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FGC #513 Willow

WILLOW IS HAPPENINGWillow is a 1988 film from George Lucas and Ron Howard that aimed to do for the fantasy genre what Star Wars did for sci-fi. It is a tale that is, at its core, Lord of the Rings all over again, with the eponymous ring switched out for an adorable baby. Other than that, it’s a truncated LotR with the numbers filed off, as a hobbit (“Nelwyn”) sets off on a journey that will marshal the many human-esque races of the land, form a mighty army, and eventually depose a violent tyrant that winds up falling to the smallest of her potential opponents (okay, technically there are the Brownies, but Willow is pretty tiny). You can call it “hero’s journey”, “blatant plagiarism”, or whatever you’d like, but it still boils down to a well-made film with fun and fantasy involved in equal measure.

But if you were Capcom in 1988, and had to make a videogame based on the film, what would you do? There are a couple options available, so maybe you would…

Focus on the adventure! Make it a rollicking action game!

It's the chaseBefore we even hit the 90’s, Capcom knew how to make an action game. There was Mega Man. There was Ducktales. There was even Final Fight. But perhaps the greatest influence on what would become Willow: The Arcade Game was Ghosts ‘n Gobilins. We have a similar plot here, right? A hero that is dramatically out of his depth battles a horde of monsters and magical creatures, and the player enjoys running, jumping, and shooting various weapons. You’ve got a perfect template for medieval machinations right there, so why mess with a good thing? Whether you’re slicing up dog-boar monsters or skeletons, jump ‘n shoot is an entertaining time for anyone with a quarter or two.

And, as was seen in other Ghosts ‘n Goblins games, that kind of gameplay allows for some pretty interesting set pieces. Willow riding a raft down a turbulent river while assaulted by magical fish seems fairly familiar, but you’ve also got a thrilling chariot escape from a drunken brawl, and a sled ride that was not at all eventually stolen by a certain hedgehog. Willow was an action-packed movie, dammit, so you’ve got some amazing action in store for the arcade experience. There are even epic bosses that recall memorable scenes from the film, like a battle against the twin-headed troll-hydra, or that one ersatz Darth Vader with the skull helmet. And the final battle may involve a magically enchanted urn, but it’s also a pure wizard duel between an evil queen and Willow. Nobody is relying on a former ferret to save the day here!

And that’s a bit of a problem.

Off with his head!One could argue the whole point of Willow (film) is that Willow (character) kind of… sucks. He’s a little dude, and not built for combatting a world filled with great big dudes. He’s not even physically menacing among his own people, as the opening of the film sees him setting out on his adventure with a cadre of companions that are more likely to effectively swing a sword. But he’s got magic, right? He’s not a knight, he’s a mage? Yeah, well, the whole point of that little hero’s journey is not that he’s an adept magician in the whole “transform a goat into an ostrich” realm of magic, he’s much more proficient at sleight of hand and general trickery. He’s a thief trying to use his MP pool! And, if this sounds crazy, look at how Willow wins the day in the film: the final victory is achieved not through the wizarding world, but by Willow using his “hide the pig” trick. Willow saves everyone through guile and bluff, not whipping his wand around.

So it’s a departure for the character to see super-powered Arcade Willow. Sure, A.W. starts with a piddling little magic shot that would make a Crystal Lake counselor sneer in derision, but purchase a few upgrades with nearby treasure, and Arcade Willow becomes an elemental monster. He can summon tornados, explosions, and a crystal shield that blocks practically an entire screen’s worth of projectiles. He can also transform opponents into gold, or just plain freeze time if he feels like bending the laws of physics. Arcade Willow has no problem with magic. Arcade Willow has no problem with taking out an entire army. Arcade Willow is become Death, and you damn well better get out of his way.

It is empowering to control Arcade Willow, as he is going to save this world through magic the likes of which this world has never seen. Bavmorda can turn dissenters into pigs? Well Arcade Willow is going to turn her entire country into bacon.

But if we’re going to complain about Arcade Willow being too powerful, maybe we should look at the alternative…

Focus on the quest! Make it a RPG-Adventure hybrid!

WILLOW!Willow for the Nintendo Entertainment System is a very different animal from its arcade counterpart. First and foremost, it is an adventure game in the vein of The Legend of Zelda. How legend of Zelda is it? Well, you’ve got a sword, shield, and a magical ocarina that summons a flying creature that will take you to one of a few different preset locations. It is very Zelda. In a way, Willow almost feels like a missing link between the two NES Zelda titles. Your general controls, perspective, and inventory options are reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda, but the frequent towns and an emphasis on talking to villagers and completing “fetch quests” to proceed to more complicated dungeons is very The Adventure of Link. And there’s magic! Willow gets a variety of magical options, from summoning thunder to actually offensively utilizing that magical cane. This is a Willow that is kitted out for a globe-trotting adventure!

Too bad NES Willow can’t actually use anything in his inventory.

Okay, technically any videogame character can become a god with the right player. There are likely tool-assisted speedruns of Willow wherein the player masterfully utilizes every skill in Willow’s prodigious bag of tricks. But speaking as someone who has played Willow as a child and an adult? NES Willow sucks. His sword range is abysmal. His magic points are never plentiful enough to tackle the myriad of monsters that are immune to weapons. There’s exactly one sword that will damage “magic”, and it’s about as offensively effective as a gentle breeze. And, speaking of which, practically every enemy that isn’t a slime has more HP than Willow can comfortably manage, Stabby stabbyso running from battles is often the correct answer. Oh, wait, that can’t be right, because the final area has a distinct experience threshold, so if you don’t take the time to murder everything from Nelwyn Town to Nockmaar Castle, you’ll be stuck grinding for those final, essential levels. And, if you’re curious, that level threshold is 13. It will take you an entire game’s worth of experience points to reach level 13. I’m pretty sure the Light Warriors reached level 13 before they got out of bed …

And it’s hard to ignore how that might be the point.

NES Willow sucks. He’s a poor swordsman, a middling magician, and literally every monster, from shielded skeletons to dual-headed ogres, can (and likely will) kill Willow without much of a thought. It requires a lot of practice and expertise to steer Willow through his world without dying to every other gigantic snake creature that blocks his path. Give him every spell, item, and sword in the world, and NES Willow is still likely to lie bleeding on the path outside his hometown because some manner of giant bug got the drop on him. NES Willow is not prepared for this journey that has been thrust upon him. He should be farming turnips, not Nockmarr hounds!

And, in a way, this terribly troublesome NES game captures the spirit of being Willow much more than its arcade counterpart. Willow is out of his depth! He has to learn to believe in himself, but it’s going to be a long road down a very dangerous path to get there. He technically has all the tools he’ll ever need, but it’s going to take ingenuity and gumption to conquer all the challenges that lie before him. It’s not raw strength that’s going to win this battle, but carefully managing not only your own resources, but also enlisting the help of others. NES Willow isn’t going to save the world alone, but he might be able to pull it off with a small army of eclectic assistants.

And that’s exactly how Willow saves the world in his titular film. The Willow NES game perfectly captures the feeling of a hero out of his depth and attempting to do the right thing against a mountain of nigh-insurmountable obstacles.

It’s just a lot more fun to play as demi-god Arcade Willow.

What would be the best way to make a videogame based on Willow? Hell if I know, but at least we got two desperate attempts that are both admirable in their own ways.

FGC #513 Willow

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System for the version you could (legally) play at home, and an arcade version for those of you that could ever find such a thing.
  • Number of players: Willow is on a solitary quest.
  • How did Madmartigan make out? In the arcade version, ol’ Mads is a selectable character, and his sword powers have shorter range than Willow, but they will chop down enemy projectiles. So he’s basically Zero. In the NES version, he never appears without being tied up. This is a very nice development for S&M Val Kilmer enthusiasts, but it means that Madmartigan is literally never useful in the console version. Hell, if you hadn’t seen the movie, you might assume Madmartigan was some manner of perversion of the usual “captured princess” trope. He does wind up exiting the game madly in love…
  • WeeeeeeStory Time: In both cases, the overall story of Willow is changed for the game adaption. This is presumably because you can’t have a decent videogame with the main protagonist strapped to a baby at all times. In fact, while Elora Danan does cameo, her macguffin role is replaced by a couple of elemental crests in the NES version. So if you’re looking for a situation where a female character is replaced by literally a rock in a videogame, here’s your easy example.
  • Vaguely Unsettling: In the NES version, there’s an old woman alone in a house that asks that you rescue her talking bird creature, Po. She provides healing herbs, and, after you find Po, those herbs heal him to the point that he becomes a valuable ally/warp zone. And then the old lady that set you to finding Po… just sits there silently for the rest of the game. She only says “…”, heals Willow, and then continues to never utter a peep. What happened there? I have no idea, but thinking about the ramifications is scarier than anything I’ve ever seen in Resident Evil.
  • Also Unsettling: Some gray wizard thingy can transform Willow into a pig, recalling the infamous scene in the film when Madmartigan and pals are transformed into swine via the most traumatizing G-rated body horror this side of Steven Universe. Glad to see that little bit made an impact on the staff at Capcom, too.
  • Squeal!Time Sink: For the record, Willow Arcade seems to last about as long as the average arcade game from the era, clocking in around 40 minutes to an hour. Willow NES is something of a proper adventure game, and took me around 5 hours from start to finish. And, to be clear, that is without cheating my way into infinite exp or consulting online maps every three seconds. Given Willow NES forsook a save battery for complicated passwords, I’m faultlessly willing to call this a sin against humanity.
  • An end: Willow wins, saves the world, let’s all have a party. Whatever. The real meat of the Willow NES ending is the credits that make absolutely no sense. Program by DAVID BO0WY and MOE? Monster design by Tom-Pon, Fish Man, and Tall Nob? Special thanks to Hearty.J? Supervision by Lucas Film? That sounds fake.
  • Did you know: Both IGN and Nintendo Power ultimately named the NES version as one of the best games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. You can do nothing to dissuade me from the belief that these writers played the game with save states, and from a modern perspective of playing the game with a FAQ (and hindsight). Anyone that ever had to grind castle guards for hours so they wouldn’t bungle into a literally unwinnable boss fight would not declare Willow to be the best anything.
  • Would I play again: No thank you. I told myself I would complete Willow from start to finish (and no password cheating) for this blog, and I have completed that task. I have saved the world as a hobbit with a pig sticker, and now I’m done with that. Willow for NES is interesting, but it isn’t the most fun experience.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Dragon Quest IX for the Nintendo DS! Now we’re talking swords and sorcery! Please look forward to it!

This is a sad dragon

FGC #120 Lego Star Wars: The Video Game

BUM BUM BUMLego Star Wars: The Video Game started the Lego video game franchise, and, arguably, revitalized Lego itself as a brand for an entire generation. Obviously, there’s a direct line between Lego Star Wars and the eventual Lego Indiana Jones or Lego Marvel Super Heroes games, and I’m also of the belief that we would never have seen the fantastic Lego Movie and the forthcoming Lego Batman without the success of this one game. Lego Star Wars: The Video Game was the cornerstone of an entire media empire.

And I want to say it was an accident.

LSW:TVG was developed by Traveller’s Tales, a British video game development studio founded in 1989. Want to hear some of their pre-Lego output? Well, this was the studio behind the video game adaptions of Weakest Link, Finding Nemo, and Toy Story. But wait! TT also worked with established gaming mascots like Sonic the Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot… in Sonic R, Sonic 3D Blast, and Crash Twinsanity. Woof. Your mileage may vary, but Mickey Mania, a 16-bit title featuring Mickey Mouse traipsing through a number of his classic cartoons, seemed to be the only Traveller’s Tales developed video game that could be described without saying “it’s fun, but…” before 2005.

Also, don’t confuse Mickey Mania with Disney’s Magical Quest: Starring Mickey Mouse. Magical Quest was Capcom, and it was unequivocally astounding.

But let’s not spend all day insulting Traveller’s Tales releases, lets also look at horrible Star Wars games. Practically from the moment the You build 'em, you drag 'em aroundmedium was invented, there have been a lot of Star Wars games. It only makes sense, as practically everything in Star Wars translates well to the idea of a video game, from laser duels to space shooting to Han Solo having a dance off against Lando. Unfortunately, your average Star Wars video game… sucks. Like, really horribly sucks. The Atari games were passable, but still very much Atari games. The Super Star Wars trilogy was faithful to the series, but also nearly impossible. And then there’s the glut of games that decided to just focus on some random bit of Star Wars “gameplay”, like the abhorrent fighting game Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi, or that wretched Star Wars Episode 1: Racer. Star Wars games have gotten better in recent years, but I maintain that the best Star Wars game still sits in another franchise. It’s the best Han Solo fanfic out there!

So, given that history, Traveller’s Tales and Star Wars together should not have been any more historic than Muppet RaceMania. And throwing in the Lego franchise, too? What was that supposed to do? Lego is meant for block building, for unfettered imagination that doesn’t require a controller. Sure, everyone has fond memories of Legos, but we all have fond memories of eating boogers, too. You get over it.

But here’s Lego Star Wars: The Video Game and it’s pretty alright. Thanks to Lego figures (minifigs) being literally made for easy customizations, LSWTVG features a whopping 56 playable Star Wars characters. Right off the bat, that’s awesome, because it seems like game designers have a tendency to ignore how very badly the public wants Darth Maul and Darth Vader to hang out. Hell, you could probably sell an entire series on the promise of a Star Wars Universe ping pong tournament. Padme and Leia playing doubles against Anakin and Han… admit it, you’d line up for presales. Lego Star Wars exploits this desire wonderfully, and even creates some memorable moments with its expansive cast.

Weesa gonna dieLSWTVG has ridiculously simple, “easy” gameplay. For instance, you can’t die. Well, you can “die”, but you respawn immediately, and the only consequence is losing a few studs (basically points). The gameplay is essentially closest to being a beat ‘em up, but there are no combos or complicated button presses. Just jump, attack, and “special”. Special, at least, is where the game shines. In order to make the huge cast more distinctive, every character gets a unique action to their class, like Jedi can use the Force to shove blocks around, or gungans can inexplicably jump high. Some of the classes seem like a stretch (blaster characters, like Amidala, get grappling hooks, and “small” characters like Anakin can fit into tight passageways), and, if you think about it, the Force users should have all abilities (Qui Gon can jump higher than Jar Jar and you know it!), but it all blends into a fun reason to switch around between Star Stars. Maybe “beat ‘em up” is the wrong genre… puzzle platformer? Is “remember which character is a Jedi” a puzzle? Is it still a puzzle game if the puzzles are for kindergarteners?

So Lego Star Wars: The Video Game is fun, but is it enough to launch a franchise? Yes, it’s fun for kids and parents alike, but you don’t see Nicktoons Racing setting the shelves ablaze. And keep in mind that this game was released in 2005, well past the time when “run jump maybe shoot” could launch a six part series. This was the same year the perennial Shadow the Hedgehog was released. LSWTVG was a better than average Star Wars game… so why the love?

Well, I think it’s a matter of timing. LSWTVG was released in 2005… before the release of Star Wars Episode 3. Want to know what’s going to happen in the upcoming, highly anticipated finale of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy? Well here’s your answer, wrapped up in a fun game! Sure, it’s a game that looks and plays like it’s made for babies, but it has answers. Sweet, delicious answers!

Never underestimate a nerd’s desire to know what happens next. If the finale to Game of Thrones was written on George R. R. Martin’s ass, you better believe Gamestop would make a killing selling combination bifocals/nose plug sets.

So sadI take it back, Lego Star Wars: The Video Game wasn’t an accident. If there’s a franchise in this universe that knows how to merchandize, it’s Star Wars. Knowing full well the fan reaction, LSW:TVG was released ahead of Episode 3’s cinematic masterstroke (citation needed). A “pretty alright” game was instantly grabbed up by children, parents, and lonely, spoiler starved nerds alike. The masses catapulted LSW:TVG’s sales into the stratosphere, and it became one of the best selling games ever for the Playstation 2. And a franchise birthed a whole new franchise.

And, really, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of minifigs.

I said it before, didn’t I? Traveller’s Tales games were never that great… but they rarely received sequels, too. Sonic R? There’s obviously a great game featuring Sonic and his pals racing (and has the subtitle “Transformed”), but we weren’t going to see it on a maiden voyage across the stormy Saturn seas. Lego Star Wars: The Video Game wasn’t all that great, but it succeeded. And that begat Lego Star Wars 2, and then Lego Other Franchises, and now, today, we have fully-realized, amazing Lego game experiences like Lego Marvel Whatever or Lego City Undercover. The series may have exploited a “cheat” to get there, but now we’ve got complete Lego Worlds to play with.

I guess you could say Lego Star Wars: The Video Game was some kind of… building block.

FGC #120 Lego Star Wars: The Video Game

  • Pew PewSystem: Playstation 2, Xbox, Gamecube, PC, OS X, and Gameboy Advance. Game gets around.
  • Number of players: Two, simultaneous, and the game is just plain perfect for playing with a younger sibling, child, or someone who is just plain bad at video games thanks to the nigh invulnerability of minifigs. It’s like someone finally remembered the best feature from Kirby Super Star.
  • Forgetting something? Oh yeah! There are all these vehicle stages to break up the monotony of playing as an adorable lil’ Lego man (or woman). They’re… not that great. But at least they’re not long!
  • Mission Complete: And, yeah, I suppose thanks to the “easy” gameplay, I was subconsciously forced to collect every doodad and stud hidden in this game. All minifigs unlocked (yay Kit Fisto![?]), and my lil’ Lego hangar is the swankiest.
  • Other Tales: Never confuse Traveller’s Tales for Telltale Games. Two tooooootally different companies.
  • Favorite Character: General Grievous, who is quad-wielding lightsabers, and thus the best possible character available. No stupid cough for this cyborg!
  • LAVA!Did you know? According those that combed the code, Spaceman Ben, classic blue Lego astronaut, was planned for this game, but scrapped. That silly shapeshifter assassin from Episode 2 was also supposed to be in there, but who cares?
  • Would I play again: Another “I love this game but there are better sequels to play” situation. At least this one offers that unique Star Wars Prequels flavor, but if it comes down to this or Spider-Man, I know which one I’m going to choose.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Chameleon Twist for the N64! Let’s (Chameleon) Twist again, like we did last (N64) Summer! Please look forward to it!

The Gaming 5 #5 Mother 3

Note that this post contains massive spoilers for Mother 3. I’ll warn you when they’re about to get rotton, but if you want to experience the game clean, you’ve been warned.

Go fridgeWhy is it on this list?

The four preceding games are all “games” first and foremost: yes, there’s a story, heroes that grow, and villains to be defeated, but the primary focus of all of these games is the actual experience of playing the game. In a way, they are a miniscule step up from sports: you can play a game of football, but that game won’t be about something, the best you can hope for is to win, or at least to improve your own skills. Give it a few playthroughs, and nobody cares about Sigma, he’s just the last obstacle before completing the challenge.

This, of course, isn’t to say that there can’t be intricate stories hiding within even the thinnest plots. Super Metroid stars Samus Aran, a woman who, to my knowledge, only speaks “in game” during the introduction of one game out of three, and even that “dialogue” could rearrange a few pronouns to make her a complete mute. In spite of this (or perhaps because of it), even though Samus only had a total of three games between 1986 and 2002, she somehow acquired a number of apparently fan-attributed personality traits. Samus is brave and determined and solitary in her dangerous missions… uh…. like every video game character that stuck around long enough to topple the final boss. Regardless, look at the backlash against Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Other M for sullying the good name of Samus Aran… a character that had previously been little more than a player cipher. The reality is that Samus could either bulldoze everything on Zebes, or cower and never fire a shot to do anything more than defeat a boss or open a door, it was entirely up to the player.

But this is important, and it’s just as much a part of video games as jumping and shooting. More than any other medium, you are the protagonist in nearly every video game ever released. You may relate to Harry Potter, you might admire Schwarzenegger’s latest role, but it’s only in the realm of video games that you so totally inhabit a character. It’s no great surprise, really, as prior to the advent of cinema scenes, you controlled literally every movement of your digital hero for hours, so it’s only natural to feel a close bond with that tubby plumber or little metal boy you’ve been guiding all this time. Who needs virtual reality? We’ve been living it ever since the first person got into the headspace of that long, white paddle (no, it’s not just a vertical rectangle, that’s silly).

So if you get the same feeling from Super Mario Bros., why Mother 3?

Because Mother 3 knows.

For anyone that is reading this site exclusively because they like the sound of my voice in their head, and not because they like video games (hi, Mom!), Mother 3 is the sequel to Earthbound, aka Mother 2. Mother 3, like the rest of the series, was the brainchild of Shigesato Itoi, a name that Powmeans nothing to most Americans, but a fellow that has made quite a name for himself in Japan as a writer. Like… a for real writer, not someone who had to fill up a cutscene with words so “Over 40 hours of gameplay!” can be stapled onto the back of a box. Hey, I admire you, video game writers, it can’t be easy to get JRPG Protagonist #371 to prattle on about friendship for an entire scene and make it seem fresh (or at least not completely horrible); but Itoi was a writer first and foremost, which is very different from the rest of the video game industry where that skill appears to be valued somewhere below “guy who models armhair”.

Itoi started with Mother 1 (and, before I go any further, I want to be clear that I’m not claiming Itoi was solely responsible for these games, as Earthbound in particular was obviously a labor of love for other luminaries in the industry… there’s just an unmistakable tone that runs through all three games, and I find it hard to believe that kind of thing could originate from any more than one dedicated person), a game that was meant to emulate (the big in Japan) Dragon Quest series. It had its fun moments, but it was way too opaque for much of the game, and the charm that would define the following installments was buried under a crushing difficulty. Mind you, this was pretty much standard for JRPGs of the NES era, so whaddya gonna do?

Earthbound, Mother 2, still cribbed heavily from the Dragon Quest series (which, by the SNES era, was becoming about as relevant as Kabuki Quantum Fighter in the West), but anyone willing to deal with its “dated” graphics and gameplay was in for a treat. This was where the meta-elements of the Mother series really came to the forefront, and while it could all be seen as nothing more than silly jokes to a child player, a mature gamer might recognize the variety of components on display that, in their way, mocked the very concept of video games from within a video game. In order to read a sign warning of the dangers of stepping on the grass, you must stand on the grass. A city where everything is the opposite of how it should be proves how a simple switch between Cup o' Joeyes and no really means little when you understand what will happen. A village that caged itself in is convinced that their confinement is an illusion and it’s the outside world that is trapped. A statue gets you high, a stone calls to you, and a rock speaks words. I always disparage the thinking that someone “was so high” to create something creative, but the entire game feels like a trip: something just outside reality so you can return and experience life in a new way. Earthbound may reflect the real world, but it is a fantasy first and foremost, and its tone reminds you to just have fun with it.

Mother 3, though. Mother 3 is reality.

It’s amusing that Mother 3 is the Mother game most based in a fantasy world. Mother 1 & 2 were both set in a modern, suburban environment… albeit one with psychic powers, giant pencil statues, and invading aliens. Mother 3, meanwhile, is tucked into a rural village that has a few modern conveniences at the start, but there’s no reason this couldn’t be some corner of an early Final Fantasy world (or maybe Wild Arms. I do see a cowboy hat). But while the setting is absolutely important to the game, what’s more important are the characters, and, specifically, your character. Yes, you “play as” your entire party (and one mischievous monkey) at one point or another during this game, but the central protagonist, and the number one body you inhabit during this adventure is that of Lucas, a young boy with a mother, father, grandfather, and brother.

This is about where the spoilers get intense… so click to proceed.