Rare-A-Thon: Wizards & Warriors X: The Fortress of Fear

In a curious move, Rareware did not develop the official sequel to its hit platformer Wizards & Warriors. It was instead developed by subsidiary company Zippo Games, who released Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II in 1989. Rare instead took on development of a GameBoy title for the franchise. The awesomely-named Wizards & Warriors X: The Fortress of Fear.

It’s yet another 2D platformer in which you take on the role of Kuros. The evil wizard Malkil has once again kidnapped a princess, which you are contractually obliged to rescue. In terms of plot, it is nothing to write home about. However, while I found Ironsword to be so underwhelming as to not even be worth writing about, Fortress of Fear recaptures the innovative spirit of the series.

Rather than the open-ended stages of the first 2 games, Fortress of Fear is a more standard platforming experience. You navigate through the corridors and over the walls of the titular fortress as you battle foes, dodge traps, and jump over chasms. What makes the experience unique is that the levels aren’t strictly linear. The Fortress of Fear is home to many secrets and branching paths. You can tackle levels in a variety of ways, providing quite some replay value to this humble game.

I found myself constantly deliberating on where to go. Some paths seemed safer than others, but that could mean there were traps lying in wait. Or perhaps taking the harder-looking path would lead to greater rewards. Sometimes an exit would present itself but the level extended on beyond it. Would there be a special reward for carrying on that little bit further? Some corridors seemed awful to get through, but then I’d find a secret path around it instead. All these moment-to-moment decisions added a lot to what would otherwise be a fairly normal platformer.

Treasure chests present another tough decision for the player. You have to find keys to unlock them, but these may be hidden or otherwise perilous to acquire. Even when you have a key, there may be multiple chests that you could choose between. Some contain treasure or health potions, whereas others hold incredible power-ups. It’s a gamble you have to make and the game loves to mind-game you with it. Sometimes I’d find a key and decide to backtrack half the level, assuming the extra effort must equal a better reward. Only to then open that chest and get nothing but bonus points.

The controls have unfortunately taken a bit of a hit. The Fortress of Fear retains existing annoyances such as not being able to attack while in mid-air, but its hit boxes are now also very dubious. The animations for your sword don’t match up with its actual reach and sometimes you take damage when it feels like you shouldn’t have. A lack of invincibility frames also means that such mistakes can be overly punishing. Though the game is once again generous with continues.

With that said, I found the platforming and action themselves to be satisfying for a GameBoy title. The levels are fun to jump around in and quite challenging. You really need to consider which enemies to fight and which ones to dodge around. I ended up playing it very safe. Observing the patterns and finding out where to strike, and never rushing forward. Some parts felt overwhelming, but that made it all the more satisfying when I finally broke through.

I was also a fan of the boss-fights. There are quite a few of them and they all have very tricky patterns. Combined with their high damage output, they can kill you very quickly. Once you figure them out, however, you could potentially do the entire fight without taking a single hit. It’s a cool puzzle to figure out while still keeping up a good pace. Especially the final battle against Malkil was a thrill to overcome. It cost me 2 lives just to take him down.

If you’re looking for a retro platforming experience, then The Fortress of Fear comes highly recommended. It’s short and sweet, with well-designed stages and a good level of challenge to it. The jank is an occasional annoyance, though not enough to ruin the otherwise-solid gameplay.

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