Legacy of the Wizard, known as Dragon Slayer 4: Drasle Family in Japan, is an early Metroidvania, a type of action/exploration game with an open-ended world (In this case, a tile-based huge labyrinthine dungeon) that can be explored in a non-linear fashion. It throws you in the middle of this gigantic maze and doesn’t tell you anything. You have to explore and discover things for yourself (Or use GameFAQs). I love this stuff.
The design of the dungeon is superb. There is a central hub (With the frozen form of the game’s final boss—the dragon Keela/Dilgyos—right in the center) featuring four pathways to the four crowns you need to unlock the dragon fight and complete the game. You’re free to take whichever family member you like to whichever corner of the map you like, though you will invariably come across more unreachable pathways and stark dead ends than if you tried to get a bill passed in Congress. You must learn and experiment to figure out the solutions for each section of the map; if you’re the type of person who gets irritated by trial-and-error exploration, this is not the game for you. But if you enjoy being challenged, if you appreciate having gigantic mazes thrown at you that you must use your wits to navigate with no quarter and no hand-holding, you’ll be happier than Kim Jong-Un in a torture chamber.
Every time I play the game I see something I didn’t recognize before. It’s not just huge, but the environments are beautiful and diverse. On the tiny overworld where there are no enemies, there’s a big castle in the mountains in the background. You don’t explore the castle at all; it’s just there to look good (And it looks very good indeed, especially considering that this is a console game from 1987). It’s not hinted at in the manual or anything. Maybe it was intended for a potential sequel, or perhaps it was there to add flavor to the world—to show that there are other places than the log cabin and the dungeon—but that they don’t matter at the moment. Another part of the dungeon has an active volcano in the background, just because. I get the feeling that there would be more flourishes like this if the art team had been given the opportunity; there are a few areas with plain solid color backgrounds just begging for something to be drawn into it.
You have five characters to choose from in your quest: Four members of the Worzen family and their pet. (The non-combatant Grandma and Grandpa give and accept passwords, respectively.) Pochi the pink dinosaur (A friend of mine points out that this is a common dog’s name in Japan) is the best for beginners because—though his items and jump are poor—he takes no damage from non-boss enemies, making exploring the mazes much easier. But since you’re playing this with save states on an emulator anyway, you should pick Lyll for her fantastic jump ability, which is great for navigating Legacy of the Wizard’s myriad pathways. The mother, Meyna, has the best item selection, but you won’t have any to start out with. Xemn and Roas are junk, unfortunately; character balance in video games hadn’t been invented yet (See also: Super Mario Bros. 2).
You are supposed to use certain characters in certain locations of the dungeon, but this FAQ points out that it’s possible to partially bypass this restriction and complete Pochi and Xemn’s areas with other family members, eliminating the need to use those two clunky characters (Except, of course, for the final boss, which only the weakling Roas can fight).
And speaking of which, I love the selection of items in Legacy of the Wizard. Wings for Meyna, monster-stomping boots for killing enemies without using magic points, reusable magic keys, a return-to-home crystal, block-pushing gloves (One of the few reusable items that doesn’t cost magic points), jumping boots to get around a character’s lack of mobility. Most of these are not strictly necessary; they simply make navigation of the maze easier, and they show a level of usefulness and variety not typically found in 1980s NES games. You can grind monsters for gold to buy items, but it’s also possible to be pleasantly surprised by opening a chest and finding an item you’ve been saving up for. The game gives you these occasional moments of ecstasy to help you cope with the crippling difficulty. It makes you feel like you’ve gotten away with something.
It is irritating, however, that the game calculates what items will be dropped by slain enemies by what you have the least amount of. If you’re trying to hoard gold or keys, you’ll start getting bread and magic potions when your health and magic points start running low, forcing you to use an inn or go back home to recharge. Not to mention the fact that enemies will drop poison around 50% of the time, which necessitates waiting for it to disappear or walking through it and taking the damage. It does make you think twice before standing directly over a dead monster to collect loot, but the drop frequency, much like the rent, is too damn high.
My biggest complaint about the game is not its obtuseness but the boss battles. The first four are nearly identical fights against jittery monsters that hurl projectiles at you in a manner reminiscent of bullet hell shooters. The last two essentially require the hard-to-find shield item to defeat them, and in a game as sprawling and non-linear as this, you probably won’t find it without a walkthrough. The final boss fight, despite the fantastic music, is a disappointment as well, especially if you spent years of your childhood fruitlessly trying to complete the game like most of its fans certainly did.
The regular monsters, though, all have fantastic designs given the limited sprite space. There are Frankenstein’s Monster heads that bob in and out of the floor, convulsive red apple men, slow-crawling black octopi, floating cyclopean tadpole things, and something that looks suspiciously like the not-yet-created Kirby. There is a lot of creativity in the enemy designs.
Legacy of the Wizard’s soundtrack is composed by the legendary Yuzo Koshiro, and it ranks amongst the finest game soundtracks in history. From the opening theme until the very end you will be captivated by the ethereal beauty of Koshiro’s genius. There was an obscure CD that had new, more energetic arrangements of most of the tracks, which someone kindly uploaded to Youtube and is also freely available on music piracy sites (Which is the proper place for otherwise impossible-to-find music).
There have been a few abortive attempts at remaking Legacy of the Wizard, either through simple graphical updates or complete ROM hacks to overhaul the level design. The game still has fans who remember it with fondness. Legacy of the Wizard is an expertly crafted game, one of the earliest Metroidvanias, and one that deserves more notice than it gets.