“Walk like an Egyptian…”
Pyramids of Ra was perfectly suited for the original Game Boy with its extremely basic graphics, great 8-bit music, and movement-focused challenges. Developed by Source Research & Development and released by Matchbox in 1991 in Europe and later 1993 in North America, Pyramids of Ra is a straight up puzzle game involving an archaeologist exploring the precarious platforms of ancient Egyptian architecture.
The objective is simple. In each room, the archaeologist has to destroy every tile and return to his starting position without falling to his death. The tiles immediately crumble into dust after jumping off of them, so this is about planning your pathway through the room so you can safely get back to the starting square. After clearing the room of each tile you can advance to the next room.
The archaeologist can only move across one tile at a time in four directions (up, down, left or right). So if you aren’t clever enough, you’ll be unable to reach all the tiles or even worse… you’ll leave the archaeologist trapped on a single square floating isolated in the void, unable to return to start, left with nothing else but to jump headfirst into the abyss below.
As if that wasn’t enough of a brain-teaser, the tile under you will crumble if you take too long to jump off of it. There’s a horizontal meter at the top of the screen (the line of small black squares) which runs out if you dilly-dally, signalling your doom. This isn’t the case for the original starting tile so it’s best to strategize your approach for each room before taking your first step.
Though the first rooms are simple enough and it may seem like a cakewalk at first, the difficulty will indeed ramp up over time, becoming increasingly complicated death-traps. This is done through the pharaohs adding different kinds of tiles into the mix.
White tiles are the ordinary ones that require only one jump to eliminate, but there are also gray tiles and black tiles which require two and three jumps before they’re destroyed, respectively. There’s also the unlimited tile marked by a checkered pattern which cannot be destroyed and doesn’t need to be in order to proceed to the next room.
Then there are launching tiles that propel the archaeologist over gaps, moving tiles which scroll horizontally or vertically and serve as mobile bridges, flip tiles that will flip the screen vertically or horizontally for extra confusion, reverse tiles which flip the direction you have to input once on them (press up to go down, right to go left, etc.), there are rotating jump tiles too, which require expert timing or they’ll launch you into thin air, and moving variations of previous tiles like the vertical/horizontal flip moving tile. There are even unknown tiles which must be jumped on initially before revealing how many jumps are required to eliminate them. And let’s not forget the vertical-flip-reverse-rotating-launch-somersault tile. Just kidding. This was made by human beings, not Satan.
I’ve never beaten this game, though I got pretty far. It was a great road-trip cartridge to carry in my pocket, since it’s essentially a time killer. Can you explore all of the pyramids of Ra?
The 8-Bit Review
Let me explain this score. The graphics are not terrible. They’re minimalistic, and it doesn’t matter that they are. The focus isn’t on the graphics but all of the game’s thrust is in its puzzle challenges. Only the title screen and the placards that show between rooms show any semblance of decent graphics. The scarabs are virtually the only thing like a character sprite. Everything else is squares, arrows, and circles, including the archaeologist himself. It doesn’t matter for the total value of what the game offers the player, just don’t expect graphical fidelity here. It’s all about a simple aesthestic.
Dude, the music on this tiny soundtrack is a love letter to the best of beats of the NES. It’s obviously going to be just as Egyptian-esque as you think it’d be. But thankfully that sound isn’t entirely all that characterizes this OST. It’s fast-paced and percussive and I love it. It drives the frustration and frenetic jumping across the tiles. The only thing it could have done better is modulate to amp up the crazy tension. It offsets the horrible sound effects. That jumping noise was enough to make my parents nuts whenever I played the game in the back seat of our minivan. I don’t recommend turning the music off and leaving the FX on.
As a puzzle game, Pyramids of Ra is solid and balanced. It teaches you about each tile slowly before picking up the pace. Plus there’s a haunting feeling that the game is bullying you. I’m not sure that’s going to motivate everyone, though.
The basic concept is incredibly accessible and can be explained in less than 10 seconds, but this game is adept at taking that concept and pushing it to the limit. You don’t need anything but the directional buttons. It’s simple even by Game Boy standards. Probably could’ve been a digital wristwatch game.
Pyramids of Ra starts off pretty slow, indeed, and that can seem like it’s too easy and even boring. But never fear, the later levels are frantic challenges which introduce the factor of timing along with the necessary planning ahead. Camping at the start square will no longer be enough to complete the room when moving tiles and rotating tiles come into play. That’s the moment you might begin to feel like chucking your black and green screened GB out the window. Like I said in the body of my review, I’ve still to beat Pyramids of Ra.
I gave this game a score for replay value that’s well below average. From a modern standpoint this is because the average gamer has lost a lot of patience in comparison to the kind they brandished in the early 90’s. New technology has allowed handhelds to feature the kind of games that would’ve belonged on consoles several years ago, meaning that a monochrome puzzle game about hopping tiles is regulated to a category below even cell phone games. And from a history standpoint, Pyramids of Ra was frustrating even when it first hit the shelves in my local town. Good as a time-waster but not much else, and if you return to it to replay it, it’ll be out of vengeance or boredom. Probably the latter.
So far as puzzle games go, there really isn’t too much innovation. Generally, if there’s too much innovation and you’re left with something that isn’t accessible at all to the average person, who ironically is the one seeking to play a basic puzzle game in the first place. Not enough innovation and you’re left with something that feels like a cheap knock off of something else and hence we’ve had many Tetris rip offs to date: Super Puzzle Fighter, Wario’s Woods, Yoshi’s Cookie, Puyo Puyo, and everyone’s favorite: Hatris. Even the ubiquitous Candy Crush is clearly influenced by Tetris. With Pyramids of Ra, such a thing isn’t too clear and it doesn’t feel like a knock off. At least not to me. I’ve played a lot of puzzle games and this one seems distinct to me. Maybe someone can clear that up? Is it a clone?
My Personal Grade: 5/10
Pyramids of Ra is a puzzler for the calculating mind, like solving newspaper mazes and crosswords. It doesn’t introduce the timing factor until later in the game, which may end up surprising or alienating non-gamers. But it’s a fun one to throw on a friend who doesn’t normally play video games as a challenge to their intellect. Chess minded folk will especially like the planning ahead. It’s hard to say whether the game has aged well or not, since everything is secondary to solving its puzzles. They alone are the centerpiece and transcend the game’s other components. It’s not the funnest puzzle game, or the most famous (Tetris), but it’s worth taking a shot at if you have some time for it. A cell phone version would be quite nice. I remember it somewhat fondly, somewhat hatefully, and can’t seem to get its imagery out of my head after all these years. I don’t think I’ll ever be smart enough to beat it. At least you read to the end of this review!
Aggregated Score: 6.3
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