Now that we’ve reached the final column of the year, I want to end on a high note rather than just trash-talk another piece of crap. It’s been a few months since I wrote about anything Famicom-related, so back to the 8-bit scene we go! Today’s entry is my chance to gab about and gush over one of my absolute favorite action RPGs: Capcom’s small-screen translation of George Lucas and Ron Howard’s classic 80’s fantasy film Willow, released in December of 1989 in North America, a year after the film’s theatrical debut. Europe unfortunately didn’t get this gem until three and a half years later, but I like their box art (which was basically the movie poster) better than the NA release’s (which showcased a Stallone-esque sneering Madmartigan about to lop off his own ear) , so it gets the dubious honor of being my column thumbnail. Suck it, unknown North American Capcom box artist!
Upon first glance, Willow could be mistaken for the precursor to A Link to the Past. Both use the same presentation of a top-down world with character sprites viewed at a 3/4 angle to simulate depth. Players take the role of Willow Ufgood, a kind-hearted young Nelwyn who shows potential in the magical talents. When the infant Elora Danan is found by Willow’s children, and his village is subsequently attacked by Death Dogs, the council decides it’s too dangerous to keep the baby there. Willow is elected to take her to away from the village, which leads to the quest set before him in the NES game.
It should be noted that Capcom’s original licensing deal with LucasFilms brought about an arcade game based on the film. Players who bought the NES game expecting a home conversion got quite the surprise when it turned out Willow was now a Zelda-style action adventure with RPG elements like experience points and magic spells woven in. Personally I think Capcom did the right thing by not trying to stuff the arcade game into an NES cart. While there’s nothing wrong with the arcade Willow, it’s a simple side-scrolling quarter muncher with limited replay value. The NES game offers hours of gameplay, and a storyline that kinda-sorta-almost-if-you-squint follows the film.
Capcom’s game succeeds as a licensed title because it obeys the cardinal rule of licensed video games: it must be fun over every other consideration. Willow is quite enjoyable, though the beginning of the game feels like your typical RPG grind-fest as the vertically-challenged one is scarcely hardy enough to survive adventuring more than a few screens away from his home village before needing to come back for a recharge. Willow also noticeably carries a sword and shield in the game, rather than the stick he wielded throughout the film. This is a simple concession to game design on Capcom’s part, as Willow does far more fighting in his solitary travels in the 8-bit realm than he did in the cinematic one.
Much of Willow‘s story is told through special dialog screens which play out when Willow enters an NPC dwelling or just stops to chat someone up on the overworld. Like all RPGs from this era, it’s important to flap your gums at everyone, since you never know when you’ll be presented with the opportunity to learn a new spell, upgrade your gear, or get directions to your next destination. Pretty much everyone is happy to spend a few minutes chatting with the guy who’s going on the suicide mission, so he’s got that going for him. Also, in a welcome change from every other RPG in the frigging world, nobody bills the would-be world savior! Mages teach him new spells completely gratis, villagers gift him equipment to protect him on his travels, and those providing hospitality give up their hearth and bed for no more than a few kind words. It’s almost like these people want this guy to take down Queen Bavmorda and the army of Nockmaar as fast as possible instead of expecting him to grind gold out of slimes and badgers to afford a new shield.
Willow’s graphics are very good for an 8-bit title, with several features standing out. The character portraits on the dialog screens are well-rendered, and do a good job of capturing the facial features of the film’s many different characters. While he’s not as well-animated as Link in later Zelda games, Willow can perform a couple of different attacks with his sword including an arcing slash and a straight-forward jab which allow him to fend off enemies from several angles. Finally, the normally static backgrounds suddenly swirl and sway to life with the blowing wind when there are enemies for Willow to face. Defeating the enemies on a screen calms the wind, but subsequent visits to that screen usually find the breeze blowing once again. In a nice touch, certain screens start enemy-free but jolt to life as you travel across them, with Death Dogs charging in from off-screen, or grinning skulls rising up from the ground–good for a quick jump surprise if you weren’t expecting it. And while the first boss battle is nothing out of the ordinary, later ones (especially the fight with General Kael) will have you tearing out your hair as you go toe-to-toe with some good-sized foes for an NES game. Thankfully the password system lets you hop right back into the game whenever you like without worrying about lost saves like other battery-backed cartridges, so while it might be a pain, make sure you’ve got a pen and paper handy before you take a break.
If Willow has any major fault, it’s in the sound. Most of Capcom’s music is repetitive in the extreme, and frequently overpowered by the sound effect of killing an enemy. The music changes to a faster tempo when bad guys are on the prowl, but shifts back to a normal pace once the last one is put down. Unfortunately this means you’re going to hear the first few bars of that overworld grasslands theme over and over and over again while you’re playing since it doesn’t take that long to cross any particular screen, and it’s rare to go more than a single one without something to fight. Since you don’t need the sound to enjoy it (there aren’t any audio-based puzzles or other nonsense like that), I recommend muting the game and supplying your own music from an outside source. Your mileage my vary, but if you’re not sick of the soundtrack by the time you reach level three you’re made of sterner stuff than I. Beyond that, there are a few grammatical errors that crop up in the game’s text but nothing earth-shattering (or “Cataclysmic” if you prefer, and read that awful trilogy of novels by Chris Claremont and George Lucas, and thus understand the gag).
Willow’s other fault is its plethora of enormous, multi-floor, maze-like dungeons. Seriously, bring your graph paper or a good FAQ because the game will spin you around in circles in search of the one elusive quest item you need to enter the next area without a second thought. The cave areas and grasslands of the opening areas are fairly easy to navigate, but by the time you reach Nockmaar Castle, you’d better have the memory of Sheldon Cooper or membership in the Cartographers Guild if you want to find Queen Bavmorda and put an end to her reign of terror.
Willow’s one of those games that hits all the right notes in its quest to make good on its worthiness to hold the name of its license. It features all of the main characters from the film, but is not so slavishly devoted to the story that it’s afraid to take a few liberties here and there. It walks a fine balance of difficulty: hard enough to make you work for your gains, but not so ridiculous as to have you running for a Game Genie by the first boss fight. That’s a win in my book, and yours too if you have any sense about you. Enjoy the retro ad goodie, and I’ll see you in 2016 for the next installment, you bunch of silly Pecks!