It’s funny how over the years some big titles can fade completely into obscurity. There’s a good chance most modern gamers will never have heard of Magician Lord, but back in the early ‘90s it was actually quite a well-known title.
That’s because in the early days of the Neo Geo, Magician Lord was one of the bundled games you could get with the console, which cost an eye-watering $650 (more than a grand in today’s money). Given that extra games would set gamers back more than $200 each, it’s safe to say many early Neo Geo adopters got very well acquainted with Magician Lord while they waited for their bank loans to come in so they could afford to buy a second game.
These days though, Magician Lord is little more than a footnote in history; a game that’s never really mentioned in the same breath as other Neo Geo titles like Fatal Fury, The King Of Fighters or Metal Slug. To be fair, that’s probably because it hasn’t really passed the test of time like its peers have.
The plot’s up there with Game Of Thrones. An evil sorcerer by the name of Gal Agiese has decided he fancies resurrecting the god of destruction – gives him something to do over the weekend, you see – and he plans on doing this by gathering the eight tomes of power. Enter the hero, Elta, who has to travel through each of the game’s eight stages, give Gal’s servants a good hard slap, and retrieve the tomes to save his homeland.
He does this, naturally, by slowly walking through a bunch of 2D levels and firing magic beams at the constant stream of enemies that approach him. He can also transform into a number of different personas by picking up coloured orbs he comes across. There are six different forms he can take, from a samurai to a dragon to Poseidon himself, and while their abilities range from genuinely useful to almost hindering, they’re always worth collecting because they boost your vitality to four hits instead of the usual two.
The game’s enemies are wonderfully designed, ranging from your bog-standard skeletons to all manner of weird and wonderful creatures like skinless devil dogs, harpoon-wielding frogs and a giant shrimp boss that uses its tail to hold up a giant eye so it can see you (you’re right, far too many games have those).
The slight issue is that the majority of these enemies are hard as nails, thereby making the game extremely difficult in general. Much like Ghouls 'n Ghosts, in your standard form you can only take one hit and another kills you, but at least here when you die you then respawn exactly where you left off instead of having to go all the way back to the start of the stage.
This means by using enough continues you can slowly brute force your way through the game even if its high difficulty gets too much. That said, it can still be very frustrating when you’re dying at a regular rate and have to constantly view the ‘get ready’ screen time and time again.
When Magician Lord launched in arcades, this was infuriating for gamers whose hard-earned coinage lasted about as long as a mouse’s sneeze. Thankfully, although the Switch port is based on the arcade version, it follows the lead of Hamster’s other Neo Geo releases by letting you insert a coin at any point with the L button. This is just as well: had it been based on the Neo Geo home version instead, you’d be playing the first level so often it may as well be a Groundhog Day video game adaptation.
There’s one thing you can say about its extreme difficulty, though: it does make Magician Lord one of the better games to take advantage of the High Score mode that comes as standard in all of Hamster Corporation’s Neo Geo ports. By giving you a single credit the game forces you to master it and slowly but surely edge yourself forward by learning the enemies’ movements and weak points inside-out. Beating your high score by a fraction and submitting it online is genuinely satisfying (although at the time of writing there are only 33 people on the online leaderboard, which is disappointing).
The difficulty would be one thing, but later levels (like the hilariously badly-translated ‘Anderground Passage Of Terror’) are also poorly laid out, with loads of dead ends that are clearly designed to trick you but only succeed in annoying you even more as the path you feel you should logically take just suddenly stops scrolling, forcing you to retrace your steps and encounter even more constantly spawning enemies. Argh.
Those with fond memories of gawping at the amazing visuals back in the '90s will no doubt fall in love with Magician Lord's charms all over again and there are some neat ideas on show - such as the ability to morph into different characters - but it sadly hasn't aged as well as its contemporaries. There are plenty of retro games that are extremely difficult, but Alpha Denshi's game combines this with confusing level design to make for a doubly frustrating experience. Perseverance will eventually bring you round to its charms but most people will give up long before it gets to that point, meaning the main trick this magician pulls is making your patience disappear.