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FGC #528 Adventure

Let's go on an adventure!Adventure was released in 1980, and many claim it was the origin of what is considered to be gaming today. Without Adventure, we wouldn’t have a template for games that feature inventory juggling, dragon-slaying, or the entire Legend of Zelda franchise. But, while even major motion pictures pay tribute to the influence Adventure had on gaming and pop culture at large, no one ever asks what happened to the venerable cast of Adventure. As the VH-1 frequently asked when I had cable: Where are they now? Let’s look into it!

The Bat

Flap flapAdventure’s most hated foe was no dragon or daunting maze, it was the aggravating bat. Just when you thought you had acquired that valuable key or chalice, the bat would come swooping in, pinch it right from your paws, and leave for parts unknown. Would you ever reclaim your lost item? Only that winged terror knows for sure.

Where is it now?

Bats have had a long, illustrious career in videogames. Did you know that bats are responsible for 90% of all deaths in the territory of Wallachia? Or that Batman finds a new and exciting excuse to utilize actual bats in nearly every game he ever visits? But these fun facts don’t get to the heart of the real question: what happened to Adventure’s kleptomaniac bat? Thievery is a very particular skill for a winged mammal, so where did that individual bat wind up? Well, if you think about it for a minute, you’ll realize the answer is obvious:

THE BAT

Aero the Acro-Bat is the most well-known thief-bat in gaming. He stole all of our hearts in 1993, and then retired a happy, prosperous bat after a reappearance on the Gameboy Advance. A true success story for the ages, and everybody knows there are no other thief-bats in gaming. None. Now be quiet, and stop eying that chaos emerald.

The Sword

Stabbin'The hero of Adventure is no swordsman (and possibly not even a man), but they don’t need to be. Sometimes a sword is all you need, and waddling over to a dragon and giving ‘em a good poke is all that’s obligatory to clear the threats out of this dungeon. The sword makes it all happen, and, while you can’t wield the sword while carrying literally anything else (you’d think a key could fit in your pocket), it is the one-size-fits-all murder weapon of choice for any and all adventurers.

Where is it now?

Sword is second only to Gun in the world of videogame weapons. Adventure may not have invented the idea of a sword-wielding adventurer, but it certainly cemented the sword’s usefulness, and the general relationship between swords and dragons (they’re not fond of each other). As a result, swords have been synonymous with adventure games ever since, practically to the point that if you see a hero with a sword, you’re already expecting to look around every corner for a hidden Triforce. Whether it is because of Adventure or not, the sword has experienced an unquestionably successful existence.

The Keys

Unlock conditionsSure, other games may have had keys, but did they have color-coded keys dedicated to color-coded gates? Nope! That was all Adventure! It wasn’t enough just to find a key, you had to find the right key, and you’d never get anywhere without it. That bridge can’t save you now, you need a golden key for a golden gate, mister. No entry allowed!

Where are they now?

Keys are synonymous with adventures, so a better question may be where aren’t they now (the answer is “your inventory”, because you used them all). One might claim that the height of “key mania” occurred back in the Playstation/N64 era, when the 1-2 punch of the Resident Evil franchise and Ocarina of Time sent those 90’s kids into a bout of key-mania. Who didn’t have a set of key-themed pogs? However, while keys don’t get the headlines as much now, they’re still out and proud, and even in ways you would never expect. Want to “unlock” that swimsuit DLC? Then you’re going to need a special key called “your credit card”. Keys are just as popular as ever!

The Mobile Bridge

A bridge too far to carryAdventure was the first game to feature a full inventory of items for your adventure (oh, I just got that), and the very biggest of them all was the mobile bridge. Sure, you may need a key or sword to conquer doors or enemies, but the mobile bridge is a goddamn freakin’ bridge. You want to get across something? Anything? It doesn’t matter, you’ve got a bridge that is four times your size, so you’re going to make it. Way to save the day, bridge!

Where is it now?

The bridge itself hasn’t seen much use in its original form since The Legend of Zelda saw a Link that occasionally had to ford rivers. But the spirit of that mobile and completely inexplicable structure is now more popular than ever. Want to play Minecraft? Fortnight? The most popular, universal titles in gaming right now all have a root in the simple joy of carrying an enormous bridge around the world, and we wouldn’t have people programming supercomputers in Mincecraft without it. The humble contribution of the mobile bridge has defined gaming in the past as much as in the modern era of lugging around an entire Home Depot in your virtual pocket.

The Magnet

It's magneticWhile there are other important items in Adventure, the magnet might be the absolute most useful. The other items are generally all “keys” (see!) that “unlock” specific conditions, like how a “sword” unlocks “a dead dragon”. The magnet, meanwhile, has unlimited utility. It, as one might expect, magnetizes any other item to your person. This makes the magnet simultaneously unnecessary and absolutely the most important thing in the maze. You can carry any item, sure, but you can’t carry any more than one item at a time. But if you’ve got a magnet, then the world is your oyster, and you can drag a parade of bridges and swords along for the ride. Bless you, magnet, you make a pause inventory completely superfluous.

Where is it now?

You hate to see it happen: the Magnet’s meteoric rise to fame happened fast and furious, as it seemed like every game after Adventure included a magnet. The peak of magnet-mania was likely Magnet’s appearance as a sentient robot in Dr. Wily’s Robot Master army in 1990. However, shortly thereafter, magnets severely dropped in popularity. Whether it was because “real” inventories gradually dropped the need for a “magnet-style” item, or because a posse of insane clowns claimed magnets couldn’t logically work was immaterial, the end result is that the once-ubiquitous magnet is now little more than a has been. Sure, magnetism sometimes appears as an innate or equippable “ability” nowadays, but being an abstract concept doesn’t pay the bills on that “Magnet Mansion” it bought with the advance from the Yu-Gi-Oh money…

Dark Areas

It's dark in hereIs there anything more important in a videogame than your field of vision? From the time Man progressed past the text adventure, Man was also encumbered by the need to see everything at all times. In Adventure, if you could see the whole of the maze from some glorious, mountaintop view, you would have no issue at all navigating its every twist and turn. But, no, you are damned to walk on the Earth, and finding your way to the sacred chalice is always a challenge. What’s more, some areas are dark, thus hampering progress with an inability to see even inches in front of your dot’s face. Oh, Dark Areas, you make simple walking a challenge.

Where are they now?

Bitch is everywhere! The darkness has crept into all of our lives, and now you can’t skulk around the labyrinths of Mars without bringing a danged flashlight. The Dark Areas of Adventure might be the single most enduring thing in gaming, as even Mario has to deal with a dark planet full of Boos every once in a blue (power) moon. Now, an attentive reader may notice that encroaching, unstoppable darkness being the greatest success story in Adventure is a bit… dark. And to that witty observation, I’d like to ask you a simple question: have you been alive this year? No further questions at this time, thank you.

The Dragons

Maybe it's not a duckThree dragons will stalk your hero, and, like Pac’s pals before them, they all have their own personalities. Or maybe they don’t! I’m not really going to test which dragon is the most angry when the end result of their collective tantrums is being devoured. I don’t want my little dot to live the rest of their days being digested, so I’m going to go ahead and hold off on the scientific studies until after this sacred chalice is retrieved. You’ll thank me later.

Where are they now?

One member of this trio was already established before Adventure. Eagle-eyed players noticed that Yellow Dragon was tucking a few extra heads behind his neck during filming, and, yes, Yellow Dragon was King Ghidorah slumming it in some videogames all along. The Godzilla money was running kind of dry in the early 80’s, and this “King” wanted to see if he could conquer a foreign market. It didn’t exactly set his career on (atomic) fire, but dude does have three mouths to feed, and a gig is a gig.

Red Dragon has similarly had a hard time establishing himself, but he has been “that dragon” in multiple projects over the years. The logo for Dragon’s Age? That’s Red Dragon. Dragon’s Crown resting on a dragon’s head? You know the dragon with that headwear. The fire dragon in any given Final Fantasy? Almost always Red Dragon (he was briefly in rehab opposite Final Fantasy 6, but it’s considered impolite to point that out). Red Dragon is well aware that red is second only to green in general dragon popularity, and all humans seem to think dragons look alike, so he’s always going to have a part. You might not always know it is him, but his IMDB page is longer than some wyrms.

And as for Green Dragon? Well, she recently got a gig with Nintendo…

THE BOTTOM

… Which makes her current popularity a real come from behind victory.

The Sacred Chalice

You can be a winnerIt’s not enough to simply find your prize in Adventure, you have to actually shlep it home. The goal of Adventure is to uncover a magical, strobing chalice, and then take it to a specific castle that may or may not be protected by cantankerous dragons. It’s a difficult quest, as you can only really carry one thing at a time, and apparently the concept of hanging onto a sword and a cup at the same time is the sort of fiction reserved for playing cards. But make it through the danger with your charmed sippy cup, and you’ll win this Adventure soundly.

Where is it now?

After decades of being replaced by every stupid glowing bauble that instantly ends your protagonist’s adventure (in a good way), we finally saw the return of the sacred, difficult-to-carry chalice in Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. It was everything Adventure had promised! Carrying a chalice was boring and unrewarding! And it made for a pretty fun game! It was confusing! And now there’s a remastered edition that can actually be played without the dreaded Gameboy Advance cable? Everything is coming up chalice!

Warren Robinett

There is a mysterious room/wall in Adventure that, should you pay attention to some very particular pixels, reads “Created by Warren Robinett”. What does that mean? Nobody knows.

Where is he now?

He’s not in the local phone book, so there’s really no way of knowing. I’m not certain who this Warren Robinett character is supposed to be, but he can’t be that important. His name doesn’t even appear in the game’s end credits (of which there are none)!

But every other thing in Adventure seems to have gone on to have illustrious careers, so most of Adventure is remembered fondly.

FGC #528 Adventure

  • I like purple, tooSystem: Originally for the Atari 2600, but also available at your local mall kiosk on one of those Chinese bootleg devices. It’s also on modern consoles in the Atari Collection, and that’s a pretty fine way to play.
  • Number of players: This is a solo adventure.
  • Maybe actually talk about the game for a second: This is the granddaddy of the Zelda-esque adventure genre, and it is downright amazing how much of this was repurposed for the genre we all know, love, and endlessly debate. That said, if you’re playing this in anything but random mode, you can probably finish easy or hard mode in all of three seconds. Were people not capable of making maps back in the day? Adventure is an amazing time capsule, but, as one of the first games with a true ending, I find it hard to believe it had to compete directly with Space Invaders.
  • Favorite Item: If you can’t figure it out from the article, the magnet is the best thing ever. I didn’t even know “magnet physics” were possible on the Atari!
  • Did you know? It never ceases to amaze me that Steven Spielberg directed Ready Player One, a film that hinges on uncovering the “credits” easter egg of Warren Robinett, and the damn overarching story or its themes don’t take a goddamn minute to consider why that easter egg exists at all. It was because Atari was trying to hide the names of the people making their games! It was a huge blow for the idea of games as art! And the people that create them being identified as artists! Switch itThis is still a huge problem thirty years after the release of Adventure, left alone in a bad future that is ruled by corporations that are clearly not crediting the creators of an army of virtual mods. But, no, it all has to be attached to a movie that is so rock stupid, it posits that no one could ever accidentally hit reverse at the start of a racing game. Bah!
  • Would I play again: Adventure is important to gaming as a whole. Will I bother to boot it up again? Nah. I can spend that whole two minutes elsewhere.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Banjo-Kazooie! Bear and bird are at it again for the first time! Please look forward to it!

FGC #514 Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

LET'S QUESTToday we’re going to talk about videogames and how you engage with videogames. Actually, screw that, we’re going to talk about how I engage with videogames.

This odyssey into madness was prompted by Random ROB choosing Dragon Quest 9: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. You may recall that ROB is now picking games from a truncated version of my master inventory of videogames, so, ultimately, DQ9 was no accident. Today’s game was always going to be picked eventually, as it is fondly remembered as one of my favorite games. In fact, I could toss out a few basic, personal facts about DQ9 immediately:

  1. It is one of my most favorite videogames
  2. It is absolutely my most favorite DS game, which is significant, as this is the system that hosted Flammole the Moleroid
  3. It is absolutely my most favorite Dragon Quest game, and the title that got me to enjoy the franchise after years of issues.
  4. I played Dragon Quest 9 for 197 hours, apparently. Given my general ADD and the wealth of alternative games I have available at any given moment, this is significant.
    That's a lot of time
  5. I never want to play Dragon Quest 9 ever again.

Considering the hours involved, that last point seems… peculiar.

To be clear, this is not a matter of burnout. For an easy example of that, consider Secret of Mana, a game that I played and replayed approximately every other day back in 1994. That was a game that, after I was wholly “done” with the experience (likely because Chrono Trigger was finally obtained), I was in no rush to repeat all over again. I had beaten the Mana Beast so many times with so many different sword techniques that I felt I was good and done with the title. But did I ever play the game again? Of course! Secret of Mana doesn’t hog my entertainment center as often as Mega Man 3 (which sees a replay at least annually), but I’ve undoubtedly returned to Randi a few times over the years. I may have “played out” Secret of Mana in its heyday, but I still feel like lapping up that nostalgia from time to time.

Dragon Quest 9? Not so much. That’s my original save file up there, and, short of a battery disaster, it’s never going anywhere. And why? Because even if I wipe that file, I’m never going to be able to play Dragon Quest 9 ever again.

BOOMIn a way, Dragon Quest 9 is a traditional Dragon Quest game from toe to tip. The basic plot, that you are a guardian angel that is torn from Heaven when a fallen angel decides to go all Morning Star on his celestial home, is little more than a framing excuse for venturing across the planet. There’s an evil empire to quash and apocalyptic demons to slay, but that’s all secondary to whatever you can do to help the next town over. They have a disease raging through their populace? Great, maybe you can kill it with a sword (and you can!). Dragon Quest 9 is a game about heroes tromping across the land, making the land slightly better, buying all of the medical herbs until the land has a shortage, and then saving the land from some manner of jerk that probably has a secret form or two. Start out saving a local inn business, finish up by rescuing God. Tale as old as time.

And, frankly, the most overt change to the Dragon Quest 9 formula here is simply a cosmetic upgrade of the good old days of the franchise, too. After years of well-defined protagonists and their distinct, sometimes dog-riding companions, DQ9 returned to the “generic” party of Dragon Quest/Warrior 3. You can create your own custom hero, and then choose three companions with their own distinct complexions and professions. Want a balanced party of the typical Knight, Monk, White Mage, and Black Mage? That’s fine! Want a party that is four re-headed thieves all named “Mona” for some reason? That’s also fine! Do what you want! There are plenty of memorable characters hanging around the fringes of DQ9, so you can create your own, wholly-silent party at your leisure. And speaking of customization, much of the equipment system and its attendant alchemy system in DQ9 seems tailor fit to encourage the player to experiment and adapt their party in new and exciting ways. Sure, you could make a beeline for all that metal slime armor, but wouldn’t it be more fun to have a character or two in a surprisingly resistant bikini? Or a celestial robe? Or just wholesale steal Alena’s outfit? There are options upon options here, and you could spend an entire day gathering the right materials (“ingredients”) to build the perfect superstar’s suit for your luminary. Assembling the perfect party, in more ways than just maxing out stats, is half the fun of DQ9, and it’s the kind of fun you don’t always see in a game where you’re ostensibly trying to “role play”.

CRAFTING!And, while these “new” features certainly account for why I played DQ9 for a “normal” number of hours, it was DQ9’s other big innovation that accounts for not only the excess hours spent playing, but also why I can never play the game again.

God help me, I loved the social aspects of Dragon Quest 9.

Looking at Dragon Quest 9 from a strictly pragmatic perspective, it was clearly a trial run for the MMORPG that was the eventual Dragon Quest 10. DQ9 eschews the typical DQ experience by allowing other players to join your party as you cooperate and quest across the land. Thus, DQ9 was designed first and foremost as a traditional JRPG, but allowed for a significant amount of wiggle room to squeeze in a guest participant or two. Or, put another way, you didn’t need a raid party to conquer that impossible boss, but it sure would be easier if your level 100 buddy stopped by. And there were more passive concessions made to the concept of making DQ massively multiplayer, too. There were quests that were released on a timed basis (causing players that had “finished” the game to return), timed online shop sales (a great reason to log in routinely), and spot-pass shared treasure maps that allowed you to share randomly generated dungeons with friends… or anyone that happened to be within wi-fi range. Since not all maps were created equal, the most massive multi-playing involved in DQ9 wound up being map swapping with as many people as possible. And regardless of whether or not map swaps were meant to be the most popular DQ9 pastime, these were all baby steps to seeing what people would want (and what the franchise could support) in DQ10. But if you were some manner of DQ purist, you could technically ignore all these add-ons and still have an enjoyable experience.

I did not ignore those MMORPG-lite features. Lacking friends that were interested in Dragon Quest (Smash Bros? Yes. 100 hour JRPGs for handhelds? No.), I drove an hour away to visit a Best Buy promotion where I was told there would be other nerds sharing maps. I got maps. I got stickers. I was a happy Goggle Bob.

Tag!

And it would be impossible to replicate that experience.

I’m not going to claim I’ve never done anything vaguely ridiculous for a videogame. I’m not even going to claim that “driving an hour for a virtual trinket” is really all that crazy. But for me, it was a singular experience. It was something none of my friends were doing, so I was forced to make a solitary trip in search of some cave full metal slimes. It was the logical endpoint of logging into DQ9 every day for sales, and checking frequently to see if a fun sidequest had become available yet. It was a time when I downloaded material maps off Gamefaqs message boards, and skulked around forums looking for alchemy recipes. There was this whole “meta game” that was a significant chunk of my life for approximately six months wherein I absorbed as much Dragon Quest 9 information from as many sources as possible. From that perspective, spending a day driving to a silly Nintendo promotion seems almost… necessary. Be glad I didn’t fly to another country or join a gang or something, Mom!

Not you againBut, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone that understands the passage of time, any kind of Dragon Quest 9 fervor eventually burned out to a mere handful of embers. All the quests were released, network services were discontinued, and, in a few short years, the idea of someone using a Nintendo DS to spotpass became as esoteric as someone using AOL to change their away message. The meat of Dragon Quest 9, the main quest and its many tangential vignettes, is always going to be there and available, but those early, tentative steps into the world of hybrid online/local multiplayer are gone forever. Sure, you can finagle a wireless modem into broadcasting the old DQ network for fun and profit, but it’s not the same. You’re never going to randomly obtain a treasure map by walking around the mall ever again (and not just because the mall closed, too). There’s never going to be another Dragon Quest 9 event at Best Buy.

So, after devoting nearly 200 hours to a videogame, I never want to play it again. Why? Because I can’t. What’s real and true and memorable about that game is gone forever, and it isn’t coming back. May as well save that file full of foreign treasure maps for future generations, and move on to something else.

Dragon Quest 9, you were an exceptional and singular Nintendo DS experience. Rest in peace, and be a beautiful, blue ghost creature forever haunting your graveyard.

FGC #514 Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

  • System: Nintendo DS. One would suppose a modern remake could rectify these issues, but then I wouldn’t be replaying the exact same game, now would I? Dragon Quest of Theseus.
  • Number of players: A whole cosmos of people… but I think only four at a time.
  • It's an innnyHey, some of these screen shots are clearly from a new playthrough: Well, yes, I did give it a try for this article. I preserved my precious save file on its cart, and attempted an emulated run of DQ9, but it only proved my hypothesis: you can’t go home again. And maybe you can’t play DQ9 after DQ11, either.
  • Speaking of Maps: The whole map system leading to unlimited, random dungeons after a game full of carefully created caves is an amazing swerve that obviously accounted for a significant amount of my playtime. That said, I was downright surprised to boot up my old cartridge and find there were a number of maps I never completed.

    Kind of redundant

    I’m sure it was just because I was too busy farming every other map in the game, but those Copper Ruins of Ruin are calling to me…

  • If you liked the MMORPG-lite features in DQ9, why don’t you play more MMORPGs? Every once in a great while, I downright enjoy getting drunk with my friends. However, that does not mean I want to become a heroin addict. I know my limits and addictions.
  • Explain your OG party member names: Robyn is my usual “female” nom de guerre, and appears often in other games. Rydia the green-haired mage requires absolutely no explanation. Felicia was initially a thief class, so she was named after a familiar Spider-Man character. And Misfit was a redhead named for another comic book character, this time a star from Gail Simone’s then-current run of Birds of Prey. I’m not certain if Misfit is still bungling around the DC Universe at this point, but someone should at least give her a try at appearing in one of the CW shows. She’d fit right in!
  • Choo chooFavorite Class: I had to work the hardest for Luminary, so that’s going to win. Also, in a game that somehow enticed me into caring about JRPG fashion, I’m always going to choose the most fashionable class.
  • Retro Challenge: There are a number of maps that feature the final bosses from previous Dragon Quest adventures. Considering I don’t think I had finished a single Dragon Quest game before DQ9’s release (does Rocket Slime count?), all of these bosses were new to me, and generally about as “nostalgic” as any other random monster. And that’s cool! It wound up encouraging me to play previous DQ titles, and now I can identify a Dhoulmagus from fifty paces.
  • Getting Around: The best airship available is a choo-choo. That is the best.
  • Did you know? As of this writing, DQ9 is the only mainline title to not see a revision/upgrade version of some kind. This is a crime.
  • Would I play again: …. Seriously?

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Castlevania: Rondo of Blood! That’s the good one! Yay! Please look forward to it!

Achoo

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 #480 Three Dirty Dwarves

DWARVES!We judge videogames by many criteria. Graphics? Inevitably important. Sound & Music? That is a must. Story? That has become vital in much of today’s gaming scene (except when it’s a fighting game). Presentation? Sheer volume of glitches? And, of course, gameplay is the king, as, if you can’t enjoy playing the game, why is it even a game at all? Without even checking the latest Gamepro ranking scale (that’s still a thing, right?), you can easily envision a hundred criteria for “what makes a good game”.

So where does “personality” fit in there? How much should we weigh a game’s personality against its other flaws?

Today’s featured title is Three Dirty Dwarves for the Sega Saturn. Never heard of it? It was also ported to Windows PC and… nothing else. Does that help? No? Okay, we’re talking about a beat ‘em up that was released for the Sega Saturn the same year we saw the likes of Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64. Yes, it seems other games stole Three Dirty Dwarves’ spotlight, and, if we’re being honest, people probably only remember a maximum of four unique titles from the Sega Saturn on a good day. Three Dirty Dwarves was not an arcade port, it did not star Sonic the Hedgehog or Sarah Bryant, and it wasn’t a game that saw every other system of the era. This was a game that was (almost) exclusive to the Sega Saturn from the same company that gave us Ecco the Dolphin and Kolibri. Let’s face it: Three Dirty Dwarves was never going to be as remembered as Tiny Tank: Up Your Arsenal.

This sucksAnd the gameplay of Three Dirty Dwarves doesn’t do the title any favors, either. It’s a beat ‘em up, but with a very unusual health/failure system. Venturing through a mutated version of The Bronx, you control one of the titular Three Dirty Dwarves. And, while 3DD firmly belongs to a genre that traditionally requires things like health bars and variations on the concept of “chip damage”, these dwarves all “die” after one hit. It doesn’t matter if it was a bite from a rat, a punch from a random mook, or some manner of meteoric fireball: everything will knock out your dwarf du jour with a single tap. But there’s still hope! As long as one dwarf remains, he can hit an unconscious dwarf with his melee attack, and we’re back in business! This means you simultaneously are constantly vulnerable and have infinite lives (in all modes save hard mode, incidentally). When you’re halfway through a level and have two dwarves down, the raw panic and drive in attempting to save your fellow warriors leaves an impression, and is an interesting spin on typical beat ‘em up formulas (a distinctive health system similar to another Sega hero). Unfortunately, that revive panic is mostly caused because your dwarves fall way too quickly, and a new monster on the screen often has equal odds on being surmountable or instantly vaporizing your entire party with the cheapest deaths possible. Did I mention you barely have any invincibility frames after losing a dwarf? Because that can lead to more than a few game overs.

And the basic beat ‘em up gameplay isn’t all that amazing here, either. You’ve got your dwarves, and they all have a melee attack, or a long-range attack that (depending on the dwarf involved) either has a long windup or cool-down period. There are also screen-clearing attacks that… clear… the screen… yeah… but require found consumables to use. Ultimately, the gameplay winds up being pretty similar to what you’d find in another game featuring at least one dwarf, and, as far as the level-to-level of battling, there isn’t much of an improvement here over a game that was released at the tail end of the 80s.

The pit bossOn a basic, “is this game good” level, an initial review would be very negative. It’s a beat ‘em up with extremely fragile beat ‘em uppers, and the occasional platforming or puzzle-esque segment is rarely welcome. It’s not a very good game, even by the more lenient standards of the late 20th century. This is not a game that should have ever come before Mario Kart 64, Super Mario RPG, or some other 1996 videogame that probably includes Mario.

But, when you get past the gameplay having its share of issues, the sheer volume of personality exuding Three Dirty Dwarves is immeasurable.

First of all, for a beat ‘em up, there is a seriously bonkers story happening here. Long (very long!) story short: a quartet of kids were grown in a lab for the express purpose of becoming genius military weapons. Or creating military weapons with their genius? Small distinction there, I suppose. Regardless, the kids are not happy with their test tube origins and eternal imprisonment, so they decided to put their amazing brainpower toward escaping. Rather than create some manner of bad key machine, the children looked toward interdimensional/interfictional travel. See, the four children play a D&D-esque game, and the dungeon master (dungeon mistress, in this case) figures out a way to pull the three other children’s roleplay avatars into the real world. Now the three dirty dwarves that were previously imaginary are in the real world and ready to save the moppets that created them. But oh no! The process also sucked all the orcs and dragons that existed in the game to the real world, too, so it’s not like the dwarves are going to have an easy time making it to the evil military’s child prison. And, of course, the military has its own collection of other, generally malevolent science experiments. And this all happens in The Bronx for some reason, so maybe watch out for some of the more malicious New Yorkers of the late 90s. Rudy Giuliani was mayor. It wasn’t a great time.

Ninja!And, while we’re talking about the monsters the dwarves have to face, let’s note that the bestiary of Three Dirty Dwarves is large and in charge. Even the best beat ‘em ups seem to collect three or five archetype characters (fat guy, skinny guy, medium guy, robot), and then repaint them across seven levels. There is variety in how some opponents may block or gain new weapons, but you’re still obviously fighting the same Two P. sprites. Three Dirty Dwarves still has standard mooks, but it offers new and interesting monsters with practically every level. The junkyard stage includes gigantic scrap mechs, while the military industrial complex offers psychic babies. And the general streets of New York may include everything from unruly police officers to naked ninja. Come to think of it, the ninja may be cops, too, it’s just hard to tell without the uniforms…

And the whole thing, from the dwarfs to their opponents to animated cutscenes, is tied together with a very unique art style. It seems like the greatest influence here would have to be Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and his iconic Rat Fink, but the whole affair gives the vibe that tattoo artists decided to make their own videogame. Could you describe the graphics as “good” in the traditional sense? Probably not, as much of what’s on display looks like it originated MS Paint, and not the console that was meant to defeat the Playstation. But it oozes personality, and I can safely say it doesn’t look like a single other game on the Sega Saturn (and not just because there are like six other Saturn games). And while we’re being superficial, the music is also wholly unique. It might not sound like anything else from this era of gaming (it leans surprisingly heavily on hip hop beats), but it slaps. It slaps but good.

Oh, and there’s a level where you fight a dragon with a wrecking ball. That’s rarely seen elsewhere, too.

Let's go!But personality or no, Three Dirty Dwarves comes down to one basic truth: it’s not all that fun to play. You might relish seeing a lady wielding duct tape as a weapon, or an inexplicable minecart level that is equally inexplicably passable, but it all works out to a game that feels more like a chore than a fun time. You’re interested in seeing what crazy thing happens next, but actually getting through a level is a stressful task.

So how should we rank personality when grading a game? It’s hard to say, but it is easy to say that Three Dirty Dwarves needs a better gameplay score to balance its personality score.

And, hey, if it had as much fun gameplay as it did personality, it might actually have been more remembered than Mario.

… Or at least it would be remembered at all.

FGC #480 Three Dirty Dwarves

  • System: Sega Saturn and a Windows version that I’m sure exists somewhere, forgotten, in the back room of a former Electronics Boutique.
  • Number of players: Three! There was apparently a Sega Saturn multitap! It was probably intended for Bomberman!
  • Favorite Dwarf: Of Corthag, Taconic, and Greg, I choose Corthag, as he’s apparently the only dwarf that decided to pick up a firearm. Greg has baseballs! Baseballs! At least Taconic went with a bowling ball. That worked out for The Simpsons.
  • Favorite Boss: Man of a Thousand Swords was “once a mild-mannered salesman from Jersey City” who collected one sword too many. Considering I always feared that would be my fate if I got into weapon collecting, I’m going to sympathetically give him the nod.
  • Tank policeIt’s All a Game: The fact that the dwarves are just the RPG avatars of the kidnapped kids rarely comes up (you can collect dice, at least), save during the ending, when the children have to roll to “control” the dwarves’ inclination toward following the bad guy for wealth and power. Considering that tabletop gaming was still extremely niche back in the late 90’s, saving this bit of nerdity for the ending seems apropos.
  • Did you know? Corthag’s favorite movie is listed as Porky in Wackyland. That’s a seven minute short! That’s not a movie! You stupid dwarf!
  • Would I play again: Maybe if there were some revised version that made everything less… stressful. The way the dwarves die so quickly is terrible on some of the longer levels, and I have no time nowadays to deal with a game where I could lose valuable minutes of my life. Unfortunately, I don’t see a remake anytime soon…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mega Man ZX Advent! It’s time for the reign of the Mega Men! Please look forward to it!

This looks familiar
This looks like a 70’s Garfield Special, and I am here for it.