In Solomon's Key – an action / puzzler from Tecmo – you take command of a wizard named Dana as he searches for a magical formula that's said to banish all evil from the world. It began life in arcades back in 1986, finding its way to NES a year later, and now it's resurfaced on the 3DS Virtual Console. Is Solomon's Key a thoroughly rewarding challenge or will it leave you locked out of a good time?
In concept the gameplay is fairly simple; in each dungeon there is a locked door, and you need to obtain a key to pass through it. Since the whole stage is viewable at all times, you can see the location of both of these from the get-go. Where the real challenge comes is in navigating the dangerous obstacles and enemies that roam the landscape. Yet the platforming isn't always streamlined, as there will often be no obvious path that leads to your goal. Instead the ability to add and remove blocks – thanks to your trusty wand – allows the player to build their own path to victory.
You create and remove blocks with the A button when adjacent to the target area, while the B button unleashes fireballs on any enemies standing in your way. You can't fire rapidly like you would in a Mario game — these fireballs need to be used strategically, as they're in limited supply. To obtain more, you have to search your environments thoroughly and collect jars generally hidden by obstructions.
Since the two buttons of the original NES controller are spoken for, you jump by pressing Up on the D-Pad. This isn't the most precise method of control, but once you get used to it it works well enough. We did sometimes find it a tad sluggish and imprecise in the stages that required speedy reflexes; in many cases you need to move quickly, because any physical contact with an enemy will eat up a life.
It should also be taken into account that there's a timer counting down in each level, ensuring that you stay focused and don't take too much time plotting and executing your strategy. You'll need to be thorough to find the items hidden in each stage, too; these come in the form of free lives, attack upgrades, and bonus points that assist in setting a high score – if that's what you're after. There are even secret rooms that can be found if you search hard enough.
In each level finding the Bell of Lilac – which looks like a standard hand bell – will release a fairy for you to snatch up, and accumulating ten of these earns you an additional life. Another way to obtain lives is by collecting the Medicine of Mapros – a jar that looks to have an 'E' on it – though these are rare and generally hidden away in risky areas. Trust us, if you can do anything to increase your life count without putting yourself in too much danger, be sure to do it! If you want to see this one through its 50 stages, you'll need all the help you can get.
That brings us to the overall difficulty of the game. Fair warning to the younger generation of gamers that were never exposed to the classic era of NES gaming: Solomon's Key is an extremely tough game. To advance you'll need to experiment with strategies, memorise routes and practice them to perfection. When you get a game over, it's all the way back to the first stage. Given the number of levels, this can be too unforgiving at times and we'd be shocked if you didn't find yourself cursing in frustration on at least a few occasions. We'd also be confident saying this is an experience that advanced gamers will get the most out of; if in doubt, the Virtual Console's save state option is rather useful.
Admittedly, we stumbled onto many situations that perplexed us and took a good amount of thought and experimentation to solve. These are very cerebral trials and everyone should take that into account before jumping in. Sometimes it's as easy as moving a few blocks while dodging baddies, while at other times you'll need to keep a frenzied group of fireballs from escaping a confined area as you move and manipulate the blocks that hold them in place. One wrong move and it's the loss of a much needed life — or even worse, the dreaded game over screen that sends you back to the title menu. By combining a save state with the on-the-go option of dipping in for five minutes at a time, however, it's possible to tackle these challenges without the punishing restarts of days gone by.
Solomon's Key is a complex game that could have used a more forgiving life system or would've gained from smoothing out some of the major difficulty spikes. As for the rest; the graphics are simple but competent, the music repetitive yet memorable, and controls can be bothersome, though for the most part, function adequately. Overall, this is a fairly unique game that deserves attention for those up to a challenge of this proportion.
It's easy to see why Solomon's Key has retained such a loyal following to this day, but in the same breath we can understand why many people find it to be a frustrating experience. This is an extremely challenging game that may be too unforgiving for a great many gamers due to steep difficulty spikes and sometimes imprecise controls. But it's important to remember that patience and practice are the keys to success, and if you enjoy putting your brain to a tough task, there's a lot of fun to be had here. Unlock Solomon's Key from the 3DS eShop – if you dare. You might just be happy you did.