Tag Archives: willow

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 #072 Hologram Time Traveler

JUMP JUMP SLIDE72 games into the Fustian Gaming Challenge, it may surprise you to learn that I am someone who cares about video game preservation.

It’s just an accident of my own birth, but I have grown up with the video game medium as we know it: the Nintendo Famicom was literally born the same year as myself, and, appropriately enough, my grandfather owned and loved the hardware offering of the “previous” generation, the Atari. Some of my earliest memories are of playing (horrible Atari) Pac-Man and, later, Super Mario Bros. I got into fights with my first real friend over what was the proper distance one could sit from the television while playing Duck Hunt. As I grew older, I remember sleepovers involving staying up to watch Saturday Night Live by alternating lives on Castlevania 3, and later having entire “parties” based around playing Super Bomberman. I’ll admit that, as a result of all this, my video game collection started not as a concentrated effort to build a video game library, but because I simply couldn’t “trade in” that copy of (the awful) Friday the 13th, lest I feel like a jackass the next time Jimmy comes over and wants to see if we can finally beat that axe-wielding maniac.

I want to say it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I really considered video game preservation. At the time, the DVD format had just come in to its own, and it seemed like every “forgotten” hit of the 80’s was back in special edition form. Actually, when I think on it, I can tell you exactly when it happened: my college buddy Moko (owner of the tiniest TV in NJ mentioned in this article) was excited about the DVD release of Willow. Alright, truth be told, we were all kind of excited about it, but he was the one actually buying it, and I seem to recall we watched it with glee and made constant references to drunken brownies for the rest of the year. But you want to know what never saw a rerelease? Willow for the NES, a YOU'RE DEADCapcom Zelda-like game that sucked up hours of my life during my younger years. It was, frankly, awful for a small child to play, because it was about as straight-forward as a Charlie Kaufman film, and its various RPG elements made just about as much sense to a young Goggle Bob as Synecdoche, New York would have. That said, with my newfound appreciation for Willow the movie, I would have loved to play Willow for the NES again as an adult, but… no dice, unless I wanted to hit any given seedy emulation site. Even beyond that, there was Willow the Arcade Game, also made by Capcom, which I had never seen before in my life, but is a damn fun game, and never saw a home release in any form. And, given how licensing works for video games, the odds of ever seeing these games on anything outside of a computer monitor are pretty dang low.

I’m sorry, where was I before I got distracted by Bavmorda? Ah yes, video game preservation. So it was somewhere in my early twenties that I decided to build a true “video game library”, with the capability of playing any video game worth playing as easily as pulling a book of a shelf. I had never traded in or discarded a single game in my life, so I already had a head start with the collection I had grown since my childhood, but now I decided to use some spare income to jockey on EBay and fill my shelves with every game I had ever rented or even heard of (which, thanks to the likes of Nintendo Power and Gamepro, was more than a few games). Again, by sheer accident of my birth year, the first time I had some significant disposable income coincided with a period of time when the old games were more “let’s get clear out the attic” cheap prices than “collector’s item” valuables that many games have graduated to today. And, no, before you ask, I don’t have any (well, many) of the insanely rare games like Little Samson (my own personal holy grail), and I’ve never given much of a flip about boxes or instruction manuals (have ‘em if they’re available, but not going out of my way). But, all told, I set out with a “shopping list” of essential classic games when I officially started this collection around ten years ago, and that list has long since been completed. See you next mission, EBay.

SO NEONThere is, of course, a giant gap in my video game collection, and that’s the arcade games. Like Willow Arcade mentioned earlier, there are a great swath of arcade games of varying quality that have never seen a living room. Yes, I just reviewed another game that had something like twenty arcade games on one disc, and I’m always down to grab the latest Midway or Taito collection of arcade games (even though half the time I’m just buying the same games over and over again), but much of what I loved in the arcades is forever out of reach. I must have sunk thousands of dollars into 90’s Beat ‘em Up cabinets over the years, but it’s only within the last console generation that we saw home versions of The Simpsons and X-Men, and the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game is currently only available as a bonus on the PS2/Xbox/GC Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Battle Nexus game, as the download version of the game alone has been removed from the digital marketplace, presumably thanks to previously mentioned licensing issues. And that’s just the big guns, so good luck playing a game of Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder.

It’s a shame, too, because the arcades were, in their time, a shining bastion of creativity in the video game universe. Thanks to video game consoles, we tend to think of video game history as a straight, continually improving line for both graphics and gameplay, but in the arcades, amazing “playable cartoons” like Dragon’s Lair hit the arcades two years before “Jump Man” decided to save the Mushroom Kingdom. Police 911, an arcade light gun game that used motion sensors to allow the player to “dodge”, saw release in 2000, and while the consoles saw a gimped port, the arcade version pioneered the motion controls that would print money for Nintendo six years later on the Wii. The arcade was, for decades, a proving ground for new and exciting ideas, and anyone could take hold of the future for a few It is tempting...measly quarters. Now, those joysticks have long since gone to the scrapheap, and all those promised futures have been long since forgotten.

Hologram Time Traveler was a noble attempt to grasp one of those futures. The HTT arcade cabinet was a sight to behold: a short, fat machine that looked like something that could clean bowling balls squatted at a random corner of the arcade projecting a tiny digitized woman begging for rescue and quarters. Yes, HTT was one of the first games to use digitized actors to tell a story, and, more importantly, it projected the lil’ troop into holograms right there, with full voice acting and costumes appropriate for the time travel motif. Your hero was a cowboy, your princess was clad in space chic, and every time you died, there was some bonkers wizard waddling around and claiming to know what you did wrong.

I played the game once, and only once, in the arcade. HTT, likely due to the advanced technology involved, was an expensive machine, demanding at least fifty cents, maybe even 75. At a time when that sum could buy maybe a full five minutes of Ninja Turtles, I wasn’t quick to bite. It was also what I’ve always privately referred to as a “controlled” game, like Dragon’s Lair, Brain Dead 13, or practically the entire Sega CD library, that basically played a prerecorded video, and it was your job to press up, down, left, right, or shoot as is appropriate, pray you guess right, and make the video proceed unabated. Assuming you pressed the wrong button (or didn’t press the right button fast enough), a freaky skull would appear, and, bang, you’re dead. Unfortunately for the player, the game was built, from head to toe, to make you dead; and even went above and beyond the average arcade experience by including a slot machine “bonus stage” that was tremendously more likely to deplete your credits than increase your life count. Combine this all with the fact that there was an arcade game that featured Binky the Rabbit like right across the aisle, and, yeah, I wasn’t coming back any time soon.

But just because a game is terrible doesn’t mean it should be forgotten. We have the entire works of Tor JohnsonI hate you available, and I assume The Room is going to be a viewing staple for a generation. Despite the costly and huge arcade hardware involved, and the obviously impossible to replicate for the living room holograms, Hologram Time Traveler did make its way to the television during the PS2 era. Yes, the game is still terrible, and, given its concessions for home release, it has only gotten worse, but the whole package is surprisingly worthwhile. The game is crap, but the disc itself contains interviews with the creator and news reports from the time of the game’s original release, and it all adds up to a lovely time capsule of the early 90’s and the arcade arms race that lead to so much innovation (and, incidentally, maybe the entire fighting genre). And, best of all, the game allows you to simply “watch” the game being played in a perfect run, which, given the difficulty of the game, was probably something only six people had previously ever seen.

As I write this, I am in the shadow of my Playstation 2 collection, a pile of DVD cases stacked on shelving that nearly reaches the ceiling. If I lived in a more earthquake-prone area, the coroner would inevitably conclude that my cause of death was, “crushed by video games, Neo Geo Battle Coliseum lodged in brain.” Be the OCD you want to see in the world. But you know what? Games like Hologram Time Traveler do make it seem worthwhile. This isn’t some one-and-done affair, a game that was snagged thanks to prerelease hype and then forgotten seven seconds after it received the sixteenth “Game of the Year” accolade that year; no, this is a piece of gaming history, preserved by people who genuinely seem to care about the medium. Yer outI might not ever actually play the game again, but it’s good to know that it’s there, that it’s available, and I can learn from its mistakes as easily as popping in a DVD.

It might be a bad video game, but it is a good memory.

FGC #72 Hologram Time Traveler

  • System: Arcade, Playstation 2. Okay, technically this isn’t a PS2 game, it’s actually a DVD (like, movie DVD) that has been modified to the point that the usual menu navigation keys on the remote work like a controller. Technically, you could “play” this game as easily on any given DVD player as the PS2, but the PS2 does seem to offer a better response time. If memory serves, this makes the PS3 impossible to use, though, as its button layout for playing movies is different. Another poor example of backwards compatibility.
  • Number of Players: Two players alternating in the arcade, just one at home. No such thing as dual DVD remote controls… though that would make watching a movie with a five year old more interesting.
  • So, you’re an arcade rat? I basically grew up on the boardwalk. Here’s a beach cam so you can watch that very boardwalk right now. You may still randomly see me on that camera, too, as I am physically incapable of change. Anyway, the boardwalk was always arcades to me, and my grandfather was always happy to oblige with, in retrospect, what must have been hundreds of dollars in quarters. I think I “beat” every worthwhile arcade machine from 8th Street to 12th (that… is a much larger area when you’re ten). I’m sure there will be at least one article in the future that will just be talking about local arcades. It will be exclusively for my amusement.
  • Lookin' goodThe goggles do nothing: This game also comes with a pair of 3-D glasses so you can enjoy the 3-D effect of holograms in your own living room. Come to think of it, how has this game not been ported to the 3DS?
  • Favorite Time Period: I did wind up playing through the game for this article, and all the time periods are basically just “random dudes running around in costumes shouting”. It… loses something when you’re not being impressed by holograms. No matter, through it all, I preferred the “Magical” Time Period, as it allowed you to finally encounter that stupid wizard in a non you’re-already-dead setting.
  • A brief downer aside: It occurs to me only as this article is about to be posted that my grandfather, mentioned earlier as a source of Atari and infinite quarters, passed away exactly four years ago today. It’s a complete coincidence that I would be writing an article that reminded me of him today of all days, so, in the name of certainly-not-irony, this article on not forgetting the past, good and bad, is dedicated to my grandfather, who was a source of particularly good moments in my past. Also, general tip for everybody, if you’re going to die, do it on a day that is already nationally remembered.
  • Did you know? According to the news report included on the game, Hologram Time Traveler was the third best performing arcade game for 1991. While I can’t immediately find any sources for this, I’m going to have to go ahead and claim, based only on the whole of history, that Street Fighter 2, also released that year, was number one. Number Two? Uh… let’s say that was… errm… Was this the year you could play Super Mario World for thirty seconds in the arcade? Let’s go with that one.
  • Would I play again: No. God no. I’m still kind of upset that I blew nearly a dollar on this in the arcades. I want my money back!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Claymates for the SNES. Woof, get ready to be buried under a mountain of putty puns. Sculpt out some time in your schedule, and please look forward to it!

Make a wish
Early Shantae inspiration?