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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 doing that.
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 fortress.
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)
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.