Overall Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Way back in 1987, an ancient time for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) era, Acclaim and Rare combined their forces to bring forth the medieval fantasy-themed scrolling action platformer Wizards & Warriors, which would prove to be the initial entry in a trilogy for the console. Did the original set a high standard for the series?
The player controls Kuros, a knight, off on a quest to rescue damsels and slay beasts, all in pursuit of the vile Supreme Wizard Malkil. The entire experience is extraordinarily medieval fantasy to a fault; even the title, of course, is a wink-nudge reference to the Dungeons & Dragons franchise of tabletop role-playing games.
The environments are tropes as well, from the classic “first level is a forest” phenomenon, to caves of ice and fire, and the eventual final castle, too. At least there are hat-tips that the developer was well-aware of the rampant generic feel, as even the damsels-in-distress that get rescued are classic names such as Lucinda, Esmerelda, even Galadriel, a sly name-drop from the Lord Of The Rings franchise. In fact, the overworld is called Elrond, which happens to be the name of a key elven character from LOTR as well.
Wizards & Warriors was the second NES cartridge developed by Rare, after Slalom. Despite not being based on a prior arcade cabinet game, there is a prominent high-score mechanic, with items, completions, and enemy defeats all enhancing the point total. This is likely just due to the fact that developers were not quite yet fully used to the idea of a cartridge game not being based on pursuing a high score; even though, even earlier, Super Mario Bros. paved the way to such thinking. What would really set Wizards & Warriors apart, however, was its gameplay formula.
This is a platformer that scrolls in all directions, a fantastic feat for such an early era; whether vertically or horizontally, the levels prove to be expansive and cavernous. The scrolling, though, is not perfected, as there is an annoyingly low threshold for the top border, meaning that the protagonist can get awfully close to the top of the screen before it will bother to scroll.
The A button jumps; even when just held down, Kuros will keep bouncing, an odd feature not seen in most NES titles. The B button attacks, initially be swinging a sword, though other attacks may be gained later, such as throwing knives (in tandem with the sword-swing, actually), and even a large axe. Holding up while pressing B allows an upward attack, for dealing with overhead enemies, and pressing down enables a crouch, which Kuros can attack during, or even scuttle back and forth.
This is a hop-heavy game, with endless precision-jumping puzzle elements, and elevation-based navigation. Advancing in the levels involved finding enough gems to get past a “guard” character who demands a certain amount, like 100 or 50. The actual gem items found scattered throughout provide 2 gems each, whereas opening a chest of them may garner a couple dozen, making the task much quicker.
But complicating the quest to open chests is the fact that the chests are colored, and demand that the player first find matching-colored keys in order to open them. What makes the key-finding endeavors more worthwhile are additional treasures that can be found, in the form of permanent items that enable new functions or enhance the character in other fashions.
For example, getting the Dagger Of Throwing enables a projectile attack that boomerangs back in conjunction with the normal sword-swing. There are also different boots, like the Boots Of Force, which can open chests and doors without the needed keys; or the Boots Of Lava Walk that enable walking on lava without taking damage.
The interesting aspect of the inventory collection, especially for an 8-bit game, was that you could only have one pair of Boots at a time, or other item slots as well. For instance, you could hold the Potion Of Levitation (allowing an enhanced jump by holding up to float for a little bit before jumping) and Boots Of Lava Walk at the same time, but if you tried to also carry the Cloak Of Invisibility (press Select to toggle invisibility, allowing to pass by certain enemies unharmed), you would lose the item in the respective slot.
In addition to the typical action-game ingredients were even giant boss battles, most of which consisted of a floating apparition or giant flying monster. Fortunately for the hero, their health bar is shown at the bottom of the screen, below Kuros’s, whose health can be restored by finding chunks of meat scattered in the levels. Defeating certainly enemies may also have a random item-drop chance, in order to gain gems, meat, points, etc.
The execution sets a solid standard and serves to create a worthy challenge for the player. There is a lot of sliding, oddly enough, as the differing angles and pitches of the terrain mean that Kuros can not always stand on surfaces and will often slide downward, only adding to the complexity of the jumping puzzles. Some may find this annoying. Although, undoubtedly, the bigger flaw is the constant presence of randomly generated enemies of infinite amount flying back and forth across the screen nearly at all times. Ugh. Even the most expert of players may be chopped apart if they cannot progress quickly enough, just due to all the friggin’ bees and bats and flames and things flitting about.
Wizards & Warriors looks great, honestly, especially for being such an early release for the system. The sprites are imaginative, the enemy designs are perhaps intentionally trope-generic but serviceable, the environments are distinctive, Kuros jumps around alright, and as a whole, the viewing is pleasurable. It certainly is not perfect, though, as some sprite-flicker occurs when enemies overload on screen, and some parts definitely looks cheesy, perhaps due to odd spacing of background elements that emphasizes an almost tile-based feel, or some other, more intractable element; whatever the case, some areas definitely look better than others.
This is a middling NES video game in the sound department. While Rare would eventually show some impressive sound engineering chops with titles such as Pin*Bot, the polish is not quite present here. The hardware sound channels get used, but the actual compositional structure is not oustanding; and, maybe more egregious, the tone of the tunes does not always fit the feel of the game world. The effects themselves are alright, though occasionally suffering from “pew pew” disease, whereas some enemy deaths, impacts, and other events are treated rather underwhelmingly. Overall sound verdict: Meh.
Wizards & Warriors may have had an utterly unoriginal concept for its story, but its slick gameplay formula was eye-openingly innovating, proving to set the pace for its sequels and even, arguably, influence later games as well. Besides, for fantasy fans, a little trope-recycling is hardly a new phenomenon, and other classics such as Gauntlet and later entries such as Goldenaxe clearly did their part as well.
In terms of its quality, Wizards & Warriors is not for everyone, but its production value was certainly professional. Unfortunately, the big blight on the face of this game is the persistent use of infinitely randomly generated flying enemies; even with the throwing daggers, they are a pain, and serve only to make the game less enjoyable. At least it offers multiple lives and continues. Rating: Three and a half stars out of five.