Challenge & Cheating in Wizards & Warriors
Wizards & Warriors has a weird relationship with game difficulty.
The first game is a fun, light-hearted adventure game that has difficult-level designs which are made trivially easy via unlimited lives and in-place restarts. But while this causes the game to be so easy that literally, anybody can complete it with enough patience, the game is so packed full of secrets that it’s worth replaying a few times just to find them all.
To follow up, Rare made the second game – Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II – considerably more difficult… while also only giving you a few continues to complete it with! Luckily, a simple code can be entered at the title screen to give 255 lives, if you want to play it in the same way you played the original. And I don’t see it as “cheating” to play with so many lives. One of the most unique aspects of the first two games is their relationship between Skill and Attrition – you can lose less health if you play well, but enemies will still hit you on a regular basis. These are not games that most people will ever be able to do a no-damage run or even a one-credit-clear. The bizarre sword mechanic makes sure of that.
In Wizards & Warriors and its sequel, the protagonist Kuros doesn’t really… swing… his sword. He just kind of wiggles it around. And whether or not you are pressing the button is irrelevant to whether you damage the enemy; if the sword touches an enemy, that enemy dies. The most effective attack is often to just jump into the enemy and let your sword touch them first.
For the third game in the series, Wizards & Warriors X: Fortress of Fear on the Game Boy, Rare fixed the sword mechanic while simultaneously breaking everything else. Kuros now has proper sword attacks, where timing and position matter. But the linear level designs, clunky platforming, and relentless difficulty make it practically unplayable. And with no “extra lives code”, the only way to suffer through this one with your sanity intact is to use a Game Genie for infinite lives.
Returning to the NES for Wizards & Warriors III: Kuros – Visions of Power, things have changed quite a bit. The game is now a big semi-open world inspired by late 80s Metroidvania games and Rare’s ZX Spectrum classic Atic Atac. Kuros is no longer just a Knight – he can join guilds and learn to be a thief or wizard as well, and those skills are needed to complete the adventure, as thieves can enter through barred windows and sneak past guards, and wizards can levitate and burn things. Even the Knight feels new and fresh, as they have redesigned the combat system to be quite varied, with numerous different attacks based on which direction you’re pressing at the time you swing your sword.
But to learn each skill, you first have to pass a test. And this is where Wizards & Warriors III, unfortunately, falls apart. These tests are HARD – this is often a game of memorization. It’s also a huge, lengthy adventure that requires some grinding as well. In short, it’s the kind of game that benefits from a trial-and-error mentality. But you only get three lives, and no continues. And no lives code this time around! So “trial and error” ends up being incredibly punishing.
This takes what could have been the best game in the series, and turns it into an unplayable mess whose only saving grace is “at least it’s better than the Game Boy one”. I often claim the British made overly difficult, “hateful” games back in the 80s and early 90s, and, like Solstice before it, this is a perfect example of a game that SHOULD have been good but the limited lives ruined it.
I’ll return to Wizards & Warriors III with a Game Genie soon, and hopefully, I’ll be able to see the rest of what this massive adventure has to offer. I’d love to see somebody bring this series back someday, either officially or through an indie spiritual successor.
But only if Fabio reprises his role for the cover art 😁