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Wizard of Wor (Arcade) artwork

Wizard of Wor (Arcade) review

"In 1980, Midway released into US arcades a coin-op maze game which was to become a cultural phenomenon. It was intuitive to play, cute and brilliantly designed, and was even as popular with the girls as it was with the boys. That game was the Namco-designed Pacman. "

In 1980, Midway released into US arcades a coin-op maze game which was to become a cultural phenomenon. It was intuitive to play, cute and brilliantly designed, and was even as popular with the girls as it was with the boys. That game was the Namco-designed Pacman.

In the same year, Midway released a locally developed maze game which was not quite as accessible. In fact, it was difficult, scary, rife with killing, and gleefully bombastic. This game was Wizard Of Wor (WOW), and while The Wiz might not have made it onto any lunchboxes, his game carved out its own niche of popularity. It eventually garnered ports to multiple Atari systems and to the Commodore 64, and over the years, the original game has only continued to gain more respect for offering one of the stiffest challenges combined with one of the most dramatic presentations from the so-called golden era of early eighties arcade-dom.

In WOW, two helmeted, backpacked, laser-toting Worriors storm the overhead-viewed dungeon mazes of the Wizard Of Wor, blasting away at his minion Worlings in one kill-or-be-killed battle after another. With an enormous semi-randomised pool of mazes to draw on, rampaging oft-invisible enemies and creepy synthesised speech, WOW offers both visceral punch and a tantalising dose of sophistication. A first (inevitably short) bout with the game always arouses major player interest, as there seems to be a lot going on and a lot of features to unveil. What is quickly unveiled is the brutal difficulty. Everything becomes so fast, so invisible, so overwhelming, so quickly, that the average solo player will hit a ceiling within eight levels that seems impossible to consistently reach or survive beyond. It takes a lot of experimentation and practice to excavate worthy survival strategies, and back in the day, that would have meant inserting a considerable amount of money into the machine.

'ANOTHER COIN FOR MY TREASURE CHEST,' the Wizard Of Wor muses at such times, in his eerie mono synth-speak. 'HA HA HA.'

The mazes appear as bleak-looking blue line structures atop a field of black star-studded space. The Blue Worrior enters each level from a safe vestibule at screen lower-left, the Yellow Worrior from screen lower-right. At the start of any new maze or after losing a life, you can pick your moment to re-enter the level, though you will be forcibly injected into the maze after ten seconds. A pair of linked warp doors are also placed at the left and right extremes of every maze. Where Pacman's side-doors hindered ghosts who followed him through it, WOW's warp doors deliver good guy and bad guy alike across the screen instantaneously, before closing temporarily.

In the beginning, six blue Burwors, the lowest caste of Worling, trudge slowly but sneakily around the maze, and it's up to you Worriors get out there and blast them. You can only fire in the direction you're facing, and you can only have one shot on the screen at the time, thus firing down any long corridors will leave you vulnerable for quite awhile. Worling behaviour is devilish from the get-go. They know where your gun is pointed at all times and are reluctant to enter any corridor you're covering, always preferring to slither around to another entrance or wait until you turn your back. They also shoot back, slowly and infrequently, but surely.

If two people are playing, your back can be covered in various ways, one of the most effective being by literally standing back-to-back. For the longest game possible, playing co-operatively with a friend is easily the best way to take on the Worlings. What's interesting is that if you play solo, the computer controls the Blue Worrior for you. He starts out with the same number of lives as you do (three or seven, depending on whether you invested one or two credits) and will wander about guilelessly trying to kill Worlings, only able to take you out by accident if you happen to stray between him and his targets. He'll die off fast enough when the game starts getting harder, but in the meantime he's mostly stealing valuable points that could otherwise be yours. Thus, I like to kill him off as soon as I can in the solo game, for 1000 points per life, no less.

When the Worlings are moving as sluggishly as they do at first, their cruelly-programmed AI isn't so noticeable. Polish off the Burwors and a yellow Garwor appears in the maze. Looking like a fat-headed bipedal dinosaur, he is faster than the Burwors and, what's worse, he is invisible whenever he's not in the same corridor as you. Line of sight contact with invisible Worlings temporarily decloaks them, to the accompaniment of a shrill warning jingle from the game. Your Worrior eyes might now flick to the radar at screen centre-bottom in search of help. In Aliens fashion, the radar indicates the range and position of all Worlings in the maze relative to your Worrior, but unfortunately for the project of user-friendliness, it doesn't show any of the maze walls. Learning to read and make use of this device is a harsh but crucial discipline if you want to survive much further than level three.

The slain Garwor spawns a red Thurwor, a mutant dog-like beast which is just as invisible-loving but faster again, and when the last Thurwors on any level (after the first) have been executed, the Wizard's Worluk is likely to make a cameo appearance. The walls flame and churn as the winged critter makes a brief solo cruise of the dungeon at high speed, before breaking for one of the side exits. The Worluk appears to be part man, part dragon, part insect, all dorky animation. He's always visible but enormously skittish, and ambushing him is vital if you care about your score, since if either Worrior can nail him pre-escape, all point values for the next dungeon are doubled.

More dangerous and exciting than the Worluk's flapping is a visit by the Wizard Of Wor himself. Often appearing on the Worluk's heels, the hooded wiz teleports about the maze at random, wandering short distances inbetween hops and throwing no-nonsense lightning bolts down the halls. Blasting the wizard not only causes the game to spurt out a thrilling mess of audiovisual craziness, but earns you the highest possible single score acquisition in the game, 2500 points.

If you survive any and all skirmishes with the two big Ws, there's a GET READY - GO warning delivered in towering venetian-blind letters before the next dungeon appears, complete with Beethoven-like musical chords of suspense. The big resolving chord is saved up for a DOUBLE SCORE DUNGEON - also announced via the towering lettering.

WOW jumps more drastically in difficulty between individual levels than nearly any other game I can think of. Significantly greater numbers of invisible Garwors and Thurwors will be spawned in each successive dungeon. They materialise without any warning, often right nearby. The fewer Worlings remain on any level and the longer you take to cull their numbers, the faster they all move, and eventually which isn't too far in the future they all just travel like lightning bolts anyway. For example, on level one, you have about ten seconds before the first enemy speed increase from Slow to Medium occurs. By the time you've reached level five, the Worlings are already moving Very Fast when they appear, and graduate to Ludicrous Speed within five seconds, sweeping through the maze like a plague of semi-invisible locusts. An ever-accelerating three-note dirge plays in the background in sync with the game's ferocious speed as you grit your teeth and bunker down in anticipation of the next onslaught.

WOW doesn't even give you any dead-ends in which to hide for complete cover. The best you can do is to secure a junction corner that does not lead into one of those really long corridors which will simply hog the only bullet you can have onscreen. Just reaching such a corner is risky enough, and to trek entirely across the maze is practically suicidal after level four. From here on in it's all about vantage points, siege-repelling, reflexes and desperation. The cross-screen warp doors will help you to make an incredible escape from danger just about as often as they will dump a Worling right on your head, a phenomenon which says a lot about the nature of the game in general. Triumphing over such incredible odds can bring gaming elation, just as quickly as ending up condemned to be repeatedly regurgitated from your safe vestibule into a seething mass of Worlings can bring despondency and frustration. The screamy, staticky sound effects of combat round out this harrowing experience, and there's also the wizard's frequent verbal taunts adding to the fun, such as:





WOW was one of the first talking videogames, and makes excellent use of the feature to add personality and atmosphere to the game, even if the wizard's insistence that you 'INSERT COIN' will start to get under your skin if you hang around too long in demo mode.

Making for another point of intrigue are the game's dungeon layouts. Their whirled, usually symmetrical formations are pleasing in and of themselves, and the game's method of level selection is innovative. It might even have influenced, or outright directed, the designers of Gauntlet a few years later. WOW's dungeons are drawn at first in semi-random manner from a set pool of about fifteen, until you reach level eight, at which point they are drawn in completely random order from a much larger pool of more difficult layouts; the Worlord Dungeons. Some dungeons have names or recur at regular intervals. The Arena (always level four) has a large open space at its centre, while the dreaded and recurring Pit has no internal walls at all. Worlord dungeons tend to be roomier in general, giving you even fewer places to hide, and even more open spaces in which to squander your shots.

WOW errs on the side of savagery, especially for the solo player, but it is chaotic and exciting enough that once you've sampled its scariness, you feel the compulsion to keep on coming back for more. The possibility that you might see a new dungeon, achieve a higher score, or just play with flat-out brilliance next time always feels strong. The game also has a great sense of drama about itself, from the lairy lasers-meet-dungeons visual stylings (eked out of black, white and three other colours) and sound effects to the wizard's verbal menaces. 'WELCOME TO MY WORLD OF WOR' he says, and it definitely feels like a powerful and distinctive gaming universe that he's inviting you into.

-- Wizard Of Wor -- 8/10 --

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Community review by bloomer (April 12, 2004)

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