By Sean Harris

A launch title of the powerful SNK arcade and home Neo Geo system, MAGICIAN LORD would become a sleeper gem of a fantasy side-scroller that unfortunately got buried under a slew of fighting games cranked out to capitalize on the success of Capcom’s STREET FIGHTER II. If you’re a fan of the platforming genre, specifically of the beautiful but frustratingly difficult kind, you’d be remiss to pass up the opportunity to explore this better than average entry.

Winged creatures descend on you, shooting balls. Jump and return fire.

As Elta, the last of the magician lords, you are bestowed the responsibility of retrieving the lost spell tomes that have been seized by the wicked Gal Agiese. Fighting your way through eight stages and a variety of monsters and sub bosses, you’ll eventually face off against a twisted guardian for a fight to win back each prized grimorie. The final book is lorded over by the evil reincarnated god Az-Atorse, who challenges you to a deathly showdown for the fate of the known world.

Controls are standard for a multi-directional scrolling game (left or right to move, up and down to climb ladders). Only two of the four Neo Geo buttons are used; press A to fire Elta’s crescent shaped energy bursts, and B to make him perform jumps. Your main attack can be upgraded by spheres marked with a P, which are found in little chests scattered throughout the levels. These will increase your power meter on the lower right hand side of the screen, changing the width and damage capabililties of your shots with each tier. Your weapon maximizes out at the third junction, and lasts until you take a hit from an enemy.

The first of your many secondary skins.

There are also morphing spheres that will transform your wizard into one of several alternate embodiments. As a dragon warrior, you can breath a spiraling fan of flames on your opponents. The water man launches bubble clusters that splash into several columns, racing forward across the ground to wash over adversaries. Poseidon, a mightier titan with similar oceanic abilities, has an even greater range with large waves that flood over creatures and freeze them instantly. Shinobi, the ninja, moves quick and fires powerful spinning bolts, while the Samurai dons a close combat arcing blade attack that can split through multiple targets and cause heavy damage. Lastly, there’s also Raijin, a black genie looking silhouette capable of higher jumps and emitting a protective electrical force-field. Each form will yield different results for various places in the game, sometimes advantageous and other times unfortunate. They can also be upgraded in power, just like Elta, but your privileges are revoked when you sustain two injuries, and you’ll quickly revert to your original shape.

Shoot at this pulsating orb when the green ring spins open (and mind the surprise spears).

Your odyssey begins at the edge of a mystical shrine, and stretches through caverns, an abandoned village and mine, dimensional crossgate, castle ruin, underground passageway (complete with catacombs), a hellish corridor, and finally the evil tower that houses Gal Agiese and his diabolical master. You’re given three attempts per quarter, and each life can only be touched twice by enemy flesh or projectile (unless you are powered up into another form, which will grant you an additional set). The very small window of invincibility that is afforded between these contacts is the technical downside for the game, though, and you’ll be blindsided by cheap successive shots from some of the more close ranged encounters. Top this off with a few bottomless pits, and you have a recipe for a dish that isn’t kind to your blood pressure. Continue screens and colorful language will be a revisiting cycle.

These damnable bully frogs are a pain--try to shoot them before they enlarge.

While it’s nothing revolutionary, MAGICIAN LORD is still a tale well told. The graphics are pretty damn gorgeous, with great use of color and shading, parallax scrolling backgrounds that feature majestic Hyborian-like landscapes, and subtle light and environmental animations that bring out even more ambience. Character sprites are fluid, and the creatures, especially those nightmarish bosses, are impressively drawn and designed. For the score, a pumping, techno-meets-renaissance hybrid does a commendable job of supplying a sonic backbone, and a wide range of flashy sound effects complete the package. There’s even some flat-sounding Engrish voice work to give it that true Japanese cult classic feel.

Overlooked and recommended. Seek it out for M.A.M.E, and you can enjoy this underdog without going completely broke.