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Legend of the Ghost Lion (NES) artwork

Legend of the Ghost Lion (NES) review

"Throughout the game, rather than recruiting new party members, the game's heroine will secure the aid of powerful spirits. These may be called upon to aid her in battle. A typical battle thus begins with Maria summoning the best spirits she has in her possession, then letting them go crazy with special attacks."

As I planned how I would write this review, I kept asking myself one question: how in the world did Legend of the Ghost Lion ever get released? It's true that at the time, North America was riding on what at the time seemed like a tidal wave of role-playing games. The genre was enjoying tremendous popularity among a small sector of gamers. Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior assured at least vague interest in all things 'role-playing,' but even those games didn't sell so well as one might suppose. Niche titles often didn't make it to store shelves here in America, even games from Nintendo itself such as the popular Mother series. So again, why did Legend of the Ghost Lion make it here? Maybe it had spent so long in development that Kemco figured even small sales were better than nothing. Maybe someone in charge was enjoying illegal substances. Or maybe, just maybe, Kemco thought the game was pretty good.

Well, guess what? They were right!

The first thing I have to say is that someone at Kemco was a Dragon Warrior fan. Legend of the Ghost Lion plays in many ways like a clone of that franchise, right down to a tile-based map that looks so similar it might as well be twins with Erdrick's world. Grass is a vibrant green, sand a pale yellow, forests diminutive blobs of dark green and brown, and so forth. Even when the influence isn't the type that slaps you in the face, it's still there, just below the surface.

Things don't stop there, though; the battle system also will remind you of Dragon Warrior. There's a black screen, with a menu in the lower half and any remaining opponents lined in a row above that. The player can choose from a series of commands, which include a weapon or an item. This much has changed not so much as one iota.

There are differences, however. The most noteworthy of these would have to be the summon system. Throughout the game, rather than recruiting new party members, the game's heroine will secure the aid of powerful spirits. These may be called upon to aid her in battle. A typical battle thus begins with Maria summoning the best spirits she has in her possession, then letting them go crazy with special attacks. Enough emphasis is placed on this that Kemco dropped the Spartan attention to the game's visuals long enough to illustrate a nice 'poof' as Maria's assistants appear.

Each of the spirits she summons has special abilities and attributes. Some can use magic, others make excellent warriors, while others still are the generic mix you might well expect. Though it would be wrong to say that there's a particularly varied cast of characters, what's here is still impressive considering the technology of the time. They also happen to be illustrated in a manner I found endearing. They are certainly a change from the bland sprites that represent 'character' in the typical Dragon Warrior title.

Another change worth noting is the level-up system. Rather than forcing the player to wander back and forth near a safe locale such as a town (a favorite habit of mine back in the day), Kemco chose instead to reward exploration. What this means is that you need to explore each dungeon carefully to find fragments. These items will allow Maria to increase in strength, up to a maximum of 24 levels. If the player does not take time to seek the fragments out from their locations deep within dungeons, he or she is in for disappointment much later in the game.

I say 'much later' because in the early points, there's really not a lot to provide any significant challenge. Dungeons are for the most part simplistic in design, generic assortments of winding passageways and mazes. Though random encounters do occur with some frequency, it's still not overly difficult to work one's way through all but the last few areas in the game. Even the final area, which I found quite challenging at the time, isn't nearly so difficult as the grueling monster-fests we've encountered in Final Fantasy games.

At least some of that can probably be contributed to one of the game's flaws: there just aren't enough different monsters. Even with palette swapping, the number of different beasts you'll vanquish doesn't number more than about thirty, including the final boss. This limited cast of villains is comprised of standard fare such as trolls and kobolds. You'll soon find that beating them comes down to a willingness to use the same tried-and-true tactics from one battle to the next. Summon, kill, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Fortunately, this lack of imagination doesn't carry over to the story. Though I wouldn't consider the plot a true reason to play this game, I was pleased that the developers didn't take the easy way out. Rather than forcing you to save another princess, they put you in the role of a frail girl who might well be nobility herself. Her parents were slaughtered by a mysterious beast known only as the Ghost Lion, and she wants to find some sort of explanation for how such a thing could have happened. The whole thing feels a bit like what might result of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings were thrown into a blender and edited for morning viewing on public television. It's at times an uneasy mixture but one that I still enjoyed.

There were other things I enjoyed about it, too. The game has a certain charm that I really didn't expect when I first popped it into the system. No, it's not one of the kings of the genre. Some people don't even remember it existed. However, that doesn't mean it should be forgotten. Lurking somewhere inside of the unassuming gray cartridge is the heart of a lion. Most gamers simply haven't found it.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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