Metroidvania Chronicles V: Legacy of the Wizard
It's hard to say if Legacy of the Wizard really falls under the Metroidvania header, but what the hell -- I'm feeling punchy today.
Legacy is actually the fourth game in Falcom's Dragon Slayer series, and it shares a number of elements with its predecessors (and with its semi-sequel Faxanadu, which shows up a little further down the list). If this Metroidvania series were truly comprehensive, of course, I'd delve into Falcom's previous exploratory platformers and talk prehistory. But I'll pass. Legacy makes me want to throw my brain out of an airlock to explode silently in the vacuum of space, and there's no way I'm subjecting myself to even more primitive versions of the same experience. If you're that eager to read more about Dragon Slayer, Mr. Kalata has already done the hard work for you.
Legacy of the Wizard
[ NES | Falcom/Brøderbund | 1988 ]
Part platformer, part puzzle game, part dungeon crawl, and all maddeningly abstract, Legacy of the Wizard remains one of the hardest NES game to master. This is not because it's particularly difficult, at least not in the blurgh-I-am-inundated-by-monsters sense. Instead, its challenge arises from the fact that it's a twisting, complicated game that offers no clues, no help, no directions, not even a bit of information on what these magical items you keep buying in shops are for. Trial and error, with an emphasis on error, is what fuels this game.
And it's not a small game; there are five different playable characters, each of whom possesses special skills and is required for specific portions of the dungeon. The dungeon itself is 16 x 16 rooms, which might not sound terribly large until you realize that your characters are tiny little blobs in a vast world, and that many rooms (which are one screen high and roughly three screens wide) are interconnected in complicated ways.
It's not really possible to play straight through Legacy of the Wizard. The power-ups necessary to grant the Drasle family the ability to wend their way through the vast underground passages must be found or purchased, which requires a fair amount of swapping around. For instance, the wings that allow the mother to fly can only be found in the daughter's section of the maze -- not that the game gives you any indication which area is designed for whom. Hope you like wild guesswork.
Legacy of the Wizard can be finished -- I know, 'cause I did it. Once upon a time. It took me about a year, though. A year of long afternoons in which I was bored out of my mind.
It's hard not to admire Legacy's ambition. It's really a huge adventure with a lot of sophisticated ideas. They are, however, squandered in a game that feels rather sloppy and poorly thought-out. Take, for instance, the collectibles that enemies drop: food, magic, keys, gold, all of which correspond to the meters at the top of the screen. You can have up to 99 of each, but the higher your stats in one area the less likely enemies are to give you a drop of that particular type. No big deal, right? Well, actually, yes -- trying to get enough gold to buy some of the game's more expensive items takes forever since you get gold by shooting enemies, which requires magic. So it doesn't take long before your magic level drops below your gold level, which causes the game to start dropping lots of magic refills (which barely replace the magic it takes to acquire the refill in the first place) and very little gold.
It's little details like this -- along with big details like the godawfully floaty jumps and the flaky collision detection and the fact that you have to trial-and-error your way through 256 rooms of monsters with five characters and a few dozen different tools -- that make Legacy one of those "noble intention" things. Ambitious but kind of crappy, it's pretty typical of Falcom, and with some refinement would have been pretty rad. As it stands now, it is unrepentantly meh.
At least the music's great. Really, though, Yuzo Koshiro and Falcom under the same roof anything less would be sort of scandalous.