Review by faji_ru
"Forgotten classic from the house of World Heroes"
Before World Heroes, Ninja Masters, Twinkle Star Sprites or even a now more recognizable name change to ADK, premier third party developer for the Neo Geo, Alpha Denshi, crafted Magician Lord. The game was heralded by critics as one of the best arcade action games of the 1980s (anybody remember the old EGM magazine reviews?) and, along with King of the Monsters and Nam 1975, had me and my video game addicted friends begging our parents for the $650+ for a newly launched Neo Geo. A friend and I had decided to pool our paper route money together to buy the system, while unanimously deciding to get Magician Lord as the pack-in game. I can't speak for my high school buddy, but Magician Lord turned me into a lifelong fan of everything SNK.
Unfortunately, our copy was probably one of ten actually purchased during that time. The Neo Geo's much acknowledged failure early on was the massive price of its software $200 for any video game is unreasonable sans for elitist gratification. With Magician Lord being a first generation title and the Neo Geo's small user base early on, the game was completely overlooked and to this day remains one of the most unfairly underrated titles on the system to date.
Magician Lord's plot line is typical arcade gaming fluff. Az Atorse, the game's head antagonist, somehow obtains eight sacred books that will somehow allow him to gain control of the world unless he is stopped by a hero brave enough to conquer him. Introducing Elta, the game's playable magician lord whose mission (given by some nameless old man) is to defeat the bad guys, seal the eight sacred books and restore order from the impending chaos. After every level, Az Atorse will speak in some hysterically poor written dialogue, which actually allowed me to develop an affinity for his personality...unlike Elta who is harmlessly bland as a main character. There is no serious plot progression, there's a beginning introduction and an ending sequence; while the between level dialogue functions as a break from the intense action and an unintentionally funny taunting mechanism to motivate playing. Although Magician Lord's plot is paper thin, it's nice that the developers included one to offer extra incentive for defeating the game.
As far as controls go, Magician Lord's are as simple as they get: the joystick maneuvers Elta, the A button is used for attacks and the B button for jumping (a low and high jump can be attained depending on how long you hold down the B button). The actual controls respond perfectly but if you haven't played this game before then the action's pace might feel a bit awkward. Elta moves horizontally and vertically across the screen at a slow walking speed, while jumping admittedly feels a bit too clunky and imprecise for this kind of game and there is no way to attack or jump off of ladders midway. Once you get accustomed to the game's control timing, movement begins to feel more natural for the game's level designs. Jumping can be really frustrating if you don't pay attention to placement and timing in some areas.
One of Magician Lord's special features is the ability to morph into one of six alternate forms: dragon warrior, water man, shinobi, samurai, Poseidon and Rajin. Elta can morph into these alter-egos by finding and combing different color orbs throughout the game. This feature is limited by today's standards as the extent of controlling morphs is dictated by the layout of the orbs throughout the levels. Gaining these alternate forms is vital to the progression of the game. Not only do they have individual strengths and weakness, they also fill up Elta's HP bar increasing your chance for survival through the increasingly difficult worlds.
What makes Magician Lord so unique on the Neo Geo is that its seven levels are semi-non-linear. Each path will inevitably bring you to a sub-boss and boss, but the amount of exploration available in this game is what makes it so much fun. What also makes Magician Lord so unique is that its one of those few early titles that makes for a better AES title than MVS one. Playing Magician Lord in arcades doesn't make too much sense. The difficulty is insanely high, with your character only having a maximum of four hit points. Along with bosses with unpredictable attack patterns and enemies whose hits are sometimes unavoidable Magician Lord ate a lot of gamers' quarters back in the day, which is why so many people probably can't appreciate its gameplay. On the home console, Magician Lord offers a slightly toned down difficulty, with more hit points and more time to improve skills. The gameplay is very old school. You don't play Magician Lord to simply beat it you play to master its challenging levels and racking up points on the score board. And believe me, there is a lot here to master.
Graphics and Sound:
It's hard to appreciate Magician Lord's graphics today if you didn't experience them back in 1990. Back then the game was a top of the line 16 bit 46 meg pixel feast. The characters were packed with detail and the game took advantage of the Neo Geo's huge color palette. Each level featured line scrolling (up to three layers in some instances) and visual intricacies like flickering lights and great in game art. Bosses take up one/third of the screen while a diverse cast of enemies ensure a new experience with every level. Today, more than fifteen years after its release, Magician Lord holds up well enough; though its faults have become apparent. The most noticeable sign of its age is the fact that characters don't animate well; while this doesn't detract from the actual gameplay, it makes the game look old. Another issue, is that while the line scrolling creates some visual depth in some areas, enclosed environments (especially dungeon areas) are very flat. Regardless, this is still a great looking game. The colorful graphics and detailed levels are still pleasing to the eyes, while the massive boss encounters remain some of the best in 16 bit history.
The game's soundtrack remains one of my favorite on the Neo Geo, and in my humble opinion ranks as one of the best (along with Eightman and Samurai Shodown 3). The music has a synth-heavy, 80's anime type ambience that works well in bringing Magician Lord's world to life. Magician Lord was a testament to the power of the Neo Geo's multi-layered sound processors early on. As mentioned before, Az Atorse actually speaks during between level cinemas. Again, the dialogue is goofy stuff (Yes I made a mistake, but the fight is yet to finish. My spirit never dies) and the voice is as generic and mechanical as the super computer in the movie War Games but like the graphics, considering this is 1990, the sound set a precedent for the future of the Neo Geo. With the exception of Nam 1975 and Top Players Golf, this extensive use of voice was never really utilized ever again on the system beyond fighting game sound bytes and meat head sports commentators.
Though Magician Lord holds a special place in my collection of being the first Neo Geo game I ever owned, it is a fantastic action game on its own merits. It's a shame that it remains one of the most underappreciated titles in the Neo Geo's library and that its vaporware sequel or Neo Geo Pocket Color edition never materialized. Hopefully, SNKPlaymore will see fit to resurrect this title on current consoles in some sort of compilation (SNK Classics Collection anyone?). Magician Lord is a game every serious SNKphile should have.
CD Version Notes:
Magician Lord on the Neo Geo CD is a cheap and viable alternative to the AES or MVS cartridges. The CD version offers some small tweaks to the original game. During the time of its release in 1994, Alpha Denshi had changed it name to ADK, which is alternatively shown on the game's title screen. Also, the game is MUCH easier compared to its cartridge counterparts, especially during some sub-boss and boss battles this is either good or bad depending on your taste, but compared to the cartridge, this version is a bit TOO easy. The game also has unlimited continues. The only real major change here is the music. SNK/ADK completely re-mastered the original soundtrack to take advantage of the CD format. The music sounds phenomenal and is much better than the original version's. This however, didn't affect Az Atorse's voice which has been left completely in tact. On a final note, the game only loads once to boot up the CD and plays totally load free throughout the game...so the game is identical to its cartridge version in every respect (except again for the massively improved music).
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/07/06
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