Today’s article is one of those where I started writing it and then thought “is anybody going to be interested in this? Am I even interested in this?” In the end I decided that I am interested in it, just about, but a more important motivational factor was that I’d already played the game and I wasn’t about to let that ordeal go to waste. So here it is – the 1986 ZX Spectrum game Magic Land of Landlords!
I’ll be honest, I picked this game because of that title. Magic Land of Landlords? It offers so many possibilities. Is it a Valhalla for property owners, where they all sit around drinking mead and exchanging tales of how it took them six months to fix their tenants’ faulty boiler? I’m going to assume it is, a fantastical realm where the rent cheques are never late and you always get to keep the security deposit. But what type of game could hide behind that title? A Monopoly-style property acquisition game, perhaps, although I’m not sure you can, like, own magic land, maaan. Or maybe it’ll be a block-stacking puzzle game, where you have to figure out how many bedrooms you can cram into a student housing property before environmental health come around for a chat.
Sadly, there’s so such imagination on display and MLOLL is a flick-screen side-scrolling platformer starring a wizard. A wizard that looks a lot like a Black Mage from a Final Fantasy game, actually (although this game predates Final Fantasy). A Black Mage with spinal problems and pillow shoved up the front of his robe, sure, but the resemblance is definitely there.
The wizard must reach the other side of the screen to progress, naturally, but barring his path are a floating skull and a blue thing on the ground that I think is supposed to be a hole. Possibly it’s a discarded pizza. It’s deadly to the touch, whatever it is. So is the skull. I’m not sure why contact with the skull is lethal. After all, we’re all touching a skull all the time and it doesn’t kill us, and the skull’s not flying at a high enough speed for it to be death by bludgeoning. I know wizards are supposed to be physically weaker than other classes, but this is taking it too far. We’ll just have to assume it’s a magic skull, what with it flying and being in Magic Land and all.
To get past the hole I’m going to have to jump over it, which is unfortunate because MLOLL's jumping physics are… not good. I’ve had to wrestle with worse when playing other Spectrum games, but MLOLL suffers from that common Spectrum problem of the jumping feeling very choppy, as though you’re moving upwards in a series of small increments rather than along a smooth curve. Couple that with the amount of precise jumps you need to make to get anywhere in this game, and the fact that it’s hard to judge exactly how far you’re going to leap, and you’ve got a recipe for a frustrating (if not atypical for a Spectrum platformer) landlording experience.
I did, eventually and at the cost of two of the wizard’s three lives, make it past the skull and over the hole, rushing headlong into the exciting mystery of screen two…
...where I let the edge of my robe brush up against a hole and promptly died. Good job, wizard, if you even are a wizard and not a collection of easily-startled goldfish with weak hearts who have all crammed into a wizard’s robes in an attempt to explore the surface world.
I persevered, and made it between the holes, basking in the safety of the screen's perineum. Yes, the thing on the right is another hole, but it’s one you can fall through to reach another screen rather than being instant death. I wish the developer had made the distinction clearer. You know, made it look like a hole that leads somewhere rather than a depression in the floor or perhaps a very large coin. Then I might not have spent so much time avoiding these holes and thus missing out on the caves below.
There are also balloons that can carry the wizard up to the clouds. Of all the ways for a wizard to fly, a balloon seems disappointingly prosaic. Could he not have hopped on a dragon or a giant eagle? Or, I dunno, used magic? Okay, so we can scratch that last one. Despite being dressed as a wizard, your character appears to possess no magical skills whatsoever. All you can do – or at least, all I figured out how to do – in MLOLL is jump. I tried everything I could think of, but the wizard resolutely refused to do anything but jump, walk left and right and die the moment anything so much as caused his robe to flutter slightly.
Here we are, wandering around in the clouds. Maybe the wizard does have some magic, then. I don’t think you can walk on clouds otherwise. The first thing that happened when I got up here was an attack by a crawling speech bubble. He looks a lot happier to see me than I am to see him, possibly because the speech bubble knows he doesn't have to contend with the game's jumping controls.
More clouds, more balloons and a blue… thing. A disembodied head wearing a balaclava. Or perhaps, judging by the curvature of its back, another wizard who was bashed so hard on the noggin that his head retracted into his chest cavity. Whatever it is, I’d like to jump over it and move on to the right, but unfortunately every bloody time I tried to do this I ended up accidentally touching the balloon and travelling upwards. MLOLL has a real problem with the cramped and cluttered positions of items, enemies and hazards. I suppose it was aiming for a “pixel-perfect jumping required” kind of feel, but it ends up being a right pain in the arse. Making it difficult to avoid enemies is fine, but making it difficult to move between screens in the direction you want is just bad.
A little further in, the floating head of a witch attacks by dropping squares on the wizard. You might notice that this has bugger all to do with landlords. Magical Land of the Ineffectual Wizard would be a better title for this game, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I did manage to pick up this Omega symbol while I was over here, however. I’m not entirely sure what it does, mind you. I think it might have something to do with the candle on the right, which acts as a time limit as it slowly melts away while you play. I found a few other things while I was exploring, too. There’s a mushroom to pick up on the first screen, for instance, extra lives and even a key here or there. The thing is, I have no idea what they do, either. Okay, apart from the extra lives, even I managed to figure that one out. I certainly didn’t find any doors that looked as though they needed a key, though, and that mushroom remained thrust deep inside my wizard robes for the duration of my adventure, never to be used. Maybe the game ends when the wizard cooks a nice risotto for the final boss or something, but I never managed to get that far.
Into the caves now, where the wizard must negotiate the dangling spiders (fairly adorable) to reach that one-up (also adorable). So, MLOLL gets some points for having that occasional sprite that made me think “aww, that’s kinda nice.” I'm sure those spiders would be blushing if they weren't made of eight monochrome pixels.
These bats do not contribute to the cuteness. I’m not even sure they’re bats. They look more like a set of lungs connected by a trachea. That explains why they’re blue, they can’t get any air into themselves without a diaphragm.
At this point, I’m just wandering around without a clue what’s going on. I picked up a key! I jumped over some monsters! I died a lot, but I’d started using a cheat for infinite lives so that was less of an issue than it used to be – although you get moved back to the entrance of the screen when you die, so it’s still entirely possible to get completely stuck.
Like here, for example. I dropped into this cave, and I couldn’t get out. The only exit is to the right, but as far as I can tell there is simply no way you can jump over the spikes and avoid the spiders and the floating lungs. There’s just physically not enough room for you to get through – the wizard is kind of a chunky sort – without touching something, and touching something means death, and death means re-appearing back on the left of the screen so you can’t force your way through. If I’m on this screen, I ain’t getting out. Now, I tried a lot of things to escape, various key combinations and jumping angles and what have you. I feel satisfied that I exhausted all the possibilities available to me. However, I will also admit that there’s a chance I’m missing something, maybe even something very obvious. A way to use some goddamn magic powers you absolute shit-wizard, even. If you do know of a way to do anything in this game besides jump, please let me know. Feel free to really come at me with it, too. Be as harsh as you like as you explain the very basic concepts of this game that I was unable to grasp. Don’t worry, I just spent several hours trying to play MLOLL, you’re not going to make me feel any more stupid than I already do.
Having been forced to start the whole game again, I avoided the inescapable cave and made my way over to the right where some kind of castle awaits. Finally, a building! There’s got to be a landlord around here somewhere, right? That part of the game’s title has been sorely lacking thus far. I’ve got a key and everything, I’ll just hop over those spikes and run for the door! Well, I’ll jump over the spikes eventually, once I’ve had five or six failed attempts where the spider lightly brushed my hat.
You! Over there! The indistinct lump of blue pixels! Are you a landlord? Who owns this castle? What are they charging for rent? Whatever it is, it’s too much. There are monsters trying to kill me, the floor is an unpleasant shade of yellow and there doesn’t appear to be a toilet. Oh, I get it now. It’s the magic land of the landlords because it’s a land without any kind of rights for tenants, a fabulous world where you can charge whatever rent you like without having to provide indoor plumbing or a roof. Maybe there’s a Magic Land of Builders out there, where every customer is a confused pensioner, or a Magic Land of Astrologers where the populace are just super gullible.
Then I reached a dead end in the castle and that was that. I’m completely out of ideas here. I did manage to find a map of the game, and it seems to imply that you can travel to different sections of the castle when you go beyond that screen with the door on it. I suspect the path you’re placed upon might depend on what keys you’re carrying, but because collecting one of the keys requires you to travel through Bullshit Cavern I never managed to test that theory out.
Supposedly if you do make it onto the correct path in the castle, you’re confronted with this thing. Close inspection has revealed that it’s a face with horns, an upturned nose and a yellow, fanged mouth beneath. However, this knowledge does not prevent me from seeing that mouth as a pig’s snout every time I look at it. Combine this with the stumpy little protuberances at the bottom, and I think the best way to read this sprite is as a front view of a pig. A pig with two snouts, maybe, but a pig none-the-less. Let’s pretend it’s Ganon, taking some time off from failing to defeat a young boy who lives in the woods. There's no Triforce in this magical land, but there are also no battles that turn into sorcerous games of ping-pong, either, so maybe Ganon can find his true level of competence here.
Obviously I never reached this part of the game, so I can’t tell you what happens here. Maybe the wizard finally pulls his wand out of his arse and does some actual wizarding, but I highly doubt it. Judging by the presence of four separate enemies appearing on this final screen, the wizard wouldn’t have survived for longer than half a second anyway, so the game presumably ends as soon as you reach this screen.
“Bravo, you have defeated the terrible landlord,” it says. I mean, I didn’t because I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on, but somebody did. So the landlord was a pig monster all along, huh? I guess we know the programmer’s feelings on their rental situation at the time, if nothing else. Quite what the defeat of the landlord means for the common people of the Magic Land remains unclear, but I suspect the answer is “Communism.” That’s why the wizard’s wearing red.
Magic Land of Landlords is pretty crappy game in which you do little besides wander about and die a lot, and it definitely doesn’t live up to the weirdness promised by its title, but I find myself unable to be too hard on it. I certainly don’t hate it. It’s not, well, hateful enough for that. It’s like watching your kid’s terrible school play, where the performance itself is bad but that’s not really the point anyway. MLOLL was programmed by one person named Carlo Altieri as part of a “magazine-on-a-cassette-tape” compilation called Load ‘n’ Run, and under those circumstances there’s only so much you can expect from it. And hey, it might not be the best ZX Spectrum game featuring floating skulls, but it has floating skulls and therefore I’m incapable of truly hating it.
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