Oh, woe is me! There’s two games that I really want to write articles about (Times of Lore and the silhouette-based Blade Warrior) but they’re going to have to wait because both games are proving more complex to play than I expected. But let’s not worry about them right now, let’s worry about the forgotten game of yesteryear I’ve decided to dig-out and talk to you all about instead: that would be Electronic Zoo’s Treasure Trap (1989) for the Amiga, Atari ST and DOS (I’m playing the Amiga version for the purposes of this review).
The plot is very straightforward – you’re a treasure hunter in an old-fashioned diving-suit who’s been lowered into the wreck of a ship called the Esmerelda and have to explore it and loot all the gold on board. That’s it: no “emotional journey”, no cut-scenes, no “moral choices” to make, no sub-B-Movie plotline written by hacks to get in the way of the game. Modern game developers take note! (rant over).
Anyway, enough about my personal issues with the current gaming scene, what does Treasure Trap play like? Well, if you glance around the couple of screenshots I’ve provided around the screen you’ll notice that it bears more than a passing resemblance to Knight Lore, Head over Heels and other 8-bit isometric; and, unsurprisingly, it plays a bit like them as well. The player character can perform the usual moves in four directions plus a jump; he can also collect keys (which come in the form of various shapes) and carry three at at time for the purposes of unlocking doors. The gold bars are collected automatically on contact and on many of the screens can only be reached by solving basic puzzles in order to reach them – usually of the “push this box here, use it to reach that platform” variety that will be familiar to anyone who’s played this type of game before. Of course, our hero isn’t alone in the depths of the ship and there are various underwater menaces which take one of his lives on contact. These include crabs, eels, stingrays and some really really annoying mines which home in on you. The only thing the player has to combat these are ‘smart fish’, friendly fishies which eat hostile creatures; you start with two of them and get more if you collect lots of gold bars (presumably they’re attracted to shiny things, like some kind of aquatic magpie). So, in the main, the player has to avoid the nasties and use smart fish sparingly. Treasure Trap came at the end of a decade which had seen its fair share of isometric arcade-adventures and it seemed to be attempting some kind of minor evolution. It all moves faster and smoother with the more powerful sprite-shifting powers of the 16-bit machines and shadows, much-missed from older titles and necessary to identify where a lot of blocks/monsters actually are in relation to other things, are actually present in this game. It’s also possible to save the game each 50 bars of gold you collect – there’s none of the play-it-all-through-in-one-load problems that we had in Head over Heels and the like. It even has a map which is fills in as the player progresses in surprising detail – this is (as far as I know) unique in isometric adventure games like this and a quite welcome feature.
But despite all that, it doesn’t succeed in beating these older games. The puzzles and screen designs in Head over Heels and Hydrofool (an older aquatic underwater title where you played a robot that looked like Stan Laurel who had to pull plugs out of a giant aquarium – I’m not making this up) were much more devious and well-thought-out than in this game; and it’s not just that the puzzles aren’t as good, some rooms just seemed generally ill-thought-out with enemies that were too hard to avoid and gold that was hidden away from view (although the letter “G” on the gold indicator on-screen does flash if there is gold on a screen still to be collected). There’s also less of a sense of progression; the older titles had considerable freedom of movement, as does this, and weren’t linear but Treasure Trap feels like just one big maze of rooms rather than smaller, individual groups of rooms that need to be beaten and passed. It also has some ill-thought-out features like the “whirlpool” monsters who deposit the player in a random room on the Esmerdela; imagine if Head over Heels had had something like that! Players should have to persevere to see these later screens and work-up to their greater challenges gradually, not just be deposited in them at random!
Ultimately, isometric gaming didn’t die in the 1990s but it left behind the old room-by-room platforming arcade-adventure of the 8-bit entries in the genre and tended more towards RPGs (like Legend) or scrolling action games (like Skeleton Krew). Treasure Trap feels like a last hurrah of a type of game that was dying out in 1989 and, sadly, it’s more of a whimper than a bang. Worth a shot if you like this kind of game but you’d be better off playing some of the classic 8-bit games in the genre.