“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”
-Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings
I’ve evidently spent a lot of time in coin wash laundromats because they frequently pop up in memory as places where the air was always arid, the floor was covered in purplish lint, and the video games were plentiful. I introduced myself to many a cabinet and pinball machine at these places, cementing my love for the arcades. One such machine was the game in question today, a title which I could vividly recall the graphics and gameplay for but a title which I forgot about for years. I always had that thought in the back of my mind: “What’s the name of that game?”
It wasn’t until I purchased an awesome Capcom Humble Bundle that I discovered Magic Sword: Heroic Fantasy again. It’s a game which has been ported numerous times and on the PS3 it was included alongside Final Fight in the Double Impact mini-collection. You can also find it on PS2, PSP, Xbox Live Arcade, and the good ol’ Super Nintendo. If you can, avoid playing it on the SNES since that version dropped one of the best features of the game: it’s two-player co-op.
Magic Sword, as its generic name suggests, is a stereotypical “swords and sorcery” adventure. In the age of legend, the dark lord
Sauron Drokmar controls the Black Orb, an artifact so powerful it would allow the evil ruler to rule the world. Only the Brave One and his unnamed associate (Brave Two?) can stop the dark lord by ascending his mystical tower.
This is easier said than done but this is where some of Magic Sword’s unique features step in. Drokmar is sitting pretty on top of his tower, fifty floors up. Each floor is stuffed with armies of the undead, hordes of orcs and monsters, and rogue wizards, as well as chimeras, drakes, and hydras. That’s a lot of hacking and slashing. There are multiple doors and secret passageways, besides, so the ascent up the tower can often lead you down routes you might’ve never seen before.
Brave One and… well I guess we’re just calling his co-op partner Brave Two… they both have a few skills to aid them along the way. I’m referring primarily to their weapons, which upgrade upon defeating bosses to the next “magic sword”. It’s easy to get a sore thumb from playing too much of this game. The journey is long and there are tons of monsters everywhere. You’ll probably find yourself button-mashing your way through virtually every floor of the accursed tower.
The game does include a gimmick which was probably meant to keep the mashing at bay and that’s magic. Both playable warriors have a magic meter which allows them to throw a fireball, lightning bolt, or the like when swinging their weapons. The meter instantly empties upon a single magical strike and it quickly refills but only if you’re not spamming your attack. Attacking with it half-full results in a weaker magic strike. It’s a simple mechanic to implement long range offense when needed but the magic itself doesn’t feel potent enough to really warrant consciously preventing yourself from button-mashing for the sake of a single, mediocre blow, magical or not.
There’s also a special attack that will kill everything on screen (minus boss monsters) but it consumes an entire life bar, so use it sparingly.
That’s why there are the support characters. These are the more memorable aspects of the game. During their ascent, Brave One and Brave Two will encounter numerous locked doors, prisons most likely for those who opposed the dark lord. A selection of keys can be found in treasure chests and some of these open these prisons. The grateful residents inside come out and will join you on your quest. Every time you attack, they’ll use a unique attack too, unless they’re a priest or wizard who only attack if your magic meter is full.
Various treasures you pick up along the way modify and enhance your allies’ attacks. You can also swap out your support character by releasing another prisoner if you’re tired of the companion you have or if they run out of vitality and perish along the way. There are more advanced allies that you can unlock later in the tower, some of which require you to find an item before they can be acquired.
Finding the perfect ally for your play-style is something to take into consideration but it’s less important than picking the one you like for “coolness factor” since most of their attacks are generally all the same. Most have a projectile attack that fires straight forward but some of them have homing attacks, lobbing attacks, and ricocheting attacks. The array of supporting allies keeps the otherwise droll gameplay interesting: an Amazon, Ninja, Thief, Priest, Ogre (known as Big Man), Wizard, Lizardman, and Knight are all waiting to be rescued.
When the two legendary warriors finally reach the top of the tower and defeat the dark lord Drokmar, they’re confronted themselves with the powerful temptations of the Black Orb. The game actually gives you the choice: do you destroy the Orb or take up the enchanted crystal for yourself and become a new dark lord? I chose the latter option, for hilarity’s sake. It turned the entire quest from one of bravery, valor, and virtue into an adventure of avarice. I just found it funny that two dudes walked all that way in their loincloths just to take the Ring of Power for themselves rather than throw it into Mt. Doom.
If it sounds like you’ve heard it all before, that’s because you have. There are no surprises waiting for you in the mystical tower. Not only is each floor nearly the same as the last, the themes in Magic Sword are essentially the same as you’ve seen in every cheap high fantasy paperback. Many talented writers over the years have played with this genre of fiction before and come up with some amazing stories, so Magic Sword isn’t going to impress anyone in this department.
Actually I was really wondering why this particular genre of fiction with all of its trappings of magic, elves, dark lords, goblins, and swordplay is so popular. The way I phrased that made it sound as if I don’t care for it but that’s not the case. What I’m asking is why does high fantasy, hero romance, swords and sorcery stuff represent such a huge chunk of fiction as it does? Why did it catch on? Video games especially are dominated and have been since Dungeons and Dragons, Warcraft, Elder Scrolls, The Legend of Zelda, and Final Fantasy. I’d even hazard a guess that every 1 out of 3 MMO’s at least is a high fantasy, medieval game.
Perhaps its because of the resonance of the hero archetype, which descends to us out of the earliest examples of human literature. Not much has changed since Gilgamesh, Achilles, and Perseus. Even now we’ve got Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and a host of other popular superheroes that have new “fairy tales” and “legends” told about them every week. Heroes like these can be humanized but they represent the best of our ideals, more often than not. Their characters envelop all of the virtues we wish we could have on a regular basis and their experiences involve adventures that we wish we could undergo to validate our own existence, to feel that we too have done something great.
I don’t buy some of the psychoanalytical rhetoric that claims looking up to heroes is unhealthy. Sure, there’s a fine line between heroic admiration and hero-worship, heroism as idolatry, which has played itself out on either side throughout history. There are many reasons why heroes and stories about them endure, and I believe that’s because stories fundamentally change us and stories about heroes can inspire. Something about our natures practically yearns for the heroic tale, and that I think is why the epic fantasy genre will always continue to endure, whether we’re talking about the next fantasy film or book, or just an old arcade game like Magic Sword: Heroic Fantasy.
The hero here is just a symbol, an archetype: the teeth-gritting, chest-baring, sword-swinging, cleft-chinned and muscular man that can fight off a billion enemies without falling. Silly as it is in its hyperbole, the fact of history is inescapable that legends such as these have helped shape our race and the way we think our thoughts and wonder our wonders… such as: what if the Easter Island heads shot lasers out of their eyes?
The 8-bit Review
Capcom excelled at portraying the ancient and the Gothic in their pixel art. Magic Sword’s graphics are no exception. The designers threw in a few neat effects like the coliseum background scrolling behind the latticed wall in the image below, or the huge undulating sprites for the dragons and monstrosities encountered in the tower. However, there’s a lot of palette swapping and potato-faced bipeds in the game. They’re not spectacular graphics and some of it even looks drab all these years later compared to some other games from the era, a year before the Super Nintendo.
This might be the weakest element of the game, in my opinion. Together with my kid brother, I climbed fifty floors of monster-infested tower, making up quite a long playthrough, and yet the only sound I can actually remember from the game is the “hyah!” your warriors utter when swinging their falchions and halberds. Music was generally the most significant factor in arcade games back then but the soundtrack in Magic Sword is less than a passing footnote.
Some of it isn’t even that melodic. It sounds very much like filler.
Magic Sword can feel as if it’s sometimes a bit too long. We played through it and completed it in three separate sittings thanks to the PSN Double Impact version’s saving feature. The different allies, the treasure hunting, the weapon upgrades, the secret passageways, the bosses all come together to make the game more interesting but ultimately it’s representative of some of the slogging blandness of old arcade games. Imagine a beat ’em up with fifty levels and that’s somewhat analogous to a fifty-stage hack and slash.
You’ll learn how to play the game in the first stage, before you even reach the tower and the chimera that guards its gates. You’ll get a rhythm for attacking to throw in a little magic and unlocking doors to release prisoners for your allies. There is however an entire subtext of items with different values and passive effects that you’ll find no explanation for in the game. Trial and error is going to have to be the phrase of the day in this respect. Just watch out for traps.
Getting all the way through the tower was impossible when I was a kid with a handful of quarters. Getting to the top now as an adult with infinite digital continues on my PlayStation 3 is doable if only the patience is present. I’m gauging the game’s difficulty based on how many lives I burned through, though, and it was a lot. Some of the difficulty does feel cheap though with traps and enemies you can’t see until they’re right on top of you, hence the diminished score.
The drive of discovery and exploration is a large part of Magic Sword’s momentum. Every time you clear a floor, there’s a brief animation which shows your party climbing up the steps to the next level while a tidbit of lore or a hint appears for your benefit. This helps you in wondering what just might be on that next floor or what could be in that next treasure chest. I’m not sure that including two endings for a game that feels overlong is enough to make you want to plow through it again.
I find it strange that the imagery and gameplay of Magic Sword stuck with me all these years. It was instantly recognizable when I found it again. The tall tower and the supporting characters are the elements which I think set this game apart and made it memorable. I did read that the game is a spiritual successor to Black Tiger, which Capcom released three years before Magic Sword. These things taken into consideration, there’s still really not enough in the game to raise it above the “generic” tier.
My Personal Grade: 5/10
This isn’t Capcom at their worst nor is it Capcom at their best. Some games are sometimes better left as golden memories. I may never have been able to beat Magic Sword: Heroic Fantasy as a kid but maybe that alone added to the sense of mystique and mystery about the game. Maybe that’s why it became a coveted, half-remembered arcade dream, one which felt slightly disappointing and anti-climactic now that I’ve seen it in under the light of day. It’s not a horrible game. It’s a good one to wade through with a buddy but wading is still wading whether it’s on a Friday night with pizza or not.
There, see? Not all retro games are great. Yay, objectivity.
Aggregated Score: 5.9