FGC #273 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

ThwipRobin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a NES movie tie-in game. We just covered Home Alone, released the same year, and that was a game that contained one stupid concept that was supposed to stretch over twenty minutes. RH:PoT is Home Alone’s bizarro evil twin (is that redundant?) , while HA did one thing poorly, Robin Hood attempts to do everything possible on the NES. And, head’s up, it still does it all poorly.

It’s a movie game!

First and foremost, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a licensed NES version of Kevin Costner’s film of the same name. Does… does anyone remember Costner’s Robin Hood? I saw it in theatres when I was a wee Goggle Bob, and I remember exactly two things about the movie: it was boring, and my dear mother had a minor freakout over an incredibly chaste sex scene that I can only vaguely recall. That’s… about it. However, I would have more fond memories of the movie if, like in the videogame, there was…

Dem Bones
A GIANT FUGGIN’ SKELETON MONSTER.

RH:PoT does its best to follow the will of Costner, but I apparently wasn’t the only one who was generally bored by the film. In addition to the basic stuff like Robin must befriend Little John and defeat the Sherriff of Nottingham, there are quite a few (mandatory) “side missions” on Robin’s to-do list. I guess there’s a rampaging boar attacking the countryside? Well, slaying that is a good way to earn the people’s trust. Then it’s time to take Robin’s Merry Men on a quest to get some actual weapons training. That’s probably a good idea, too. And, for some reason, everybody gets a bad case of the runs (maybe after eating that boar?), so Robin has to find a magical healing spring. Nothing like mystical bodies of water to keep the gang going.

Okay, let’s face it, with the exception of the boar, everything above sounds like a bore. But it does pad out the run time of the game… which is kind of weird for a NES game. This was well before the “80 hours of gameplay” bullet point, and, again, contemporary release Home Alone could only provide 20 minutes of gameplay. It’ll take you that long to get out of the first dungeon (literally a dungeon, for a change) of Robin Hood. That could have been the whole game! Nobody would have been upset! But no, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves has so much more to offer, likely to justify…

It’s got the inventory from hell!

I don't know what to do hereWith the exception of a few random bits we’ll be discussing shortly, you exclusively control Robin of Loxley for the majority of this game. Yet you pick up two new party members within the first screen, and gradually accrue more and more buddies from there. What’s the point when you’re only ever Robin? Simple: Robin can only carry six items at a time, and you’re going to need much, much more inventory space to conquer England. Robin needs to recover health, and Duncan has got some meat, so pass that ham over here, blindy, it’s time to top off the ol’ HP. I knew there was a reason we were keeping you around!

Unfortunately, this whole system goes downhill really quickly. To say it’s overcomplicated is kind of an understatement: Robin has multiple “body” slots, and an item like an amulet that proves your lineage can be “equipped” on any given body part (Hand? Chest? … Do amulets go in your pants?), or “used”, or even “eaten” if you want Robin to have to make a quick run to the healing spring. But first you have to remember which one of the knuckleheads in your party has the jewelry in the first place. Morgan Freeman, you got it? No? Little John? Nope? Dammit, did one of you dorks pawn that priceless family heirloom for beer money? I need that thing for a fetch quest, dammit!

And a quick side note, absolutely nothing about this inventory system is at all “necessary”. Final Fantasy (1) of 1987 solved the whole “try every inventory item everywhere” conundrum with its separate item, equipment, and key items slots… but Robin Hood didn’t get the memo, I suppose. Hey, Virgin Games? The NES controller only has four buttons. Maybe we could cut down a little on the bloat? Then again, bloat seems to be the name of the game, as…

It’s got four different gameplay modes!

They're made of dynamiteYou are Robin Hood. You are in a top-down, Zelda-esque environment. This seems to make sense, as you’re using keys and finding secret passages and battling guards in various Zelda-esque ways. You’re not going to be lucky enough to find any heart containers, but, aside from the thick layer of brown that’s been smeared all over this game, a lot of Robin’s adventure seems almost like a lost prototype for The Legend of Zelda 2. Okay… maybe Willow 2. Still! Not bad!

But then, after stabbing a guard down in top-down perspective, the second guard in the first area of Robin Hood suddenly initiates a “duel” system, and now you’re in a 2-D perspective that seems like some kind of weapons-based Street Fighter analogue. It’s time to d-d-d-d-d-duel, and it’s exactly as fun as repeatedly poking an opponent with an ineffectual stick can be. On the plus side, though, Robin suddenly has amazing ninja jumping skills, so he can leap eight feet in the air and somersault across the screen. Or roll around the ground like the sprightliest of hedgehogs. And I’m sure this isn’t all just to save on the animation budget. No, there was a lot of somersaulting in the movie, right?

And then, of course, post duel everything is back to top-down, because I guess that one guy was worthy of a duel, but every one of his identical buddies is just going to get stabbed in typical Zelda-style. It’s the NES-era, there doesn’t have to be a reason for anything.

Speaking of top-down, every once in a while you will be informed that “many” soldiers/enemies/skeletons are coming, so it’s time to zoom the camera way the hell out, convert all the sprites to something that would be comfortable on the Atari, and become Gauntlet: No Fun Edition. These “army fights” are the only spots where Robin’s Merry Men get to shine… and by “shine” I mean they all die instantly because they stand in front of the one dude shooting arrows like he’s on a CW drama. You-as-Robin must inevitably kill every last army opponent, because you can’t count on NES AI to do anything, and I suppose you’re expected to heal your now mortally wounded teammates after every skirmish. But what’s the point? They’re just going to die instantly again, one way or another. Nihilism, thy name is Robin Hood.

And then there’s an entire other mode for when you’re riding horseback. And it’s a lame knock-off of the Turbo Tunnel! Nobody wanted anything like that!

It’s a terrible NES game!

I say thee neighOn one hand, I want to laud Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for trying so much when then average NES game offered so little. On the other hand, I feel like half the problems in this game are a result of design excess continually leading to further excess. You’ve got extra characters, so there has to be a battle mode to justify them, even if it isn’t any fun. There’s an inventory system that involves disproportionately intricate management, so let’s have 900 useless items. There are “significant” battles, so let’s make a half-baked entirely new mode for each “boss”… or any creature that remotely looks like a boss. And horses! We need to have a whole new world for horses! Horses are cool!

Unfortunately, and fairly obviously, none of these systems mesh together into anything approaching a fun experience. Robin Hood: Princes of Thieves might be the most robust licensed game on the NES… but it’s just about as fun as Home Alone.

Sorry, Virgin Games, no points for trying.

FGC #273 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System. … Wait, there’s a Gameboy version, too?
  • Number of players: The stupid army segments might almost be passable if they allowed a second player to help out, but nope. Or, oh! A two-player duel mode! Could base an entire franchise on that.
  • You have failed this quiver: Robin Hood does get a bow pretty early, and it is nice to have a long-range weapon handy. Unfortunately, this Robin isn’t very dexterous, and “strafing” is pretty much beyond him. As a result, while the bow is useful for sniping melee opponents, Robin will always lose against some other dink with a bow. And then it’s back to that super fun inventory system to juggle over a more apt weapon…
  • Devil’s in the Details: Each character has a “look” command, and it’s your typical “describe the item” narration to help you distinguish a blob of pixels that maybe looks like a potion from a blob of pixels that maybe looks like bread. However, if you try to use Duncan’s “look” command…

    Poor guy

    … Poor Duncan.

  • Favorite Merry Man: Azeem is found just chilling in his cell, but he tells Robin he dug a secret passage out of the prison like five feet over. Was… was Azeem just waiting for some white dude to come along so he could help his escape? Huh. Little John’s “has a stick” kind of pales in comparison.
  • Filthy Cheater: There’s a complete “start on any chapter” password system that is accessible with a secret code. Unfortunately, the passwords will often start you off in levels where you need some particular item, and, nope, it’s completely inaccessible now. Karnov asks: why bother?
  • Did you know? They accidentally switched the character portraits for Guy of Gisbourne and The Sherriff of Nottingham. This is yet another slight that Alan Rickman was forced to endure.
  • Would I play again: Not for all the gold in Sherwood.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Arcana Heart for the Playstation 2! Wow, we went a while without a fighting game. Almost hard to believe. Now it’s time for teenage girls to fight for the amusement of perverts! Please look forward to it!

Ugh
Just roll with it

One Response »

  1. I’m sure I’d notice a lot more of the rough spots and general jankiness if I replayed it today, but that Robin Hood movie tie-in was certainly ambitious for an NES game. Basically it’s like they tried to cram a computer game into an NES cart, poorly implemented mini games and all.

    Anyway, if I remember correctly, Duncan “disappears” after the Celts mission, which is around the point where he died in the movie. But unlike the guy who’s mortally wounded during the prison escape the game never acknowledges his demise, so it’s kinda weird?

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