No thief, however skillful, can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire.
-L. Frank Baum,
Remember the good old days? A lot of people do, though the details differ. Most often that’s merely because we all have different memories. Other times it’s because we remember things differently than how they actually happened. Sometimes there are false memories and collective misremembering.
For example, many people seem to remember a set of children’s books based on a family of anthropomorphic animals called the Berenstein Bears when in actuality they’re misremembering the name Berenstain Bears. Another example: people often swear by the phrasing “Luke, I am your father” out of The Empire Strikes Back when this is actually a misquotation of the line “No, I am your father” uttered by Darth Vader.
Paranormal enthusiast Fiona Broome coined the term “Mandela effect” after false memories concerning the death of Nelson Mandela circulated but she explained these as proof for the existence of parallel universes, because, remember, she was a paranormal enthusiast. It’s easy to find proof for your parti pris.
When it comes to retro gaming, there’s the risk of running up against the Mandela effect. For example, many people seem to remember names like Commodore 64, Nintendo, Game Boy, and MS-DOS, when they’re actually misremembering the real names Pomo D’ore 64, Ninetengo, Some Toy, and NS-BOS.
See? That’s proof that the homunculi living in your inner ear are burning your old memories to stay warm in the Winter.
I’m joking, of course. The Adventures of Elena Temple itself is framed as the failed project of a failed developer in an alternate reality that never happened but which could, perhaps, be misremembered. According to the in-game pseudo-history, Elena Temple was created in 1982 for the Pomo D’ore 4. As we know, the Commodore 64 ended up being the far more popular machine and so the very first version of the game performed so terribly that its developer was forced to move back into his parents’ garage.
On it went through history, ported to an obsolete machine called the TOD 300, ported again to the obscure Maple computer instead of the Apple computer from Macintosh. The shady folks at Ninetengo released a copycat of the Game Boy called Some Toy and later Ninetengone would release their handheld called the Some Toy Advanced. Always Elena Temple appeared on the wrong hardware! From Some Toy Advanced to the NS-BOS operating system to Bell computers, “the poor decision making of this developer will likely continue to astonish generations to come”.
This version of the lost gem Elena Temple I played is explained as part of an emulator collection by a passionate group of fans who hacked the game to change its look, becoming the definitive version of a game that just couldn’t catch a break.
The 8-bit Review
Each of the seven totally and completely legit versions of Elena Temple are playable here on miniature screens, preserving the exact look the game has borne throughout its many Mandela affected iterations. There’s an obvious level of dedication that went into emulating this faux history, an admirable backdrop for an indie game actually created by just one man. Things like subtle after-imaging effects, motion blur, and shimmering scanlines make these retro memories seem real. Elena Temple isn’t intended to visually impress in the same way that modern AAA titles do but as an indie developed with ancient pseudo-historical tech in mind, its visual merits are delicate, deliberate, and genuine.
It would have been easy enough to design the game with seven random filters; instead, Elena Temple has its seven “versions” set into its artificial past. The player can switch between any of these seven aesthetics at any time, so if you grow tired of the plain green of Some Toy, you can always jump to a Bell computer for more colors and a wider screen. At first, I thought that the background surrounding the mini-screen would be distracting. Turns out the blurred images of bedrooms and dens are pitch-perfect when it came to evoking the sensation of really playing a handheld.
It’s been a long time since I’ve switched on a Game Boy. TV screens these days are large enough to lose yourself in; you have to crane your neck just to see something in the upper right corner. Elena Temple, however, recreates with incredible accuracy the illusory enchantment of smaller video game screens. I’ve played a lot of retro-styled indie games but not many that are this devoted to the antique philosophy of visual design and the presentation of ye olde games.
The Indie Devs Nation is responsible for the chiptune soundtrack here and it is gorgeous. Note that it is understandably limited in scope as the game itself is short and confined to a single setting. Only a handful of tracks round out the complete set of songs in Elena Temple and the game’s sound design is minimal and occasionally twerpy (the jumping sound effect being a particular example of this), but the music itself is exceptional. It bolsters the sense of adventure and the addiction of exploration.
Two stories are being told here: the game with Elena Temple and the meta-story framing the developer’s struggles. To me, the latter was by far the more interesting. Elena Temple’s actual adventure in the ruins involves hunting down coins and diamonds, unearthing treasures, though given the era of gaming this title emulates, we shouldn’t expect to find an engaging and dramatic drama. We don’t get any motivation for Ms. Temple or any idea of how she ended up here. Some indie games reach for that (with many succeeding) but this one is clearly about the story of the development of the game.
The meta-story is the vehicle for the activities of the game and it recalls the tragedy of a person attempting but failing to achieve success. That’s compelling at least because many of us haven’t met the kind of success we aspire to. It’s also laced with charming tongue-in-cheek humor. You can think of this as an 8-bit Tomb Raider with the limited presentation afforded it by the world of 1980’s gaming.
Opens with text describing a time before Lara, before Nate, when there was Elena Temple. That gives you an idea of the flavor of this adventure.
As mentioned, Elena Temple is tasked with scouring each of the game’s 50 odd rooms for treasures, often hidden in pots, chests, or behind hideous traps and monsters. She can jump as she moves up, down, left or right between rooms though she has no natural defense or offense. There are bullets that she can snag lying scattered in certain areas but these only grant her two shots at a time and that’s the most bullets she can carry at once. Wielding such a tiny gun means that you have to be stingy with those bullets and restrain yourself from firing at everything, though you can backtrack to pick up more ammunition again should you need it. It’s a matter of some slight strategy though I never felt like I was ever completely at a loss for some offense.
There are over 100 coins to collect and these unlock some of Elena Temple’s secret areas. Besides the coins, the diamonds in the game represent the actual milestone for completing the adventure. Hunting down all of them opens up the final test before sweet, sweet victory. However, navigation can be tricky with some of the jumps and traps requiring excellent timing, though if you die you’ll respawn right away near the start of the room.
Elena Temple is geared toward players who relish exploration and old school platforming, the kind that’s highly demanding, though not it’s not ultimately all that brutal. For a brief and minimal game, I was surprised at how it captivated me for such a short period of time. I knocked it out in two sessions and grabbed almost all the coins, though some of those buggers still elude me.
Elena Temple sustains a lot of replay value as long as there are things to find within it. Once the game is completed, I can’t imagine there’s too much to return to. I finished the game with the diamonds and then came back to pick up a few more coins without grabbing them all. This means I haven’t experienced the final secret area yet! That’s decent enough reason to pick it up one more time, but once the ruins have given up all its treasures, what more is there to do?
I think that this game could have benefitted from the extra tension of maybe having a limited lives/continues system. Now given it’s really easy to die in this game so perhaps easing some of that would have had to happen to balance things, whatever that balance is, so long as it helped to increase the game’s tension. As it is, I didn’t feel that there were any stakes and so my playthrough was pretty casual, even involving experimentation with dying to see what could be done in certain rooms. I liked a lot of Elena Temple but a little more challenge would have improved my overall take on it.
As a museum of games the way they used to be, even with its pseudo-history, Elena Temple is a rather unique title. A lot of indie games aspire to recreating the classics of the past but I felt that this game had good reason to include these things beyond throwing in a couple graphics filters for the fun of it. The meta-story for the game itself is a clever touch, and perhaps it could have improved the drive of the game if you had to unlock each part of that story piece by piece through finding specific items in the ruins.
As it is, Elena Temple is a lovely little ditty on the golden age.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I initially made the mistake of underestimating The Adventures of Elena Temple by judging it on the basis of its looks. It’s almost impossible not to do that considering how oversaturated retro throwbacks are in the indie scene. This one isn’t particularly riveting when it comes to visual beauty so I actually passed up sending out a request for a press copy for review. I later backpedaled on that and I am so glad I did.
The level of precision and care in crafting a game through its jocular pseudo-history and with its multiple presentations is something I can’t say has been done for many retro throwbacks I’ve played. I got the impression that this developer had a tangible passion and love for the golden age. Indie games made by single developers are back again and I now realize that that’s with good reason. Single vision games have a beauty of clarity that the big names simply lack with all that they’re stuffed to the gills with. I’d definitely call this an above average indie game.
I’d like to thank Catalin Marcu of Grimtalin for extending us the courtesy of granting us a review copy for Elena Temple. I want you to know that you did good work here and I hope that you continue to develop your ideas and build upon what’s been done in this game. You definitely are better than moving back into your parents’ garage.
Aggregated Score: 6.0
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Categories: Game Review