30/04/2015

LEGACY OF THE WIZARD (NES)

They say the family that plays together stays together, so the family that fights the awakened terror of an evil dragon together are probably going to be pretty tightly knit. Child protection service might have a few questions for the parents, mind you. So, today's game is all about family. And getting lost. It's mostly about getting lost, if I'm honest. It's Falcom's 1987 NES game Legacy of the Wizard!


The legacy of the wizard was so dangerous that the ancients sealed it up behind a brick wall, but now it has broken free and it thirsts for souls! Most wizards only leave a legacy of dusty tomes filled with forgotten lore, the occasional abandoned familiar and a robe in dire need of a thorough dry-cleaning, but this legacy is much more expansive than that.


Living in a cabin in the woods - always a safe place to be, that - are the Drasle family. I know they're called the Drasle family because the game's original Japanese title is Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family. Legacy of the Wizard is part of Falcom's long-running Dragon Slayer series of action RPGs, which started on Japanese home computers in the mid-Eighties, it's most familiar incarnation to Western audiences probably being the NES spin-off Faxanadu. Being part of the Dragon Slayer family gives LotW an "early Japanese RPG" pedigree, which I'm fairly certain means it's going to be an unnecessarily obtuse and rather unforgiving adventure.
Anyway, the Drasle family are all gathered around their kitchen table. You've got Mother and Father Drasle, their son and daughter, grandma and grandpa, that white lump that fills the role of family pet and Handy, the giant disembodied hand that came to live with the Drasles in a failed sitcom pilot. Not really, the hand is the cursor the player uses to select which of the Drasles they want to play as. I think I'll start with the father.


The Drasle's woodland home looks pretty idyllic, with lush forests, blue skies and even a convenient shop right next door to their house. The shop would be more convenient if it wasn't up a tree and only accessible by ladder - it's going to be difficult getting down that ladder if your arms are laden with shopping - but awkwardly-positioned business are something of a staple of this game, so this is just letting the player know what they're in for.
Also in the vicinity of the Drasle's house: a ladder that leads to the vast, labyrinthine dungeon that lies mere feet below the surface.


I wonder if the estate agent mentioned this to the Drasles when they bought their house? You'd think there'd be some kind of legal requirement about informing potential buyers of the monster-infested caverns nearby. It's like telling them about subsidence, which must also be a worry in this situation.


Legacy of the Wizard is definitely an action RPG, although the RPG side of things is a withered, vestigial lump: there are no experience points or stat upgrades here, just a big dungeon to explore. The basic gameplay is the same as a hundred other NES platformers, with one button to jump and one to fire your projectile weapon, which in Xemn's (that's Papa Drasle's name) case is a supply of throwing axes. My early experiments into throwing said axes at the many fast-moving enemies littering the caves reveal that they are magic axes. They don't seem to be enchanted or anything but my magic meter decreases when I throw them so, y'know, magic axes. They kill things well enough, and early on Xemn and I were making good progress through the dungeon; slaughtering the admittedly underwhelming enemies, jumping between platforms and collecting bags of gold and keys. It all feels well-constructed, with sharp controls and the ability to throw your axes in eight direction being a welcome addition. I'm usually not keen on the inclusion of falling damage, especially when you can't fall far before it kicks in - memories of my struggles with Spelunker spring to mind - but Xemn has an adorable little animation where he lands on his face if he falls too far, so that takes some of the sting out of it. Not out of his face, I mean. I'd imagine that stings a fair bit.


Hey look, it's one of the Eggplant Wizard's less successful siblings! No wonder he looks so grumpy, everyone loves Kid Icarus, but who in the hell remembers Legacy of the Wizard? No-one, that's who! If only he'd been immortalised as a cartoon villain like the Eggplant Wizard then maybe this walking aubergine would cheer up a little.


After a while spent wandering around, I came to the conclusion that I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. Dead ends sprung up everywhere I turned, my magical energy was fading fast and I wasted a lot of time wondering why that ghost at the bottom of the screen is wearing a cowboy hat. Is he the ghost of a cowboy, his eternal punishment for a life of misdeeds on the wild frontier to be trapped underground, far away from the rolling prairie? Is it simply a matter of style? He is a stylish ghost, I'll give him that. He's got matching boots and everything. See? That's far too much time to be thinking about these things, so I resolved to make my way back to the Drasle homestead and try a different character.


This time I took Lyll, the daughter of the family. She can jump much higher than Xemn, but she can take less punishment and her attacks are less powerful, being little pink fireballs instead of manly throwing axes. Her improved jumping capabilities meant that I could explore some new areas, which was nice, although it also meant I was taking a lot more falling damage thanks to poorly-aimed leaps.


Here is a dragon in a box. Legacy of the Wizard being part of the Dragon Slayer franchise, I suspect that at some point I am going to have to get around to slaying said dragon, but for now it remains paralysed in its chamber, refusing to interact with Lyll no matter how I tried to get its attention. Perhaps it was confident that its cyclops minions could handle things. They certainly took me by surprise, running around the screen like overexcited cyclops children on the last day of term at Cyclops Academy.
It was at this point that I admitted defeat. I am not great at games, or anything really, that doesn't come with specific instructions, and so I turned to Legacy of the Wizard's manual. Within, I learned a great many useful things, some of which I probably should have already known. "Make a map," the manual cries. It also says "anyone can defeat the monsters," and that came across as a little contemptuous and somewhat hurtful, given that I died because the monster took all my health. But yes, making a map would be a very good idea. The manual also reveals the Drasle family's main goal is to collect four crowns hidden throughout the dungeon: doing so will then let the son, Roas, use the Dragonslayer sword to fight the dragon. There are many other items to collect, too, all of them important to your quest but apparently (judging by the amount of space in the manual given over to explaining how it works) none more important than a glove that Xemn can use to push blocks around. With a clear goal in mind, and a quick peek at an FAQ to get an idea of where the glove is, I sent Xemn into the dungeon once more.


I found the glove inside a section of blocks shaped like a fish, or possibly a submarine. It's hard to tell with it being made of big stone blocks. It was also hard to find, because there was no obvious pathway to the chest, hidden as it was behind a group of fake bricks that crumble when the player walks into them. The revelation that some bricks are only bricks until one of the Drasles rubs their face against it went a long way towards explaining why I didn't get very far, and it doesn't auger well for the rest of the game. I'm all for your underground labyrinth having hidden secret passages - labyrinth designers are a notoriously mischievous lot - but having those secret obscured by brickwork that looks like all the other brickwork in town is going a bit too far.


With the glove in Xemn's possession I could... well, not do much, actually. You have to go back to the nearest inn (or your house) and add it to your inventory before you can use it, but once you've done that then whoo baby, those pushable blocks better look out because they're in for the shoving of their lives! Once I figured out how to push them, that it. Turns out Falcom decided that simply walking into the blocks with the glove equipped would be too simple and would bore the seasoned dungeon explorer who craves a challenge in all things. Instead, you have to jump, then hold the jump button and press the direction you want the block to move in and hopefully it will move that way. It's an awkward system, presumably designed to allow the player to move blocks above them by jumping into them, but it's limitations are revealed when you're trying to jump around on blocks you don't want to move but they slide around like soap of a water slide anyway. It also leads to block-pushing behaviour that feels very counter-intuitive, like being able to push blocks around corners and even allowing the player to ride on floating blocks by repeatedly jumping onto them and holding left or right as you land.


Yes, a huge amount of block pushing lies ahead for Xemn as he searches for the crown. There are a lot of puzzles involving sliding blocks and oh my god it is the worst. I have made my hatred of sliding block puzzles known many times before, and if you do get to experience personalized torment in Hell then I will be spending eternity trying to move tiles around one at a time until they form a picture, a picture showing the ones I love playing a proper game and having loads of fun without me. LotW's block sliding is more of a Sokoban clone than the scrambled-picture kind, but it's still an unpleasant experience. I don't think that's my own biases talking, either: the, uh, unconventional block pushing controls make the whole thing much more of an ordeal than it needed to be, and they're not even engaging, well-designed puzzles. The game's manual even says that the block puzzles are "the hardest part of the game," and for me this was very much true. I had a hard time forcing myself to play through them, I know that much, even while I was using a step-by-step guide to solve the later ones.


I found a crown! It was just sitting there, completely free for anyone to take once they'd negotiated the deadly pillars, moved more rolling stones than a record shop in 1969, avoided the predations of the monocular rocks and unlocked the treasure chest it was placed inside. It's like they wanted me to take it, and once all this is over I've sure they won't mind Xemn taking it down to the local Cash Converters.


Collecting the crown came at a price: a battle against an enormous pubic louse, fallen from the crotches of the very gods of Olympus! After being teleported to its bone-strewn lair - frankly a relief, as I had to push no blocks to get here - the battle was joined and the foe quickly vanquished by standing on the spot and throwing axes at it until it died. All it does is jump around near you, and assuming you've got plenty of magic and a decent amount of health you'll easily win the race to the bottom of your respective health bars. I guess anyone can defeat monsters.


There are three more crowns to find, each of them hidden in areas that require the skills and equippable tools of a different member of the Drasle family to conquer. I took Pochi the monster pet out to find the next crown. Pochi looks like a cross between Bub and / or Bob and the pink dragon mascot of games developer Asmik, and his power is that enemies ignore him. I'd ignore him too, he looks like kind of a dork.
Pochi is advanced enough to know how keys work, and he'll need plenty if he's going to accomplish his mission, so it's handy that a defeated enemy has dropped one right in his path. However, even collecting items is not an easy task in this game, because there's a slight delay between the enemy dying and the item they drop appearing. This would be fine if they only dropped helpful things like keys and gold, but they can also randomly drop health-draining vials of poison. When you're trying to kill monsters and make your way through the maze, this often means that you walk right into a bottle of poison before it even appears, and the only way to avoid doing so is to stand still after killing each bad guy on the off chance that it's trying to poison you to death with its final act on this mortal coil. To make matters worse, if you're playing as Xemn you then have to wait for the potion to disappear before moving on because Xemn lacks the jumping ability to clear it, by which time the enemy you just killed is in the process of respawning. I began this adventure with a fair amount of goodwill towards the game, but LotW's little irritations are stacking up and detracting from what is otherwise a perfectly acceptable action adventure.


Pochi's quest ends with a battle against a lich of some kind, a terrifying undead effigy created from unhallowed bones and a bin bag. Pochi eats tacky Halloween decorations for breakfast, possibly in a literal sense because he may be a monster but he behaves like a dog, and this fight is even easier than the previous boss battle. They're just not very tough, is all. Speaking of tough, I've warmed to Pochi a little now that I've noticed he tries to do an angry face every time he fires his projectile. He's still a dork, but he's making an effort.


Back to Lyll, who we've met before, for another boss battle. This time it's against a dragon. Not the dragon from earlier, a smaller, much more pathetic dragon who wasn't so much slain as gently brushed aside. It's always an odd feeling when the bosses are the easiest part of the game - a rare occurrence, but one that does happen from time to time - and they'd be the least interesting part of Legacy of the Wizard if it wasn't for all the block pushing.
None of that should reflect badly on Lyll, though. She's probably my favourite character - she's got a jaunty feather in her hair, she can jump really high and best of all she doesn't push blocks, she smashes them apart with a pickaxe she finds in the dungeon. I appreciate her refreshingly no-nonsense approach to problem solving.


The final crown must be collected by the final character: Meyna, mother of the Drasle family and full-on wizard. Her statistics are average, but she can use a variety of impressive items (once you've found or bought them in the dungeon depth, that is) including a magic stick for unlocking doors and a pair of wings that let her fly around the screen at the cost of her magic bar. Here, Meyna watches two children in cat pyjamas frolic around the dungeon, pondering whether to incinerate them with her powerful magics. In the end the decision was made for her when the cat-people's frolicking turned into a attempted murder by way of overenthusiastic romping and she was forced to put them down. That's what she's going to tell the police, anyway.


Playing Legacy of the Wizard is a draining affair filled with questionable gameplay decisions, but it's not without it's endearing moments. Two of those are shown here - LotW contains some fully adorable skeleton knights who waddle around with a hesitance that makes it seem like this is their first day on dungeon-patrolling duty, and there's also the occasional pattern to the layout of the blocks that makes for an interesting view. You already saw the dolphin / submarine thing, and here's a leering demonic face. Nice detail work, using the portcullises for nostrils, and they're not just decorative - they're also extremely useful landmarks for making sense of that map I'm sure every player will be drawing.


Using all these arcane relics means that Meyna has to pop into the health-restoring inns more than the other characters, which can be a problem because some of these inns are not exactly welcoming to potential guests. I mean, look at that inn down there - sure, the carpet of lacerating blades around the front door is going to help to keep cold-callers at bay but you're never going to make any money if all your customers bleed to death from lacerations to the femoral arteries before they can even reach the reception desk. That's not even the worst one, check this out:


I'd say that's pretty inn-hospitable. Of course I'd say that, I'm a terrible human being.


Meyna's boss is a golem, and to its craggy credit it put up much more of a fight than its associates. I had to move out of its way, how crazy is that? It still wasn't particularly difficult, because as with all the bosses it was just "moving thing that fires smaller moving things at the player" but there was a touch more effort involved in not dying.


With the four crowns collected, the duty of finally slaying the dragon falls to Roas, son of the Drasle family. He's an unexceptional young man with none of the special powers of his relatives, but for some reason he's the only one who can wield the Dragonslayer sword. Or maybe that's just what his family told him so that he didn't feel left out. Roas has a spiky hat and the facial expression of a perpetually surprised bowling ball. Those are really the only interesting facts about Roas.


No, wait, I tell a lie: there was also that time he found a hovering green arse in a box. That was quite interesting. I rushed over and grabbed hold of the arse, naturally, and I'm glad I did because it restored Roas' health. I looked into it and apparently it's supposed to be bread. Green, arse-shaped bread. If I asked for some bread at a restaurant and they brought that out I would leave, or at least reconsider ordering the sausage.


It's not just butts, either: this shop appears to be selling a human kidney. It'd be fun if there was a super-secret hidden character in Legacy of the Wizard but you had to piece them together Frankenstein-style before you could use them, but sadly I'm stuck with Roas.


There's the Dragonslayer sword, hidden away in a floating chamber that's only accessible through the portrait on the wall. They work as teleporters once you have all the crowns, and by zapping between them in a set order you will eventually be deposited in the room with the sword. However, you may have noticed that I am above the sacred chamber. This is because, despite knowing what I was supposed to be doing, I somehow messed up the teleportation procedure and had to resort to cheating my way back to the Dragonslayer. I don't feel too guilty about it. I put enough effort into negotiating the sliding block puzzles and hunting for false walls to feel I deserved the cutting of some slack. I mean really, who has time for all this adventuring? Well, okay, the children of the late Eighties for whom this game was released might well have, and that's the thing about Legacy of the Wizard: I can feel that this is the kind of game that a certain type of kid would become obsessed with - creating detailed maps, painstakingly marking the location of each item and shop and inn and filling many pilfered school exercise book with meticulously recorded passwords. Even now LotW retains that sense of exploration, and while I'm very grateful that modern videogames rely less on obscuring gameplay mechanics to create challenge there is something very pleasing about having the labyrinth laid out before you, daring you to figure it out.


With the fabled sword in hand, Roas faces off against the dragon Keela; a foe so overwhelmingly powerful that even the background has run away in terror. Keela only has one move, but it's an extremely effective one - it breathes green fire on the ground in front of it. I know that doesn't sound like much, but it's effective for three reasons. One, it does a ton of damage. Two, Roas can't throw his swords very far, so he has to get right into the fire's range to hurt the boss and three, there's no warning or indication that the boss is about to breathe fire. It just goes on and off like a lightswitch, so the fight ends up being a tentative tip-toe dance as you try to edge close enough to attack before moving away immediately lest you get grilled. Patience is your strongest non-magical-sword weapon here, and the game generously gives you infinite magic to get the job done. As long as you don't get to greedy and calmly chip away at the dragon's health, it will eventually be slain and the Drasle family can get back to their simple, humdrum lives, starting with a dragon steak supper.


All the Drasles are back together, waving in appreciation to the player who has guided them through their ordeals. Except Pochi, who is waving his backside at the camera. Thanks, Pochi. Real classy. It's because I called you a dork, isn't it?
So what was the legacy of the wizard? In my case it was mostly frustration and confusion, but there's enough going on that I wouldn't say this is a bad game by any means. There's some fun to be had here, especially if you're the type for whom an untraversed dungeon and blank graph paper holds a special thrill. It's well made, with good solid controls (weird block wrangling aside) and presentation that's basic but endearing. There are a lot of interesting-looking enemies, even if they mostly behave in the same way, and the graphics are decently varied for being made almost entirely of square stone blocks. One bit of glamour is provided by the game's soundtrack, which was composed by industry legend Yuzo Koshiro. It's not his best work, too beholden to the idea of what an action RPG should sound like, but it's not bad. I like Lyll's theme, myself.



Still, completely unmarked hidden passageways and sliding blocks around means that Legacy of the Wizard is not a game for me, no matter how much I warmed to the Drasle family.


Oh, now you tell me that their surname is Worzen? Thanks, I've been calling them the wrong name this whole time... and I just figured out that "Drasle" comes from the first syllables of "dragon" and "slayer." At least I got there before the end of this article. Which is now.

6 comments:

  1. So the son has none of the others' powers, and is the only one who can use the sword. Clearly he's adopted and kept around in case of dragon emergencies. I do wonder why the daughter is labeled elf, clearly it should be the adopted son.
    I also assume the father conjures up axes instead of holding a large supply stashed in his trousers, which is why his magic gets drained.
    I also wonder how much money the inns lose in replacement sheets. On the one hand not many customers make it in, on the other those that do would end up getting blood all over the sheets.
    I also hope there is a prequel involving the grandparents(could one of the prior three games involve them?) and more importantly is there a spin-off with the cowboy ghost.

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    1. Yeah, spontaneous axe generation must be why Xemn loses magic every time he attacks, they're definitely not boomerang axes or anything. As for the inns, it's hard to tell if they're going to be profitable or not because they charge 10 gold per night but I have no idea as to what the everyday purchasing power of 10 gold is in this world. Maybe it's the equivalent of thousands of pounds?

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  2. You know, there was something about the atmosphere of Falcom's NES games LotW and Faxanadu that resonated very, very strongly with me as a child; Faxanadu especially. Something about the unusual music and grim setting put it in my top 5 favorite games for the console. Then years later I finally find out the mysterious title Faxanadu just meant "Famicom Xanadu" and the game was an unrelated spinoff of a bigger franchise...I was unreasonably upset to to learn my favorite game's title was a dumb pun, haha. And then they did the same thing with Dragon Slayer IV: The Dragon Slayer Family? Cut it out Falcom.

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    1. I know more than a few people who feel the same way about Faxanadu - I've got a friend who keeps telling me to write about it, for one - and they do often seem to mention it having a strange atmosphere. I *did* play it a few times as a kid but I don't really remember it, maybe one day I'll get around to giving it a proper shot.

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  3. "... I wasted a lot of time wondering why that ghost at the bottom of the screen is wearing a cowboy hat." I'm quite sure that "ghost" is kirby. I hope you didn't kill it or you will be in Masahiro Sakurai's murder list.

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    Replies
    1. Look, I had to take the Kirby-thing out, it was him or me.

      Delete

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