Wizards & Warriors (NES) review
"It's like the old saying goes: good games are rare, and Rare games are good. "
It's like the old saying goes: good games are rare, and Rare games are good.
...Or not. Before Rare rose to superstar status with the release of Donkey Kong Country on the SNES, they released classic stinkers on the NES like Slalom, Wheel of Fortune, RC Pro Am...and this game. Wizards & Warriors was Rare's first attempt at a platformer, and the inexperience shows in every aspect of the game's design.
You are Kuros, an undeveloped, mysterious knight. Your task is to strike down the dark wizard Malkil and rescue his prisoner, the unnamed Princess. Just who is this Malkil character? Where did he come from? Why did he kidnap the Princess? Why does she need to be rescued so urgently? If she's so important, how come Kuros is the only one who's trying to save her? The developers presumably didn't care enough about the plot to answer any of these questions. It doesn't really matter, anyway.
Upon first playing Wizards & Warriors, you may be confused as to what exactly you have to do. It looks like a typical platformer with a medieval paint job, but proceeding to the right ala Super Mario Bros. just brings you to a dead end. But wait! Aha! There's a door in the branches up there! Ignoring the fact that doors typically don't appear on trees and that jumping on tree branches is a rather odd thing for a medieval knight like Kuros to be doing, you swiftly jump up and enter it.
Now you're...inside a tree. Conveniently, it's hollowed out for you and is about 100 times larger inside than it was on the outside. You jump from platform to platform, slowly scaling the behemoth until you finally reach another door. Exiting through it, you appear...back outside.
Not far from there, you encounter a knight who looks just like yourself, but in red armor instead of Kuros' rather bland grey. Is he evil, you ask? Well, attacking him doesn't seem to do anything except get yourself hurt...and that's when you notice a sign above him with a gem and the number 100 on it, pointing down at the knight.
It all clicks in. Those gems that you've picked up along the way, which you've presumed will give you an extra life when 100 are collected, are in fact the whole point of the game. You need to scour the area, gather 100 of these gems, and bring them back to the knight in order to continue into the passageway he's guarding.
It's nice to know that the Rare's infatuation with fetchquests began early on. Unfortunately, this insistence on making you go back and forth to collect gems makes for a pretty boring game. Every level save the second-to-last plays out like this; gather gems, bribe red knight, beat boss.
There's just not enough going on in Wizards & Warriors to make things interesting. You'll jump across pits, slay some monsters, and collect many of those ever-elusive gems, but since the game is less Lord of the Rings and more Easter egg hunt simulator, it completely fails to capture the epic fantasy quest feel that the developers were clearly aiming for.
The whole game is just one big, long bore. By the time you reach the end, you'll be desperate for something...anything...to break up the action (that is to say, the lack of it.) None of the levels are very exciting; while jumping around on the aforementioned tree branches is rather odd, the all-too-similar progression of almost every level in the game makes all of the areas just feel like palette swaps of each other.
Even if all the levels did truly set themselves apart from one another, it still doesn't change the fact that the core gameplay here just isn't very good to begin with. Going back and forth between areas to collect gems isn't fun; it's annoying. There will come times when you need only a few more gems to beat a level, but haven't found the one hidden area that contains said gems, leading to a irritating inspection of every part of the level you've already gone through in search of that one door you haven't entered yet. When this is coupled with pinpoint platforming up the turrets of Malkil's castle near the game's finale, virtually guaranteeing that you'll fall at some point and have to climb all the way back up the level, the resulting frustration may be enough to make you stop playing the game altogether.
The only intriguing idea that Wizards & Warriors brings to the table is its item system, which lets you obtain new abilities for Kuros, rather similarly to Metroid. The system is simple: hunt down a colored key, and then open the appropriately-colored treasure chest to get something cool. And by cool, I mean boring. In the first level, you'll obtain a dagger boomerang attack, which is somewhat more useful than your laughably ineffective sword slash. You'll also get other stuff like a levitating feather, which lets you float, a magic wand, the completely useless Cloak of Darkness (which turns you invisible, meaning that you can't see yourself, but your enemies have no trouble attacking you like normal), and a kicking attack that turns out to be by far the most powerful move in your arsenal.
Unfortunately, none of these moves are very interesting, and none of them make you forget about the game's incredibly repetitive and tedious formula.
To make matters worse, the game's combat system, for lack of a better word, sucks. Rather than having enemies wait for you around the game's environments, Wizards & Warriors' idea of battling is to have enemies fly out of nowhere and attack you every few seconds. Since this results in many, many cheap hits (and probably a fair few deaths), it goes without saying that this gameplay quirk gets annoying very fast.
The game attempts to provide some variety with a boss encounter at the end of almost every level. However, these fights feel like little more than afterthoughts, and aside from the mutating skeleton in the second-to-last level, they're all complete pushovers. Even the final battle against Malkil feels half-baked and wholly unexciting.
Graphically, Wizards & Warriors compares favorably to other NES games from 1987. Kuros' sprite is a bit larger than is typical of platformer characters, and his animation is surprisingly good. However, the game falters somewhat with its repetitive environments; all of the areas look very similar to each other, and tilesets are recycled liberally. On an amusing note, the game uses the same scantily-clad blonde girl sprite for the damsel in distress Kuros rescues at the end of each level (even for the Princess herself!) Overall, a decent graphical package.
The game's music is a mixed bag. The title screen theme is great, but every other song in the game is horribly repetitive. The theme for the outside of Malkil's castle sounds pretty cool...until you realize that it's the same five-second tune being played over and over again. The forest music, while similar in this regard, at least has a less obtrusive and more laid-back melody to it. The tune played in the first area of the fire caverns is pretty damn catchy, but for some reason, Rare saw it fit to immediately get rid of this music and use a significantly more grating and monotonous tune for every other cave area.
And of course, no review of Wizards & Warriors would be complete without mentioning the immeasurably obnoxious three-second loop of "music" played whenever Kuros is low on health. On numerous occasions, I commit suicide just so I could get away from that wretched cacophony and revert back to the regular music on a new life for a few more minutes. Since the only punishment for dying is that you have to start a boss battle over again, and nobody dies on this game's bosses, there's really no reason for you to try to stay alive. When you die, you start on a fresh life in exactly the same spot. Even when you use a continue, you keep all of your items, gems, and level progress, with the only setback being that your (meaningless) score is reset. This means, in a nutshell, that you can play as sloppily as you'd like, and takes away any tension from the gameplay.
Malkil is a pretty smart villain. Rather than overwhelm Kuros with a boatload of typical platforming obstacles like auto-scrolling levels or swimming stages, he picked the ever-so-simple strategy of just boring the hero to death. However, boredom just doesn't make for a very good game, no matter which way you slice it. Wizards & Warriors is so uninteresting that it actually generates interest from the player. Perhaps this philosophy is how the game became popular enough to spawn two sequels and many future collect-a-thons from Rare. Regardless, there's really no reason to play Wizards & Warriors, since it's completely outclassed by many other NES platformers. Easter egg hunt versus Super Mario Bros. 3. You decide.
Community review by phediuk (March 22, 2006)
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