Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

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DEC
18
2017
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#60 – Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance

It’s known as one of the worst NES games, and that mostly holds up.

Love that over half of the title screen is text.

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 9/29/17 – 10/2/17
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10
Video: AD&D Heroes of the Lance Longplay

Clearly, I am a huge gaming nerd, especially when it comes to Nintendo and the NES. Mostly I go it alone and play single-player games, but occasionally I will play multiplayer games. Tabletop gaming has become quite popular, and I do like to get together with friends to play sometimes. I don’t take it much farther than that, and so I have never been interested in Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe it’s the idea of a long campaign with a group of people that doesn’t appeal to me and my single-player ways. The NES has four games bearing the Dungeons and Dragons name and I had no interest in them. I had originally planned to skip them in this project altogether. However, plans change, so here we are with the first game in the set. AD&D: Heroes of the Lance is generally regarded as a bad game, and having played it for myself I can see why.

Dungeons and Dragons, abbreviated D&D, is a tabletop RPG that takes place in a fantasy setting. Players choose characters and team up to battle monsters and solve puzzles in scenarios devised and managed by a Dungeon Master. The game was originally published in 1974 by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc., or TSR, but is now published by Wizards of the Coast as of 1997. D&D split early on with the lighter game keeping the name, while a more rules-heavy experience was called Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, or AD&D. The NES games fall under the AD&D banner. These two games merged back together when the 3rd Edition of D&D released in the year 2000, and this structure remains today.

Naturally, there were many video games created or spun off from D&D. It’s mindboggling how many different series and games there are under so many different names that I can’t even begin to make sense of it myself let alone try to explain it. There are different series of games that might have familiar names to you, such as the Gold Box series, Baldur’s Gate, and Neverwinter Nights. Some follow the strict D&D ruleset, while others only utilize the setting. Several games are not RPGs at all. The NES received four different AD&D games, and in order of release they are Heroes of the Lance, DragonStrike, Pool of Radiance, and Hillsfar.

This intro screen has more color than anything else in the game.

AD&D: Heroes of the Lance was released on many home computers beginning in January 1988. The NES port of the game was released in January 1991, and the Famicom version came next in March 1991. It was developed by U.S. Gold Ltd. and Strategic Systems, Inc. Natsume is also credited as a developer, but as far as I can tell they are only linked to the game’s soundtrack. The NES game was published by FCI, while Pony Canyon published the Famicom game. The sequel, Dragons of Flame, was released on the Famicom in February 1992 but did not make it to the NES.

The story is based on the Dragonlance novels written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. In the land of Krynn, people have abandoned their traditions and faith, causing the Queen of Darkness, Takhisis, to awaken evil and take power in the land. The ruins of Xak Tsaroth hold the keys to restoring the traditions and regaining balance of power, and these keys are the Disks of Mishakal. Of course, Takhisis knows of the Disks and has sent the dragon Khisanth to protect them. You play the role of the party known as the Companions of the Lance, who must venture into Xak Tsaroth to fight the dragon, recover the disks, and restore the land of Krynn. After entering the ruins of Xak Tsaroth, the warrior Goldmoon of the Companions entrusted her blue crystal staff to a statue of the goddess Mishakal, who then blessed the staff and offered her power to aid in recovering the disks. You got all that, right?

Heroes of the Lance is one of the D&D games that is not a strict RPG. Instead, it is a side-scrolling dungeon crawler. You control the entire party of eight Companions of the Lance through the maze of Xak Tsaroth. All the action takes place in the side scrolling view. You enter other rooms to different parts of the maze, and the goal is to find the entrance to the next level of the dungeon. There are only three levels in the game, culminating in the final battle with Khisanth. Along the way you will fight enemies, jump over pits, cast spells, and collect items. You can rearrange your party of eight characters in any order you choose, and each member has their own stats, abilities, and weapons that aid in completing the adventure.

Perhaps this first screen is what many players have seen the most.

The eight characters in the party are Goldmoon, Sturm, Raistlin, Caramon, Tanis, Tasslehoff, Riverwind, and Flint. Goldmoon has the blue crystal staff which is used to cast clerical spells. Sturm is a powerful knight who wields a magical Long Sword. Raistlin is a physically weak mage with powerful magical abilities using the Staff of Magius. Caramon is another powerful warrior armed with both a sword and throwing spear. Tanis is a half-elf armed with a sword and a bow. Tasslehoff is of a race called kender, and he is armed with a hoopak which can be used as a sling for long range attacks and as a staff for close range combat. Riverwind is another strong fighter armed with a sword and a bow. Finally, Flint is a dwarf who wields both a battle axe and throwing axes.

The controls are complex and they change somewhat depending on the situation. You walk left and right using the D-pad. If you walk in the same direction for a while you will start running, or you can run by holding Up combined with either Left or Right. While running you can jump with A. You can also duck while standing still by holding A and pressing Down. That isn’t intuitive, but it occasionally helps. There is a compass on the bottom left of the screen, and one of the directions lights up if you are standing by a door. You can proceed through the door by holding either Up or Down depending on which side the door is on. You must hold the button for a full second to go through the door. You can use the B button combined with a direction for the lead character to use ranged weapons. If enemies are too close then you can’t use ranged weapons, and you also have to equip them before you can use them in the first place. The Select button both brings up and exits the main menu.

Combat introduces some different controls. If an enemy is near enough, the word Combat will display on the bottom. You can’t use ranged weapons anymore when this indicator in on. You can still move, duck, jump, run, and enter the menu the same as above. To attack the enemy with the lead character, hold down the B button to swing your weapon. You need to be right next to the enemy to land any hits. You can keep the B button held to do continuous attacks. You can also attack high by holding the D-pad diagonally Up and toward the enemy, and attack low diagonally with Down. Some enemies can only be hit high or low. You will see a little circle whenever you land an attack, but you will miss about as often as you hit.

Well actually this is the screen you will see the most often.

You will spend a lot of time in the game menu. While in the menu, press A to choose an option, press B to cancel and go back, and press Select to leave the menu. The Hero Select option lets you view each character’s stats, health, and items. You also use Hero Select to move party members around. Press A to choose a party member, and press A again when a different party member is highlighted to swap the two characters. Magic User Spells lets you use Raistlin’s spells, and Clerical Staff Spells lets you use Goldmoon’s spells. More on spells in a bit. The Use command lets you use some items like potions and equip some items like bows. For example, to equip Caramon’s throwing spear, go to the Use command, select Caramon, and then select the spear. It will then appear next to the Using field on both the Use or Hero Select screen when successfully equipped. The Score option shows you how many of each enemy you have killed as well as your experience points and score. Yes, Heroes of the Lance has a scoring system. The Give, Drop, and Take commands all move items around. Use the Give command to trade items between party members just like how you switch characters around. Drop puts an item on the ground, and Take is used to pick items up. You can find items on the ground or even in the background during play. Stand near one and use the Take command to give it to whichever party member you want. You can save the game at almost any time using the Save command, or load a save file anytime with the Load command. There are three save slots that either display as Old if it has save data or New if it is empty.

To cast spells with Raistlin or Goldmoon, you have to do two things. First, you must equip each character with their staff with the Use command. Second, you have to put the spellcaster in the front row. On the screen, the top four characters are in the front row and the others are in the back row. Party alignment is also important because any of the front row characters can take damage during combat, although the lead character is most likely to take the hit. Use either of the spell commands in the menu to display the spells and select one to cast it. While exploring, if the spellcaster is the lead character, you can simply cast the last spell used with the B button as a long range attack. In combat range, you must use the menu to cast spells.

Trapping enemies and running past them is an effective strategy.

Raistlin is the only character that can use the Magic User Spells option. This option displays the spell list and the charge meter showing how much power is left in the staff. Each spell uses up a different amount of charge, and when this meter is empty you can no longer cast spells. The same goes for Goldmoon and her Clerical Staff Spells. Raistlin’s magic spells are primarily combat oriented. Charm, Sleep, and Web are all used to temporarily stop enemies. Magic Missile and Burning Hands are attack spells. Detect Magic highlights magical items in the field with sparkles, and Detect Invisible reveals invisible objects. The Final Strike spell uses up all the energy in the staff to defeat all monsters on screen, though Raistlin loses his life in the process. To use this spell, you have to put Raistlin in the lead and also be outside of close combat range.

Goldmoon can use all Clerical spells with her Blue Crystal Staff. She has two healing spells, Cure Light Wounds and Cure Critical Wounds. Protection from Evil weakens enemies near the party, while Prayer builds the party up temporarily. Find Traps shows any traps on screen, such as falling rocks. She has two combat spells. Hold Person can disable an enemy like the Charm or Sleep spells, and Spiritual Hammer is an attack spell. Goldmoon can revive defeated party members with the Raise Dead spell. If a character is killed in combat, their body remains on the ground. You can stand near it and use Raise Dead to revive the character with a few hit points. However, if you change screens before reviving the character or cause the lead party member to fall in a pit, they are gone for good. In this case, their character portrait shows a tombstone instead of being grayed out. The last spell is Deflect Dragon Breath, which causes the lead character to glow and avoid all damage from the acid spewed by dragon hatchlings. If Goldmoon is defeated, a few other characters can pick up her staff and perform a subset of Clerical spells.

There are quite a few items found in the dungeon. There are five colors of potions that do different effects, such as healing, party member protection, or holding enemies. A ring or a gem ring can be equipped with the Use command which makes the wearer harder to hit in combat. Raistlin can use a Scroll or a Wand to perform a long range attack without using power from his staff. The remaining items have no effect except for adding points to your score while you carry them. Such items are gems, coins, gold bars, chalices, and shields.

This waterfall is awfully pretty.

This was my first time playing through AD&D: Heroes of the Lance. At the beginning of my project, I put this game and many others near the end of the list which I call my snub list. Now I am bringing those games back into the fold occasionally as I see fit, and it had been awhile since I pulled one of my snubbed games into the forefront. I’m reasonably sure I bought this game at my local game store at the time when they were slow to keep up with price increases. I could bundle games and get every fourth game free, so I took advantage of that frequently. The price of this game hasn’t really moved though. I think it was an $8 game at that store and that’s in line with its current value. I have the manual for it that I got separately, although with a missing cover.

I gave the game a test drive just to check the battery, and in those few minutes I couldn’t get off the first screen. At a glance, it is an intimidating game to say the least. There are so many menu options and character statistics. Who are all these characters and what do they bring to the table? Spell casting doesn’t work right away. The first screen features a pit that I bet most players fall in right away trying to figure out what to do. I sure did. I see I can go through a door to the north and another to the south, but my character won’t go that way because I’m just pressing Up or Down instead of holding the direction button. The game has a bad reputation for all these reasons. The manual is an absolute must, and I’m guessing most people that have tried the game played without reading the manual, further souring their first impressions. I read through the manual several times, and I needed it by my side as I played before the game started to unfold.

One of my biggest gripes with Heroes of the Lance is the level layout. The compass is there to help orient you, but from room to room it can twist in various directions. Say you are in a room that runs north and south. The next room may also run north and south, so you know you are in a different room that runs parallel. Other times, the next room runs west to east, so you then start spreading out more. To make it more confusing, if this north to south hallway has an east door and a west door opposite each other, sometimes both doors lead to the same room and other times they lead to separate rooms. Both doors leading to the same room can make sense if you picture it as two perpendicular hallways that intersect, and you are simply reorienting your view by turning 90 degrees. It’s just that this is not evident at first. Most of the hallways looks the same anyway with the same drab gray colors. All this combined is the perfect recipe for getting lost. I am good at mental mapmaking, but it only took a few screens into the game before I needed to begin drawing. Even then, I ran into problems. The layout seems nonsensical at times. Sometimes the map has loops in it, and other times it appears that you are going in a direction that overlaps with something else in the level. It’s hard enough to map the dungeon without having to consider verticality. It’s ugly, unthoughtful design.

Basic platforming is also frustrating.

The good news is that there are clear, one-way transitions between the three levels of the dungeon. Go the correct way and you may see a short cutscene of your character falling to the level below. This is not a pit that kills you and you are going the right way when this happens. If you successfully map your way to that spot, then you effectively have that level solved. It’s not always easy getting there. There is one section in Level 2 that I am convinced is impossible to map out. It’s a door maze with several hallways, all with multiple doors. I started finding new items after going through many hallways, so I know I was hitting unique screens still. Fortunately, this section is not on the critical path and can (and should) be skipped completely.

Once I reached Level 3, I was running low on magic so I elected to start over. It was quick getting back there and I was in a much better state than my first try. The final level was the easiest area to map and I did so completely. It was straightforward to beat the game at that point. It took me about four hours to beat the game the first time. I knew I could beat the game much quicker than that, so I recorded a longplay. I admit, I really enjoyed blowing through the game again once I figured it all out. The second play lasted 20 minutes. The ending of the game teases you with the sequel, AD&D Dragons of Flame, which was never released on NES. Dragons of Flame did make it to Famicom, though I won’t be playing it.

Another aspect of this game’s reputation is that it is a difficult game, but I found that really wasn’t the case. The game seems so difficult at first for all the reasons mentioned here, and that’s true, it is difficult to start. You have a lot of learn and you will probably play poorly trying to get your bearings. This makes saving anywhere such a godsend. Take advantage of it by saving frequently and reloading if things don’t go well. Don’t go too long without saving so that if you need to reload you have a better chance of remembering where you are. Mapping the game on paper goes a long way as well, even if the map itself is crude like mine. Once you find the entrance to the next level and can get there from the start, you can do what I did and restart the game if things go south. The game is short with only the three levels and it isn’t a huge setback to start over with the knowledge gained. Sadly, Heroes of the Lance will permit you into situations where the game is unwinnable and you have to start over, but this is not much of a burden as it would appear. I would say the game begins like it has well above average difficulty and then becomes a low difficulty game at the end, depending on your aptitude for mapping. Suddenly a 5/10 rating seems about right!

Make sure to protect yourself when fighting the dragon hatchlings.

I know this review has gone on long enough, but I’m going to share my tips and strategy for beating Heroes of the Lance. I’m spoiling quite a lot here. I’ll begin with perhaps my biggest revelation about this game. Most of the content in this game means nothing. Other than health, the statistics do not tell you anything. The game can be beaten with only three characters and fewer than half the spells. You need to know how to kill enemies and jump a little. That’s all. Here’s how you do it. Set Caramon as your lead character and put Raistlin and Goldmoon in the third and fourth spots in the front row. Go to the Use command to equip both Raistlin’s staff and Goldmoon’s staff so you can cast spells. Most of the enemies in this game are affected by the Web spell. When these enemies are stuck in a web, you can kill them if you want or run right past them. Web didn’t work on short enemies or the dragon hatchlings, so you have to fight them. Use only downward attacks on the short enemies. You might be able to jump past them if you want to try that. The hatchlings are the biggest nuisance here. For them, use the Deflect Dragon Breath spell so you don’t get hurt by their acid and keep reapplying it when the spell wears off for as long as you battle them. They constantly back away from you in close range, so you have to step forward and take a stab or two. Just repeat that until you either kill them or move them far enough out of the way to get where you are going. In general, monitor your health and heal with the Cure Light Wounds spell as often as needed to keep your HP topped off. Save often, as much as you feel comfortable. The Prayer spell might come in handy for a few tricky screens, but it isn’t essential. At the final battle with the dragon Khisanth, first get close enough to engage him in battle. Set Goldmoon as the lead character and press both the B button and Right to throw the staff into the dragon killing him instantly. It is that simple, and it is not even a spoiler since the manual tells you to do this. Grab the disks, wait a few seconds, and enjoy the ending.

In conclusion, yes, AD&D: Heroes of the Lance is a bad game. Poor controls, sluggish movement, drab graphics, a confusing dungeon, and frivolous, unnecessary elements make for an unpleasant experience. I haven’t mentioned the music at all, which is easily the best part of this game. The composer Seiji Toda and arranger and programmer Iku Mizutani did an excellent job with the music and they both deserve far more credit than they have received. The music aside, I would not recommend this game. If you like map making, you might get a little enjoyment here, and it’s not the worst game to play solely by walkthrough if you want to go that route. As for me, I’m really pleased I conquered the game on my own. It feels like a big accomplishment, and that is such a good feeling that makes it all worth it.

#60 – Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes of the Lance

 
SEP
11
2017
0

#51 – Dragon Fighter

Don’t just fight a dragon, become one!

You can’t start until you see this title screen twice. Lame!

To Beat: Reach the ending
To Complete: Beat the game in the secret hard mode
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 5/19/17 – 5/22/17
Difficulty: 6/10
My Difficulty: 6/10
Video: Dragon Fighter Hard Mode

It’s funny. I just finished playing through Dragon Warrior, and then the next game to come up on the list is Dragon Fighter. Don’t let the names fool you, for these two games are really quite different. Dragon Fighter is a side scrolling action game, not an RPG. Dragon Warrior is an early NES game, while Dragon Fighter is a later release. While Nintendo Power gave away Dragon Warrior, Dragon Fighter is a hard to find game that is very expensive now. Finally, Dragon Warrior is really well known, and Dragon Fighter is still pretty obscure. While I can’t get the price down on a cartridge, I can help make this fun game a little more well known.

Dragon Fighter was first released on Famicom in August 1990. The game was developed by Natsume and published by Towa Chika. Natsume developed a few action games on the NES, including S.C.A.T. which I have already completed. Towa Chika did not publish any games outside the US. Perhaps the most infamous game they published is the Famicom platformer A Week of Garfield. Dragon Fighter was brought over to the NES in January 1992. The NES version was published by Sofel, who brought only five games to the NES.

Dragon Fighter is a side-scrolling action game. An evil warlock named Zabbaong attacks the land of Baljing, who are known as a peaceful people with a dragon statue as a symbol of their good nature. The Dragon Spirit had given the people the dragon statue, and now under the enemy attack he brings the statue to life as a fierce warrior. You play as this warrior as you strike back again Zabbaong.

Don’t run away! The green guys aren’t that scary.

This is a relatively straightforward game. In fact, this is a pure horizontal scroller with the playfield only scrolling to the right, just like Super Mario Bros. As the fighter, you wield a sword and can perform basic techniques. Use the D-pad to walk around. You can crouch by holding Down. Press A to jump, and B to swing your sword forward. You can swing your weapon when standing, jumping, or crouching. If you hold down the B button, you will start to flash. Hold it for long enough, and then release the button to perform a charge attack.

The main feature of Dragon Fighter is that you can become a flying dragon. At the top of the screen there are two meters. The top one is your health meter and the bottom one is called the metamorph meter. For each enemy that you defeat with the sword, you will add to the metamorph meter. Enemies beaten by charge attacks do not fill the meter. Once this meter is at least halfway full, then it will start flashing indicating you can morph into a dragon. Hold Up and jump with A, and at the top of your jump you switch over to a flying dragon.

In dragon form, you can fly around in all eight directions and you can fire with B. You always face to the right in this form. Also, the screen begins to scroll forward automatically as your metamorph meter dwindles away. You get more firepower and can avoid attacks much easier as a dragon, so this form is very useful. You can switch back to the fighter at any time by holding Down and pressing A. Keep in mind that you may need to fight more enemies in fighter form to build the metamorph meter back up before you can switch back to a dragon again. If the meter runs out, then you will automatically shift back into the fighter.

Sometimes a defeated enemy will drop a helpful item. There are only a few item drops. The power pearl will restore a couple points of health, while the larger pearl pot will restore eight health units. The power ring wipes out all enemies on the screen. Finally, the dragonweed, shaped like a dragon’s head, will fill up eight points in the metamorph meter.

With the dragon, you can fly over enemies.

In some of the stages, you will find powerups labelled G, R, and B. These are always found in the same location and are not dropped by enemies. Picking up one of these icons will change your fighter into the Green fighter, Red fighter, or Blue fighter. Each color fighter has both a distinct charge attack and dragon attack. The default fighter at the start of the game is the Green fighter. Your charge shot is a green ball that travels to the right, and the dragon form gets a three-way spread fire. The Red fighter’s charge shot is a set of three fireballs that arc in the air and fall down. The Red dragon’s attack is a fireball that spreads out when it hits the ground similar to the holy water in Castlevania. The Blue fighter gets a homing charge shot and the Blue dragon can fire two homing shots.

At the end of each stage is a boss battle. These include a fight with a werewolf, a giant centipede, and a large skeleton with floating hands. The metamorph meter is emptied upon starting the next stage, so don’t be afraid to use the dragon form for the fight. When you defeat the boss, it will drop a staff that you acquire to end the level. Collecting the staff increases the size of your health meter and also restores some health for the next stage. A little spoiler here: The sixth and final stage plays entirely as a horizontal scrolling shooter and you are forced into dragon mode for the whole thing. It culminates in a final boss battle with Zabbaong.

There are no extra lives in Dragon Fighter, so when all your health is depleted it is Game Over. You do have three continues. However, using one sends you back all the way to the start of the stage. Even if you reach the boss and die, you have to replay the entire level. This is the kind of game that you learn over multiple plays.

This was my first time playing through Dragon Fighter. It was among the final 30 games or so I bought for my NES licensed collection, mostly because the game is hard to find and expensive. I bought it in February 2015, and at the time the game was selling for around $100 for a loose cart. I explored many avenues looking for these final games, and for this one I ended up taking a chance on an Amazon listing with no pictures. The cart was only $50, but the game was badly cracked. It was punctured right over the label causing attached shards of plastic to be pushed into the cart shell. I opened the cart up and pushed the damaged part outward to make it flatter. It’s a shame because the cart is in really nice shape otherwise. It does look great on the shelf at least! As of August 2017, a Dragon Fighter loose cart sells in the $250-$300 range, so I’m happy with my choice.

Deploy the dragon strategically during boss battles.

Beating the game wasn’t too much of a challenge for me. I ended up beating the game the first night in over two hours with a few practice runs. A lot of it was figuring out when to deploy the dragon and which color fighter to use. There is a little bit of platforming, but most of the game centers around enemy combat. I think I’m pretty good at seeing the enemy patterns and figuring out how to react. Some fortuitous item drops also came in handy! I gave the game a difficulty rating of 6/10 because of the limited continues and no checkpoints when you use one. I maybe should have rated it higher because I think many players are going to have more of a struggle with it, but I’ll stick with my choice because I figured it out so quickly.

This is not all Dragon Fighter has to offer. The game has an unlockable hard mode. When you beat the game and leave it on the ending screen for a little while, a cheat code is displayed. Correctly inputting it at the title screen changes the copyright text from blue to red, indicating hard mode is activated. There are two major differences in hard mode. First, there are no item drops. This makes health preservation critical as you can only heal once per level after defeating a boss and grabbing the staff. The other difference is that for each enemy you kill in dragon form, a homing bullet fires as the enemy’s death explosion finishes. As far as I recall there were no further changes to the game. It’s a good mode that tweaks how you approach levels. I spent a separate night beating hard mode. For some reason, I was determined to beat the game on hard mode without dying, and I’m happy to report that I accomplished it. It’s one of my better achievements captured on video.

I know the term is overblown to NES fans, but Dragon Fighter is indeed a hidden gem. It’s a straightforward but competent hack and slash action game with the ability to morph into a dragon, so there’s already a lot going for it. The graphics are well done, the music is good, the gameplay is solid, the bosses are fun to fight, the challenge is appropriate, and the optional hard mode is well thought out. Dragon Fighter checks most of the boxes from what you would expect out of one of the most expensive NES games. The price is obviously a major barrier if you want the authentic experience, but if you have a Powerpak or play on an emulator, Dragon Fighter is a game that is worth checking out.

#51 – Dragon Fighter

 
MAR
06
2017
0

#37 – The Guardian Legend

Two styles of gameplay collide in this legendary adventure!

A static title screen with some nice music!

To Beat: Reach the ending
To Complete: Beat both the main game and the special mode
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 11/7/16 – 11/19/16
Difficulty: 4/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
Video: The Guardian Legend Special Mode Longplay

In 2012, Mike Matei of Cinemassacre published a now well-known YouTube video listing his top 10 obscure NES gems. The Guardian Legend is the first game I have covered that made his list. Now I won’t tell you exactly where this slotted in on the top 10, but most of the games on that list became instantly more popular overnight, including The Guardian Legend. So the game has a lot of hype surrounding it now, but does it live up to it?

The Guardian Legend was developed by Compile. They are pretty well known for developing shoot-em-up games. The game was first released on the Famicom in February 1988. There it was named Guardic Gaiden and it was published by Irem. The Guardian Legend was released on the NES in April 1989 and published by Broderbund. The game was later released in Europe in 1990 published by Nintendo. The box and label art are unique among all three versions of the game.

Much to my surprise, my research revealed that The Guardian Legend is actually a sequel. There was a trio of games released by Compile on the MSX computer in Japan. The first game was Final Justice which released in 1985 and plays similarly to Galaga. The second is Guardic released in 1986. In this game, each level is a static screen with enemies to shoot. You go to the next stage by flying upward into a scrolling section where you can decide which path and level you want to take next. The third game is Blaster Burn from 1990 which is a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up. The Guardian Legend is the sequel of the middle game Guardic.

There’s a lot going on even in the very beginning.

The Guardian Legend is a shoot-em-up game comprised of vertically scrolling shoot-em-up sections and top-down adventure sections. You play as the Guardian who can transform between a humanoid form and a spaceship form. The goal of the game is to destroy the planet Naju which is filled with monsters and set on a collision course toward Earth. Your mission is to explore the surface of the planet to locate corridors that are buried deep inside the planet. These corridors contain switches that can activate the self-destruct sequence when all of them are set.

The game begins inside the first corridor. Here the Guardian assumes her spaceship form and you play a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up stage. After clearing the stage, the Guardian switches back to her humanoid form and then you explore the surface of the planet from a top-down perspective searching for the next corridor. The game format resembles The Legend of Zelda in that you explore an overworld while looking for dungeons you need to clear.

The controls are pretty much the same in both perspectives. Use the D-Pad to move the Guardian in eight directions. The B button fires the standard weapon. In the shoot-em-up sections you can only fire upward but in the top-down portions you can shoot in any direction. Hold down the B button for a quite generous auto-fire. The A button is used to fire secondary weapons. You can pause the game by pressing Start and you press Select to open up the subscreen.

Information overload!

There is a lot of information available on the subscreen. The top portion of the subscreen contains the same information shown when you are playing and it is comprised of three rows. The top row shows your current score, the number of power chips you currently have, the number of shots for your secondary weapon, and which secondary weapon you have equipped. The middle row contains your health bar. The bottom row shows which area you are located and the X and Y coordinates of where you are located in the overworld. All of that is just the top part of the subscreen!

The left side of the subscreen shows the map. You can see your current location highlighted as well as the location of any reachable corridor. The right side of the subscreen shows which keys you have, the maximum number of chips you can have, your attack and defense power, the power level of the currently selected subweapon, and how many chips it takes to fire the current subweapon. The bottom of the subscreen shows all of the subweapons you have. Use the cursor to select which subweapon you want to equip.

The power chips are very important to your survival. They are the ammunition for your subweapons. Each subweapon uses up a certain number of chips for each time you fire it and you cannot use your subweapons if you run out of chips. The other important mechanic is that the chips also influence the firepower of your normal weapon. When you reach certain chip amounts your weapon will power up, but spending chips and falling below that amount will cause your weapon to downgrade. There is a balancing act between using your other weapons while also maintaining enough chips in reserve to have a more useful normal weapon.

It’s a tiny swarm of overworld enemies.

There are a ton of upgrades and items that you will encounter in the game. The most important items for making progress are the keys. As you explore you will find black circles on the ground next to walls that have some kind of symbol written on them. If you hold the key that matches the symbol, then you can stand on the circle and teleport to the adjacent room. The keys are found in the corridors and they allow access to new areas of the map. Each new area hides more corridors.

You will also gather subweapons. There are twelve unique subweapons and once you have one you can switch to it anytime you want via the subscreen. If you collect the same subweapon again you can upgrade it to a more powerful form. Each subweapon has three distinct power levels. These get really strong later in the game but they cost more chips to deploy. The subweapons have all kinds of different effects and patterns and they are a lot of fun to use. You can get grenades, a laser sword, circular shots, homing shots, and so on. If one of the enemies or bosses is giving you a lot of trouble, it is probably because you are not using the best subweapon for the job. Experiment to see which one is most useful for your situation.

Some items give you other types of permanent upgrades. The Blue Lander is a little creature that will increase your maximum health, and the Red Lander increases the maximum amount of power chips. The gun item increases your attack power, and the shield item increases your defense power. The item that looks like four upward arrows increases the rate of fire for your normal weapon. You can also find an energy tank that fills up your health to your current maximum. It’s worth pointing out here that you can also upgrade your maximum health by reaching certain score thresholds.

Look, a weapon lying on the ground!

Other items are found by defeating enemies. Sometimes when you kill an enemy a little explosion cloud will appear on the ground for a little while leaving behind a power-up block. Shoot the block to reveal the item. You can find a heart that will restore some of your health. The blue orb gives you 20 power chips and a tiny bit of health, and a red orb restores 500 power chips and a little more health than the blue orb. You can also find full energy tanks but they are more uncommon.

There are quite a few ways to find the upgrades and items. On the surface you can find shops where you can exchange power chips for a weapon or upgrade. Some screens contain mini bosses that hold an upgrades. When you walk into one of these screens an alarm will sound and all the screen exits will be blocked off forming an arena for the fight. These can be challenging but the reward is worth it. Some screens contain a powerup freely for the taking although it takes some maneuvering around the map to find them.

There are ten different areas spread out across the map that branch off of the hub area. Each one has its own theme such as a water area and forest area. Each area contains two corridors and they are numbered based on the current area number. Area 1 contains both Corridor 1 and Corridor 11, for example. Corridors 1-10 are required for clearing the game and each one of them is blocked off from entry. There is some kind of puzzle you need to solve to open up the gate. Exploring the area and talking with some Blue Landers will yield the answer for how to open the gate and access the corridor. The remaining Corridors 11-20 are optional but you get upgrades from clearing them that you probably will want.

One of many huge boss sprites!

The corridor stages can pose a challenge. Often they are teeming with enemies and there can be a lot going on at one time. The scrolling speed varies from crawling to crazy fast which can add to the excitement. Each stage ends in a fight with a huge, detailed boss that takes a lot of firepower to defeat. As mentioned before, choosing the right subweapon is critical to taking out the boss successfully.

All throughout the map you will find rooms with Blue Landers that will give you a password to save your progress. The passwords are really complex, consisting of 32 characters of capital and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. The passwords do track all of the items you have acquired as well as your score, but the length and complexity is just too much. Thankfully in the smartphone era a simple picture works wonders for capturing it just right.

This was my first time playing through The Guardian Legend but I have quite a few random memories surrounding this game. Growing up it was one of those games I would often browse at the local video store but never rented. I ended up buying my first copy of the game for $5 during my honeymoon. A couple of years later I got big into NES collecting again and The Guardian Legend kept popping up for me. My local game store chain was slow to update their NES pricing and they sold it for $3 when it was at least a $10 game. I bought several copies of the game just to flip. (Yep, I’m one of those “evil” reseller types.) I even picked up a cheap copy on eBay a couple of years ago when I saw it. Then right before I started playing through the game for my blog, my grandmother came across a lot of NES stuff with yet another copy of The Guardian Legend. This one however was a nice condition complete in box copy that I am keeping!

Such colorful death bubbles!

It took me a little under two weeks to finish playing The Guardian Legend with my normal rate of playing. The game definitely has some meat to it with all the areas and corridors, but I managed to make progress at a good rate every time I played. I didn’t get stuck anywhere for too long and even the most difficult corridors only took a few attempts at most.

The Guardian Legend is extremely generous with powerups. The item drop rate isn’t terribly high, but there are so many enemies around to defeat that you will get powerups on constant rotation. The top-down segments, corridors, and even most boss fights provide you enough to keeping going as long as you are reasonably careful and employ smart subweapon usage. For this reason, I don’t think the game is that difficult overall, but there were a few tricky sections that caused me to give it a 4/10 difficulty rating. One of the recurring minibosses became a war of attrition every time I encountered it, and the final boss was pretty mean and took a few tries to beat. This is the kind of game where you consistently make progress, and you can keep attempting the tough parts until you get it right.

I already spoiled this a little bit, but in case you didn’t pick up on it or don’t want to know, now is the time to skip ahead to the next paragraph! Upon beating the game and sitting through the end credits, you are given a very short password “TGL.” You can use the password to play through a special mode of the game that consists only of the Corridor sections. The levels are identical to the regular game but the big change here is how you are awarded the powerups. After completing each corridor, you are taken to a special screen where you earn powerups for meeting specific score requirements. You can get as many as five powerups after each stage even if you score high enough to be awarded more. This mode shifts the focus on scoring as many points as you can. It is also more difficult than the regular game because the rollout of powerups is slower than in the normal mode. It’s a fun way to play through the game again and a fitting reward for beating the game.

The Guardian Legend handles many enemies pretty well.

There is a very good hack of the game called The Guardian Legend Secret Edition. This is a complete overhaul of the game containing a new overworld, new Corridor stages, new Corridor puzzles, and even some new bosses. The difficulty has also been cranked up quite a lot, but that is to be expected with a hack like this. I started playing through Secret Edition once I completed the game and I got about halfway through before I stopped playing. If you like The Guardian Legend then you will really like Secret Edition. I really need to get back to it and finish it for myself!

The Guardian Legend indeed lives up to the hype. This is a really good NES game that I enjoyed playing a lot. The game controls well, the graphics and music are really nice, the myriad of subweapons gives you a lot of variety and power, the boss fights are well made, and most importantly the game is simply fun to play. I certainly got hooked! The only negative in my mind is the long password system, but if that’s the only thing I can find wrong with the game then Compile did a whole lot more right. I recommended that you give this gem a try!

#37 – The Guardian Legend