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// article by Jeff

Adding yet another quick Random.access Retrospective featurette under our belt, it's time to enter a medieval world as we explore the Wizards & Warriors series. The first two games saw significant success in North America and Europe as our helmeted knightly hero, Kuros, worked tirelessly to save the world from the negative effects of the evil wizard, Malkil. Subsequent games weren't quite as popular, and the series sadly ended in 1992. We shall, however, salute the brave efforts of Kuros as we look back upon a short but very interesting video game series.

The journey of the brave warrior, Kuros, began here. As the Knight Warrior of the Books of Excalibur, he must slay the wizard Malkil, whose senility has claimed his mind and forced him to use his magic in wicked and unprecedented ways. The lands weep as they become filled with murderous demons and other creatures of the night as a result of Malkil's magic spells gone awry. Malkil has also kidnapped various ladies of the kingdom, including its princess. Starting from the forested regions of Elrond, Kuros has been tasked with venturing to Castle IronSpire and defeating him once and for all, but his quest will be more than he bargained for...

I must admit, Wizards & Warriors is definitely a notable game in the NES library, as were many games developed by Rare. Perhaps it is notable because of how "unique" the gameplay is. At heart, it's a platformer, and Kuros definitely does his share of hopping around. As expected, he'll have his hands full fending off every creature imaginable, many of which love to dole out cheap shots. His skills as a knight are questionable at times. He doesn't really swing his sword so much as pray and hope that enemies impale themselves upon it as he extends it upward and outward. Defending yourself is really a matter of luck, which makes Wizards & Warriors' high difficulty level partially an effect from poor design choices.

Still, being able to throw a dagger (the aptly-named "Dagger of Throwing"), collecting as many gems (to pay your way to the next part of the game) and cave meat as possible, and the uplifting feeling you get when you cut the rope on a tied-up maiden named Lucinda or Esmerelda and save her is indescribably refreshing. Even if you can't finish this game (and that's very much a possibility), there is still adequate bursts of fun to be had just running around slaying hawks and bats. Plus, look at that status bar. There's an "EVIL" meter on it. That's just gnarly.

Malkil is back, this time venturing to the neighbouring land of Sindarin. Having conjured the powers of the four elements (fire, wind, water, and earth), he will use these abilities to conquer the world. The only way our hero, the mighty knight Kuros, can possibly defeat Malkil is by reassembling the shattered pieces of the Ironsword. And off he goes...

If the original Wizards & Warriors was somewhat about luck when it came to successful fighting skills, its sequel did its very best to pound the idea into your head that luck was all that mattered. Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II was developed by Zippo Games, who was contracted by Rare (yes, that Rare) to create a sequel to its successful-enough game. Although it significantly improved upon the graphics and audio of its predecessor, it is also a nasty beast of a game. Whereas you had some hope of success with your battling skills, Kuros' sword is now nearly useless and is more there for show as enemies divebomb the poor knight while he haplessly stands there and awaits his fate. Finding new armor or weaponry doesn't feel like a blessing. You feel instead like you just have something else to carry.

That's not to say that Ironsword wasn't without its charm. Kuros was introduced to several new aspects of gameplay, most notably an increased reliance on magic. In fact, magic spells were the key to not only progressing through the lush levels, but also for defeating the bosses of the game: the Elementals. These must all be conquered before setting off to IceFire Mountain and battling Malkil himself. Unfortunately, gathering magic power was a tiring endeavour, requiring Kuros to locate weird orange pellets often hidden in the strangest and most unexpected of places. Ironsword put money to better use, adding shops, inns, and games of chance into the mix. And Kuros seems to have learned how to talk to nature; giant frogs, dragons, eagles, and bears have a few things to say.

Another saving grace? Having Fabio on the cover art. That's right; the legendary male model, Fabio, posed as an armor-free Kuros, possibly as a way to get female gamers interested in the product (or to just create more women interested in gaming altogether). Either way, it's one of the most memorable NES covers of all time. We salute you, Fabio. Too bad about that goose in the face incident...

Skipping ahead many chapters in the non-stop action-packed life of Kuros, we get Wizards & Warriors X: The Fortress of Fear, produced by Rare again. I can't say for certain whatever happened to Parts IV through IX, although his adventures would be continued in Wizards & Warriors III for the NES. This was the only portable entry in the series. It follows Kuros, long after the events of the other games, as he visits the Fortress of Fear in search of the captured Princess Elaine. He believes that Malkil, formerly though to have been keeping himself in seclusion, is responsible for the deed. It is indeed a fearful fortress, for no one is able to speak of survivors from that horrible place.

As a Wizards & Warriors game, it's about as bare basic as you can get. Kuros still looks about the same but controls slightly more intuitively. Your goal is to get from the left end of a level to the right, hopping from platform to platform and killing some of the most generic enemies available to the brains of mankind. Look out! A skeleton! Egad! A flying bat! Kuros walks forward, stabs some things, and moves on. Kuros is also able to unlock chests after obtaining keys and snag some gems, which actually serve no purpose in this game aside from working toward a high score.

Presentation took a hit, especially if you were raised on the previous two games of the series. Don't expect the same level of detail (being on a Game Boy, don't expect extensive detail period). The audio also is extremely repetitive, but you can turn the volume down for an improved experience. Wizards & Warriors X is a dull game on its own and an even more unimpressive entry by comparison to the rest of the series.

The game starts up right where Ironsword left off: the defeat of the wizard Malkil atop IceFire Mountain. Little did we know, Malkil's spirit was not destroyed during that epic snowpeaked battle. Malkil, with his limited remaining energy, strikes down Kuros, leaving him to perish with terrible amnesia, not remembering anything about himself or his honour. In the process, Malkil usurps the throne of a town called Piedup and becomes king. Meanwhile, Kuros wanders the forests for months, bereft of any weapons or armor, living off what he can, still unsure of his own identity. He stumbles upon Piedup and learns of the current state of affairs. Still a man seeking justice, he disguises himself in various roles, such as a thief, wizard, and even a knight, he must remain unseen and unnoticed by the new king as he gains new abilities in preparation for a final confrontation at the castle.

Unlike the previous games, Wizards & Warriors III was designed to be more open-ended. Platforming is still the primary element, but Kuros is free to explore each one to his heart's content and also travel between them freely. He also has the opportunity to essentially become a wizard, a thief, and a knight, donning their relative apparel, joining their guilds, and learning new abilities that will help him on his quest. Kuros must find statues to prove his worth to the guilds and, upon completion of this task, he is given trials to earn his new abilities. It is the equivalent of "leveling up" Kuros, and it's definitely a unique system. Kuros also cannot visit Malkil unless he finds four gems well hidden within Piedup.

Everything has taken a more cartoonish, rather than extensively detailed, portrayal. As well, the controls did not significantly improve in this iteration of the series. Wizards & Warriors III, also designed by Zippo Games, was the swan song for the series, even though it was not intended to be. The game's ending heralded a potential sequel, but it never materialized. The game also sold relatively poorly in North America compared to its predecessor, so both Rare and publisher Acclaim were likely not considering future installments. The IP rights have been tossed around a few times, but their current owner has stated there are no intentions to bring Wizards & Warriors back to the forefront. That's a shame because there is still much potential in the series once shackled to the technical limitations of the NES and Game Boy. With retro revivals still hot, Wizards & Warriors would be an interesting property to see brought back to life in the digital age.


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