Released: December 1989
US Cartridge ID: NES-WI-USA
Genre: Action RPG
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC1 (128k PRG, 128k CHR)
Willow for the NES is a loose adaptation of Lucasfilm’s 1988 fantasy film by the same name. Invoking many of the same tropes previously tread by The Lord of the Rings, Willow features the titular Nelwyn, or dwarf, on a quest to rid the realm of the cold-hearted and selfish queen, Bavmorda, who threatens to plunge the world into darkness. Despite featuring the same characters and ultimate goal, the plot found in the NES version is entirely different from that of the film.
In Willow for the NES, Bavmorda and Fin Raziel are spirit messengers, endowed with power of magic, sent to protect the people of the world. Bavmorda soon becomes hungry for power, and transforms Fin Raziel into an opossum, claiming the world as her own. Wielding Fin Raziel’s magic and Elora Danan’s Crest of the Spirits, Willow travels toward Nockmaar Castle as the world’s last remaining hope against the wicked queen.
Willow plays like a hybrid of SNK’s Crystalis and Nintendo’s Super NES classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1992). The action is presented through an oblique 3/4 overhead perspective, breaking only for close ups during conversations with non-player characters. Willow must fight his way between towns, caves, and castles, gaining experience that will ultimately serve to strengthen both his swordplay and his spellcraft, in addition to his resilience to enemy attack. Like Final Fantasy, the game is entirely plot driven: Willow comes across several people and creatures that will request his aid during the adventure. Once Willow successfully performs the required task, the character will provide new some information, an item, or a spell that will allow Willow to continue onward.
Like Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished (TurboGrafx-CD, 1989) or Crystalis, Willow’s attack
strength depends on his experience level and the sword that he is using, and many enemies are immune to specific weapon types, making it impossible to power through every situation with the strongest sword at hand. Willow acquires several magic spells, both offensive and defensive in nature, by the time he reaches Nockmaar Castle and the endgame: these allow him to heal himself, shoot fireballs at adversaries, transform into monsters, and more. It should be noted, however, that without the correct spell and a sufficient experience level, Bavmorda cannot be beaten in the final showdown.
The graphics in Willow are well detailed and varied. Many dungeons and caves look virtually identical to one another, the major difference typically being the coloring, but they are loaded with huge, colorful enemy monsters that will swarm into the screen at random moments. Oddly, the later creatures that Willow encounters in standard fights are far more impressive than most of the game’s boss characters, which tend to be quite small and nondescript in appearance. The close-up shots that are displayed when Willow is speaking to someone are well done, with clean renderings of character’s faces and their surroundings that serve to characterize the otherwise small and typically mundane sprites as they appear in the overhead view. The outdoor fight scenes deserve special recognition: when Willow encounters an enemy in the woods, a heavy wind kicks up, violently blowing around every single tree and blade of grass on the screen. While fighting against this backdrop, there is absolutely no slowdown or flicker, which is surprising considering the steep limitations of the hardware. The music is quite good, with several memorable tunes that exploit the abilities of the NES’ sound chip, filled with layered instrumentation and echo effects in several of the songs. The sound effects are appropriate, with clangs, thunks, and zaps that neither add to nor detract much from the experience.
Willow‘s controls are excellent, with full eight-way directional movement and a large arced sword slash preventing Willow from being killed because of an inability to properly line up a hit with the enemy (as often happens in similar games). Though the NES controller only has two action buttons, mapping is elegantly and unobtrusively handled, with spells and swords assignable to each button through the menu screen.
While not quite on par with other genre classics such as The Legend of Zelda or Startropics, Willow is an excellent game in its own right, standing as one of the better action RPG’s on the system. With a lengthy quest, excellent atmosphere, and substantial story, Willow is well worth the dozen or so hours it requires to see it through to its conclusion.