Seven Gates Of Jambala: Commodore Amiga

Seven Gates Of Jambala: Commodore Amiga
Seven Gates Of Jambala: Commodore Amiga

Insert Disk collects Seven Gates of Jambala for the Commodore Amiga.

Today’s retro game review is Seven Gates of Jambala for the Commodore Amiga. This retro gaming classic by Thalion for the Commodore Amiga is one of my favourite titles from the late 1980’s. Seven Gates of Jambala is a game that’s not particularly well known to most gamers outside of collecting circles. Your wizard must collect seven pieces of a magic wand to rid the realm of evil. The Seven Gates of Jambala is both a platform game and a puzzle at the same time. The non-linear structure of the levels and fierce difficulty will make this a game that you will need to invest some time in to get the most out of. Seven Gates of Jambala is a retro gaming classic, t’s a game that just needs a little more time than most to be appreciated.

 

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. I’m in a good mood today, why? Well it’s because I get to share a lost classic with you today. From its simple cartoon-like graphical charms to its otherworldly soundtrack I present to you one of Thalions greatest achievements. Join me today as I lead you through the Seven Gates of Jambala for the Commodore Amiga. 1989 was a golden age gaming for the Amiga. It was the year that the Seven Gates of Jambala hit our disk drives. There’s a good chance that you may not have heard of this title and maybe not even Thalion as a software developer. Thankfully that’s what this channel is all about, unearthing those collectables from days gone by and sharing a passion for forgotten software. The Seven Gates of Jambala can be thought of as primarily an Atari ST game although it was ported to the Commodore Amiga at the same time.

I first played the Seven Gates of Jambala back in the day. It wasn’t necessarily pushing boundaries graphically or in gameplay content. What it did provide though was the feeling of being thrust in to a fantasy world. Beautiful to look at but deadly at the same time. I particularly wanted to cover this game on the channel as I think that it has been done a great injustice in modern reviews here on YouTube and out on the wider Internet. To this day the Seven Gates of Jambala still receives harsh criticism for its lack of depth and graphical presentation. Personally I feel this is a score that needs to be settled or at least a counter argument put out there by someone that has invested a little more time than most in this game. I’ll level with you from the start that I do have a lot of childhood nostalgia attached to this game but I’m sure that I can highlight it’s merits further than my own experience. The premise of the game is rather standard. Your task is to collect 7 pieces of a magic wand and escape the caves of Jambala. This is all rather incidental though as the back story just provides a backdrop on which the main plat forming sits.

It’s at this point I’d like to share with you the back story in the manual. It’s a short novella setting up the scene and well worth a read for those that enjoy short fantasy adventure stories. Just look at this cover, simple, effective and iconic. The effort put in to the manual is the first class. It features back story, illustrations and provides a complementary piece of the puzzle. Something you just can experience if you download the Seven Gates of Jambala to an emulator. The effort of the back story along with the hand drawn illustrations really set the scene for a wider world of fantasy.

As you can see, this is the boxed Commodore Amiga version. The Atari ST version was almost identical. It was just the outer sticiker that distinguished them. Interestingly the game box is published without a bar code or UPC number. Meaning that it wouldn’t have been able to have been scanned at the checkout of a retail outlet. At the time buying games from via mail order was common place here in Europe. As such games could be shipped without a code. Interestingly the packaging designers did leave room for the code although the holder is placed on the internal section of the box. Some copies of the game also come with a poster of the box artwork which is also an added extra to look for if you are a collector.

Thalion was formed in 1988 by Erik Simon and Holger Flöttmann, both from the German demo scene. Although clearly technically very competent at software creation the fact that the games box and manual received so much attention to detail gives me that warm feeling that this game was a labour of love. By 1989 the Seven Gates of Jambala was one of the first 3 games that Thalion released to the public, Chambers of Shaolin and Warp being the two others. The Seven Gates of Jambala published via Grandslam always felt a little special though. It was dark, mysterious and just a little off-kilter compared to similar platformers of the time. So how does the game play? Well, I have to say that I really appreciate it as a portal to the past. It’s all about the platforming, uncovering secrets and having it out in one on one encounters with the bosses. The general bulk of the game is very much classic run and jump.

I’d like to get my criticisms for the game out of the way early as overall I’d like to remain positive in the overall review. Firstly is the game difficulty. Overall the Seven Gates of Jambala is not an easy game to play. Whilst the run and jump mechanism does work well, it’s also very unforgiving. Platforms must be hit with great accuracy and timing to ensure that you don’t end up in water for a one hit death. The second issue is taking on the bosses. They are ferociously difficult, especially if you haven’t managed to obtain a powerful spell. The gate 2 boss will not only fire projectiles at you but also charge you. At times it feels that your character isn’t nimble enough to deal with the faster more powerful enemies. The most common complaint I hear from gamers is the graphics. Having been of Atari ST origins the Amiga version also suffered a little here. The Amiga port did upgrade the overall appearance in some areas but admittedly the system could deliver so much more. Add in to this that most levels look quite similar and just variations on the green and black cave theme I’ll happily concede that a more diverse pallet might have improved gamers perceptions of this game. So, in essence my criticisms with the game are that it’s rather on the difficult side and that the some of graphics were limited. However, neither of these complaints are game breaking in my opinion. There’s far more to the game than this.

Overall the consistency of graphical presentation does the job well for the scope of what the game was trying to convey. You’ll need a bit of patience with this game to really get in to the flow of things. It’s essential to get weaponised as soon as possible. To do this use your weak glittery magic powder to take down the simple enemies such as the wasps and these green insect type creatures.
With a bit of luck one will drop a more powerful weapon. Usually the yellow fireball followed by an upgrade to the purple tornado. Once you have these your wizard is far less vulnerable to attacks. It’s also important that you have one of these spells to take on the gate bosses. Whilst taking down wasps you’ll also be able to pick up the hammer. This provides the second key component of the game. You’ll need the hammer to bang on floors. In turn this can unearth coins, sacks of gold, extra health, extra lives and even useful perks such as the spring shoes needed for higher jumping abilities. If you know where to look you can also access the special gold caves where you can really build your wallet. Similarly it’s worth climbing at least one tower in each gate to exploit the treasure that can be found within. These areas are much more laden with rewards than the main areas.

There’s nothing here that will shock or surprise you if you are familiar with old school platformers. It’s the little touches that go largely unnoticed though that give this game its dark feel. The transitions between rooms bookend each piece of action. It somehow feels like a story even though there is no real narrative to push the story forward. It’s the weird and wonderful characters that you will encounter. Periodically you will enter for want of a better word a shop to negotiate with the inhabitants. There’s a feeling sadness to their existence. They’re always happy for your custom and will reward you with special items and advice for your gold coins. The Seven Gates of Jambala isn’t best in class for graphics on the Amiga but the overall adventuring really unfolds as you progress.

There’s something about the game that elicits drama, the tension of making the difficult leaps and the epic moments when you step up to fight the bosses. You’ll pick up a trusty hammer. Use it to knock on the floor for hidden surprises. Power up with magic spells to defeat the ever growing army of beasts that look to kill you. It’s the finishing touches of finesse as your character skids to halt against his inertia. Just go from left to right to complete a stage? Think again, you’ll need to work out the way through the maze of levels. Even if you do manage to fight your way to all 7 pieces of the wand you will then have to assemble them all in order to get the game ending. What on the surface feels like a standard run and jump platfomer slowly reveals it’s layers of complexity to the player. The Seven Gates of Jambala isn’t just a game, it’s a puzzle. All of this is set to one of the most transcendent soundtracks of the era.

I may re-visit renowned composer Jochen Hippel’s music contributions in a future episode but his work undeniably had a large impact on game music throughout the 80’s and 90’s. His back catalogue of game music is rather impressive. The Seven Gates of Jambala soundtrack very much embraces chip tunes rather than utilising the orchestral instrument capabilities of the Amiga. As such the left and right audio channels deliver distinct sets of instruments. Often the baseline in the left and the melody through the right.

Jochen Hippel’S soundtrack to Seven Gates of Jambala is a journey in itself. It’s somehow brooding yet contemporary, dark yet full of sparkles of light. The 15 tracks on the original soundtrack all provide the lift that the game needed. It turns the game from a standard platformer in to something else. It’s true what they say when the sum of its parts are greater than the it’s individual components. Combine the dark fantasy world with tried and tested platforming, secrets to discover and the mysterious soundtrack and you have yourselves something very special. Sadly for Thalion the public in general disagreed. Not necessarily about the Seven Gates of Jambala but Thalions games catalogue in general. Sales for the company never amounted to a gaming powerhouse and Thalions fate was to be disbanded in 1994.

From Thalion there was one last parting gift though. The Seven Gates of Jambala was licenced to publisher “Unique” for a re-release on the Amiga CD32. An obscure console combined with an obscure re-release meant a rather collectable item. Here is the CD32 edition of the Seven Gates of Jambala. It’s considered rare and very collectable to those that seek out Thalion titles. In terms of game quality this is very much a ported re-release. Considering that much of the original code was designed to work on both the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga 500 platform this re-release on to the CD32 offers little in the way of true innovation or progression. What it does give you though is a CD quality version of the soundtrack. If you appreciate old school synth compositions then this is a really great item to own.

I’ve been a long-time fan of the game and Thalion software in general so I like to think I know quite about this corner of gaming history. Whilst reading through the manual for this retrospective though I noticed something unusual on page 10. The loading instructions. Atari ST, check, Amiga, check. Hang on a minute though… Commodore 64 Disk and Cassette? This really took me by surprise, to my knowledge there was no Commodore 64 version of the game. If this edition was out there this would the holy grail of Thalion titles. For due diligence I wanted to get an answer right from the source so I tracked down one of Thalions founders, Erik Simon. Considering the game was published back in 1989 I knew it was going to be a very long shot whether he would reply. In computing 3 decades is a long time. Erik is still working in the video games industry and has really carved out a life-long dedication to the cause. I asked him about the Commodore 64 edition, did it exist? Was there a prototype? It wasn’t long before I got a response.

“How cool is it that someone still plays our old 16 bit stuff. Unfortunately I don’t remember if we ever got as far as even a prototype with the c-64 version of Jambala. Frankly I’m surprised that we seem to have announced a port even. Thank you for featuring our old stuff on your channel and continue to have fun with Seven Gates of Jambala!” So, there you have it. At best there were plans made but no game. I have seen unconfirmed interviews that initial work on the graphics had started but nothing as far as a playable demo, perhaps someday a fan will take up the challenge of programming a C64 version. Just getting a response from Erik really made my day though. As someone that lives and breathes retro gaming it was nice to connect with someone that had produced one of my favourite games. Time may have passed but Erik was still up for responding to fan mail. Incredible. If ever there was an endorsement as to why old school gamers like myself continue to collect, well its moments like these. Hopefully by now you are at least curious enough to wonder about the collector’s price of these releases.

For a company that was largely side-lined in its day game collecting has come full circle when it comes to Thalion software. Upon their closure in 1994 Thalion released all of their games in to the public domain for everyone to enjoy. So, even if you can’t pick up a physical copy I’d still urge you to give the Seven Gates of Jambala a try. Personally I view the Seven Gates of Jambala as a true hit of retro gaming nostalgia. A game with a hand crafted feel and a game with a distinct fan following. The game may not be at the top of everyone’s collecting list but it’s certainly a game that still commands a second look and certainly a second listen. It’s a game packed full of wonder and dark vibes. Without playing the game for yourself I can’t convey all of its charms but I’ll leave you with a short montage of it’s music and imagery.

You almost feel that they saved the best for last with Seven Gates of Jambala. The Game Over screen is still one of my favourite game over screens of all time. Despite the Seven Gates of Jambala never really being a hit this hasn’t stopped the fans creating their own covers and remixes of it’s soundtrack. Search YouTube today and you will find dozens of tribute music videos. I started out this retrospective by telling you that the Seven Gates of Jambala has received harsh criticism from the Internet over the years. But maybe, just maybe I’m not the only one out here that can see this special creation for what it really is.

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