It's a good job that being a bard has died off as an acceptable profession. This article is going to contain some words about bards, and I wouldn't want to offend anyone. If you are a bard, descended from a long line of bards, the family lute passed down from father to son, then I hope you're at least the sensible kind of bard who sits in the corner of a tavern instead of poking dragons with a long stick. Yes, that's something that happens in today's game: Data East's 1992 arcade we-couldn't-afford-the-rights-to-Dungeons-and-Dragons-em-up Wizard Fire, also known as Dark Seal II!
I like what they've done with that serpentine letter W, even if it doesn't match the rest of the typeface. I think any issues with typographical consistency can be overlooked if it means one of your letters looks like a dragon, though.
Wizard Fire is a sequel to a 1990 arcade game called Gate of Doom or Dark Seal, depending on where you're from, and I actually wrote about that game a couple of year ago. You can read all about it here, but it's not vital to understanding the intricacies of Wizard Fire's plot. The two games are very similar, although any lovers of ancient Japanese assassination arts will be disappointed to learn that while the original Dark Seal featured a playable ninja, this game does not. He never really fit in, and now he'd been cast aside in favour of more Tolkien-inspired warriors. We'll meet those guys soon, but first here's some plot.
After their defeat in the first game, the dark wizard Volov and his generically-named and thoroughly evil business partner the Black Knight have once again returned to plague the land. This time they need to kill one hundred and one innocent people in order to raise an army of the undead. Actually, that just says innocent lives, so maybe they could get away with killing defenceless bunny rabbits or something. That sort of slaughter is much easier to do under the radar, assuming you travel between a widely-enough spaced set of pet shops.
There's also some waffle - I mean wisdom - of the sage that builds our heroes up as mighty warriors who will triumph over the most unlikely of odds. It seems like the villagers have a fair point to me, though.
"The bad guys have millions of troops and we have, what, four and a half warriors? I think we're screwed."
"Firstly, I don't appreciate your racist slur against the heroic dwarf. Secondly, the light of truth is stronger than any army. So sayeth the sage!"
"Yeah, but we could at least form a militia, round up some..."
"So sayeth the sage!"
"What part of 'so sayeth the sage' did you not understand?"
Here are the legendary heroes of truth, your playable characters for the adventure that awaits. The number has increased from four to five, with the ninja not getting so much as a mention as his place on the team is taken by an elf and a dwarf. I don't think the elf has any hands. I can't think of any other reason why she's not touching her face like everyone else.
The first of our warriors is the knight. His name is Carl. Carl the Knight. Nope, it just doesn't sound right. He's a virtuous sort, blessed with brawn, compassion and eyebrows you could hollow out and use as sleeping bags. You know the sort, in the modern day he'd probably be a park ranger who dedicates his life to helping animals or something. He attacks with a lance, but not just any lance: it's got a ball and chain on the end so it can extend and spin around. I hear the Belmont family are looking to developing similar technology.
Magic is taken care of by Freya the wizard, although everyone has access to magic spells so she's not as special as she thinks she is. I think the title Wizard Fire might be describing her, because she's a wizard who attacks by shooting fire out of her hands. She also looks like she's from ancient Egypt, because why not.
Also returning from the first game is Riger the bard. His talents include wassailing, singing paeans to the chivalrous days of yore and maintaining a green fringe of hair that looks like a fern trapped under his hat. You will notice that "fighting against evil wizards" is not on that list. That's because he's a bard. It's like putting Chris Martin from Coldplay in the ring with Floyd Mayweather, except not nearly as funny. For those reasons, plus the fact his weapon is called an "elastic spetum" and that sounds disgusting, Riger won't be seeing much use.
On to the new faces, and this one's a dwarf. Yup. Good old trusty dwarf, cast in the exact mould as every dwarf in every fantasy setting ever. I saw that his name is Jade and he's wearing his hair in pigtails, and for a second I wondered if this was a rarely-spotted female dwarf, but the description clearly refers to Jade as a he so I guess not. It could have made a nice change, but it was not to be. My disappointment is tempered somewhat by Jade's attacks, because he throws flaming battle-axes. It's hard not to warm to that.
Lastly we have Eminna the elf. Amazingly, she's an elf who doesn't attack with a bow and arrow but instead uses a sword. I mean, she's still fast and graceful and all that, so the standard Dungeons & Dragons classifications are firmly in place, but Eminna not using a bow and arrow was still a surprise. I read her description, it says "renowned for her swordsmanship" and everything and I was still surprised when I selected her and she didn't use a bow. I think I'm prejudiced against elves, but not so prejudiced that I won't admit Eminna is probably the best (or at least my favourite) character.
Hey, cutscenes! Neat, now I can learn all about these brave warriors and the bard that hangs around with them. While investigating a ruined village, our heroes find Jade the dwarf who tells them that Volov may still be nearby.
Ha ha ha, beautiful. It looks like the fate of the world is in safe hands. How the hell did that dragon manage to sneak up behind them? Maybe the ninja is still in the party, but he's so stealthy that everyone thinks he has actually vanished. If a dragon can get the drop on them, they'll never be able to keep track of a ninja.
Rather than killing all the warriors while they're all bunched up together in a nice bite-sized clump, Volov flies away over the destroyed village, our heroes give chase and I finally get around to talking about the gameplay.
That won't take long, because there's not all the much gameplay to talk about. Wizard Fire is a basic top-down run-n-gun game where you point your character in one of the eight available directions and press fire to make them attack. If I was feeling charitable I could compare it to Zombies Ate My Neighbors, but the fantasy setting and lack of cheerleaders to rescue means it feels more like Gauntlet. The combat does have a few added complications: for example, if you wait for a few moments between attacking, your weapon charges up and the next blow is more powerful, adding a slight element of patient strategising that thankfully doesn't sink into the "uncharged attacks have the stopping power of a wet flannel" trap that befell The Astynax.
All the characters also have a magic gauge, the rainbow-coloured bar at the bottom of the screen that's filled as you defeat enemies. The pages of the magic book slowly cycle through your available spells, and once your bar is full you can unleash your knowledge of the sorcerous arts and cast the spell that's currently highlighted. Like in the first game, these spells aren't simply more powerful attacks but instead full-body transformations that temporarily grant your character a new form with new attacks.
Here I have transformed the Knight into a treasure chest. I'm sure Volov is quaking in his dragon-stirrups.
The chest does actually have a purpose: while you can't defend yourself due to being, you know, a box, chest-knight bounces around the screen for a while spewing out power-ups that you can then collect. They're mostly points bonuses, but there are items that serve a purpose - things like gauntlets that increase your attack power, armour for absorbing some damage and speed-increasing boots, which are almost mandatory for success if your playing as the knight because without them he moves around the screen at a speed you couldn't call a snail's pace because it makes snails look like Usain Bolt.
The first stage is teeny-tiny in terms of its physical area - all the stages in Wizard Fire are - but it's so jam-packed with enemies that it feels much larger. Despite appearing at first glance to be a fast-paced thrillride of constant action, Wizard Fire actually demands that you take it at a much slower pace than you'd expect. Running headlong into the enemy will get you killed as you're swamped by their sheer numbers, so wiping them out carefully a wave at a time is the only way to progress without spending a hundreds of credits. This has the effect of making the small stages seem larger than they really are, and it's a good job because if they halved the amount of bad guys in your path you could knock through the whole game in ten minutes.
Speaking of enemies, almost all the things you're bashing in this stage are either zombies or skeletons. Did our heroes arrive late and Volov has already managed to summon his undead army, or does he just want to have two undead armies under his command? Because that seems a little greedy. I know what the sage sayeth, but there are only five of us. Two armies seems a bit much.
The first boss soon appears, and it's Volov riding his dragon. He didn't get far before we caught up with him, huh? He was waiting just beyond the village, and that village only had a population of about six people so it was hardly a sprawling metropolis. I'm just surprised we even noticed the huge dragon and didn't just walk straight past him to the exit.
Yes, the dragon is big and he may look menacing, but all his size means it that he's a bigger target. This is especially usful shen you consider that the Knight's lance attack spins in a fairly large circle so you don't even have to aim that closely at the dragon in order to hit it. Wait for it to land, land a few hits and get ready to move when it takes to the air, because it flies towards you breathing fire and that's the only time it poses any real danger. It may be a dragon, but it's still only the first boss and you shouldn't have any problems defeating it. Volov, in grand arch-villain style, manages to teleport away before you can stove his head in with your lance-mace apparatus. I'm sure we'll see him again soon enough.
Stage two starts off much as stage one did, with our hero making his way through a zombie-infested town. The screenshot above really captures how useful the spinning mace is - those black silhouettes were all zombies that I managed to kill in a single attack.
Also handy: the ability to turn into a hovering cloud that can fire out lightning like laser beams. The phrase "they won't know what hit them" seems more appropriate than usual. No-one expects deadly electric clouds. Not at ankle height, anyway.
After bumping into an evil priest who threw some standard RPG slime monsters at me and then ran away, I decided to switch to the wizard in preparation for the time when I caught up with the priest. Knowing Wizard Fire, it will not take long.
The second half of the stage takes place high in the mountains, where the jellyfish live and a mighty river of Ribena flows amongst the rocky crags. The river is painful to the touch, which is unfortunate because the boundary between "deadly mauve stream of liquid agony" and "safe rocks" is vague at best and it's easy to take damage even when you'd swear you were at a safe distance. They should put up a little fence or something.
I apprehended the evil priest, but he decided that he wasn't going to come quietly and instead turned into a big spooky tree. I pondered making a joke about how that means his name should be Father Russell, but I was being bombarded by exploding seeds at the time so I didn't have a chance to really hash the joke out. Instead I'll just point out that turning into an immobile wooden monster was probably not the smartest move when your opponent can shoot fire out of her hands. Stage three it is, then!
No, Sir Knight. That's not how water works.
Things are shaken up a little for this stage, and where before you were confined to one linear route, this castle has several different paths you can explore. There's only one path that leads to to the exit, but the other routes generally lead to treasure and helpful power-ups so if you're feeling confident in your skeleton-stabbing abilities then you can take these detours and grab the magical trinkets hidden within.
Personally I'm not feeling confident, because now I'm playing as the bard. According to the character select screen his gimmick is that he's resistant to poison. Presumably he has built up a tolerance to poison over many years of tavern owners trying to kill him by lacing his drinks with strychnine before he can start singing in their bars.
Maybe I'm being too hard on the bard. He moves fairly fast, his elastic spetum-spear-trident thing has a good reach and if you keep tapping the attack button the bard will perform a multi-stab attack that can be very useful against large throngs of enemies like the ones pictured above. Man, that's a lot of Beholders, or whatever Data East are calling these monsters so they don't get sued by the Dungeons and Dragons people. They're still quite clearly Beholders, mind you, and not especially threatening ones at that. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but you know what else is in the eye of the Beholder? My bard's spetum. Oh god that really does sound disgusting.
In time-honoured videogame tradition, there's a midboss fight against an evil clone of your character. Turns out I was wrong to praise the bard, because he was too rubbish to even kill a bard. Instead I switched to the dwarf, who fared much better thanks to his ability to throw massive axes around the place. Projectile attacks are definitely the way to go here, because they allow you to attack and then get out of the way.
Stage three is roughly the mid-point of the game, as often seems to be the case with arcade titles it's the best bit. The difficulty level is high enough to provide a good challenge without becoming to bogged down by enemies too numerous to deal with and bosses that have health bars longer than the Golden Gate Bridge, and the game has yet to run out of new ideas. Not all the new idea are great - there's a platforming section that's made more difficult by the fact you can't jump - but it's better than nothing.
The big boss of the stage sees the return of Volov's dragon, only now it's undead. He really doesn't seem to have a problem recruiting the undead, does he? All this "opening the ancient doorway" stuff seems a tad redundant. Anyway, the dragon is a much tougher prospect now he's not weighed down by things like skin or an immortal soul, with a wide range of breath attacks and a tendency to collapse into a heap of bones that you can't damage. A lot of his attacks also cause paralaysis, requiring you to waggle to joystick in order to be able to move again. I hope you're using a sturdy controller if you decide to play Wizard Fire, because getting paralysed is extremely common from here on out.
Once the dragon is dead for good, our heroes can see Volov's castle ahead of them. Sadly it's floating a thousand feet in the air, which is going to make laying seige to it harder than with your usual ground-based fortress. However are we going to get up there?
A good plan. Everyone here can change their form using magic, so I'm sure there must be a spell that gives you wings. Hell, there's already one that turns you into a tornado, that'd probably get the job done.
Hey, don't you patronise me, wizard. What's your big plan, then?
As it turns out, the wizard does have a plan. It involves wandering across a desert to find the grave of an ancient hero. The grave has a magical teleporter in it. Time to hit the desert, then. I think I'll switch to the elf for this one. Elves are known for living in the dry and barren desert, right?
This stage has a gimmick, and that gimmick is that it's really annoying. To progress you must find two medallions hidden in the sand, but the desert is a big, featureless void that is prone to sudden sandstorms - if you reach the edge of the screen, a wave of sand will appear and teleport you somewhere else. I think that's what's happening, anway: it's hard to tell when there are no landmarks aside from a couple of severed horses' heads.
The Mafia: not a fan of deserts.
While this section is hardly thrilling, it's perhaps not as infuriating as I might have made it sound, thanks mostly to the actual area of the desert being (surprise surprise) fairly small. Still, I don't fancy spending any more time amongst the dunes than is absolutely necessary, so let's head into the grave.
This is one heck of a tomb, and waiting for you in the lobby is a vampire lady and her two pet gargoyles. The vampire lady herself if protected by a forcefield that looks like the ghost of an orange, so it's the gargoyles that will be taking the beating. Like the bard, the elf also has a multi-hit attack triggered by repeatedly tapping the attack button, and while it may look as though she's just waving her sword around like an overexcited kid with a Bonfire Night sparkler she's totally kicking ass and whatnot.
Once the gargoyles are dead, the vampire lady scarpers. That seems to be a running - pun intended - theme in this game. "Discretion is the better part of valour" must be Volov's family motto.
Inside the tomb it's mostly mummies, the least threatening of all the undead. They're just zombies who are even more flammable than usual, although they at least have a legitimate reason for craving brains as theirs were pulled out through their nose using a metal hook. They attack by whipping their wrapping at you, which somehow makes them even more disappointing. I was towel-whipped plenty of times as a kid and it never resulted in any major damage, and I wasn't even a mighty warrior with the sacred task of protecting a kingdom.
Forget about the mummies, though. Take a look at the carving in the background, the one with the fire-breathing dargon on it. Doesn't that text look very... English-y? Let's see what happens when you flip it upside down.
Huh. That quite clearly says "The Care Bears", backwards S aside. I did not expect to see The Care Bears referenced in a Japanese arcade game built mostly around ripping off Dungeons and Dragons. Are we to assume that the Care Bears are revered in this land as creator-gods who formed the very world itself from the raw power of love and friendship? I hope not, I've spent the whole game stabbing things.
There are a few more of them scatter throughout the stage, too - a misspelled "welcome" message near the door, the words "map" and "brothers," and nonsense phrase "The Bij"... except I looked a little closer and realised that's not a J, it's a T, and the whole thing is a reference to British videogame developers The Bitmap Brothers. There's even a message that says "Speed Ball 2," one of their most famous games. There's also some that I couldn't get a decent screenshot of, such as one that says "Shadow of the Beast" and another that says "Loriciel" so someone at Data East must have been showing their appreciation for the home computer game scene of the era. What a lovely thing to find.
Well, that's easily the most interesting thing about Wizard Fire, so from here on out we're limping towards the dull conclusion, starting with a boss fight against two rock golem things. This really is dull, as they've got pointlessly long health bars that smack of desperate padding, plus it's impossible to tell whether you're going to hurt them or not when you attack, Sometimes you'll do no damage, other times you'll be rewarded with a pleasing cyan palette shift as their health bar moves a nanometer towards their death, and there seems to be no way of telling which is which. I think it might have something to do with how often you hit them, so it's a good job I'm using the elf and her rapid-fire sword attack. Yes, I suppose you could do the same thing with the bard, if you were really that desperate to handicap yourself.
Once you've beaten Rocky and Cliff the Frustrating Boulder Brothers, the gang use the magical elevator thing to reach the final stage - Volov's castle itself. Here you can see what I meant about rushing on ahead being a really bad idea in Wizard Fire. I transformed myself into a tornado and pressed onwards under the assumption that I'd kill any enemies in my path, but my magical cyclone turned out to be more of a gentle breeze and I ran out of magic, stranded in the midst of a fiendish horde so ferocious that my character's sprite has disappeared out of sheer terror.
Standing in your path is a giant fire-breathing spider with the face of a woman. This fight is making me want to play Dark Souls. To be honest, everything makes me want to play Dark Souls. I once stumbled over a fallen tree branch and wondered whether I could make a Dark Souls character who runs around in a loincloth and fights with two giant clubs. The answer is yes, but not a particularly viable one.
Back to this much less interesting game, and after a brief section where a dragon tries to kill you by nudging you off a staircase instead of immolating you with its fire-breath or kicking you into orbit with its powerful hind legs, our heroes reach the door behind which their nemesis is lurking. I've been calling him Volov all this time, but I think Volov is actually a seperate wizard, the one who rides the dragon. I blame Data East for not fleshing out the antagonists of this game to my liking.
Check out those runes on the door. The set on the left says "Dark Seal", right? It has to. I don't think I'm looking too hard for hidden text in this one, not after the upside-down Care Bears stuff. The problem is I can't find a runic alphabet that includes all the runes used here, so if you think you can crack the code then let me know what you think it says. It's probably a haiku about Sensible Software.
Here's the final encounter, then. The Dark Wizard Whateverhisnameis floats around his majestic sky-patio, attacking you with every attack from every boss you've already faced. Paralysis spells, armies of summoned skeletons, explosions, all that fun stuff plus a move where he creates a hole under your feet that takes a big chunk of health off if you don't get out of the way. He spends most of the battle hovering right at the top of the screen while the Black Knight stands nearby doing precisely nothing.
He's clearly not invested in this whole "raise an undead army" scheme, and even when the Dark Wizard's health starts getting low he's not willing to lift a heavily-armoured finger to help. Evil villains of the world, this is why you should always treat your subordinates with respect and dignity. Otherwise they'll just stand by and roll their eyes while a woman dressed as an ancient Egyptian queen sets fire to your fancy robes with the power of her mind.
As final boss battles go, this is one of the more aggravating I've dealt with recently, mostly because the Dark Wizard's health bar is so collossal and I swear you do less damage to him the lower it is. It's a grind and nothing more, but with enough continues available you'll eventually save the day.
Everybody gets together and uses their power to destroy the Evil Wizard's floating castle, although let's be honest, the wizard is carrying the rest of them. I can't imagine the knight or the dwarf contributing much to this mystical spell of destruction.
With that, Wizard Fire is over and our heroes go their separate ways. The bard tags along with the elf. You can tell she's not happy about it.
Looking back on this article I think it comes across as a little too negative. Wizard Fire isn't bad, it's just unambitious and too short. The gameplay is so familiar you might find yourself drifting off to the land of Nod once you've been playing for a while, but the cutscenes add some much-needed character, I really like the graphics and the soundtrack is good too - some of the staff from my beloved Night Slashers also worked on this game, so it's no surprise that some of that quality crept in even if this is nowhere near as good as Data East's zombie-punching masterpiece.
As the credits reach their end, the Black Knight and the Evil Wizard appear in the desert, and a vague voiceover mumbles something about evil needing to be destroyed for good. Does this mean that there's a "true" ending to Wizard Fire? If there is I couldn't find it: I finished the game on the hardest difficulty and all that happened was that I got really angry about how long all the boss' health bars were. I hope it's not triggered by completing the game on one credit. Not when I've got a bard in my party. That's just not fair.