Shortly after my family welcomed a NES into our home in 1988, I was desperate to complete a game. There was only one problem: at six-years-old, I had yet to actually develop any video game playing skill. My options were limited. I had tried to conquer both Super Mario Bros. and its sequel, but found them to be to be too challenging. My mother had purchased me a copy of RC Pro AM, but my brain was not yet developed enough to understand high-level concepts like “acceleration” and “steering.” World Class Track Meet? Forget it, I was a little chubster. I lacked the physical stamina to beat that one, even using my hands to cheat. Duck Hunt? I’m not sure that one ends.
Wizards & Warriors, though? That game gives you infinite continues. It lets you start in the exact same location where you last met your demise. A monkey could beat it if you just gave it enough time. It was a layup; the perfect game for putting that first notch on my control pad. As such, one Sunday afternoon in the late ’80s, after several hours of intense effort, Wizards & Warriors became the first NES game I ever completed in its entirety.
Prior to this week, I probably hadn’t touched Wizards & Warriors in over 20 years. However, as I recently purchased a shiny new an Analogue NT, I thought it would be the perfect time to revisit my first NES conquest – in STUNNING HD. And you know what? It’s still fun.
I could try to describe the plot of Wizards & Warriors to you, but the game’s manual does a much better job than I could ever do. Unfortunately, most of my NES manuals were turned into a moldy mess in the great basement flood of ’91. Thankfully, the good folks over at World of Nintendo have me covered:
She’s asleep now, the Princess. But who knows what he has planned for her once she awakens… He is the Wizard Malkil. Legend has it that Malkil was once one of the greatest. So great, in fact, that even the renowned Merlin was his pupil. But alas, Malkil has gone mad with age, and turned his powerful magic to the dark side. You are Kuros, the only knight warrior brave enough to enter the woods of Elrond. Strong enough to wield the Brightsword. Powerful enough to ward off the demons, the undead, and the caverns of fire. And clever enough to discover where Malkil has hidden his prisoner.
So, in short, you play as Kuros (a guy who looks nothing like he does on the sweet box art) on a quest to rescue the unnamed princess (of a kingdom shamelessly named after a character from The Lord of The Rings) from Malkil (a wizard whose name sounds like a 7th grader’s attempt to translate “bad murder” into Latin). I just have to laugh when kids these days complain about the quality of writing in modern video games.
After you press start, the game presents you with a cross-section of the Kingdom of Elrond (presumably ruled by Hugo Weaving), ominously labeled as “THE MAP:”
As this is a video game from 1987, we know that the unnamed princess is being held in the giant castle. However, as THE MAP, clearly shows us, in his madness, Malkil has cut all funding to the Kingdom of Elrond’s Streets and Paving Bureau. Two massive potholes are preventing us from simply walking straight to the castle. Instead, we’ll have to take the scenic route, through such exotic locations as…
The woods! Where you’ll encounter werewolves that look kind of like Marmaduke and the elusive pink bald eagle.
The blue caverns! Home to Boo Berry™ and fire-spewing smiley faces!
The red caverns! These are surprisingly similar to the blue caverns, but with fire.
The purple caverns! If you liked the red caverns and the blue caverns, you’ll love these. It’s like a greatest hits compilation, only with bats and snakes.
The OTHER woods! You might think that these are the same woods from before, but no – the eagles and the werewolves have been replaced by gargoyles and angry cactus-throwing gnomes.
Nearly three decades later, it’s easy to mock Wizards & Warriors repetitive level design, but by early NES standards, the levels were quite stunning – not to mention large and open-ended. Each stage scrolls horizontally and vertically, and Kuros is given free reign to explore each secret-filled level to the player’s heart’s content.
But what are you looking for when you explore those levels? Well, each level in Wizards & Warriors has an identical goal: reach the exit, defeat the boss that lies beyond that exit, and rescue the distressed damsel that said boss has imprisoned. Fairly standard stuff, but there’s a bit of a wrinkle:
Each level’s exit is guarded by an invincible palette-swap of Kuros. These scarlet sentinels are impervious to all forms of bodily harm, but they have one weakness: cold hard cash. You can’t pass through the exit until you’ve picked up enough gemstones to bribe these guards. Stashes of these gemstones (and other goodies) are hidden behind colored doors and treasure chests, which you’ll need to find correspondingly colored keys to unlock. While “bribery” is not the most heroic mechanic to build your central gameplay loop around, we really didn’t think twice about these things in the Reagan era. Kuros worked hard for those gems, after all.
On his quest, Kuros will acquire numerous magical items, which run the gamut from “extremely overpowered” to “practically useless.”
Certain items, like the above-pictured Potion of Levitation, will add height to Kuros’ jump, making the game’s platforming sections infinitely more tolerable. Compare this with the set of lava-proof boots that is, in fact, not lava-proof at all. True fact: when replaying Wizards & Warriors, I consulted an FAQ not so I could FIND these powerups, but so I can avoid them – you’ve only got so many item slots, and the last thing I wanted to do was swap out my Boots of Force, which allow Kuros to open any chest at will, for the Cloak of Darkness, which renders Kuros invisible – BUT ONLY TO THE PLAYER.
I presume that Wizards & Warriors would be incredibly difficult if not for the aforementioned infinite continues – but that’s the thing about infinite continues, isn’t it? You never really try if there’s no penalty for failure. Enemies spawn infinitely and attack with relentless ferocity, but the only incentive to avoid them is the annoyingly cheerful tune that plays on loop when your health is low (thanks to YouTube user GBelair for uploading that theme).
Fortunately, the rest of the game’s music is downright stellar – especially by 1987 NES standards. One of the first games scored by David Wise, who would later provide the music for Battletoads, Donkey Kong Country, and many other classics, the soundtrack to Wizards & Warriors is pure ear candy. Just listen to this opening theme:
It’s been stuck in my head for days now. The soundtrack has also been covered by the improbably venerable Minibosses – if prog rock covers of game music are your thing, you should definitely have a listen.
It’s easy to pick apart Wizards & Warriors’ little imperfections in 2015, but the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. The game controls wonderfully, and its graphics and sound have aged spectacularly, particularly when compared to its contemporaries. Wizards & Warriors can easily be completed in about an hour, but it’s an extremely enjoyable hour. While the game is not without its failings, you could tell that its developers, Rare, really set out to expand on the “save the princess” platformer in ways that had yet to be seen on the NES. Their reach may have ever-so-slightly exceeded their grasp, but in the process, they created a bona fide classic. If you’ve got the means and the time, I strongly suggest playing it all over again.
I can’t think of any better way to conclude this writeup than by posting a video of one of the game’s final levels, which features Kuros scaling Malkil’s castle. In my mind, it’s one of the most memorable levels from the NES’ early days, and it showcases everything that makes Wizards & Warriors great – the music, the scope, the visuals – it’s all there. Enjoy!