IronSword: Wizards & Warriors II (Acclaim/Rare/Zippo, 1989)
Sometime back in 2015 I told you about Wizards & Warriors, a well-remembered but ultimately so-so sword and sorcery title for the NES. The game did well at the retail counter, and was one of the titles that helped Rare establish itself as a name in NES game development. The whole concept of the sequel comes from wanting to cash back in on the original's success; W&W's sequel was definitely a better game, and allowed its developers to make out like bandits. Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II is what the first one should have been: challenging without being ridiculous, and full of detail.
This time, Rare shook hands with Acclaim (for distribution/publishing) and a fellow UK company called Zippo Games to get the job done. The result is a game that plays very much like its prequel, but in many ways outstrips it. Rare was pretty much hands-off, simply licensing the concept and codebase to Zippo and allowing them to work mostly unsupervised to develop the finished product. Zippo had worked developing games for the C64 and Amiga, and felt the NES was a bit of a step backward; They eventually decided that while it wasn't as advanced graphically, Nintendo's console was set up to produce better-playing games than a home computer of the time. The Pickford brothers (the men behind Zippo) paid particular attention to making the game as graphically impressive as possible, transferring black and white sketches into character maps for the game. Many of the larger entities (bosses, etc.) are done by using the whole screen in conjunction with as few moving sprites as possible. This was meant to give the impression that the whole thing was alive.
The story for this second installment of Wizards & Warriors pits the same protagonist against the same antagonist; Again we're shown a nearly nude Kuros on the cover, this time depicted by the now-famous 90s model Fabio. True to form, Kuros puts on some clothes to battle Malkil a second time.
It's not made perfectly clear what Malkil's up to this time, but he's pitted the elements themselves (air, fire, earth, water) against the bold warrior. Kuros must assemble the pieces of the legendary IronSword in order to battle Malkil on IceFire Mountain. To make it there, he must move through the domains of each element, presenting a golden object to each domain's animal king to progress further. As the game goes on, Kuros will have to learn spells, get better equipment, and also do his best not to get his ass turned inside out by pretty much every living thing that isn't an innkeeper. Thankfully, you're not quite as much of a wet end as in the first game, and the hitmapping seems to be a bit better. You still flip and flop and fall like a ragdoll, but you're a bit more in control of what you do when that's not happening.
Speaking of innkeepers, that's one of the novel concepts added to the game. Each level has an inn where you can buy food, keys, and sometimes a spell or other item. Food plays its time-honored digital role of replenishing your health, while keys do... well, what keys do. Usually the other item for sale is one you need to move forward, so there is a small element of “grinding” present in IronSword. Lastly, you can also gamble in the inn, winning or losing money in a game where you predict which cup a tiny skull will fall into. One of my favorite little details of this game is that when you walk into an inn with no money, the innkeeper grabs you by the seat of your pants and throws you out. It's a nice touch of realism.
Magic plays a strong role in the game. Some spells are purely utilitarian, like a waterspout that lifts you to high places. Others have use in combat, like the Asp's Tongue spell that slows down enemies. Four of the spells are necessary to harm the four elemental bosses, and these must be found (usually in the second half of a given domain). You'll also find things like helmets, better weapons (including, eventually, the titular IronSword), and treasure.
As much as the animal lords would like to help you, they do nothing to keep their subjects from constantly assaulting you at every angle. The very first level is full of eagles/hawks/whatever that seem to hate you for no reason, and the list of enemies just gets worse from there. The bosses are huge affairs that are mostly background imagery, but the effect is appreciable. Each boss seems incredibly large and intimidating.
As stated before, Zippo sought to push the limits with graphics on the NES; it's arguable that they succeeded. Their experience with Amiga and C64 titles shows in this product. The music, composed by notable video game composer David Wise, is incredibly cool. It has a great thickness to it, and there's a few tracks that really make you want to bop your head. I particularly like "Stage Theme 2." You could rap over that. Well, I couldn't, but you might be able to.
I grant Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II 9 out of 10. It's a huge improvement on its prequel, a visually and musically impressive title, and one of the games worth adding to any NES enthusiast's collection.