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- LaFey (Porto, Portugal), July 15, 2011
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The game which confused me, even as it taught me about Mesoamerica., January 21, 2011
Kukulcan (1984) is an educational graphic adventure game set in 1519. The player takes the role of an Aztec scribe summoned by Montezuma to seek knowledge of the Feathered Serpent, in hopes that this knowledge may stave off the arrival of evils portended by recent omens. The Aztecs were right to have been worried around this time; the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez was soon to invade Tenochtitlan (the future site of Mexico City), arrest Montezuma and bring an end to the Aztec Empire. Thus Kukulcan is a game which allows you to experience some of the events, atmospheres and customs of the end days of that empire from the perspective of a man on the ground.
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I spent a decent amount of time trying to work out Kukulcan when I was a kid, playing a copy a friend had made for me, and I probably progressed about three quarters of the way through the first of two floppy disks. This was with the friend telling me explicitly what to do at certain points, and also after I had listed part of the program to try to cheat. The game seemed pretty inscrutable. I would go around doing things like wearing slave clothes, peering at temple columns and sacrificing butterflies atop pyramids without any true understanding of why I was doing them. Admittedly I had already got the idea that you sacrificed people in this kind of game by hearing about another Apple II adventure called 'Mask of the Sun', in which you could SACRIFICE RAOUL. Kukulcan's game parser was of the two word verb-noun school – LOOK PRIEST – SACRIFICE BUTTERFLY – CLIMB ROOF – and within that school it was of the simplest incarnation possible. There was no real database of vocabulary, just code explicitly checking if you had typed something relevant to the location you were in.
In spite of its opaque qualities, Kukulcan had a distinct style, and numerous flourishes that other adventure games of the time weren't giving me. The opening sequence of the sun rising with some flickery birds flying overhead was semi-animated, and played a few notes of music too. The optional introductory sequence felt dangerous, as you had to enter Montezuma's presence and perform several actions exactly as instructed so as not to insult him – ENTER – BOW AND ADVANCE – and say MY GREAT LORD – though I was annoyed that actually typing 'SAY MY GREAT LORD' resulted in death. The graphics were clear, bright and extremely attractive, and offered additional close ups of certain items and architectural features, like beans that had fallen into a crack in the causeway, or a butterfly hidden in the eye of a skull. There was mystery and a bit of awe involved in wandering the game's majestic temples beneath its blue skies, and wondering what it was all about.
In retrospect I can see that the impact Kukulcan had on me was one that it would have been pleased to have had as an educational game – it provided my first encounter with Mesoamerican history, and I did not forget what it showed me. Even with nothing to compare it to, my younger self was able to instinctively feel the authenticity of what was being presented. I had never before seen words that looked like the ones I saw in this game, words so long or with such interesting spellings - Tenochtitlan, Quetzalcotl, Tzompantli (the 'skull rack'). The game also included captions and titles atop the graphics, describing where you were or what you were looking at. And the way that people and places came across in Kukulcan had that sense of alien but unremarkable conviction about it that is attendant upon most people's first encounter with a foreign culture.
More than twenty years after Kukulcan's heyday, I discovered that my chances of completing the game as a kid, using my pirated copy, had been zero. The game shipped with extra hardcopy historical notes that provided completely unguessable information vital to completing it. I also found out that you could type 'H' at many of the game's locations to glean additional historic information in-game. Today, you can use a walkthrough to reach the conclusion of Kukulcan in a quarter of an hour or so, but the unfurling of the game in response to the commands you will issue in the process remains amusingly baffling. The original documentation, which would undoubtedly fill in all the gaps, remains unavailable. Between this fact and the game's tiny parser, Kukulcan's solveability worth for a retro gaming passer-by is, frankly, nil. But the game's inherent worth is great. It is novel and attractive, and educational in the best possible way, the way in which learning isn't even a conscious issue. The game fascinates the player with its world, and after that, any learning tends to be automatic. I find I am able to recall various sights and words from Kukulcan to this day without any prompting. Especially the fact that a Tzompantli is a skull rack, which I've wormed into more than one game of Balderdash.
* Further information about Kukulcan is available online at the Gallery of Undiscovered Entitites.