Sequels are a riskier proposition than they’re given credit for. Change too little from one installment to the next, and you’ll be accused of playing it too safe, cashing in, and so on. Change too much, though, and you risk alienating your core audience for no reward–just ask Yoshio Sakamoto. Finding the right balance between those two extremes is hard.
Released in 1989 by pre-Battletoads Rare and Acclaim–a Dream Team whose pedigree is matched only by Acclaim and pre-Final Fantasy Squaresoft—Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II’s first step toward striking that balance was…hiring Fabio to pose for the cover. Yes, living romance novel cover model Fabio adorns the cover, continuing the tradition of having its knight in shining armor depicted as a Conan-esque barbarian that was started by the first game.
Ironsword’s second balancing step was to bring back the hero Kuros, and his nemesis Malkil. This time around, you’ve been summoned to the land of Sindarin. It seems Malkil is back, and has manifested himself in the form of four fearsome Elementals. You’ll have to travel through the realms of wind, water, fire and earth, defeating the Elementals in their respective realm, before a final confrontation with all four Elementals at the summit of IceFire Mountain.
The realms themselves are broken into two parts. In the first part of each realm, you’re tasked with assisting an Animal King by finding their missing Golden Item. For instance, the Eagle who rules the Wind realm needs you to retrieve his Golden Egg. Doing so will cause the animals to lend you their assistance, which means they’ll move some barrier for you and allow you into the second part of their realm. Here, you’ll need to track down the spell that can defeat the Elemental, then find and eliminate it. Successfully navigating a realm will earn you a piece of the Ironsword, the only weapon that can defeat Malkil.
Along the way, you’ll jump. A lot. Long ago, I wrote that this game defined “platformer”, and I stand by it. Typically, the only time you’ll be running anywhere is at the very bottom of a stage. Anywhere else, you’ll be jumping from platform to platform, occasionally slipping and falling back to the bottom due to slope mechanics–if a slope is too steep, you go sliding down it on your butt like a big armored kid.
In spite of this, you’ll soon find the best way to proceed through the game is to simply hold A and continually jump. One of the main reasons for this is that combat is weird at best and arbitrary at worst. Kuros can attack with his sword (Or, in one case, axe), but most of the time the way to survive combat amounts to “jump in the air and hope the enemy runs into the hitbox of your sword”. In addition, some enemies will do slight damage to you on contact, while others will all but kill you instantly.
There are some differences between this and the first game, though. The main difference comes in the form of shops, where you can purchase spells, equipment, keys, and food. Spells are the other big change in the game. By going into your menu and selecting a spell you’ve found or purchased, you’ll use the spell. Spells can have effects from making you faster, to calling upon a giant waterspout to fling you into the air, to becoming temporarily immune to projectiles.
And you’ll need all these spells, because Ironsword dispenses with the unlimited-continues-at-the-point-you-died model of the first Wizards & Warriors. This time around, you’re afforded a mere two continues before a Game Over. Worse, once you make it to IceFire Mountain, your continues go away. To balance this out, you can get a password at any time. The password, more or less, tracks your status, but beyond the section you start at, it doesn’t track the status of the game, which you can take advantage of to do a bit of farming via passwords (And in fact, I did after figuring that out). Even with the password, the end of the game is tough–I spent two hours or so getting to the last section, and another 2-3 hours trying to beat it, which admittedly included going back several sections to do the aforementioned password farming.
Ironsword isn’t a long game, although saying “It’ll take 4-5” hours is misleading in that I remembered a lot of it from when I was younger. Once you learn where everything is, and how to handle the game, though, you can get through it in about a half hour, if not sooner. Getting to that point, as with many NES games, is part of the fun.
I should give special mention at this point to the music, which was an early set of David Wise compositions. The music is great (At one point, I started but never finished a cover album of the music from this game), though I do wish there was more of it. Of ten “main” sections in the game, you hear the same music for five of them, which gets repetitive, no matter how good the music is.
Despite some quirky combat and unforgiving difficulty, Ironsword is a pretty fun experience overall. Sadly, the game was never re-released, meaning a trip to EBay or Amazon is your best bet. The game is affordable enough to take a flier on at this point, even if you turn out not to enjoy it.