Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#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

MagMax Box Cover

#25 – MagMax

This simple shooter does not crank up the fun to the max as the name might suggest.

Basic title screen but it does the job.

Basic title screen but it does the job.

To Beat: Defeat the Dragon after Level 4
To Complete: Complete 3 loops
My Goal: Complete the game
What I Did: Completed 3 loops
Played: 8/20/16, 8/25/16
Difficulty: 3/10
My Difficulty: 3/10

Playing games at random like I am doing for this blog means that progression is going to be terribly unpredictable. Ikari Warriors and MagMax couldn’t be any more different in terms of time spent beating the game. While I am thankful that MagMax was a very welcome breather in terms of pushing toward the overall goal, the game itself was not all that interesting.

MagMax was released in the arcades in Japan in 1985. All versions were developed by Nihon Bussan. The arcade version was also published by the developer under the brand Nichibutsu. The NES port was released on the Famicom in March 1986. The US version was published by FCI and was not released until October 1988, nearly two and a half years apart from the Famicom release. The game also received ports to the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, and Amstrad CPC all in 1987.

MagMax is a side scrolling shooter. The story goes that aliens conquered the Earth and put the super-computer beast Babylon over the humans. The people fight back by creating a mech named MagMax that is their only hope to take back Earth.

It's pretty slow going starting out.

It’s pretty slow going starting out.

The game has two somewhat interesting gimmicks going for it. The first feature is that as you play you collect and merge the different parts of MagMax to create a fully powered robot. You start off with a basic spaceship that eventually becomes the midsection of MagMax. You can attach the head and legs separately as you come across them. Each segment has its own gun adding more shots to the fray. There is also a wave beam gun that attaches to the head providing even more firepower. You are completely MagMax whenever all four pieces are put together.

The other feature is that there are two separate fields of play and you are able to switch between them periodically. The game starts on the surface and from time to time there will be warp holes that show up. You can choose to descend down the hole and continue play underground. Similarly there are warp holes underground that bring you back up to the surface. The surface has different enemies and obstacles than the underground. The other difference between the fields is in visual perspective. The surface is sort of halfway between side view and top down view while the underground is purely side view. No matter which side you choose, play always scrolls to the right.

The gray warp hole carries you to the underground.

The gray warp hole carries you to the underground.

When only the basic starting ship, it only takes one hit to lose a life. However, as you merge with the other parts of MagMax, both the head and the legs can be destroyed separately which lets you take a bullet and survive. You lose your extra firepower but you stay alive which is a fair tradeoff. It gives you a bit of a cushion to survive until finding other replacement parts to build back up to full strength. It should be noted that the wave beam gun gets destroyed along with the head if that part is lost.

The difference in perspective means that each field plays a little bit differently. On the surface, the full MagMax stands taller than all the enemies, so the bullets fire slightly downward and move forward across the ground. The enemies also fire across the ground, so the player hitbox is merely the bottom part of the MagMax. Bullets that appear to hit the top of MagMax actually travel behind it due to the perspective. The wave beam gun on the surface is a constant beam that drags along the ground in front of the player. This can be used to destroy enemies that are otherwise immune to standard shots.

Having to point the beam downward seems like bad robot design.

Having to point the beam downward seems like bad robot design.

The underground perspective plays by different rules than the surface. The most visible change is that having multiple parts attached gives the MagMax three distinct vertical levels of shooting the standard beam. In effect this is akin to a spread shot. The downside is that the hitbox is the exact size of the MagMax so when fully powered up the hitbox is three times larger than with the bare ship or on the surface. The wave beam gun underground provides a fireball that blasts across the screen cutting through all enemies in its path.

There are many different types of enemies to deal with. They are your typical nondescript robot ships for the most part all with different attack patterns. The surface tends to have more stationary targets, many of which are only vulnerable to the wave beam gun. The underground tends to have more waves of moving enemies that can be destroyed with any weapon. A few elements in the game have unique properties. There is an enemy type that fires a spread of cannonballs when it’s destroyed that can also defeat other surrounding enemies for bonus points. Underground there are stalactites that will fall to the ground when shot. If an enemy is hit by one of these on the way down it is destroyed for bonus points.

You start the game with two lives and you can earn more from points. There is an extra life at 30,000 points and another awarded at every 50,000 points beyond that. It does take some time to accumulate enough points to rack up lives but each one is worth it.

Lots of swarming enemies underground to blow away!

Lots of swarming enemies underground to blow away!

There are four levels in MagMax that blend seamlessly into the next during play. They are the forest, desert, sea, and automated city. At the end of the second and fourth levels you get to square off against Babylon himself. The battle is exactly the same both times and you will come across him on both the surface and underground. After the fight in the fourth stage there is a little bit further to go and then the game loops back to the beginning. Consider the game beaten when this loop point is reached.

This game was another new one for me. I didn’t have much trouble with it at all. In fact I beat the game on my very first try. I kept playing and ended up dying for good early on in the second loop. Even though I beat the game I wanted to take it a step further by playing an entire loop on the surface followed by another full loop underground. That way I get to experience the full content of the game. My second attempt was all I needed to complete that goal.

Having completed all of the surface followed by all of the underground, I can safely say that going underground is significantly more difficult than above. Almost all of the difficulty underground can be attributed to the larger hitbox of MagMax. When fully powered up, the spread firepower is excellent but with the large hitbox it doesn’t last very long. The enemies underground seem to swarm me more. I think MagMax moves slower underground but that may just be me. I did notice that having the legs increases the movement speed and I think that is more important to survival then having the head and wave beam gun. Overall the easiest way to beat the game is to stay above ground as much as possible.

You get a large swath of bullets but you are also a very tall target.

You get a large swath of bullets but you are also a very tall target.

A few days after beating MagMax I did a bit more research and found out that there is a small change even deeper into the game that I should see for myself. After completing three full loops of the game on one credit, the word “MEIGETSU” appears for a little while above the score counter. It is unclear exactly what this means or is supposed to indicate. It seems to translate to something like “harvest moon” or “great moon,” but I have no clue how that applies to MagMax at all. Either way, I went back and beat three loops so I could see the text. I did notice that the game got harder in the second and third loops, so it is possible that this message indicates that the difficulty is maxed out. I didn’t play a fourth loop to see if I could tell the difference. Anyway, now I think I have seen everything there is to see in MagMax.

The NES port of MagMax is really faithful to the arcade version. It looks and plays just about the same. From what I can tell there are only two noticeable differences. The surface view has a neat parallax scrolling effect in the arcade version where the bottom of the screen scrolls by a bit faster than the top of the screen. This effect is not present in the NES port. In the arcade version Babylon moves around a bit so his attacks are harder to dodge than in the NES version where the boss is stationary.

There is a neat minor Easter egg that I noticed right away when booting up MagMax for the first time. The default high score is set to 65,020 which is clearly a nod to the 6502 processor that the NES runs. I think that reference would have been lost on everyone when the game first came out.

The big bad boss Babylon!

The big bad boss Babylon!

I thought it was a bit difficult to pin an appropriate difficulty rating on MagMax. My decision of 3/10 was the first thing I thought off and I decided to make it stick. The game is very short clocking in at around 10 minutes. There are no continues and only a few lives, but the MagMax pieces doubling as an extra hit goes a long way toward extending each life. By staying on the surface and getting some practice it should not take very many attempts to complete one loop. It is not a cakewalk necessarily, but it is easy enough that 3/10 works I think.

It would be easy to cut MagMax some slack if it were released in the US much closer to the Famicom release. It’s not a great game for 1986 though it is acceptable, but the more than two year delay before the US release does not distinguish this game at all from its contemporaries. I know I would be disappointed if I got this game new in 1988. The good thing is now the game is both common and cheap, and it is much harder to be disappointed when both the acquisition cost and amount of time one would reasonably get out of it is so low. Overall this game is not special and it is fine to skip.

#25 - MagMax

#25 – MagMax