Retrospective Monday: Legacy of the Wizard

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Title: Legacy of the Wizard
Year: 1987 (JP), 1989 (NA)
Platform: NES, MSX
Publisher: Namcot, Brøderbund
Developer: Nihon Falcom, Quintet

A bit of history: in the mid to late ‘80s, the big three names in RPGs in Japan were Enix, Square, and, not Atlus, but Nihon Falcom. Falcom, who most people know for the Ys series (which range from great to awful), but they actually got their start in the RPG market with their action-RPGs, the Dragon Slayer series. Released for the FM-7 computer (and later the PC-88, with an MSX port by Square) in Japan, Dragon Slayer became the smash hit of 1984, and it can be seen as one of the original action-RPGs.

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Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family is the fourth installment of Falcom’s series, released in 1987, around the time that Ys: Ancient Ys Vanished Omen (oh boy), the first Ys game came out. For its North American release (NES), it was retitled Legacy of the Wizard, and I’m not sure how it was initially critically reviewed, but Falcom must have felt like they were on top of the world.

After doing some research, I also realized that Quintet was involved with Legacy of the Wizard, which adds some intrigue. Quintet, known for developing the flawless ActRaiser (1990), among other SNES RPGs, apparently first had their hand in Legacy of the Wizard. Well, it better be good then.

When image googling Legacy of the Wizard, what always comes up are a few of these insane-looking, colorful maps. It looks intense, and the bright, dynamic colors make the map seem joyful, fun, whatever. This was one of those games I owned for the NES that every once in awhile, would be played for about twenty minutes, and then abruptly shut off. I’d truly like to believe that people (kids, no less) finished this game when it was new, without FAQs and online peer aid, but I doubt it.

Click for larger picture

Click for larger picture

The story of the game goes something like this: we have the Drasle family (DRAgon SLayer, get it?), which the instruction manual refers to as the “Draslefamily” and Wikipedia refers to as the “Worzen” family for some reason. There’s woodcutter dad Xemn, Meyna, his wife and wizard, their children, Roas, the doofus, who I imagine is like Ben from Dr. Katz, and Lyll, who is listed as “Elf” in the credits. There’s also Pochi, the dog, but is actually a Bubble Bobble monster. And we have Jiela and Douel, the grandparents, who are in charge of passwords.

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One day, Pochi comes home, probably reeking of sewage, with a dragon scale in his teeth. Long ago, grandpa sealed the dragon away in the sewer (or is it their basement?) under the Drasle family’s log cabin. Everyone panics and Xemn decides he must enter the sewer, find the DragonSlayer, a sword, by collecting crowns (?), and defeating the dragon. His family decides to help him out for whatever reason.

The idea that this family living in a log cabin has this labyrinth underneath it and that different family members go into this endless, multi-colored labyrinth one at a time and that the grandparents are in charge of an annoyingly long password system is really charming and appealing. It’s like a strange combination of a video game and a sitcom like Modern Family, wrapped up in a Jorge Luis Borges short story. It’s really funny and I can’t think of anything quite like it.

But the gameplay is the meat of the game (there’s zero dialogue or anything like that). Players must traverse the dungeon, choosing which family member to take with them. Each character has different stats (strength, jump, and distance), sort of like in Super Mario Bros. 2, and can utilize a different array of the labyrinth’s treasures. Lyll, for instance, can jump really high and shoot the game’s projectile attack very far, and Pochi, who the enemies think is one of them, does not take damage from most monsters. Xemn, big and burly, is the only character who can use the block-pushing power glove.

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The game is very much a Metroidvania game, essentially an 8-bit Symphony of the Night (1997), with element of The Adventures of Lolo (1989), The Legend of Zelda (1986), the Gauntlet games, and Demon’s/Dark Souls. Its open-environment is one of the first, offering an even greater freedom than that seen in the original Zelda. Legacy of the Wizard features a huge inventory of both consumable items and tools that unlock new areas and aid in combat.

Initially, the game seems wholly entertaining. After choosing a character to play as, players enter what is basically an endless Zelda dungeon. It’s intimidating, but intriguing and offers an unprecedented level of experimentation. Each character has a unique section of the labyrinth to explore, defined by the character’s abilities and items. Every room in the labyrinth looks very different from the next, and there is such a wide variety of colors, themes, enemy sprites, items, and, surprising, tracks, to keep players from getting bored.

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The music, mostly composed by the beloved Yuzo Koshiro, of ActRaiser fame, is sometimes cheery, sometimes dread inducing, and I’m sort of amazed that each section of the dungeon has its own theme (something that can’t even be said about The Legend of Zelda). The “Theme of Lyll”  is a real highlight, reminiscent of the dungeon track from StarTropics (1990), but with even more NES hype (aside: how can anyone prefer the StarTropics soundtrack to the StarTropics II soundtrack?), while many of the sound effects recall Monster Party (1989) more than anything, though the two are vastly unrelated.

The controls are surprisingly tight, unlike, say, Milon’s Secret Castle, which in many ways, is like an awful version of this game. Like Milon, there are many secrets hidden amongst the game’s innocuous tiles. It is not uncommon to find fake walls that seem to impede progress, hidden pits, and hidden item shops. But unlike Milon, which usually amounts to shoot, touch, and push everything until you get through the area, it feels tighter here, with much more rhyme and reason behind each passageway.

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Something weird: Pochi, who can’t take damage from most enemies, can ride enemies over spikes and use jumping or flying enemies as platforms, but any character can actually do this, meaning players can just sort of scramble up enemies and get practically anywhere. Speedrunners of the game use this to their advantage, and it usually looks like a glitch, but it seems like the developers expected players to utilize and master it.

There’s an impressive amount of item shops located in the dungeon, furthering its comparisons to Dark Souls. Seedy old codgers sell players potions and warp crystals, occasionally for a reasonable price. There are also inns, which players can use to heal and equip different items, as the inventory is not available otherwise, an interesting and often frustrating limitation.

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The game excels with its small details, including being able to shoot diagonally, the fact that it hurts when falling from a certain height, and the game’s dynamic power-up system, which gives players the power-up that they most need (if players are running out of magic, enemies drop magic). And I can’t stress enough how much there is to see in the game. It’s like an 8-bit museum, every room in the dungeon showcasing a specific mood and layout.

But after screwing around a bit, and realizing the potential the game’s system offers, it becomes obvious that little or no progress has been made in terms of “beating the game.” Players could wander the maze indefinitely, even for years, without finding a single crown, let alone all four of them. The game is brutally obscure, as having the correct character, with the correct items (which players must find), in the correct location (without dying) is insanely difficult. Even with hand-drawn maps, and the occasional Nintendo Power tip, getting to the end of the game is a lofty and ultimately futile goal.

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Years later, two decades later, with a couple of FAQs and Youtube videos, I managed to make my way much further into the depths of the dungeon than my younger self could have ever dreamed of. As a kid, I was endlessly fascinated by the scale of the dungeon, by its infinitude, and its obscure secrets, its unseen content. But without help, I was destined to roam only the top hemisphere.

A special mention goes out to the block pushing segments, Xemn’s section of the dungeon, for it is an exercise in futility and frustration. While having the power glove equipped, Xemn can push blocks in eight directions by holding down the A button (the jump button), and pressing the direction the block needs to move. This is already awkward due to the fact that it’s the jump button being pressed, because Xemn jumps, making him difficult to control. Most blocks are within close proximity with other blocks, and while holding down A and a direction, it’s too easy to accidentally move the wrong block.

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Moving a block to the left is simple, but some of the block puzzles involve moving blocks that Xemn is standing on top of to pass over gaps, really complicated stuff not made easier by the awkward controls. While playing Xemn’s stage, which I did second, I had to actually turn off the game because I had a headache about halfway through. It’s so tedious, and so frustrating to get through some of the puzzles.

Even the instruction manual admits that “the hardest part of the game is the area where you have to move blocks to solve puzzles.” Imagine if the instruction manual for Final Fantasy VIII was like “hur hur half of you will give up trying to use the draw system,” but even that’s not as bad because at least the draw system, while controversial, wasn’t nearly as frustrating.

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– – –

One GameFAQs reviewer compared Legacy of the Wizard to a burning piano, something that at first seems great and intriguing, but eventually causes suffocation and organ failure. Equally appropriate is the Wikipedia’s article, which Reception section is made up of a lone tag which reads “This section requires expansion – September 2013.” It’s a polarizing game, with some real glaring flaws that almost make it an awful game.

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But underneath the flaws, there’s a real charming piece of design, an above average NES game that has lofty goals. The endless labyrinth, a true JRPG-hellworld, with every surface covered in an unnecessary amount of spikes, where enemies respawn indefinitely to kill weary players, may be one of gaming’s most grueling and awesome environments, a vibrant, 8-bit, underground Lordran (Dark Souls world) that goes to an Aguirre, the Wrath of God level to exhaust players physically and mentally. Spatially, its wonderful and exciting just to explore, something that few NES games can boast.

-Nilson Thomas Carroll q; /

Additional screenshots

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  1. The third image gave me a headache, it was so bright. But it sounds interesting and challenging, even if the puzzles will give me a headache. A lot of the modern games that I’ve been playing (PS3 and PS2) aren’t as challenging as they are visually appealing. Where can I get this game? Mind you, I live in Canada.

    • It’s a pretty common NES cart. If there are any old used stores around you, they’ll probably have it : )

  2. Krosan Beast said:

    I HATED THIS GAME. I had it for over 8 years, and had NO MAP, NO GUIDE, NOTHING to help me. I was so frustrated with it, it was the only Nintendo Game I had that I THREW IN THE GARBAGE!! I am not kidding!! I would rather try to beat one act of Ninja Gaiden than play this beast of a game. The main things that suck about Legacy of the Wizard are: You have to know who to play first, know the exact order of characters to play, and KEEP going out of the dungeon to switch characters! It would have been helpful to be able to switch a character at the Inn while switching out items. Also, so many pathways and Items needed to complete the game are HIDDEN. This game is already hard enough just to get from one place to another. Lastly, having to go in and out of the humongous dungeon over and over to switch characters is a REAL PAIN!!! I feel sorry for anyone who played this without any help like I did.

  3. Tricia Kegley said:

    This is one of my all-time favorite NES games. My family LIVED for the games that made you think, just as much as we did for SMB. Lucky for me, my brother was a human navigation system. He remembered what led to where and with combined play across my family (mom included) we were able to see the game through to the end. Was quite the undertaking though!

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