Magician Lord (NeoGeo) review
"''What imprudence, you human being! Face your trial by god!'' "
''What imprudence, you human being! Face your trial by god!''
SCREECH... Imprudence? If you thought that was a pretty strange insult to be flinging around, well, you're righter than rain. The moustached villain in Magician Lord is always abusing us (and the English language) like this.
''Your are very dangerous. Be dead down here.'' (sic)
''That power is powerless in our presence''
''You, persistent guy. But your life ends right now.''
ARGH, he called me persistent guy! The accompanying voice acting here is priceless.
Believe me, you do have to be persistent like the downtrodden to survive in Magician Lord, a beautiful but just too-rigorous 2D platformer set in a fantasy world which is shivery like remorse.
Eyes Wide Shut
Magician Lord was there in 1990 right at the start of the Neo-Geo's life, and in this capacity I bet it was astonishing like an engagement ring. I don't speak from personal experience here (in either capacity) as I wasn't aware of the game until years after its debut. But when I did happen upon it in a George Street arcade, I was deeply impressed in ways I'm about to divulge like a traitor.
In Magician Lord you play Elta, a lanky blue-robed mage with a hat sharper than a stiletto. You must blast your way through dozens of wondrous and horrible fantasy realms on a quest to slay Az Atorse and recover the eight books of wisdom from grotesque bosses. As in most platform games, the story is moot, but the visual design of this game is anything but. It is Spectacular and Wildly Imaginative. In fact I place Magician Lord amongst my Top 5 Most Striking Game Designs of all time!
Annoyingly, the game is also harder than a coffin nail. You could plug coins into its arcade form faster than a slot machine junkie, and like said junkie still come out the loser. But let's begin at the beginning.
Dale of Evil Gods
Our hero the would-be Magician Lord looks terrific. He's one of the most atypical platform protagonists I've seen, both sharp and frail like a scarecrow in his rakeish blue get-up. The enticing innovation of this game is that by collecting certain orbs in your travels you can transform into six other characters completely unlike Elta - a dragon warrior, a water warrior, a 'Poseiden', a samurai and two kinds of ninja - all with their own attacks and characteristics, all distinctive as birthmarks.
Levels scroll in all directions with three layers of parallax. Terrain is lush across all its forms and reassuring like a goodnight kiss. There's also some limited exploration in that you can choose whether or not to venture through doors and portals to side-areas off each level. They're usually deadly like haste but crammed with a few more sparkling treasures.
Alas, the controls are sluggish, cold like a stepmother's breast and unresponsive like a corpse. Enemies come in faster than the Concorde and their bullets are omnipotent like God (the bullet patterns here remind me of overhead shooters like 1942!). Dying is unforgiving like a Corleone, because if you had transformed, you are now evicted back into your 'wimpy' regular form as well as losing all power-ups from your attack. Hence you will rarely survive as any one of your alter egos for longer than a glance.
Your regular speed is really only a stroll, which is pleasant to look at but slow like molasses. Tapping the jump button gives a tiny hop and holding it produces a screen-clearing leap which is towering like an angry father. You can fire up to two tiny blue energy bolts at a time. They're not exactly charmed like the weapons of war, but you can aim them upwards to ward off overhead attacks in moments of wishful thinking. Basically, you're just not mobile enough to fend off the onslaught Magician Lord throws at you. Demons hug every surface like weeds, assault you while you're climbing ladders from which you can't fight back, and they leap, crawl, shoot and pop up like juggernauts.
Yet even as the hordes continually munch through your four health points and your two lives - and your wallet if you're in an arcade - you're beguiled like a sleepwalker by the cool and overpowering atmosphere of the whole Magician Lord world, which is both gorgeous and nasty like a venereal milkshake.
Slobbery trilobites are glued to masonry like bacteria.
Demons with smiley 'killer-from-Scream' visages totter about like marionettes.
Robotic fish descend like bad weather and spit smaller fish.
Flying wads of ectoplasm idle like seagulls.
Frogs rain from the sky, mutate and then impale you unlike Kermit.
Even the humanoid opponents really jangle the nerves! They just don't move like anything you're familiar with in life. The cat ladies may be foxy but their unnatural prancings will throw you like the shock of the new. There are numerous medieval-styled opponents too, all brutal as a torture chamber. Knights and swordsmen make short work of you since you're not quite fast enough to evade their attack patterns, even the ones you can see coming like a bad ending. And some attacks are just plain cheap or impossible like a tesseract.
As for that lush scenery, the parallax is used brilliantly. You might be walking through an arcane crumbling temple in the foreground, with a jungle encroaching in the distance and finally mist and a hint of drizzled light in the very far-away. The illusion of a whole world extending far beyond the edge of the screen is perfect as a circle. When I stroll along a gilt-trimmed balcony with a lonely green view below, I feel the majesty of a palace abandoned like an unwanted child. And when I hasten through an artery-coloured tunnel lined with rippling alveoli, I feel quivery like an autopsy.
The game's soundtrack doesn't polish up like your date in the face of so much visual invention. Sound effects are all appropriate but not very spacious, tending to blend in too much with the music like the self-effacing. And frankly, I find the mewling synth score for Magician Lord outright depressing... a testament to its creepy power, but who wants to feel depressed? For some weird reason it evokes feelings of dread and lazy afternoons, wearying like the end of the day.
Now for a challenge: Imagine trying to kill the bosses from a shoot-em-up like R-Type, but using a relatively large and unwieldy platform character instead of a small nimble ship. This is Magician Lord's proposal. There are mid-bosses such as ninja women or scrambling aliens who are the same size as your character (a change as good as a holiday) but they're also fiendish like surprise and slippery as an alias. It's amazing how hard it is to negotiate even a simple back and forth ramming pattern from guys who move faster than the news.
By way of contrast, the end of level boss confrontations are spectacular set-pieces which fill the screen. Venture into the scaley eye demon's crumbling lair slung over a lake of lava, or fight inside a behemoth mouth where you have to dodge teeth which burst through the ceiling... so many scenes in this game are instantly memorable. And the attack patterns and abusive terrain are demanding like a newborn.
Thus, Magician Lord is a graphic and atmospheric tour-de-force, triply impressive for its appearance right at the start of the Neo-Geo's life. But play-wise it can be harsh like the spurned, and I severely doubt that anyone would persist to the end even if they could manage to find it in an arcade nowadays. At home, go right ahead! You'll still be continuing like an unfinished sentence, but it won't cost you. Some levels - in particular 'Gal Agiese', with its moving platforms in the clouds to be negotiated over a fatal plummet whilst you're mobbed by floating and shooting beholders - are just the hardest and meanest I've seen in any platform game. But it's all so spectacular and hypnotic that I'd encourage everyone to see this game at least once like a tourist. I wouldn't, however, expect everyone to keep playing.
It's crueler than a snow witch. But sometimes fun like a birthday party, and always dazzling like a snow witch.
-- Magician Lord -- 6/10 --
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)
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