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Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II (NES) artwork

Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II (NES) review

"Odds that I'll review the third game in the series: 1/1,000,000."

The original Wizards & Warriors was perhaps my biggest Young & Dumb gaming experience. As a lad, I loved both its swords and sorcery premise and the way I could easily beat it in a couple of hours once I'd learned where all the good stuff was located. That made it the perfect title to revisit on dull afternoons when I wanted to relive old conquests.

When I tried replaying the game as an adult, though, I found that things weren't the same. Instead of having a couple hours of good old-fashioned retro fun, I felt trapped in a painfully simplistic game that, frankly, bored me to tears. Every level works the same way: you run around collecting gems until you have enough to satisfy a guardian, who then lets you fight a boss. That's it for seven or eight stages. I must have been easily amused as a teen…

But whatever. At the time, the formula worked well enough that I was totally pumped to play Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II when it came along near the holiday season of 1989. But you know what? Though the sequel improved on the original design in several ways, it also suffered enough setbacks and blunders to finally break the evil spell the series once had over me. Sorry, Fabio, but you should have stuck to adorning the covers of cheap romance novels instead of trying to branch out into other forms of entertainment.

Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II screenshot Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II screenshot

The game's biggest problem is that every improvement is nullified by a setback and that keeps the experience as a whole spinning in neutral. Let's just start at the beginning. Though Kuros bears absolutely no resemblance to the cover model, the game does look good. Almost immediately after the hero materializes, eagles descend to attack. You'll notice their wing animations look very nice indeed. Larger enemies, such as the flying demons in the volcano level, might not be as well-animated, but their appearance is detailed and they sport large, tooth-filled grins. The music also is really nice in general. Although the final area's tune might be considered a bit too upbeat to suit a climactic battle, it holds the distinction of being one of the few samples of NES soundtrack material that I still enjoy listening to in its original 8-bit form.

The whole experience feels hollow, though. Instead of collecting a bunch of gems to advance from level to level, now you must find only one specific item in each stage. The game is based around the four elements, with each one inspiring two small stages. In the first of each pairing, your job is to find a special golden item for an animal king who will then grant access to the second area. There, you must find a special spell that enables you to damage the evil elemental overlord located somewhere in the vicinity. That's how things work for the vast majority of the game.

Of course, you might view the pattern as a positive, since it allows for haste. Much like in the original game, you're constantly assaulted by streams of enemies and projectiles, which makes it quite difficult to avoid taking damage for more than a few seconds at a time. While the entire game works along these lines, it's most annoying early on, and particularly during the cloud-based second region. There, your jumping ability is enhanced. You'll try to spring from one tiny cloud to another and enemies will constantly fly into you and knock you off track. Also working against you is Kuros' general lack of anything that resembles swordsmanship. Often, the best way to "fight" in Ironsword is to jump around madly, hoping enemies collide with the tip of his extended blade. There just isn't much range on his swing. Combine that with the speed with which enemies swarm him and you have a recipe for disaster.

Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II screenshotIronsword: Wizards & Warriors II screenshot

In a way, that leaves the four elemental boss fights to serve as the game's easiest challenge. If you run into one before obtaining the appropriate spell, you can't inflict any damage at all, but otherwise you'll fire projectiles from your weapon as long as you have magic energy. Fans of tough bosses don't have to worry, though, since the final boss makes up for the lack of challenge elsewhere. Four small (but very durable) elemental monsters flying around and pelting Kuros with projectiles? Yikes! I spent several hours before I got lucky enough to triumph and view the game's infuriatingly brief ending.

I'd like to say that Ironsword is a decent game marred only by shaky combat, but several bizarre design decisions prevent me. For example, you collect food, which is represented by roast chicken icons, to lightly restore health. For some reason, however, grabbing a larger-sized chicken actually damages you instead. Then there is the first half of the water elemental's stage, which takes place in a forest where you must use a particular spell to summon a waterspout that lifts you to the top of the tree where the necessary golden item lies. That spell is glitched. After you retrieve the necessary spell from the treasure chest, you must immediately go to the proper location and cast it, or else it disappears from your inventory and you have to find or purchase another key to open the chest AGAIN and reacquire it.

The game's most aggravating annoyance, though, is the result of a well-intentioned decision to offer more difficulty than the original Wizards & Warriors did. There was no penalty for death in that first game, other than that you had to listen to some of the most godawful sounds ever composed when your health reached a critical state. You had unlimited continues and always resumed exactly where you left off, while keeping all accumulated gems and items. The only time death even delivered a light slap on the wrist was when you faced off against bosses, since their health bars at least reset and thus prevented you from gradually whittling down the powerhouse Skeleton Changeling over the course of multiple lives.

To correct this issue, Ironsword only allows players two continues, but also offers a password system so one can continue adventuring from a particular stage. It's not a perfect solution, but at least you are forced to play with some degree of proficiency and efficiency. I'd be cool with this, if not for a change to the rules about two-thirds of the way through the adventure. Once you complete the realms of wind, water and fire, you reach the earth realm and any remaining continues magically vanish. It doesn't matter if you haven't used any of them, or even if you input a code that grants you 255 continues. The instant you enter the earth realm, they're gone.

Even my teenage self who still thought Wizards & Warriors was cool wasn't down with this move. You don't just change the rules on something like that. If you want to make the game more difficult as the player progresses, do a proper job of it. Don't merely keep the challenge level static, but suddenly adjust the rules to bluff your way through it, especially when there's only any challenge in the first place because of how woefully ill-equipped the hero is to deal with the deluge of enemies. The building blocks required to produce a quality game are all here, but the overall product feels amateurish. It's a pretty effort that sounds nice, but that's mostly all it has going for it…


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (May 15, 2015)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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qxz posted May 15, 2015:

A nice writeup, but a little too kind, even with the two-star rating.

I'm one of probably only... (waves index finger; whispers, "carry the one"...) three people on this site who still enjoys the first Wizards & Warriors game, warts and all. However, the last time I played Ironsword, the experience was disgusting. In addition to the points mentioned in the review, Kuros' weapon and armor upgrades are completely worthless, and, perhaps the game-breaker, the damage Kuros receives upon being attacked seems completely randomized. The first attack from an enemy might deal only a sliver of damage; the next, despite being the same attack and from the same enemy type, could be an instant kill. Now that I look back, I'm rather shocked Ironsword was ever released in such a broken state.
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zippdementia posted May 15, 2015:

I am that other person, the other guy who still loves Wizards and Warriors the first. I actually was almost also still in love with Ironsword... Except for that !@#$!ed continue issue. I didnt even realize thats what was happening! Thanks for clearing that up.

The music is awesome, by the way, as you mention. You know it was David Wise, yes? Of donkey kong country fame?

Ah so fucking good!!
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overdrive posted May 18, 2015:

You know, that's a good point about the difficulty. I think that's another reason why the game's difficulty is so stagnant throughout the game, because of stuff like that. Like, right in the very first area, if you run all the way to the right and go in the door there, you're in a cave with a few keys, gems and a treasure chest or two. That has a few of those imps that float up and down and occasionally shoot at you. They can cause a shit-ton of damage sometimes, so it is legit possible for a person to run quickly, not take any damage, go into that room and get one-hit-killed and be like WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED!?!?

Honestly, if not for the stupid continue issue, this would be a game that bizarrely gets easier as you go along, simply because it doesn't get more difficult and the most annoying stage (the cloud one) is one of the first ones. I HATED that room where I think you get the spell you need to kill the boss. Those jumps need perfect timing and more of those imps are in there.
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yx posted June 10, 2015:

I think the continue vanishing is a good idea, and one suiting the game.

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