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Old 09-07-2012, 03:31 PM   #1 (permalink)
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The B-List: Plagiarism! (Willow)

Eons ago in an enchanted land of mythic beauty and wonder, the reign over the cosmos belonged to powerful spirits whose very essence comprised the Earth and Sky, and all life that dwelt therein. Under their watchful guidance, many races of diverse beings thrived and lived in harmony. The celestial beings left artifacts of astounding power upon the face of the world, often wielded by great heroes of the mortal clans. One dark day, one such hero grew lustful for further power, and established a merciless kingdom of darkness, crushing all opposition. However, prophecy foretold the coming a savior from a small, remote village who would rise to smash the servant of Shadow by obtaining power granted by the gods.

Sound familiar? It's Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, right?

Wrong, sucker! It's the plot to the 1989 NES/Famicom game Willow, produced by Capcom! Get used to it folks, that'll be a recurring theme in today's B-List. So let's dive right in.

As many of you are doubtless already aware, in 1988 George 'everything's better with Rastafarian frog-men' Lucas teamed together with Ron Howard to release his fantasy epic, Willow. I just deleted about five hundred words of angry anti-Lucas screed, since the Internet already groans beneath the weight of that. You're welcome. Key points: Willow the Nelwyn (dwarfish pastoral do-gooder) goes on an epic journey to protect the prophesied infant/future savior of the world from an evil sorceress. Add special effects and Val Kilmer.

Naturally, as the world was at the height of its NES craze, Capcom said to itself, 'Let's do some licensing deals and make a buck on this sucker!' What surprises me is that somebody at the company (apparently 'Professor F' Tokoro Fujiwara and 'A.K.' Akira Kitamura) also apparently said, 'Let's make a better Zelda game than Nintendo!'

And they did.

Reader, I will level with you. I love this game. I love this game more than Mexican Coca-Cola in a glass bottle. The laws of physics prevent me from presenting a completely objective view of it. I will, however, attempt to rein my enthusiasm in to a bearable level.

Though not the first licensed movie game I had ever played—that dubious honor belongs to the Star Wars arcade game next to Dragon's Lair in the mall that my puzzled Grandad let me play on one of my visits. It was not even the first good licensed movie game I had played (that's Gremlins 2). It was, and is, the best. It was also my first experience with that odd sensation of having accidentally slipped into a bizarre mirror universe where familiar objects and people serve unfamiliar purposes and motivations.

I now recognize this feeling: it's the natural result of encountering a property with which you are intimately familiar interpreted through the eyes of Japanese game designers who were given two poorly translated pages of the official movie comic book and told 'Make a game of it.' Of course, the fact that their sideways take on the story was then translated back into English with the usual . . . care seen in NES-era localizations makes Willow an odd 'copy of a copy' phenomenon, in which the basic outline can be seen if you stand back far enough, but the details are a meaningless blur.

The hero: Willow Ufgood, ex-Ewok, second-string farmer and aspiring sorcerer's apprentice. He wanders the world from a ¾ top-down perspective (very much like 1986's Legend of Zelda), swinging his sword in an arc to defeat monsters (or stabbing if you press forward). As Willow, you can also equip magic items that you find scattered throughout the realm to give yourself an edge, although you need to keep an eye on your magic meter. Sound familiar?

Throughout the course of his journey, Willow meets several helpful allies (or occasionally 'helpful' allies) who point him in the right direction or give him an important item. He gathers powerful magic tools, collects swords and shields like a compulsive hoplologist with a spending problem, and noses in on strangers' private business to generally add to his good karma. His experience advances with each kill, making the game an action RPG in the truest sense.

Seriously. Tell me the artist wasn't thinking of Link. The plot is relatively simple. Without the title Willow, it would seem like a slightly ahead of its time JRPG mix of Dragon Quest and Zelda. Titled as is, the game suddenly turns into a hilarious guessing game of wondering how Madmartigan can be incorporated into the story when it already has a master swordsman (Willow himself, for some reason), or who the heck this giant Eagle-headed guy is supposed to be near the end of the game. Willow hacks, stabs, petrifies and electrifies his way through the wilds of Galladoorn, the haunted castle of Nockmaar, the abandoned ruins of Tir Asleen, and the oddly colorful Village of Dew, until his final confrontation with the Demon Queen, Bavmorda.

Set against Willow in his quest to bring peace to the land (and his comically tangential encounter with Elora Danan, the little Baby McGuffin of the film) are a host of creatures and villains. From the straight-from-the-movie Death Dogs to the confusing 'what is a Japanese oni doing in this universe?' Bogarda, and filled out with the standard JRPG roster of variously palette-swapped slimes and giant insects, Willow rarely feels as if it is lacking in the bad guy department.

Graphically, the game is a step up from many NES offerings of its time. Though the NES was about halfway through its lifespan (and the Famicom further), Willow stands out as having crisp, colorful, detailed sprits that are large enough to easily identify and strikingly detailed backgrounds (which spring to life with agitation when an enemy treads the screen). The world was massive, replete with tantalizing paths leading to forbidden realms which you could only access after acquiring magical items.

Musically, I was in love from moment one. There was almost nothing in the game recalling James Horner's evocative, emotional score (filled with enough shakuhachi and anvil to meet anybody's exotic instrument quota) except for a brief nod to the main leitmotif of the film during the game's end credits sequence. However, from the overworld's harpsichord and flute to Nockmaar's bleak string quartet sound, composer Harumi Fujita (of Needleman and Geminman stages from Megaman 3) developed a unique and impressive soundscape for the game. Considering the recently popularity of video game tribute bands, I'm surprised that I haven't heard any of these tunes covered yet.

Round 1: Willow vs. Death Dog. Fight! Occasional references to the source material show up in their Spock-with-a-goatee form, but they don't feel at odds with the entirely invented characters added by Capcom. Franjean and Rool sit comfortably alongside the helpful pterosaur Po, and Airk Thaughbaer doesn't seem any more or less important to Willow's journey than Kchil of the jackalope-like Nail Clan.

I would be remiss if I didn't point out at the dungeons are a weak point of the game. Whereas its Hylian inspiration thrives on interesting and creative dungeon design, Willow fumbles through a very bland set of caves that all look alike or castle interiors designed by the same architect and interior decorator. The outside world of Willow is an entertaining joy to explore; its underworld and haunted citadels require a deep bracing breath and the gritting of teeth to endure.

So what does Willow mean to me? It's the excitement of exploration and adventure in a world with which I was utterly obsessed from the late 80's into the early 90's. It's the experience of putting the NES controller on the floor simply in order to listen to the music. It's the delight upon completing the game of realizing that my trusted friends A.K., Fish Man and Tom-Pon from the end of Megaman 2 had been responsible for the fun I had in Willow as well.

Willow was a great Zelda-style game that took advantage of three years of industry advancement since Shigeru Miyamoto's green-garbed elfin youth quietly took gamers' hearts by storm. Two years later, Nintendo released a game that is widely hailed as one of the best Legend of Zelda titles ever, and in retrospect seems cribbed directly from the little Nelwyn's adventure. Taken as part of the intellectual property, Willow is a confounding, uneven mess. Considered on its own merits, it's one of the best action RPGs of the NES era, flawed by its lackluster dungeon layout. Altogether, it's a clever, interesting, atmospheric glimpse of the action-RPG greatness that lay dormant within Capcom for many years until Okami. It was a good game but fell short of perfection. B-List confirmed.
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