The first time I had seen Magician Lord was sometime during the early 90s in the arcade set up inside what looked like a generic, red cab, with a tiny marquee insert on top without the illustrated side panels or screen borders. Years later, I learned that this was because of the hardware — the Neo Geo MVS — which allowed arcade owners to swap out games by switching the cartridge inside with something else.
What was the usual modus operandi for many arcade developers outside of systems like the Neo Geo in the early 90s or even Data East’s cassette system in the early 80s, was to custom build the hardware making up the guts of a stand up arcade system. That meant whenever an arcade owner wanted to add a new game to their collection, it often meant buying the entire cab — monitor, electronic guts, speakers, the giant cabinet — all in one go which could get very expensive.
Systems like SNK’s Neo Geo MVS tried cutting down on costs by designing the hardware down to where it would only take swapping out a ROM cartridge for a new game (some configurations offered up to 6 slots). It was also good news to arcade owners short on floor space. A small square plot of floor could now potentially play host to six different games instead of having to clear out an aisle.
The good news is that the hardware was also fairly powerful with a custom graphics chipset. It also utilized the reliable Motorola 16/32-bit 68000 CPU which also saw use in Capcom’s own cartridge-based solution, the CPS-1, which launched two years earlier in 1988. The Neo Geo MVS also boasted 15 channels of sound thanks to the Yamaha YM2610 sound chip and also supported memory cards which was unusual for the arcade. A home version, the AES, also followed though the high cost of the console relative to the competition (such as from Nintendo and Sega) and the cartridges made it something of a niche product.
But at home, it was as close the arcade as someone could get in the early 90s without actually going to one because the hardware and the carts weren’t “dumbed down” to make it there — hence the high cost. Over time, it would also grow an impressive library to show off what it could do.
Japanese developer, Alpha Denshi, was partnered with SNK to make games for the system and one of the first to come out was a fantasy action adventure called Magician Lord. This side-scrolling game cast the player as Elta, a young magician on a quest to stop the dark gods, Gal Agiese and Az Atorse, who were sealed by the previous Magician Lord who captured their power in eight books. Now it’s up to Elta to recover these books and once again seal away the two evil powers. It also utilized short cuts in between the stages and an ending following the eighth and final one to try and tie things together.
It had platforming, blast ’em up action thanks to Elta’s magic bolts, lots of monsters, imaginative scenery, and most notably, a great soundtrack. On the surface, it shares some similarities to titles like Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins or Black Tiger. It had ladders and platforms to climb up to, jumping across gaps and deadly falls, and even a few hidden pathways infested with even more twisted critters. But beneath the surface, it was quite different and a bit rough around the edges.
In typical SNK/Alpha Denshi style, after starting the game, it shows you the basic controls before throwing down the gauntlet. The game gives you a health gauge made up of four segments but only begins you with two “hit points” with Elta recoiling from every hit which can make certain platforming challenging. The game also allows you to change form when you discover specific crystal ball power ups. When you snag one of these, depending on their color, you’ll change into one of six different forms with powerful attacks for as long as you don’t suffer too much damage changing back to your ordinary self. But each form gives you powerful advantages in battle. There’s the Dragon Warrior where you can fry enemies with a close ranged fire breath attack to a Shinobi that can toss spinning trails of fire which has the advantage of being a wide kind of shot making it easier to hit enemies above you.
The game covers eight stages with the eighth one consisting of a “boss rush” and then the final fight with Az Atorse. The other stages consist of facing a “guardian” creature (like a sort of mini-boss) before a cut scene shows the gloating Gal Agiese, tossing you straight into the “real” boss fight for the area right after. Getting to these guardians depends on the difficulty of the stage — some stages, like the first, are relatively straightforward. Others have side rooms that players can optionally enter for extra points, or a crystal ball power up, before leading up to a series of jumps and platforms winding through legions of monsters. Traps, like giant spiked balls on chains that drop from the ceiling, spears poking at Elta from nearby walls as he climbs a ladder, fire pits, and infinite drops later, add to the infamous difficulty curve of the game.
Magician Lord is a tough, coin vacuuming slog and that’s sometimes the result of brutal design choices trumping the fun factor. By default, players only start with two hit points though they can continue near to where they had died (at the cost of their score).
But the game also doesn’t have the most forgiving edge detection in the arcade, especially when it comes to hopping onto moving platforms. As you progress in the game, some jumps will have you hopping across multiples of these especially in Stage Seven where you need to navigate across an infinite drop via a series of tiny, moving platforms, while being attacked by flying eye monsters. Because Elta can be knocked back from a hit, and if you aren’t already changed into a form like the Dragon Warrior to destroy these enemies quickly on the way over, this one section can devour quarters and tokens like the Cookie Monster does to chocolate chips. The same sometimes extends to certain bosses and enemy mixes where it can be nigh impossible for the average player to dodge certain attacks or avoid repeated deaths.
Compared to other platforming classics, Magician Lord’s lack of subtlety (and its unforgiving difficulty in the late stages) flushed frustration into players’ faces. Ghosts ‘n Goblins was brutally tough, but it never really felt as if it trapped the player in brutal situations where they had few to zero options to escape death. In Magician Lord, it can sometimes feel as if it depends on that to keep rotating players off the cab in order to bring in fresh tokens.
Magician Lord’s cut scenes also suffer from a poor translation though the visuals and the sound effects were above and beyond the gameplay such as Stage Three which takes place in the guts of some titanic and unspeakable horror. The music for Stage Two, the introductory theme for the first stage, and the track playing against the credits provided great ear candy along with the sound effects. Just hearing the first stage music could juice up players eager to dive into the adventure.
The game was also brought over to the Neo Geo CD and came out in 2008 as part of the SNK Arcade Classics Vol. 1 collection on the PS2, PSP, and the Nintendo Wii. It also became available as a downloadable title on the Playstation Network and Nintendo Virtual Console. At one point, a sequel was even planned out by Alpha Denshi. Taking place after the events of the first game, once again Gal Agiese and Az Atorse threaten the land of Cadacis and its up to the player to stop them once again. It apparently bounced over to the Neo Geo CD, and then the Neo Geo Pocket Color in 1998 before falling into further obscurity when Alpha Denshi declared bankruptcy. In 2012, French game enthusiast site, Gamekult, posted information (and screenshots) of the alpha version of the game that was rediscovered.
Although it wasn’t quite as lovingly remembered as its peers, Magician Lord’s positive aspects were remarkable feats of pixel artistry and sound for the time. To this day, that opening theme in the first stage still brings back memories of the action and high fantasy that Magician Lord’s stages tried to translate across to players and which drained my pocket of countless quarters. It might not have had all of its spells in order, but it managed to dig up its own unique bit of magic for the arcades.