Magician Lord is Alpha Denshi’s (or ADK, K is for Kabushiki kaisha, means corporation) first game on the Neo Geo. Previously, they made arcade games such as Crush Roller (or Make Trax outside japan), a neat Pac-Man clone, and their first collaboration with SNK, the incredibly hard-to-google Battle Field (or the easier international name, Time Soldiers), which is basically Ikari Warriors with a time-travelling theme. It seems that ADK became very close to SNK afterwards, as ADK staff member Eiji Fukatsu designed the Neo Geo hardware by improving upon the 68000-based hardware used for games like Time Soldiers. ADK would go on to be the biggest supporter for the Neo Geo outside of SNK, with World Heroes, a fighting game series also with a time-travelling theme, as their top franchise. ADK went bankrupt in 2000 and their IPs were bought by a newly reformed SNK Playmore a few years after.
The first thing you’ll notice when booting up Magician Lord is that the Neo Geo boot up screen has a different sounding jingle, though it still has the same melody.All of the internally developed games at SNK used the same single jingle we all know and love. But other developers like ADK or Data East or Visco used a different “instrumentation” of the Neo Geo theme, while maintaining the same melody. This video shows different versions of the theme from several games.
Now that we went off on a couple of different tangents, let’s actually talk about the game. Magician Lord is an action-platformer in the mold of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. As Elta, the last descendant of the Magician Lord line, you are (as expected) the last hope for humanity and the only one capable of defeating the evil demon lord & main villain, Gal Agiese, by sealing him into 8 books. Pretty average stuff, but special credit goes to Gal (“You don’t mind if I call you Gal, right?”) for taking the time to pass by and tease you before every boss fight & continue screen with baffling quips. I suppose being sealed for so long, his speech might be a bit antiquated.
There are 6 heroes, each with different attacks, which you can turn into based on mixing & matching different colored orbs scattered around in a level. Turing into a hero also increases your HP, but if you get hit and lose all the HP you gained, you revert back to your normal Elta-self. You can also power up your attacks with [P] orbs, but again you lose a POW level if you get hit. Magician Lord starts off hard and then just ratchets up even further as we go, sometimes into NOT FUN territory.
Don’t take that as a judgment on the whole game though, I think Magician Lord is a very good game. The upgrade system allows you to try different heroes and go through levels again in a fresh manner, that is to say if you were able to retain them. I like that the stages are pretty expansive and invite you to explore side-paths to find better upgrades. I like how at the start of each stage you are shown an image of that level’s sub-boss sort of as a dupe. And then when you beat him/her, you meet the real boss who is much more intimidating & demonic-looking. Though funnily enough, I find that the sub-bosses tend to be more difficult than the real major bosses, who have clearer patterns and are, honestly, better designed in general. And the music by Hiroaki Shimizu is excellent. It sounds much more like FM Synth music than later Neo Geo titles. I especially like stage 2 & 4. But even stage 3’s weird sound totally complements the weird uncomfortable mood of stage 3. Which by the way looks like this:
But I wish the difficulty for some sections in the later parts were toned down. Unless you manage to keep yourself powered up, your attacks are pretty weak against many of the late-game enemies. They take too many hits while you can die in 2. There’s also the maze parts like the Bowser castles in Super Mario Bros., which grow more and more complex the further you are in the game. I always thought they sucked, even in Super Mario Bros..
And then there are the frogs. Dear God. With the passion of a thousand burning suns, I HATE THOSE FUCKING FROGS. They hop way too far, sometimes inexplicably through walls. Each one takes about 8 hits, more than any other standard enemy in the game. And well…just look at this:
It’s just insanely hard at times. If only ADK would tweak the difficulty a bit, things would be so much better. And well, they actually did, or at least attempted to. See, there are two versions of Magician Lord. The one I played has you starting with a 2-hit life bar that can extend to 4. And if you die you respawn immediately at the place you died. This version is the one installed on the Neo Geo X. But there was a revision version, which added a neat opening cutscene and lets you start with 3-hit life bar that can extend to 6. But when you die you restart either from the start of the level or at the last door you went through. This version is the one on PSN and possibly Virtual Console. As far as I know, none of the enemies attributes were modified. And the frogs are still awful. I have no idea what these versions entail in terms of Neo Geo cartridges (i.e. if one is the MVS release & the other is AES or if both are on AES or both were on MVS). Additionally, the Neo Geo CD version has the intro cutscene and lets you start with 3-hits but you can only extend that to 5 and you respawn where you die. The music isn’t all that different though. No arranged tracks here.
I hope I’m not being too negative. I really do like Magician Lord and it’s a blast to play, with cool boss fights and a neat upgrade system. It’s a shame ADK never did make a sequel. I suppose action platformers like Magician Lord or Strider or Ghosts ‘n Goblins stopped being popular in arcades in the ’90s as demand went for more beat ’em ups, fighting games, shooters, and puzzle games, all of which we will see plenty of in future Neo Geo releases. And ADK never had the liberty to work on non-Neo Geo consoles. However, ADK did develop a Magician Lord 2 for the Neo Geo Pocket Color, which was a metroidvania style platformer. Given that the later stages in the original Magician Lord were pretty large & maze-like, this seemed like a natural progression of the series. But sadly, that was canceled. You can read about it and watch the prototype version being played here.