"Magician Lord is still gorgeous. Its backdrops are utterly otherworldly; its foregrounds brim with fantasy book life. Long-armed, bipedal beasts and gaggles of skeletons patrol the outer realms framed by unearthly mountain range and sky. Leap-deterring, hovering spheres; amorphous, wall-hugging gelatin; and spinning eyeballs actually seem alien -- not your garden variety projectile-spitters."
I trembled with anticipation when I heard this game was coming my way. Yes, trembled. My excitement was mostly due to just one game in particular -- which is remarkable, considering the collection includes sixteen. That special game is Magician Lord. The idea of playing this game on the go -- hell, the idea of simply playing this game again, brought tears of joy to my eyes. Well, almost. I used to gorge the Neo Geo arcade cabinet across the street from my house with scores of quarters, primarily to make headway in this gorgeous and difficult action platformer, and now Iíd be able to recapture its majesty anywhere I chose -- on the subway, in bed, in the john.
I stopped trembling when the game arrived and started playing the collectionís killer app right away. And Magician Lord is still gorgeous. Its backdrops are utterly otherworldly; its foregrounds brim with fantasy book life. Long-armed, bipedal beasts and gaggles of skeletons patrol the outer realms framed by unearthly mountain range and sky. Leap-deterring, hovering spheres; amorphous, wall-hugging gelatin; and spinning eyeballs actually seem alien -- not your garden variety projectile-spitters. Music is at once raucous and thunderous and sinister and the best Iíve heard on the system; and the poor English voiceovers are forgivable, as their kitsch value lends some surcease to the inexorable intensity the pace of the game brings to bear.
Magician Lord takes itself very seriously. It impresses upon us early and often that itís like nothing we will ever play, simplicity be damned. And it is a simple, 2-button affair: Elta, the frustratingly frail magician must jump and shoot his way through eight zones of mounting evil to recover the books of wisdom stolen by Gal Agiese in his bid to resurrect the evil god Az Atorse. The mechanics are simpler than Ghouls Ďn Ghosts, but it is far more punishing than even that notoriously difficult game. This is mainly due to the prevalence of two crippling flaws: Eltaís weapons are too weak, and his invincibility window after taking damage is too small. While he can transmogrify into a Samurai or a Shinobi (among other forms) -- the experiences are fleeting both because they are timed, and because you'll very quickly take a hit and its back to everyday-Elta for you.
It's a trying time to be sure, but the dramatic level titles ("Highway Leading to a Foreign Space"), the taunts from the omniscient gatekeeper to the boss areas ("What imprudence, you human being! Face your trial by God!"), and the general unfairness seem an inseparable part of Magician Lordís blueprint. I still manage to love this game, much as I despise it for what is unequivocally broken.
Consider this a tale of two reviews, as I begin part two, which would be labeled "And then thereís the rest". Beyond the uncommon phenomenon that is Magician Lord, this compilation is mostly about old one-on-one fighting games -- the early efforts which spawned franchises: Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, King of Fighters Ď94, Samurai Showdown, and World Heroes. None of these games are very good by todayís standards, featuring very limited gameplay mechanics, slow battles and simplistic graphics. For example, Andy Bogard of Fatal Fury can run roughshod over his enemies by doing just one move over and over, and itís fairly simple to pull off. The real draw here is that these games are where it all began for Terry Bogard and his ilk -- if that matters to you. Also, if youíre not a fighting game fanatic and canít keep up with the ever-evolving finger gymnastics necessary to plays todayís games, you may enjoy this kind of basic three-button fare. Everyone else will move on quickly.
There is also representation from a different genre featuring fisticuffs: beat-em-up games in the vein of Final Fight. There's not much to cheer about here though -- Sengoku's badness is only outdone by its weirdness. A red leather jacket-clad tough guy strutting around in knee pads wielding swords, takes on medieval themed Japanese warriors-cum-garishly coloured aliens -- sometimes on the streets, sometimes in... heaven. After a go at Sengoku, the very pedestrian Burning Fight is a pleasure to play. But only then.
The unevenness of the package finds an upside with two shooters. Metal Slug hardly needs an introduction, and while the original has been bettered since its arrival on the scene, it's still a blast to play. Last Resort isn't. But to be fair, this tough R-Type wannabe was never completely execrable; and it's a good deal more approachable in the handheld format, with the compilation-wide selectable difficulty and the end-of-level save function.
Rounding out the notable titles are several sports games which lend themselves especially to the handheld format. I enjoyed playing the Neo Turf Masters golf game, which has a surprising amount of depth to it. The controls are tight, and the difficulty is just right; winning a tournament actually elicited some fist pumping from me. Super Sidekicks 3, the included soccer game, seemed a bit too arcadey for its own good, offering up extremely short halves such that scoring is difficult; and scoring is necessary to move on in the game, as a tie will ensure a visit to the continue screen. The race to score quickly seems is at odds with the sportís deliberate, chess match nature, but the game is a decent distraction nonetheless. Less enjoyable was Baseball Stars 2, which featured muscular characters and counterintuitive fielding -- a forgettable title at best.
All in all, Magician Lord on-the-go is enough to earn my recommendation. The fact that there's a lot more here -- not all of it good, but still, a lot more here -- should earn SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 an enthusiastic thumbs up, right? Not exactly. The PSP has always been known for slow load times, but it gets a bit ridiculous with this collection. It takes ages just to exit games and return to the title screen, a big turn-off with any game, but especially considering how the unreasonable delays sit at odds with the frantic, pick-up-and-play appeal of old school games. The loading annoys me so much at times, that I toss the PSP aside for awhile. But then I remember how good a round of golf is on the can; I remember where I left off in Metal Slug. And I remember Elta.
Staff review by Marc Golding (June 20, 2008)
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