19. Air Fortress
An overlooked game with shooter
sequences, but the meat here is in the sixteen fortress mazes, split
between two quests, a unique two-tier health system, and
heart-stopping escape sequences.
Developed by HAL Laboratory
Platform: Famicom, NES
Check it out, it's another game with a
second quest! Actually, since the game is broken up into sixteen
progressively more difficult areas, one could argue that it's got far
more quests than that, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
This one might at first seem to be
breaking my rule concerning the definition of an open world game,
that it must consist of a large world the player explores instead of
levels. Air Fortress is actually made up of many of these
worlds. The only reason it qualifies, to me, as an exploration game
is that some of the later levels are large enough to almost qualify
as full games in their own right.
Each "level" of Air Fortress
begins with a shooter section that defines the player's initial stats
for that area. He collects Energy bubbles, which give him more
maximum energy, and Bomb bubbles, which give him limited uses of a
powerful weapon. He has three attempts in this section before he's
dumped back to the title screen. It's to his advantage to be daring
and collect as many items as he can (especially energy), because
opportunities to acquire these things are scarce in the fortress.
Once inside the overbuilt technobase
itself, the primary game begins. Every action the player can perform
other than noting uses up energy. He can shoot, but it takes energy.
He can fly using a jet-pack, but it takes more energy. Even walking
takes energy! Standing and doing nothing causes energy to regenerate
at a good rate, but it'll never go above the amount acquired in the
shooter phase unless he finds more energy bubbles, and good luck on
Enemy attacks also sap energy, but the
damage done by them is a bit different. They not only take off
energy, but they take off maximum energy. There's no readout
on screen showing what energy max is, so the only way to know what
one's true status is is to rest and find out what energy recharges
to. Of course, running out of energy means the end of the game.
Fortunately when most enemies are killed they're gone for good, which
is welcome news when it comes time to face the finale of each
There is no time limit for these stages
until the end, when the player must destroy the base's core reactor
energy ball thing. After that, most of the lights in the fortress go
out, everything gets dark, the music stops, and the panic begins.
Now the player has a limited amount of time to go back through it,
find the escape rocket hidden somewhere within it, and, well, escape.
Although there is no clock visible on-screen, there most definitely
is a timer in this section. It's made visible only through the
increasingly violent shaking the screen goes through, the red warning
lights that start to overwhelm the game's color scheme, and the
increasing volume of the explosion noises in the background. While
it doesn't exactly start out shouting to the player "HURRY UP
IDIOT OR YOU'RE GONNA DIE!", eventually the effect is
nerve-shattering, especially in the fortresses where the player
doesn't have the opportunity to scout ahead, clearing out enemies and
finding the right route.
Oh, those escape sections. It's almost
common knowledge by now that Metroid, Super Metroid and
Metroid: Zero Mission each end with timed escape sequences.
This game, on the other hand, has sixteen of them, and some
are quite lengthy. The game doesn't have an automap, either....
One of the main complaints that can be
made over open world games is that they're relatively sedate.
Generally there's not a lot forcing the player to be constantly
moving ahead. They encourage taking your time in order to uncover
secrets. Air Fortress has no secret areas, but its
energy-regaining mechanic and need to clear out an escape route ahead
of time would seem to agree with that. However, it's more than made up for
by the end. What the escape sequences are is a navigation challenge
against a time limit. They force the player to not just stumble
through to just find the reactor. He must actually comprehend the
layout of each maze, so that afterward he can use that knowledge to
make it out alive.
The lesson here: mazes are made more
interesting if the player has an incentive to optimize his route, and
make later trips through it more quickly. Really, it's the reason
speedrunners bother playing a game over and over. Air Fortress
understood that back in the NES days.
GameFAQs (slim pickings here)
20. Legacy of the Wizard, a.k.a. Dragon
Yet another huge-world game, but
this one's split into four sections, each enterable by only one of
the game's characters. The intersection between their unique
abilities and usable items, and the barriers that make up the game's
maze, fits into the Metroid pattern, but with much more
difficult puzzles and mazes.
Developed by Nihon Falcom
Platform: MSX, Famicom, NES
Length: Long to Very long
There are four gauges at the top of the
screen: health, money, magic and keys. Money lets you stay at inns
and buy stuff, magic is ammo, and keys let you open doors (which
basically means making door-shaped blocks disappear). Most of these
things are acquired by killing enemies, but how does the game decide
which to generate? It's simple: the odds of a given thing appearing
is determined by how little of it the player has. If the player's
almost out of health, then life-restoring items will appear. If the
player's low on keys then keys will mostly appear. This is why it's
difficult to fill one of the gauges to the very top from just killing
stuff: the more full a gauge is, the less likely that kind of item
will appear upon defeating an enemy.
Legacy of the Wizard actually
comes from the Dragon Slayer games, which are almost entirely
unknown in the U.S. except for minor cases like Faxanadu (see
last month's article). This game is really Dragon Slayer IV.
Each of the games takes pains to be its own game and has many
differences from the others, but one thing all the games shares is
difficulty. Legacy of the Wizard is quite hard.
The player actually takes on the role
of a whole family of monster fighters. Using their house as a base,
they delve deeper and deeper into the treacherous mazes. Each family
member has his own statistics, and can use certain items from the
twenty or so that can be obtained. The dungeon is presented in a
side-scrolling format, and is designed so that there is one
substantial portion of it that is only accessible to each of four of
the five family members. Hidden somewhere within that section is a
Crown that'll teleport that character to a boss fight. Upon
defeating it that Crown is earned for good, and collecting four of
those makes the final boss available, who can only be defeated by the
last family member, the boy.
The general structure is Metroid-ish in
that objects must be acquired from some passages that make others
available, which in turn have items that allow entry into yet more of
the dungeon. One notable difference is that the family members have
such widely varying abilities. Often an object picked up by one
family member can only be used by another, and in any case each can
only take three items with them into the dungeon at once.
Many of the powers that allow the
family to make their way into the maze allow them to do various
things with the stone blocks that make up much of the way. One item
allows them to be moved (even if standing on one), another allows
them to be thrown, still another lets them be destroyed outright.
Naturally, each of these abilities is only available to one of the
characters. The most interesting of the lot is the family pet, who
being a monster himself takes no damage from any foe other than
bosses. Enemies are actually fairly useful tools themselves, as they
can be stood upon and ridden, and even climbed like a ladder.
Legacy of the Wizard's gameplay
works best when it's seen as a series of block manipulation puzzles
and similar obstacles. The game engine has a wide array of quirks,
such as the monster-riding thing, and the developers make use of them
frequently. Many things that the player can do that might seem
glitchy at first turn out to be necessary to the solution to some
room later on. There is very little distance between the realm of
what can be done, and what must be done.
This is generally in opposition to the
Miyamoto school of design, which tends to create situations that can
be defeated with a very bare set of moves, but which then gives the
player additional resources beyond that, to make things easier and
give him more leeway in terms of finding solutions. It's a much more
demanding way to produce a game, but Legacy of the Wizard gets
away with it by giving the player many available avenues at once.
While some items must be obtained in
preliminary runs before the Crowns can be seriously sought-after,
generally, they don't have to be collected in any special order. If
the player cannot find a way through one room, he can go back and try
another. Dragon Slayer IV is radically non-linear in this
way. The only thing that really prevents access to most Crowns is
acquired items, and many of those can be found most any time once the
player knows where to look, and has built up enough money (which is a
severe limiting factor) to buy them.
Hardcore Gaming 101
TASVideos thread with tool-assisted
speedrun of the game