Presently, the cost of a flight to Cancun hovers around $500. For one percent of that price, you can have yourself a "staycation" and enjoy the environs of the Yucatan Peninsula in Tombs & Treasure for the Nintendo Entertainment System without the hassle of mosquitoes, the danger of sunburn, or the risk of bodily violation from the TSA.
It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the game's environs can serve as a surrogate for a tour of Chichen Itza, the well-maintained ancient Mayan city in the Yucatan. If one were to superimpose a map of the actual city over the overworld map in Tombs & Treasure ... well, it's not exact. But the layout of the buildings is a close approximation of the real site, with some distances truncated for convenience. Therefore, the developers deserve praise for their research and attention to capturing real details.
Perhaps this professional quality is unsurprising since the game was published for western audiences by the granddaddy of adventure gaming, Infocom. It's based on an earlier title Asteka, from the equally reputable Nihon Falcom company. The port was Infocom's only attempt to bring a title exclusively to a console, and their version, Tombs & Treasure, is truly a rare treasure entombed into obscurity in the Nintendo library. The interface works somewhat similarly to that of the Kemco MacVenture trilogy of adventure titles (Déjà vu, Shadowgate, The Uninvited), and like those games, it works quite well with a controller instead of a mouse. But while the Kemco games are revered as great, Tombs & Treasure has gotten little affection.
There's a lot to like about this adventure title which has a simple plot with a complicated solution. A boy has his summer off and decides to help his girlfriend find her missing father, an archeologist who accidentally released ancient Mayan monsters before he went missing. Jose, the local guide, comes along and provides muscle when you need it. You investigate sites in a first-person perspective and switch locations with a bird's eye view of your team. Puzzle solving depends on the collection of artifacts, their placement, and knowing which team member suits which task best. You will likely get stuck, flustered, and aggravated finding yourself cursing the Mayan gods or the programmers, but that's part of what makes an older game memorable. You get your money's worth by not being able to solve it too quickly.
The difficulty is not simply a matter of if you have the right artifacts in the game itself, but whether or not you have the correct items in real life. Traditionally Infocom games come with swag or what their staff have termed "feelies"-items present in the game box that often provide players with hints that cannot be explicitly garnered directly from gameplay. This game follows that tradition: you are provided with an instruction manual disguised as an archeologist's diary and a map that will make your exploration a lot easier, especially as the latter indicates an otherwise hard-to-find secret passage into one of the temples. The feelies not only help you complete the game, but give a player a fuller, more immersive experience. We can gather the story from the in-game text, but there is further exposition in the manual helps you really get into the adventure. Therefore, it is highly recommended that if you buy a copy of Tombs, you try to find one complete in box.
The game has its shortcomings, namely the presence of turn-based combat (needlessly added to the NES version) which seem like a mindless nuisance. There is no apparent strategy and outcomes are a matter of chance. At least the presence of the demons creates a more colorful palette on your screen, but it does not really deepen the gameplay by much.
The chief problem is the presence of dead ends, some of which are never directly indicated to the player. Had the game been more thoroughly beta-tested to assure that the player would not unknowingly reach one of these unsolvable ends, Tombs could have been more fondly remembered as a great game. In one merciful situation, when your team springs a trap that locks them in a room, a text box clearly states, "This is the end-you better press reset!" This admonishment, however, does not come with every impasse. For example, if you assemble a compass using a magnetic rod and a bowl, you will not be able to use the magnet for the rest of the game, thus making it unsolvable. Without the aid of a text box, the poor soul playing this game will wander among the ruins in the vain hopes of stumbling on a solution that is not there. Therefore, when people think back on playing Tombs & Treasure back in the 80s, many caveat their praise by saying they were never able to finish it.