Legacy of the Wizard (NES)

Long ago, the wicked dragon Keela terrorized the land. His reign ended when a mighty wizard sealed him away in a magical painting. Now, that seal has weakened and Keela is about to be revived. Luckily, the wizard left a legacy in the form of his descendants, the Worzen family. Musclebound Xemn, sorceress Meyna, their children Lyll and Roas, and the adorable pet monster Pochi have joined forces to do gramps proud. Only by scouring the seemingly endless dungeon beneath their homestead and gathering four hidden crowns can they obtain the mythic Dragon Slayer sword, the sole weapon capable of destroying Keela permanently.

It won’t be easy. Nihon Falcom’s Legacy of the Wizard (aka Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family in Japan) has a well-deserved reputation as the Mount Everest of NES action-adventure games. If you’ve already conquered both Zeldas, Metroid, Castlevania II, Rygar, and the rest of the usual suspects, then congratulations: You’ve completed your basic training for Legacy of the Wizard. Welcome to the big leagues.

If it sounds like I’m trying to scare you away from this one, I’m really not. Quite the opposite, in fact. Legacy’s tough-as-nails nature isn’t the result of sketchy design. Rather, it’s the logical result of presenting the player with a labyrinthine 256 screen game world and five very different characters to canvass it with. Is a work of this scope a good starting point if you’re new to exploratory action games? Hell, no. If you’re a seasoned veteran, however, it’ll strain your brain in the best possible way. I found myself positively mesmerized as it siphoned away hour after hour of my free time.

You start your quest in the Worzen living room, where you’re free to select any one of the playable family members to venture forth with. This screen is also where you receive and input the passwords used to continue between sessions. You can return here any time to switch characters or simply to record your progress, as dying in the dungeon will revert everything to the way it was the last time you visited home.

The Worzens are a diverse lot indeed. Burly woodcutter Zemn has tremendous strength at the cost of abysmal attack range and jump height. His signature ability is moving heavy blocks with a magic glove. His wife Meyna relies on a variety of magic items to do things like fly and pass theough locked doors without using keys. Daughter Lyll is arguably the superstar of the bunch, with superb jumping ability and solid attacks. You’ll probably find yourself wishing you could use her all the time. Pochi isn’t very good at combat or platforming. He is a monster, though, which means other monsters (with the exception of bosses) don’t see him as a threat and deal no damage whatsoever to him. Son Roas has no particular merits apart from his ability to acquire the Dragon Slayer late in the game and wield it against Keela.

The biggest hurdle most players will encounter in Legacy of the Wizard is getting the ball rolling in the first place. Which character is best to use at the outset? How do you know where to begin hunting for the crowns? The best advice I can give is to think of the dungeon as four distinct zone arranged around a central hub. In this case, the hub is the large room near the beginning that holds the imprisoned dragon. Each of the four areas branching off from it is intended to be tackled by a specific family member. You’ll know you’ve transitioned to a new one when the background music changes. Pochi is great to start out with. He’s immune to most damage and that makes his crown (located in the lower right quadrant) one of the least stressful to track down. Another reason to choose Pochi first is that he’s pretty poor at combat. Every time you find one of the crowns, you have to defeat a boss to actually claim it. You always confront this increasingly tough sequence of bosses in the same order, regardless of which order you pick up the crowns in. Thus, it’s in your best interest to have Pochi take on the easiest of the four and leave later ones to powerhouses like Zemn and Meyna.

Make it through Pochi’s area and you should have a pretty good grasp of how the game works. The remaining 3/4 of the quest will still be a fierce struggle, of course, just a slightly less overwhelming one. Almost all of Legacy’s challenge stems from the convoluted maze layouts themselves. They represent the very apex of the “probe every square inch for hidden passages” design philosophy. Finding any of the four crowns requires you to be observant, clever, and, above all, thorough.

What about those monsters? Well, baddies are everywhere and can eventually end you if you’re not careful. That said, their threat is undercut by your ample health bar and by the abundance of inns and healing items throughout the dungeon. In the grand scheme of things, figuring out where to go in the first place is almost always a much taller order than making it there in one piece.

I found Legacy of the Wizard a joy to complete for the most part. Coming to grips with each character’s strengths and weaknesses as I slowly puzzled my way through one of the most complex environments in any NES game was consistently absorbing. The graphics are simple, yet clean, with small sprites well-suited to negotiating the intricate level layouts. The music by industry legends Yuzo Koshiro (ActRaiser, Streets of Rage) and Mieko Ishikawa (Ys) is as a catchy as you’d expect. This really is a total package for the experienced adventure gamer.

I did take issue with a few things here and there. I didn’t like how your regular attacks always requires an expenditure of magic points. It’s possible it run out of the magic needed to power key items like Meyna’s wings and Lyll’s jump shoes merely because you opted to fight too many enemies. Your character is helpless in these situations and you usually have no choice but to retreat to the nearest inn. There’s also the poison problem. In addition to helpful things like health and and magic refills, defeated enemies frequently drop bottles of poison which remove a decent chunk of your life when collected. Assuming you can avoid picking them up by accident as soon as they appear, poison vials have the potential to block narrow corridors and take far too long to vanish on their own. Even in more open areas, some characters like Xemn and Pochi can’t jump well enough to clear a poison pickup without touching it, and that means either more damage or more waiting. This poison mechanic adds nothing worthwhile to the game and should have been omitted. Oh, and I have to call out the finicky controls for Xemn’s glove. You can use it to shove blocks in eight directions and usually need to be precise when doing so. Good luck with that. The blocks seem more inclined to treat your directional inputs as polite suggestions than commands.

Bothersome as they are, these are hardly fatal flaws. Legacy of the Wizard may be a little rough around the edges and aimed squarely at hardcore adventure nuts, but I feel its long-established status as an NES cult classic is entirely warranted. After all, the family that slays together stays together.

The Battle of Olympus (NES)

Talk about going to hell and back….

The Battle of Olympus is an action adventure game published by small Japanese developer Infinity in 1988. Subtitled Ai no Densetsu (“The Legend of Love”) on its initial release in Japan, the game was indeed a true labor of love. In fact, everything except its musical score was created by just two people: Then newlyweds Yukio Horimoto and Reiko Oshida. There definitely aren’t many games with this sort of adorable development history behind them.

The game’s premise is essentially a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Euridice, except that instead of traveling to the underworld to plead for his deceased lover’s life, Orpheus instead picks up his trusty wooden club and heads there to beat the immortal piss out of Hades himself until he cries uncle. Because video games make mythology way better. Along the way he also encounters a mixture of creatures and elements from nearly every other famous Greek myth: Hydras, minotaurs, cyclopes, the witch Circe, the pegasus, golden apples, winged sandals, you name it.

The first thing people notice is that the game plays a lot like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, except lacking the overhead sections and presented completely in a side-scrolling view. This is no coincidence, as the developers have admitted to being big fans. If you like Zelda II’s combat, you’ll probably enjoy Battle of Olympus’, although it can be a bit more difficult. Enemies are tougher to hit due to Orpheus being unable to stab up or down like Link learns to do in Zelda II and there seems to be more pits to worry about getting knocked into. A nice change from Zelda II is with the various other characters you’ll encounter, since all of them either say or do something useful. There are no pointless “Hello” or “I know nothing” NPCs here.

The game’s graphics are very beautiful for the system at the time and I love the colors used. There are a lot of bright pastel shades of pink, purple, blue and green. Some areas like the caves and forests are more subdued, but for the most part it really pops. The characters are large and well drawn, generally quite recognizable for what they represent. I liked the score a lot, too, although it doesn’t have the same epic polish as Zelda II’s.

If I have one major qualm with the game, it’s the currency grinding. When you encountered a character in Zelda II that had an item or spell for you, they usually just gave it to you outright and there was no need for a money system at all. In The Battle of Olympus, they usually want a certain amount of red gems dropped by enemies (bizarrely referred to as “olives” in-game) before they’ll fork over whatever you need to proceed. So expect to find yourself grinding out lots and lots of weak enemy kills until you amass the 50-80 olives that each character demands. It’s pure padding at its worst.

Despite the grind, The Battle of Olympus is a compelling and memorable adventure with a fascinating and romantic story behind its creation. It flew under the radar at the time of its release and continues to do so 29 years later, but it’s the very definition of a hidden gem. Or maybe a hidden olive?

The Guardian Legend (NES)

Aww! You’re so sweet, game!

After playing through it for the first time, I can report that The Guardian Legend is really, really damn good. The sheer scope of the game is amazing for the NES: 22 space shooting sections linked by hundreds of screens of overhead dungeon levels, ten different weapons which can be upgraded three times each and utilized in both gameplay modes, RPG-like character improvement, memorable music, and stylish graphics.

If you like fast-paced vertical shooters with tons of enemies to blow away and a huge selection of upgradable weapons that you can switch between on the fly, you’ll love this. It’s made by Compile, after all. If you love overhead action-adventure games in the Zelda mold, you’ll…like this.

Yeah, if the game has one flaw, it’s that the adventure segments aren’t as fully realized as they could be. The enemies don’t have much personality and don’t pose much of a threat. More importantly, there aren’t really any cool secret areas or items to be discovered. Everything’s pretty much right out in the open, as far as I can tell, since I was able to get all the weapons and upgrades without uncovering anything resembling a hidden area. Definitely some missed opportunities there. Still, these sections work fine as a change of pace after the frantic shooting sections. A breather, if you will. When your heart is pounding after just barely overcoming a tough boss, it feels good to get shuttled back to the labyrinth to chill out and hunt some upgrades at a relaxed pace for a bit. And for what it’s worth, these overhead section are definitely better than Blaster Master’s.

In terms of challenge, the game is about average. If you explore the labyrinth thoroughly for power-ups, that is. Since seeking these out is largely optional, you can also increase your difficulty level (to a potentially extreme degree) just by deliberately avoiding these pickups.

So, in conclusion: The world needs more Guardian cosplay and I need an adorable plush lander.