I slid the disc into my Xbox, I felt nostalgic and comforted, the same way I feel when I run into an old friend in an airport or a restaurant. Playing the game, "controlling" Indy, guiding him through a series of challenging tasks, helping him, was an opportunity, 20 long years later, for me to finally do him a favor. I was more than happy to do it.
LucasArts does a great job of capturing the playful essence of the character thanks mostly to the excellent fighting engine. Indy has several choices when threatened: he can use his whip (one of the most under-used weapons in videogames, in my opinion), a gun, a sword, or he can simply roll up his sleeves and go the bare-knuckle route. The hand-to-hand combat is really the meat-and-potatoes of the game. Indy throws right hooks and haymakers; he collars Nazis into headlocks; he knees them in the ribs; he shoves them off cliffs. It's cinematic and over-the-top and yet credible all at the same time—exactly like the fist fights in the films.
The videogame version of Indy also proves to be just as resourceful as the filmic Indy. Wine bottles, chairs, table legs, shovels—basically anything that's not nailed down—can be used as a weapon. Guns and swords can even be jarred out of enemy hands and used against them. One of the great thrills of the films is watching Indy, always overmatched, improvise his way out of trouble, and the ability to improvise in the game feels inherently Indiana Jones-ish to me.
The fights, though violent, are unfortunately completely bloodless—not a drop of claret is spilled—and the bodies of his enemies, once beaten, magically vanish. This makes the game feel as tidy and antiseptic as a Disney ride. I've always resented the vanishing-bodies concept in videogames for two reasons. One, the bodies of the vanquished help mark my territory; I see bodies, I know I've already explored an area. Two, as perverse as this might sound, I sometimes enjoy backtracking to survey "my work." I stand with the bodies at my feet and think things like, "These guys never even knew what hit them," and, "They obviously had no idea who they're dealing with." When the bodies vanish, I'm denied the opportunity to bask in the glory of my hard-fought victories.
The developers—The Collective, the team behind the excellent Buffy The Vampire Slayer—also did a decent job of creating a sense of discovery, an essential element in a game starring an archaeologist. Trying to find my way out of crumbling ruins required observation. I needed to constantly survey my surroundings, searching for places to jump or swing to, or ropes or vines to climb. In truth, the levels are stictly linear, gently guiding me from point A to B to C, but they're designed so ingeniously that I hardly noticed. Discovering—or rather "discovering"—my way out of a tomb always felt like a series of small victories to me.
While making leaps across bottomless chasms—and I made many throughout the 10 levels of the game—I realized that I was actually holding my breath during the jumps, then exhaling once Indy, dangling by his fingernails, reached the other side. This tells me that I was emotionally invested in what was happening on screen. I cared. I felt genuine empathy, and it has everything to do with the fact that the Indiana Jones and I have a history. I simply wouldn't have cared as much if the game had been titled, say, Carl The Cave King and featured banjo music plunking in the background instead of the wonderful Raiders Of The Lost Ark theme, a riff of music so familiar to me that just the thought of it—and I can hear it clearly in my head even as I type this—always makes my heart pound.
The game isn't perfect. The camera is uncooperative at times, mostly when I needed it most. The plot is tissue-paper thin. The controls are decent, if a little twitchy. And the animations are sometimes as jerky as a Charlie Chaplin film. Despite the flaws, the game still manages to be a wonderful piece of theater. Case in point: During the final third of the game, I found myself standing at the mouth of a massive tomb. The walls were lined with menacing stone statues. I'd already survived giant buzzsaws, crumbling floors, bottomless pits, oversized crocodiles, so at that point I was prepared for anything. I proceeded down the hall cautiously, moving the control stick gingerly, inching forward. I pulled out my whip and held it at my side, in case I needed it to defend myself or to latch onto an overhead beam should the floor go out from under me. A deep rumbling started somewhere up ahead, then stopped. A couple of rocks dropped from the ceiling. Hair stood on the back of my neck, and that familiar music began to swell. The tension was thick, almost palpable. I felt threatened, yet curious. I had no idea what was going to happen to me, and I was half afraid and half eager to find out.
This is the moment when the game hits its stride, when image, sound and gameplay coalesce to transcend the medium. In fact, for the duration of that moment, the game is no longer a game but an experience, as authentic to me, as real to me, as riding the F train or taking out the trash. I was, very briefly, about as close as I'm ever going to get to actually being Indiana Jones, something I've desperately wanted since I was that 12-year-old boy sitting in a dark theater. I'm much older now, and quite capable of growing my own Indiana Jones-style five o'clock shadow, but my masculine identity still feels as if it's under construction and constantly being revised. I haven't quite got it figured out yet, and I'm starting to understand that I may never completely figure it out. Perhaps that's why spending 15 to 20 hours in a less complicated world, a world where Being A Man is as simple as socking a Nazi in the jaw, or swimming across a crocodile-filled lagoon, or flirting shamelessly with a beautiful Chinese woman, was such a bona fide pleasure for me.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.