Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Top 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. Day 19


Magician, our 12th hardest NES game ever, introduces us to two new sources of difficulty: Frustration and Boredom.  Frustration I have spoken of before in tangential ways, but never as a prominent feature or cause of difficulty.  Boredom is an odd factor, but Magician shows us exactly how a game can be hard simply by being very, very tedious and dry.
Get a good look, it's all downhill from here...
If you have never heard of Magician, don't be surprised.  This little known title from the TAXAN library most likely faded into obscurity for one simple reason: it looks incredible and plays like a warm pile of vomit.  As most modern games (looking at you XBOX360 and PS3) can attest to, great graphics can only carry a game so far.  At some point you have to pony up the game play or you've got an overly expensive animated movie. Magician had anticipated the modern graphics-whore game by about 25 years.  Take a look at a couple of screen shots:

The game looks incredible!  As a kid I would have thought game play graphics like these only possible on a computer, but here they are for the NES!  Not only that, but look at what those graphics are depicting: an awesome looking fantasy world with great environments and lots of variety!  A game that looks this good has to be absolutely dynamite to play, right?

Oh, sir no.  The drab, monotonous dungeon walls of Wizardy are a fair trade off for the incredible experience that it provides.  Sadly, the beautiful graphics of Magician cannot make up for the dreadful experience that it forces upon you.  Remember, as per the terms of the project, I had to play this game for 5 hours.  What makes Magician so dreadful, you ask?  Well, I'll tell you.

Truth be told, Magician doesn't have to be a bad game.  The premise is promising. You are a young apprentice magician who must journey across the land, learning new spells, and preparing to defeat the most powerful, and evil, wizard in the land.  Your journey will take you through all kinds of environments from swampy bogs and enchanted forests, to the stone walls of the wizard's keep.  You'll meet all kinds of characters and do battle with a host of monsters, wizards, and unearthly creatures.  You can learn a bevy of different spells and you can even tinker around with the spellbook to create your own conjurations (within the confines of what is possible in the game, of course).  Every single part of that sounds absolutely like exactly the kind of game I would waste endless hours playing.
Philip Livingston, not famous enough to be this cocky.

But Magician ruins all of that with annoying and needlessly complicated game play aspects and a vicious learning curve.  You see, you'll get to do all of that adventuring, but you'll also have to keep a very close eye on your health, which is constantly in danger of depleting due to attacks from enemies and you know just walking around.  To keep your health up, you'll need to eat, and thus carry, plenty of food and potions, and you'll need a full flask of water.  Not that big of a deal, except you get limited funds in the game, and no real renewable source of future income that isn't tied directly to the story.  So if you run out of food and money to buy it with, GAME OVER.  The end result is that you run the risk of getting stuck on a tough level, running out of food and water with no way to resupply, then your health runs out and you are dead.  A stupid way to lose the game that has nothing to do with the core of the game whatsoever.  If the game was just survival (ala the amazing DS game Lost in Blue), then these perils would be understandable, but a game is no fun if your chief concern is maintaining regular meals.

To make matters worse, your character is made of paper and dies at the slightest threat of danger.  You get a bit heartier as the game progresses, but you die so many times in the early levels that frustration sets in very, very early.  Not only can you die from enemy attacks, but you can die in more traditional platforming ways as well: missed jumps, being sucked into the swamp, etc.  Magician is in no way shape or form a traditional platformer so these aspects of the game are very out of place and make areas of the game far more difficult than they should be.
Why?  Why must you look so cool and suck so very much?

Finally, Magician is a game of limited resources and no way to backtrack and pick up anything you might have missed.  Didn't get that crystal ball in level 1 that you need to defeat the evil tree in level 4?  Too bad, start over.  Running out of money and cannot buy that anti-venom potion to cure the fourth poisoning you took from those same swamp plants?  Too bad, start over.  Basically, the game asks you to build the perfect run in order to reach the end.  You are given a limited number of saves (roughly two saves per level, it's an odd system, the manual explains it in full), so you can work on building that run, but honestly it isn't worth the time or effort.  Every single aspect and part of the game is literally trial and error.  Each enemy has a weakness and the right spell will take them out like nothing, but you'll have to stand and be killed by it several times with the wrong spell to figure out which spell works.  There are plenty of villagers and NPC's to speak to, but they offer little real help in the game apart from a few story clues.  You have to learn everything else by trying and dying.  This makes for a very long, very repetitive, and very boring game.  It also generates a whole heaping pile of unnecessary frustration that ultimately results in thrown controllers (I have anger management issues).

At its heart, Magician is actually a very simple game with gorgeous graphics, but it completely lacks anything that might resemble joy.  You really must invest upwards of thirty or forty hours minimum to learn all of the ins and outs of each puzzle through raw trial and error.  Sadly, the game just isn't fun or engaging enough to justify that kind of time investment.  In my five miserable hours, I made it roughly over half way to the end, but was so bored and frustrated with the game it was hard to have any interest in beating my head against this particular wall any longer.  Honestly, if you knew exactly what to do and did it, Magician is probably very enjoyable, easily and shortly beaten.  Unfortunately, it destroys any chance of that by generating all of its difficulty just in learning how to play the game.  There does not exist a plainer case of learning curve difficulty, except here, the learning curve never ends.  Damn shame too, the game looks amazing...
Just sad, really.

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