Rare-a-thon: Wizards & Warriors

After establishing themselves as the first Western company to develop games for the NES, Rare went on to create what would become their first franchise: Wizards & Warriors. A title that brings to mind images of fantastical adventures and D&D campaigns. Wizards & Warriors is certainly inspired by the fantasy greats of its time, but it has its own distinct style.

As dictated by the manual, you play as a knight named Kuros who has ventured to the woods of Elrond with his trusty blade Brightsword. The evil wizard Malkil has abducted the princess and now hides away deep within Castle Ironspire. His ultimate goals remain unknown, but are no doubt sinister.

It’s fairly clear that Wizards & Warriors draws some inspiration here from Ghosts ‘n Goblins. An armored knight on a quest to save a maiden, traversing through several levels filled with ghouls, monsters, and devils. Several design choices are unfortunately reminiscent, such as the look of certain enemies or how your progression is marked on a pixelart map shown between stages.

The core gameplay is very different, however. Stages are non-linear for example. Most are sprawling areas that extend both vertically and horizontally, with maze-like tendencies and secrets peppered all over. You have to explore these spaces to find color-coded keys that unlock matching doors and treasure chests. Doing so will bring you treasures and new equipment, or reveal the path to a boss-fight. You also have to collect gems in each level, which are used to bribe a guard that protects the entrance to the boss of any level. These gems are put all over the stage, but you’ll likely have to find at least some secrets or grind enemies to get the necessary total.

This exploration-driven gameplay is a lot of fun. Each stage is well-designed and interesting, while never being too complicated to figure out. It’s also very rewarding. If you put in the effort, thoroughly explore all the optional areas, then you can usually acquire some very powerful upgrades much sooner. Magic spells and items that make you stronger or help out in platforming, or useful sub-weapons. These will reappear in more obvious places later in the game, but it feels very good when you score these early and then get to cheese a few otherwise-challenging segments.

For an NES game, Wizards & Warriors is remarkably lenient when it comes to difficulty. It’s a tough game for sure, but you have a sizable health bar that affords you ample room to make mistakes. You can also eat meat to regain lost health and there are potions scattered throughout for additional power-ups—like temporary invulnerability. Even if the health bar is depleted, you have 3 lives to work with. You even spring back to life on the exact spot where Kuros last perished, leaving you with 0 lost progress.

You don’t even get a typical Game Over when you do run out of lives. You get 10 seconds to select continue, after which you again return to life where you last stood. No getting kicked back to level 1 or even the beginning of the level. You don’t even lose the gems or items you had; only your score. This makes the game “easy” to complete. You can try to do it all in one run for the biggest score, but those playing just to see the ending won’t have to deal with the frustrations common in games like this.

With that said, the controls do feel a bit lacking. Movement has a stiffness to it. Or, to be more precise, it simply doesn’t let you do things that feel like they ought to be possible. Kuros lacks a mid-air attack for example, even though you can use items like the throwing knives while in the air. You also can’t turn in the air, which makes platforming a bit more of a hassle. You could argue then that jumping is supposed to be a vulnerable moment that players should only do when the coast is clear. However, enemies spawn in endlessly from all over the place; there is no way to clear a screen before you commit to jumping.

Turning is even an issue on foot. I often tried to turn and attack to deal with an approaching enemy, only to attack in front of me. As if attacking cancelled my command for Kuros to turn around. This was particularly annoying during the the boss fights, because you need to constantly move and jump around to outmaneuver them. It sucks when you miss an opportunity to counter-attack because Kuros is so stubborn to turn.

Levels also tend to feature some annoying platforming parts. Low ceilings that make jumps difficult or long, vertical segments that will inevitably see you fall aaaaaaaaall the way down at the slightest misstep. I almost gave up on the game in level 3 because there is a mandatory jump that can only be made through an exploit—unless you happened to find an optional item in a prior level. Pro tip if you get stuck there: try to either damage boost off an enemy or fall all the way down and try to get a bubble to spawn at the exact spot where it would take you all the way up. You can also try to kill enemies until a blue potion drops. It’s going to be a pain no matter what, so pick your poison.

These platforming bits are also made more annoying by the sluggish scrolling. You usually won’t be able to see where the next platform is until you have already jumped. So you either make extra jumps just to scroll the screen or you leap in blind.

There are complaints to be had, but Wizards & Warriors is still a solid addition to any NES collection. It’s a game with character. A game that mixes familiar elements from its contemporaries with novel innovations of its own. Its approach to continues and lives is especially progressive for a console game. At the same time, the exploration-driven gameplay and different loadouts you can experiment with keep the game replayable. If you’re tired of Ghosts ‘n Goblins kicking your ass, then maybe give Kuros’ adventure a chance instead.

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