Magician Lord (NeoGeo) review
"Begin as blue-clad Elta in the Dale of Evil Gods, and descend the very rungs of the ladder of hell to recover the Eight Books of Wisdom from the God of Destruction, Az Atorse. Magician Lord is dead serious, and if you don't believe me, simply witness the names of places and enemies. Travel the Corridor Leading to Hell and wreak havoc on the parapets of the Castle of Devils, taking on guardians like Beautiful Assassin, and bosses like Hell's Creation (the guardians guard the bosses lairs) on the fiery eight-stage path to the final showdown. "
And now for something completely different.
Your mother told you about Magician Lord, about how too much of a good thing will kill you. And that’s precisely what Magician Lord is - too much (and it certainly will kill you). It is a lavish, 2D platform jump-and-shoot monster that is a veritable showcase of extraordinary visuals, conceived by creative minds who must have since retired from video games. I have played nothing else like it.
Begin as blue-clad Elta in the Dale of Evil Gods, and descend the very rungs of the ladder of hell to recover the Eight Books of Wisdom from the God of Destruction, Az Atorse. Magician Lord is dead serious, and if you don't believe me, simply witness the names of places and enemies. Travel the Corridor Leading to Hell and wreak havoc on the parapets of the Castle of Devils, taking on guardians like Beautiful Assassin, and bosses like Hell's Creation (the guardians guard the bosses lairs) on the fiery eight-stage path to the final showdown.
While the kitsch elements in the game were likely not implemented purposely, they are a welcome taste of lightheartedness in such a dark broth. Spelling errors like stage five’s Anderground Passage of Terror will elicit a snicker or two, while the Evil One himself will taunt you before you face each stage boss, with grammatically unsound one-liners that are actually spoken in a nasal, stilted and muffled fashion.
You’ll need a few good laughs on this mission, because Elta is remarkably fragile. Two hits, and he's finished - this is truly the Pulstar of action-adventures. Shinobi’s Joe Musashi could only take one hit before he saw darkness, but this is not Shinobi. There isn’t the luxury of time to strategize killing the next group of villains holding hostages. Instead, pits and spiked balls and flying, spitting creatures beset you, while a cast of armoured skeletons, demons and wraiths will attack you in great numbers, some taking considerable damage from Elta’s wave shot before being put to rest.
The best comparison made to Shinobi would involve the bosses. While the guardians are quick, stubborn warriors of your size - often bearing sword and shield - who cut off the screen to fight you, the boss confrontations require you to be whisked away to some higher plane where you enter stage left and fire away at some monstrous, alien entity on your right, a la Mandara from Sega’s game. Again, because of Elta’s frailty, more lives will be spent here than you will care to count.
All is not completely lost, however, because our hero with the pointy hat can collect power ups to change him into other beings, sometimes cooler and more powerful than he, sometimes not. Whatever the case, Elta will have two bars added to his vitality once he's transmogrified. The ninja and samurai should be fan favourites, while the water man and dragon warrior will likely be overlooked. Unfortunately, you can't have the guy you want at the time you want him, so I found this character morphing function to be little more than a way to extend your life, though that in itself is more than welcome.
There is further futility in character changing; once you get hit twice, effectively effacing the two-hit extension you were granted, you return to Elta's form. More frustrating still is the fact that you are invincible for such a short period of time after absorbing damage. As such, Magician Lord requires an unending stream of credits to learn, and once learned (if such a thing is possible), a relatively high continue count still, to finish. Consider the second-to-last level Gal Agiese, where the unseemly jumping finally shows itself to your horror and to credit-consuming results. You will leap from platform to platform while giant eyeballs descend to ensnare you - while firing on you - the platforms lending their slippery, poorly programmed (narrower than they actually appear) surfaces to the eyeballs' plot.
As questionable as your chances of survival are, at least there will be lovely music at your funeral. The tunes that sing behind Magician Lord's majestic backdrops are excellent mood-setting pieces, though they regrettably repeat themselves at different junctures in the proceedings. The whole audiovisual experience reeks of brilliant fantasy, telling you that you are truly in another world, a dark hellish one... more than telling: convincing.
Many games that have this much love invested in them suffocate beneath the copious painterly brush strokes, and the ensuing result is a sloppy, overdone mess. Magician Lord manages to escape this dubious distinction. It turns its over-the-top personality into a loveable character trait, and it is so enamoring that its game-distorting weakness can almost be overlooked in the early going.
Delve a little deeper, and the masterpiece starts to fall away like a Renoir in the rain. Now we are left with useless resplendence, ill-mated with an inconceivably high level of difficulty. Some allowance has to be made for the fact that this game is at its very core, an arcade game. You are meant to die; there are spots where it is impossible not to take damage, and the arcade soul does not make any apologies for this. But the NeoGeo is also a console. This kind of crookedness shouldn’t come home.
I find myself wishing that this most beautiful experience would not be so unfair. But then I catch myself - it wouldn’t be Magician Lord were it not so unbalanced. The underlying philosophy seems to stress excess. Excessive, otherworldly beauty, and excessive, swarming difficulty. Understand that while five out of ten is an average score, there is nothing average about this game. The score represents a perverse kind of equilibrium: truly, like me, you’ll hate Magician Lord. You will love Magician Lord.
Staff review by Marc Golding (December 14, 2003)
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