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Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (NES) artwork

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (NES) review

"About as good as you might expect from the video game companion to a movie."

There are three great certainties in life: death, taxes and licensed video games that suck compared to the movies that inspired them. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves on the NES does not buck the trend. It's a fairly short action-RPG that lasts two hours or so, and the campaign's brevity is just as well since there is no way to save your progress. The title got my interest all the same, because RPGs tend to sucker me in, but I really had to search to find bright spots in this uninspired title.

The game (very) loosely follows the story presented in the movie. Robin does start out imprisoned in Jerusalem on the Crusades, fights his way back to England, leads the Merry Men and eventually confronts the Sheriff. Virtually all of the original story has been stripped out, though, and plenty of liberties are taken with what remains. Some elements are added just to offer the player something to do (I don't recall Robin fighting a wild boar, sea monsters or a giant skeleton in the movie). The only resemblance to the film that remains--apart from the fact that hey, you are Robin Hood--is that the popup portraits of characters who speak do resemble the relevant movie actors, with the apparent error of giving the portrait of Alan Rickman (who played the Sheriff) to Guy of Gisborne instead. Meanwhile, the background music does not appear to be modeled after the original soundtrack and contains nothing noteworthy.

The bulk of the game is presented from a top-down perspective that shows Robin only (party members are not depicted and do nothing), with enemy soldiers randomly spawning from the edges of the screen as you work your way toward whatever your current destination is. Within the area you occupy, limited exploration is possible. You can pick up arrows and food items for healing, but otherwise you can only follow the exact sequence the game wants you to follow. The A and B buttons let you use whatever weapons you have found and equipped, which is probably going to be a dagger or sword and later on, a bow. Enemies mostly try to bump into you to take away health, though later on they may shoot arrows also. The action is real-time, though it pauses when you open the inventory menu, mostly to eat food and thus heal up a bit. Frankly I spent most of my time in the inventory menu to divide the food items and healing potions I'd picked up over my various characters, as inventory fills up quickly.

Immediately, it's obvious the game does not understand perspective. You can move on open ground, but not through objects, even if they are not logically barring the area they cover. A pillar thus blocks not just the space where it is standing, but also every area above it that the graphic covers. You get used to this quirk, but it does a great job of making it difficult for enemies to home in on you. Often, they become stuck in the scenery while you are free to move up and slash them to death. Experience is gained by killing enemies, and you do level up on occasion, though the main use of that is to recover all your HP and see its maximum value go up. Otherwise, there is little incentive to grind for experience if you are so inclined.

At specific points in the story, other kinds of scenes present themselves. Duels with enemies take place, with a side view depicting Robin on the left and the enemy on the right. The controls here are limited to jumps (useless for actual combat), kneeling (I have not found a use for this, either) or slashing your sword straight forward. That attack cannot be combined with either jumping or kneeling maneuvers. You are reduced to just mashing the button and hoping you hit the enemy more than he hits you, using tables and the like to trip up the enemy's path finding enough that you come out on top.

At other points, larger land battles occur. The camera zooms out more, making you and your enemies appear as much smaller blobs. You essentially walk around, slashing them again until nothing moves anymore. During these scenes (and only these), your party members join in as AI-controlled figures aiding you in battle and essentially clearing the scenario for you if you prefer.

And finally, at two specific points in the adventure, you find yourself involved in one horse chase or another. The controls are limited to holding the right arrow down and tapping the button to make the horse jump over rocks. Miss a jump, or fail to hold the right arrow to stay ahead of pursuers, and you are knocked off the horse for an instant death and game over. This is likely to happen once or twice before you realize what's even happening, as the game makes no attempt to explain how these sequences work.

The game mercifully provides players with three lives. Die on any of the above sequences, and you get to continue (which essentially resets you to the beginning of the area) and try it again. Die a third time, and you find yourself back at the title screen. Without the ability to save anywhere, it almost makes you grateful the game is not any longer than it is, though a death even after only an hour is unlikely to put you in the mood to try again from the beginning.

Having played through the game a few times, I did find a couple of items in the main mode that you might miss, such as a special bow and piece of armor that bear the Locksley name, with no real explanation for why they are where they are. The one or two puzzles in the game involve using an obvious item to proceed. You never really even have to look for it. For example, one sequence involves having to descend into a well by picking up the rope that's lying right next to that well and then using it. Trying to go off the rails anywhere often results in an extra land battle, after which you are told to go the right way instead. Dropping vital items can be a great way to break the plot later on and render the game unwinnable, as you cannot return to an area once you've cleared it. All in all, the game sort of works as long as you do precisely what it wants from you, but don't you dare to try and goof around! It's a pity the typical RPG player wants to do precisely that.

There is some trace of a password system that was apparently meant to save progress. Pressing the right secret button sequence at the title screen makes it pop up, and entering the right passwords jumps the game to specific parts. Presumably this was meant to be properly implemented, but never quite made it to the final build. Other aspects speak of plans that never came about, such as the fact that party members are completely absent for all but land battles, where they are completely automated. One of your characters, consistent with the movie, is blind. This manifests itself only when you try to look at an item in the inventory screen while he is selected, getting "Duncan cannot see!" instead of a brief description. Otherwise, during battles, he handles a sword and even a bow just as well as anybody.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for the NES serves as half the expected combination of movie (a good one, in this case) and forgettable companion game. It offers very little to recommend itself. Perhaps a compelling product was never the point and there just needed to be a game. But what's there is certainly not worth fighting for.

sashanan's avatar
Freelance review by Peter Butter (June 27, 2018)

Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.

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