After completing the lengthy, merciless, and chaotic slog that was Rogue, the next whale, and final whale of 1980, is a fast, merciless, and chaotic arcade game, and one I remember quite enjoying.
I had compared Berzerk to Pac-Man with guns, for its gameplay of endlessly running through mazes of dark blue corridors filled with malevolent characters, only that in Berzerk your goal is to kill robots with your laser gun rather than eat dots.
Wizard of Wor, which also came out the same year as Pac-Man, is even more like Pac-Man with guns. The corridors are narrow and prohibit any kind of free wandering, the monsters are fast and unpredictable, and there are even escape hatches on the sides of the screen.
And like Berzerk, Wizard of Wor features voice synthesis, but Wizard of Wor sacrifices quality for quantity. Berzerk only had a handful of short phrases. The Wizard has more than 70 quips, but good luck understanding them, or even hearing them, as the Wizard’s muffled voice tends to get drowned out by the game’s music and sound effects. This isn’t strictly an emulation problem, as I discovered when playing on real hardware at Funspot. I reconfigured MAME’s speaker balance to emphasize the voice channel, but it’s still hard to understand.
It also seems like MAME recently changed the voice chip emulation, because it sounds quite different from how I remember. It sounds less like a Speak & Spell and more like a Voder, and the wizard’s cackles now sound like a raspy “ha ha ha ha” rather than “dot dot dot dah.” It's still not yet classified as having 100% audio emulation yet, but I'd like to think it's more accurate now.
Wizard of Wor also has two-player coop, which must be a real novelty for the time. Most two-player games of the era and beyond were either competitive or simply alternated players. I’ve applauded Atari Space Invaders for adding a fun coop mode, even if it’s actually meant to be competitive. It doesn’t quite avoid the competitive angle, as you’re awarded 1,000 points for shooting your partner. When you play solo, AI takes over the left-side worrior, and is somewhat competent in the early dungeons.
As an endless arcade game, Wizard of Wor doesn’t have any kind of winning condition, but it does have a concrete goal that I could consider “winning”; level 13 is always “The Pit,” a wide open dungeon without any walls at all except for the outer rectangular border. If I could reach it and beat it, then I’d have pretty much seen everything Wizard of Wor had to offer.
Alas, my best attempt ended on level 9, on a maze with lots of long and narrow passageways, which are deathtraps in Wizard of Wor.
To even make it that far, it was crucial to exploit a quirk in the game’s hitboxes. When your worrior is standing off-center from a cell in the grid, being touched by monsters won’t immediately kill you, but instead will push you into the next cell. If they touch you in the front, you’ll be pushed back a cell and will be in a prime position to blast them if you start shooting immediately. If they touch you from behind, you’ll be pushed forward, and they might just move on past you or even turn around and walk away, or they might just walk right into your new position and kill you.
Playing defensively was just as crucial. Your worrior is slow, and before long, the monsters will move really fast. You and they are both vulnerable when turning corners, so it’s better to force them to turn corners to reach you when possible. Long corridors are quite dangerous, because once you fire a laser, you can’t fire again until it hits something, and a long period of defenselessness carries a great danger of a monster flanking you, and monsters can shoot at you down the corridor too.
In time, I learned to recognize the handful of mazes, and to identify key choke points that I could hold defensively, corridors that enemies tended to funnel into from one end, and rarely entered from the other. Of course “rare” does not mean “never,” and I still lost some lives when monsters flanked me from both ends of a corridor.
After seven levels, you enter the “worlord” dungeons, which have a different pool of layouts and tend to have fewer choke points.
I couldn’t reach The Pit, but I did get to it with save states just to see what awaited me.
What a nightmare! There’s nowhere to hide, and seemingly no way to avoid being overwhelmed except to stay off-center on the grid at all times and to be lucky! And that video was my best attempt out of many.
I’d reached my goal with some cheating, but no retrospective of this game could be complete without playing two-player coop, so I enlisted “B” to play a few rounds.
We tried, a few times, to pull off a two-worrior defense, with both of us blocking off two ends of a corridor, but we had to accept that we’re just not coordinated enough for this. We'd struggle just to manuever our worriors into an appropriate corridor together, and even when we succeeded and started shooting outward back-to-back, a monster would eventually breach one of our defenses, and then get the other one of us from behind. We had better luck just covering parts of the map individually.
After Pac-Man, this may actually be my favorite arcade game of 1980. It's certainly the most chaotic, which isn't always a good thing, but in this case the chaos is what makes it fun. I really like the sound design, aside from volume balance issues and garbled speech, and really appreciate the co-op play, which is and has always been a criminally underused feature.
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