Friday, December 12, 2014

Looking Back: The Mysterious Cities of Gold (Originally Posted January 2011)

Here's a particularly long Looking Back article I posted to TGWTG in 2011.  Much like the Going Long piece I posted earlier, this one's a bit long for the new Channel Awesome site, it would seem.

I'm sure I'm not the only one here who's stumbled across an item of nostalgia some years after having originally seen it, only to discover that it wasn't quite the thing it was remembered to be. If I am, I must be crazy. Well, crazier than I thought, but still, you know?

Before I get into this, spoiler alert for those of you who may be interested in checking this show out. Since it's all just one big long story, it's going to be hard to say very much about it without giving things away. The link to the Hulu archive is going to be at the start of the next paragraph.

Anyhow, that's kind of how it was for me when I found The Mysterious Cities of Gold on Hulu in early 2009. For as much as I remembered about the show, there were as many things that I had either forgotten, or were apparently not part of the show at all. I'm sure there's a reason for the confusion here, and I do not doubt that I will be getting comments to help me get things cleared up, which will be much appreciated, really.

For those wondering where the potential spoilers will start, this is it. The basic storyline follows a 10 or 12 year old boy named Esteban, whose mere presence is often enough to bring the sun out from behind the clouds in even the worst of storms as he searches the west coast of South America for his birth family. His only clue is part of a medallion he's had his entire life, but doesn't know anything about.

The adventure begins when the priest who had raised Esteban dies, leaving the boy unsure of what to do with himself until a Spanish adventurer calling himself Mendoza arrives and offers to complete Esteban's medallion if the boy will accompany him to Peru in search of great cities full of treasure. When Esteban accepts, he is soon introduced to an Inca girl named Zia and Mendoza's two half-witted assistants.

Here's where I think I start to get my shows mixed up or something, because I could have sworn that one of Mendoza's assistants was a dude named Rollo. Instead, there's a skinny guy named Sancho, who looks like a guy I went to college with and a fatter, bandana-wearing version of myself called Pedro. I'm really not sure why, exactly, I would make this association, because there isn't even an incidental character named Rollo in this show.

Anyway, after an Indiana Jones map sequence, our intrepid heroes find themselves in the Straits of Magellan, where a strong storm threatens to smash their ship against the rocky peaks that rise from the ocean in the area. This event sets Sancho and Pedro up as characters who will ultimately be useful when it counts, even if they are comic relief most of the time, as without them, there would have been no way for Mendoza to successfully guide the ship through the storm.

Our heroes were not to get so lucky a second time, however, as a few days past the Straits of Magellan, Esteban and team find their ship caught in a hurricane off the coast of Chile. After some exposition reveals that Mendoza saved Esteban from a similar dilemma as a baby, thereby acquiring the piece of the medallion, the ship is thrown into some shallows and sinks.

Thinking that they're the only survivors, Esteban and Zia agree to team up with Mendoza, Sancho and Pedro. Although Sancho and Pedro begin spending a lot of time being real pussies starting about here, they do bumble across food and shelter for the party once everyone is ashore and the search for such things begins.

They also come across a boy named Tau, who is apparently the last of his people, and had come to the same barrier island as the shipwrecked adventurers in search of food. Although Tau had been waiting for Esteban and Zia, thanks to a prophecy from his people, it took some convincing to get him to join the party, as he didn't quite trust the adults. Changing that would be no easy task with companions like Pedro and Sancho.

Once Tau does join, he burns his home down and brings only a few select items with him, most notably a book, a mysterious jar, and a strangely well-spoken green bird named Cocapetal. Upon the completion of burning his home, Tau escorts the others to a sailing ship called the Solaris.

And this is where the show's technology starts breaking the badass meter every chance it gets, because apparently just having Mendoza around must not have made for enough badassery on the show. While the Solaris can't fly or go underwater, it could do just about every other thing the team would need at this point.

The Solaris was a mechanical ship that was entirely solar powered, and even had it's own phaser bank. No, really, it had a solar-powered phaser bank in its metallic sails.

Good thing, too, as it turns out that Esteban and team weren't the only survivors of the shipreck after all. Gomez and Gaspard, the mission commander and ship's captain respectively, also survived the shipwreck with a few men and have rebuilt part of their old ship. Now that they've caught up with Esteban and Mendoza, it's a game of hot pursuit over the Cities of Gold for the rest of the series.

As all this goes on, we get to see that Tau has some serious brainpower to him and can pull almost anything directly out of his ass as it's needed. After all, between what he reads in his book and what he seems to just know, Tau can pretty much make effective use of the Solaris and it's systems in spite of never having actually been aboard before. And this sort of thing happens over and over as the series continues.

With pretty much all the major players in place, the quest for the Cities of Gold begins in earnest. Shortly after an all too narrow escape from Gaspard and Gomez, Esteban and crew get trapped in a bay by their pursuers and must use the Solaris's self-destruct to get away.

Of course, in what would become true Final Fantasy form, our heroes soon find a new vehicle in the form of a flying machine made of gold shaped like a giant condor. How, exactly, the thing manages to stay aloft is a miracle in and of itself, as there is no obvious propulsion mechanism, though whatever means there are, are solar powered.

Once all our main characters and vehicles are in place, our heroes and villains find that there are many stops and many more clues on the way to the titular Cities of Gold. As the clues pile up, it becomes clear that while there are indeed several cities of gold, there is only one that is literally made of gold. The others are described as golden to denote clues or the gold of knowledge and information in some way, shape, or form.

This knowledge and information is, at it's most basic level, usually the next clue to where the party must go next. On a less direct level, the knowledge is of what each person learns about themselves and/or the world around them as they travel and have their encounters.

These encounters included meetings with a few real civilizations, most notably the Mayans. At first, the Mayans didn't trust the party, as they were largely Spanish. As the situation changed, the Mayans began to trust the party in spite of the fact that it was composed of foreigners.

The primary reason for this, I think, is that the biggest foe in the series is a civilization called the Olmecs. I would suggest that in the world of the Mysterious Cities of Gold, the Olmecs are aliens. As evidence, I cite the fact that the Olmecs not only look and act differently from the more recognizable human characters, they also have technology well in advance of anything we've got even today, let alone in the 16th century. That is, unless we have stasis pods that don't require constant maintenance and vast amounts of liquid nitrogen to function, for example.

The Olmecs, it seems, are a dieing race, and they believe that gaining access to the Cities of Gold and their contents will save them from extinction. As such, they will go to great lengths to find and enter the cities, even if it means wiping out the Mayans, who see the one they know about as a holy place; and crushing any Spaniard who comes seeking a fortune in gold, as Mendoza and his pals have done.

In the middle of all this are Esteban, Zia, and Tau, who hold the keys to the city. Esteban and Zia have their medallions, which open everything and control various individual operations; Tau has his encyclopedia and knowledge of how to use what they find in the city and his strange vase that reacts to certain other artifacts from the Cities of Gold.

After a few battles, mostly of the fierce kind, the one city of gold to be found here is opened. Immediately, all three groups see that they were correct in what they believed about it. It is indeed the city of light that the Mayans believed it to be, in part because it was literally made of gold and gemstones, which means that it probably has the technology and information that the Olmecs are looking for, too.

But, of course, leave it to the Olmecs to screw things up for everybody. The Mayan holy man charged with guarding the City of Gold reveals that yes, indeed, all three parties involved are quite correct in their presumptions about the city. With that information out, the Olmecs reveal phase two of their plan. Once they've used the knowledge and technology in the city to save themselves from extinction, they intend to use it to make the Earth their own and enslave humanity.

Naturally, the Olmec leader wants to show off his impending permanent superiority and orders the holy man's death and for the others to be put to work gathering the city's secrets for analysis. With his dying breath, the holy man tells the kids that in order to ensure a future for the world at large, they must destroy the city and its contents.

After another longish round of fighting, the city's defense system does get turned in on itself and everything that can winds up melting and or burning.

As the story ends, Mendoza realizes that he's more about the search than anything, because he likes the adventure and being the cunning, crafty sort. Seeing that Sancho and Pedro, who are far simpler men, have wound up with all the gold and jewels they can carry, is certainly no small incentive, either.

The kids have also gained a love of adventure through all of this and hop back into the Golden Condor to go looking for more adventure before heading back to Spain that way.

I especially like Mendoza's reaction to all of this. The moment he realizes that he's an adventurer more than a treasure hunter is priceless, what with his “Well, shit...” expression and all. His admiration of Esteban, Zia, and Tau when they go flying off for more adventure is also quite the thing.

That same scene at the ending makes me think there was a second season or a sequel that came out and I can't remember the name of. It's the only real explanation I've got for why I was thinking part of this show took place in the Pyrenees and that there was a guy named Rollo involved in the story somehow.

And really, I think this might also make a good RPG of some sort, either tabletop or video. The story is great, the characters are strong, and there are quite a few other good role-playing elements as well. I'd almost be surprised if something of the sort didn't already exist, given my admittedly limited knowledge of what's actually out there in the gaming world.

All in all, I'd really recommend checking the Mysterious Cities of Gold out if you haven't already done so. Sure, it's a little old-school, but I think it's at least on par with, if not better than, most similar titles out today. And since I know there are plenty of anime fans, if not outright otaku out there who will read this, I whole heartedly invite you to watch this series and do your own reviews of it. I would love to hear thoughts and ideas other than my own on it.

And although this little Statler and Waldorf stinger I'm adding here isn't entirely accurate, it's pretty much a nutshell of what I think of the show and why others will like it: Cities of Gold is strange, weird, peculiar, and funny. Check it out, won't you?


  1. Enjoyed reading! Had similar nostalgic rediscovery this year - blogged about mcog here

  2. I'm not sure about a character named Rollo, but there was another cartoon that came on Nickelodeon around the same time period as Cities of Gold, called Belle and Sebastian, that did take place in the Pyrenees.