09/08/2012

DEFENDER OF THE CROWN (NES)

I live in a country with a constitutional monarchy, and that means it's my right - nay, my solemn duty - to sit on my fat arse and make loud proclamations about how I'd make a much better king than anyone else in line for the job. The two main duties of a modern regent are sitting quietly (perhaps with the occasional wave) and not offending foreign dignitaries, tasks that I have been performing to a high standard for many years; plus, I could easily knock up a quick Street Fighter IV tournament to entertain the other heads of state whenever they pop 'round to visit. As you can tell, I'm massively overqualified for 21st Century kingship.
What I'm getting at is that being king nowadays is a doddle compared to the Middle Ages, where a monarch was expected to rule, lead his men into battle, joust and operate siege weaponry, all whilst finding the time to save princesses and have the occasional meeting with Robin Hood. Don't believe me? Then prepare to be educated in the ways of lordly valour with the 1991 NES version of Cinemaware's 1986 unite-the-warring-counties-of-England-em-up Defender of the Crown.


Why the NES version? No reason besides having played it as a kid, a distant, half-remembered experience that stayed with me only as a vague feeling that I should never, ever enter a jousting competition. I'm sure it'll all come flooding back once I get into the meat of the game, but first let's set the scene.


The year is 1149, and a thinly-veiled Richard the Lionheart repays the loyal knights who aided his Saracen-bashing ways by granting them a castle and its surrounding lands. Your first order of business is to choose which of these newly-minted lords of the land, each with a different set of statistics, you'd like to assume the role of. Hopefully one of them has a high "Conquering England" stat.


Four brave men and true, but we can only have one so let's thin the herd a little. Wolfric the Wild has the coolest name and he looks like Tom Skerrit, but his poor stats rule him out. Geoffrey Longsword sounds like the name of a medieval porn star so I'll give him a miss, even if he is very good at "swordplay." Wilfred of Ivanhoe seems like a good all-rounder, but I'm not sure I can allow someone that smug to ascend to the throne. That leaves only the mulleted, mustachioed Cedric of Rotherwood, Lord of the County of Trailerpark, brave veteran of the Crusades who smote God's enemies in a pick-up truck while drinking can after can of cheap beer, as the man for the job. A high Leadership stat will surely come in useful, and as Cedric clearly lives in a mobile home he'll be used to the arduous conditions found in a marching army.
And now, a trip to Sherwood Forest.


Huh, I wouldn't have thought that Lincoln Green was quite so... luminous. Yes, it's Robin Hood, the man who returned from the Crusades and decided he'd refuse the castle and lands in order to live in the woods and rob people. Robin has dire news - the King has been assassinated without naming an heir, the country is on the verge of civil war and the crown has gone missing! Robin promises to aid Cedric in his quest to unite the kingdom, because as an outlaw it makes sense to get on the future ruler's good side, and Cedric's heart burns with dreams of glory. Quickly, to the castle, so I may plan my glorious rise to power!


Behold the beauty of England's green, pleasant and blocky land. You're randomly assigned a castle at the start of the game, and that's mine on the top-left, the one with the horse parked outside. This map screen is where you do the day-to-day running of your realm like hiring soldiers and moving your armies about. We'll get to all those option in time, but let's start with the first option on the list: it's time to call a tournament!


People are going to think you're not taking this "defending the crown" business seriously, Cedric. You could have at least shored up your castle's defences before you went straight into the medieval equivalent of a day at the races. Well, it's too late to call the tournament off now, all the lords of England have gathered together and we've already paid for ye olde hot dog truck and a band of buglers.


That's some good bugling there, lads, even if your odd blue hats make you look like a medieval version of DEVO. Are we not serfs?


Horses running at each other, guys holding broomsticks: looks like a joust to me. Once the horses get close enough to eachother, you're subjected to your first taste of Defender of the Crown's gameplay - trying to land a hit on your opponent's shield. This is much harder than it sounds.


It's a wild ride, and your job is to use the d-pad to move the tip of your lance over the center of your opponent's shield. The problem is, your knight has all the motor control of a barnacle and the directions you press on the pad seem to have very little in common with the movements of your lance. Sometimes you'll hold down a direction and your lance will steadfastly remain where it was, indifferent to Cedric's pleas for movement. Sometimes the lightest touch of the button will cause it to skew wildly in an unexpected direction. I know that this is supposed to simulate the difficult conditions usually found when you're thundering forward atop large animal and trying to place the tip of a twenty-foot pole over an area the size of a postage stamp, but there must have been a better way to do it because this just feels muddy, confused and awkward, the unfathomable controls removing much of the "skill" aspect and replacing it with blind luck. I mean, the first time I jousted I merely tried to move my lance a fraction to the left, but it wouldn't stop and I smashed it straight into that poor horse's face. We knights are both men of honour, so I'm sure that if I extend my sincerest apologies for lobotomising my opponent's horse then we can put this whole unfortunate business behind us (and possibly have horse steaks for supper.)


Oh. Oh dear. Apparently horse-murder is the foulest of all crimes, and as punishment for my sub-standard jousting I have been stripped of all my lands and titles. I'll file that one away in the ol' memory banks, then: don't hit the horse.
A quick restart later and I'm back to the jousting, except this time I managed to unseat my opponent without maiming his steed. Following a successful joust, and with no warning from the game, you're thrown straight into some melee combat for the second part of the tournament.


That's me on the left, and as I'm sure you can tell the aim of this segment is to bash your rival before he bashes you. The horsey part of the joust was solely to determine how much health you start the melee round with, represented by the black bars at the bottom of the screen: if you lose your joust, you'll start with much less health and will probably die instantly as you struggle with the buttons.
Yep, it's another action segment crippled by awkward controls and unfathomable hit detection. One button raises your shield, allowing you to block either high or low, while the other button attacks with your mace. Simply hit your opponent either high or low, preferably wherever he isn't holding his shield, to hurt him. It sounds easy, but I was hampered at the start by the fact I didn't realise you have to stand still and let your knight swing his weapon around for a while to build up some momentum, otherwise your attacks do no damage. Clobbering someone with a spiked lump of metal only hurts them if it's been spinning around for a while first, apparently. As I didn't know this, I was trying to attack my enemy's exposed lower half as quickly as possibly, making the whole event look like some extreme form of sadomasochistic foreplay.


Lord Cedric of Rotherwood, spanker of men, Flagellant-General of the King's forces - clearly the man behind whom we should set our banners.
The tournaments represent something of a theme in Defender of the Crown, and that's tedious and overly-difficult "action" stages that have all the grace and flow of a concrete bollard. Everything moves at a glacial pace, neither knight seeming overly keen on the whole affair, and you never really feel like you're in control of the action.
Somehow, I managed to win the three rounds of jousting and mace-spanking that made up the tournament, and all I got was this lousy picture.


I like the complete lack of any sense of movement in the picture - I find it inordinately amusing to image both Cedric and the crowd staring at each other in complete silence, neither side willing to comment on the brutal horse-slayings and arthritic man-to-man combat. If that picture had a soundtrack, it'd be nothing but a mournful wind and the occasional dry cough from the audience.
The tournaments do serve a purpose beyond infuriating me with their controls, of course. You can select whether to joust for Fame, where winning increases your leadership stat, or for Land, which should be pretty self-explanatory. As your ultimate goal is conquer all the different counties, it may well be possible to complete the game by doing nothing but jousting, which seems a little like letting Lance Armstrong run your country because instead of democratic process or military might you chose your rulers through the medium of long-distance cycling. Of course, winning that way would mean being really good at jousting, and that is something which I am definitely not, so let's try a different tactic.


A kingdom needs money to thrive, and you can gain more gold by receiving your monthly income based on the number of lands you control. That's boring, though - why not just head to a nearby castle and steal all their money? It's what the previous King would have wanted.


Hiding in the woods until nightfall, Cedric unveils his plan to loot the castle - send in one man to poke the guards to death with a blue knitting needle. Look, I didn't say it was a good plan.
This seems like a good time to compare the NES version with the 1986 Amiga original. While both versions have similar gameplay and were considered decent if somewhat shallow in terms of gameplay, what really made the Amiga version stand out were the phenomenal graphics. Compare the NES pre-raid screen to the Amiga equivalent:


That still looks (to me, at least) fantastic now, so imagine how incredible it must have looked in 1986. To put that into perspective, arcade games released in 1986 included Bubble Bobble and OutRun. Small wonder that Defender of the Crown was a big success, even if the actual gameplay was a little stale, and for once I'll renounce my usual "gameplay before graphics" stance to say I'd be happy to suffer some sub-par gameplay in order to treat my eyes to views like that. Of course, I'm playing the NES version, and it's suffered a similar fate to Dragon's Lair - a game that's mostly flash and little substance, crammed onto a system that can't support the one thing that made the game famous, and while Defender of the Crown is nowhere near as bad as Dragon's Lair its mediocrity is its defining feature.
Maybe that'll change during the rip-roaring, swashbuckling adventure that makes up the raiding portion of the game, so let's get back to our raid, already in progress.


See what I mean about the knitting needles? If I'd bought something advertised as a sword and I had, in fact, received a twelve-inch strip of narrow blue metal I'd have been straight down the Trading Standards office to complain (and maybe hire a new blacksmith along the way.) Still, that background is nice - not as nice as the Amiga version, of course, but charming enough in its own 8-bit way.
Your mission here is to stab the guards that stand in your way, and as I'm sure you'll have realised by now it's a painfully lethargic sequence wrapped in a herky-jerky mess of dull controls. You can move left and right, while pressing the button makes you stab straight forwards. Holding down on the d-pad while you stab makes your character hold his sword at a 45-degree angle. I think this is supposed to be a block or a parry, but as it makes no discernable difference to the guards' ability to perforate your internal organs I'll have to reserve judgement. First you fight three weak guards at the door to the keep, and then you can move inside to face (wait for it...)


The exact same guard but with a bigger health bar! I know, this rollercoaster of thrills and spills is almost too action-packed to bear. What with the unresponsive controls and all, you might think that the raids would be as difficult as the jousting and you'd be right... if the guards weren't such colossal morons. Every guard in every raid can be defeated with the same tactic, so memorise this well if you ever plan on playing DotC. When the guard gets close, stab him in the hand and immediately take a step backwards. The guard will try to stab you, not realising that, by the black sorcery of walking backwards, you're outside his stabbin' range. He'll take a step forward to close the gap, at which point you should stab him in the hand and take a step backwards. Repeat until all guards have died, presumably of embarrassment.
The only flaw with this plan is that in walking backwards, make sure you don't do what I did and walk backwards out of the door, because the game registers this as a display of extreme cowardice and mocks you for running away.


At least if you run away, you get to keep all your gold: a failed raiding attempt will result in your capture and a loss of a large chunk of wealth as you pay off the ransom. However, with careful application of the patented Cedric of Rotherwood "stepping backwards" technique, completing raids should be a snap and the gold you've ransacked is added to your treasury. And what could be a better way to spend your gold than using to raise an army?


Well, there are probably plenty of "better" things, but in Defender of the Crown armies are the only thing to spend money on. It's a simple procedure, just select which of the troop types you'd like to purchase and, um, purchase them. From there you can leave them in a castle you own in order to form a garrison that will protect the castle in your absence, or you can add them to your army and use them to do battle with the armies around you.


Once you have gathered your troops and no doubt roused them with some lordly words about crown defence, initiating a battle is a simple matter of moving your army into an adjacent, occupied territory. Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of oh for the love of Pete what are you doing?


Okay, so it's obvious what's going on here: these soldiers are actually wizards, and those aren't swords, they're wands. How else do you explain the two sides standing fifteen feet apart and waving their weapons around until someone dies? Whatever's going on it seems to be working for my boys as they crush the opposition army in a flurry of shaken sticks. I'm not sure about the combat effectiveness of the knights, though - mine just seemed to stand there and view the proceedings with passive indifference.
So, that's how wars work. You've got a few commands that you can issue to your forces, all of which are fairly obvious. If you massively outnumber your foes, press on with the Fierce Attack. If you've got plenty of knights, tell them to outflank the opposition - this can be devastating, especially if you're facing nothing but soldiers. There's not much strategy to it, because the only truly effective strategy is to simply have more troops than the other side, but I can't deny the satisfaction of sending your followers into battle and having them thoroughly destroy your enemies.
Once you've won the battle, you gain control of that county and... hang on, what's this?


A princess has been kidnapped! Well, it was only a matter of time: this is a NES game, after all. Of course I'm going to rescue her, partly for the important political benefits but mostly because I need to pass some time while I wait until I've accumulated enough income to replace my wizard-soldiers lost in the previous battles.
The actual rescuing takes the form of a standard raid, normal poke-and-retreat rules applying as always, but instead of gold you come away with the hand of a fair (and very grateful) maiden.


According to the text she "calls out your name and rushes into your waiting arms." The image displayed on screen does not really convey the same sense of impassioned relief: perhaps she was halfway through the arm-rushing-into when she caught a glimpse of Cedric's hairdo. Truly, it is a sight to cool the ardour in any maiden's loins. Still, a promise is a promise and Rosalind becomes Cedric's wife in a hastily-arranged and yet definitely legally-binding marriage.


Yes, these two are going to produce some damn aristocratic kids one day, and hopefully they'll get their hair from their mother.
Things are going well for Lord Cedric. His jousting prowess is known throughout the land, a beautiful wife sits beside him, his armies have mastered the dark arts and he's conquered roughly half of England, including Yorkshire (the best bit.) The only things standing in his way now are the strongholds of the other lords - their impregnable castles. Impregnable, at least, until I went out and bought a few catapults. Now we'll see who can't get pregnated.


Capturing a castle means laying a siege which, in turn, means it's time for another minigame. This is the simplest and therefore least aggravating of the bunch: all you have to do is hold down the button until your catapult has reached the required power, then let go. You need to score four hits, in order, on the castle wall for it to open up, starting at the top of the wall and working your way down until you've penetrated a gaping fissure through which the might of your forces can pour through and man, that description is veering into a whole different metaphor. But why stop there? If you do well on the wall-destroying portion of the exercise you'll have a couple of shots left over which you can use to launch plague or fire bombs into the castle, thinning out the men stationed there and making the battle to take the castle that much easier.


Once again my superior numbers (superior by two soldiers) turn the tide of battle, even if my glorious triumph is depicted by four toy soldiers standing on a snooker table. More land is under my control, which means more gold, which means bigger armies and further conquest. Lord Cedric's ascension to the throne is all but assured, assuming I don't make any massive fuck-ups. Which, of course, I did.
In my haste to achieve victory, I pressed my army forward... but I forgot to leave some troops garrisoned at my home castle. Which was then attacked. While no-one was home. Oops.


Rather generously, I was still given a chance to defend my castle via one last action event - the pop-up crossbow shooting gallery. The invading forces appear on your battlements, and you've got to shoot them before they wear down whatever defences are stationed in your castle - in my case, fuck all. It works about as well as a d-pad-controlled shooting gallery affair could, with up and down switching between the three different high levels, left and right moving your bow and A to fire, but the problem is my lack of troops. The more men in your castle, the larger your health bar and therefore the longer you have to drive off the attacking forces, but as all I have here is the court jester and his pet dog then I don't really stand much of a chance. Even with some back-up, and with the advantage of a high Leadership stat which governs how fast your crossbow moves, these battles are still tough - there's not much margin for error and speed is of the essence, so you have to fire and instantly start moving your bow again in order to keep the flow of enemies down to a trickle, and it's very easy to miss.
Without the support of, well, anyone, Castle Rotherwood inevitably falls into the hands of the enemy.


Cedric and Rosalind are brutally put to the sword by the rampaging hordes, their heads affixed to pikes on the castle's walls to serve as a grim reminder of the fate of all who challenge whichever lord it was that took over my castle.


No, not really - Cedric escapes and goes to hang out with Robin Hood for a bit. Robin puts up with him at first but soon has to remove Cedric from Sherwood Forest as his demeanour is making a mockery of the term "Merry Men."


No mention is made of Rosalind. I guess she's the new lord's wife now. Good luck to her, I say - maybe she'll have the presence of mind to not leave the castle as empty as a Nick Griffin stand-up gig.
So, my quest to rule the land has ending in abject failure, the once-proud Cedric of Rotherwood reduced to living in the woods with a criminal who dresses like Peter Pan. And I was so close, too! Oh well, I think I've played enough of Defender of the Crown to form a reasonable opinion of the game, and that opinion is... mixed. A game renowned for its graphics, squeezed and compressed onto an unsuitable format, the music and especially the sound effects reducing to strained beepings with all the charm and melody of a dentist's drill shoved inside some bagpipes, the main gameplay being a series of unwieldy, tedious "action" events that simultaneously bore and infuriate: Defender of the Crown should be an absolute disaster and yet, somehow, it isn't. If nothing else it's a bold attempt to marry the strategy and action genres that comes damn close to paying off, and the pleasure of raising an army and subjugating your neighbours is an eternal one. If the action scenes had been fun instead of a necessary but painful slog Defender of the Crown would be nearing classic status - but they aren't fun, so it remains an interesting but flawed title that aims for a balance between all-out action and the deep but often over-complicated strategy genre and so nearly gets it right. I can't speak for the other versions of the game as I haven't played them, but the NES version must be remembered in the same way as Cedric's attempt to unify the land - noble, interesting, but ultimately flawed.


If you're wondering what happens when you unite all the lands beneath your banner and complete the game: you become King, of course. The missing crown? Turns out Robin Hood had it the whole time and was "just holding on to it for when the new King emerged, I swear." Funny that no-one though to look for the large piece of missing jewellery with the world's most notorious thief.

1 comment:

  1. A fantastic read! I realize now that I'm four years late to the party, haha.

    It's heart-warming, in a way, that someone feels similarly about this game. I want to like it so much but the flaws keep it from being something I would recommend. Problems and all, though, there's plenty of nostalgia attached when it comes to DotC. I thank you for taking the time to give it some well-deserved recognition!

    ReplyDelete

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