Today in Tedium: As video games go, franchise games are often seen as the worst of the worst—they seem to exist to sell a product first, rather than being driven by being a good game. It is no coincidence that some of the worst video games of all time—think E.T. or Superman 64—are based off of existing movie or television franchises. So, perhaps it’s a little weird that this evening, I come not to bury a franchise game, but to praise it. It came out of a fantasy film directed by a major Hollywood director and produced by another. The film wasn’t the hit that it could have been, but it inspired a pretty good game. And that game is Willow, the NES action RPG that I have had a love-hate relationship with over the years, but I think I’m finally coming around to the “love” column. Today’s Tedium, in honor of the new Willow TV series on Disney+, talks about why the Willow NES game somehow transcended the film that inspired it. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s screenshot is from the intro for Willow, which conveys a serious vibe.
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Willow is an iconic example of a genre of game The Legend of Zelda invented
Recently, I played through the classic NES game The Legend of Zelda in its entirety. The game had a simple, endearing visual style that favored getting as many things on the screen as possible. Rather than one or two baddies per screen, there were some where you might be facing as many as eight or nine. And as a result, there would be a lot of slowdown.
In many ways, it is the template for the action-RPG, a format in which you’re both leveling up the player and wielding the sword. Your experience goes up, but there’s enough action to it that the grind always feels a bit fresh.
This format of game had a lot going for it, even though, other than Zelda, it tended to be overshadowed by turn-based role-playing games like Dragon Quest (then known as Dragon Warrior) and the Final Fantasy games.
I have played through a lot of these action-RPG games in the past year or two, including Culture Brain’s The Magic of Scheherazade, a Middle Eastern-themed adventure game that featured enough stereotypical imagery that it would struggle to be remade today, and Crystalis, a game by SNK that is approximately two weeks older than the much more famous Neo Geo console and arcade system, also made by SNK.
If you allow 2D side-scrolling games into this model of action-RPGs, you can add a couple of extra examples, such as Faxanadu and Legacy of the Wizard, along with Zelda II. I don’t like these games quite as much as the overhead-driven ones. (For one thing, they were done better on other systems in the form of the Ys series.)
Whatever the case, these games very much have their charms, but stylistically, they fit pretty firmly in the video game realms and as a result don’t carry the same kind of gravitas that, say, a movie does.
But there’s something about Willow that kind of sticks with you. It has a sense of seriousness to it, a lack of quirk that makes it stand out. While very much still an 8-bit video game, it has a feel and dynamic closer to its cinematic roots. The art direction feels like an attempt to class up the joint to meet the high standards of a Ron Howard film.
In some ways, the fact that it is only loosely based on a film that many expected to be a bigger deal than it was actually helps it. It didn’t become a dominant part of the discussion in the way that, say, Back to the Future and Indiana Jones did. Both of those movie series had games on the NES that struggled to capture the vibe of the original films. (In the case of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it actually, astonishingly, had two, and both were forgettable.)
The fact that Willow was not the most dominant film actually kind of worked in its favor in terms of the port, because that meant it actually could sort of do its own thing with the plot. People aren’t falling over one another to make fun of this game; there has yet to be an Angry Video Game Nerd episode about Willow, despite the fact that James Rolfe has done numerous episodes about games based on movies over the years and the game is from his sweet-spot period.
I think the reason for that is that, because it actually tried to do something a little different, it actually sort of absolved itself of much of the criticism that movie-based games often get.
Much of this can be credited to the studio, Capcom, the Japanese video game publisher that had gained a reputation for quality that many developers of the period lacked, even on franchise games like Willow.
And that pedigree has a direct association with this game I have a deep appreciation of. According to MobyGames, the director of Willow was Akira Kitamura. The game saw release in the fall of 1989; just two years prior, Kitamura developed the character Rockman/Mega Man, objectively one of the most important characters in video game history, as well as the first game it was based on.
Capcom’s release cycle in 1989 led to a lot of successful titles, with Willow coming out in the same year as two out-and-out NES legends—DuckTales and Mega Man 2. (The arcade was no slouch, either—that same year, the first Final Fight game came out.)
Had Willow been picked up by another company, it most assuredly would have followed a completely different design pattern, and the result would not have been as good.
“Basing games on source material from movies or comics allows players to more readily connect to the games on an emotional level. If I use [designer Noritaka] Funamizu’s face in a game, even if it’s really well drawn, people will just think of it as an example of good graphics; however, if you see Willow’s face you’ll think, ‘Oh, it’s Willow, from that movie! How cute!’ (laughs)”
— Yoshiki Okamoto, the director of the arcade version of Willow (a more traditional side-scrolling type of game than the NES game), as quoted in a 1989 interview translated by the gaming publication translation archive Shumplations. In a lot of ways, Okamoto gets to the heart of why Capcom’s games from this period punched above their weight class, whether on arcade or console—they effectively focused on building a good game first, rather than trying to shoehorn the concept into something that might work for a game. It’s been rumored, but never confirmed, that the NES version of Willow started out as another game, but that the choice was made to attach a known brand to the game sometime during development, something that Capcom did with other NES games, most notably Yo! Noid. (Okamoto, by the way, played a key hand in developing some iconic hits for both Konami and Capcom. His two most famous games? Street Fighter II and Resident Evil.)
One of the most powerful elements of Willow is the way the music shifts the overall vibe
If you look at game design as a set of decisions, you can argue that Capcom chose to prioritize two things about Willow that Nintendo didn’t heavily prioritize in The Legend of Zelda—tension and mood.
The limitations of the NES were such that you could only realistically fit so much onto a cartridge, which meant that you had to make certain choices in development to make it all work. In the case of Zelda, the choice was clearly predicated around exploration, with a goal of encouraging people to get lost in the many secrets and castles. Some of the mazes were so unclear, especially in the second quest, that you could be bypassing an important shortcut just because you weren’t told that this is where you need to drop the bomb.
Willow is more linear, but it does something very effectively that Zelda does not—it attempts to scare you. What I mean by this is that, you may be walking screen through screen trying to find the next path forward, but inevitably you’re stopped by a series of enemies that might appear. At first there are small semi-transparent blobs, but the enemies get larger and more complex from there.
The music changes, becoming more dramatic every time you’re pulled into a fight. (An example of what I mean is here.) The grass starts moving, and it doesn’t stop until the last enemy is removed from the screen. Even though the effect can at times get repetitive, the fact of the matter is, it can still catch you off guard, and I think that this tension is in many ways at the heart of what makes WIllow a good game and differentiates it from Zelda. Sure, Zelda has the heartbeat when your life bar gets low, but it doesn’t try to build that tension into every single fight. Willow does, and during the right battle, it can really set the mood.
Sure, it has some weaknesses. Willow’s attack motion—which relies on a sword and shield, rather than the stick he’s famously associated with in the movie—is a bit broad and takes a little time to get used to. It is one of two primary attacks he has, and it can at times be a little frustrating to use in practice.
The level design is a bit repetitive, but it is most assuredly reflective of the NES’ limitations in structure. Even in this context, however, one can see the trademarks of Capcom’s corporate design sense in some of the designs, even here. Breath of Fire, arguably Capcom’s greatest gift to the RPG genre before the year 2000, featured cave designs that look like polished-up versions of the caves in Willow.
I can quibble a little about some of the music as well, which can get repetitive just because it’s so aggressively there, particularly in the town section. But on the other hand, the music is asked to do more in this game than in many similar titles. It is asked to build tension, reflect whimsy, and convey an air of seriousness when necessary. It has more shapes than many NES games do, and given the RPGs were not a frequent genre for Capcom during the period, it was a chance for the company to flex its muscles in a new genre.
There are things about certain games that seem poorly thought out from a design standpoint—for example, the original Dragon Warrior has always-visible options for “Talk,” “Take,” “Search,” and “Stairs,” and “Door” in its interface, despite the fact that you only need to do these things occasionally, and they could all be managed by the a single action button without an extra menu. But I have the benefit of 30+ years of playing video games with which I can make this case; the makers of Dragon Warrior had not had a chance to play with the form very much at that point, so what seems obvious to me now probably didn’t seem that way to them.
One of the biggest faults of Willow on this front, besides the quibbles with gameplay and music, is that it relied on passwords rather than save states, but there was a good reason for this at the time—there was an ongoing SRAM shortage that probably made it too costly to put a battery backup in the cartridge. (Nintendo probably needed to save the ones it had for Zelda, after all.)
I think you can defend a lot of the choices that Capcom made in building Willow, though—and that’s why it still holds up today.
“I put a lot of energy into the music for Willow. The producer of Willow was the same producer who made Mega Man. He was an extremely talented individual and I was elated to have the chance to write music for his game, so I put my all into it. I’m not sure how well the game itself was received, but it was fun.”
— Composer Haruma Fujita, a frequent composer of Capcom games during the late ’80s, discussing (in a 2011 interview, again translated by Shumplations) the role she played in working on the music for Willow. Fujita worked on many games for Capcom, starting with the arcade games Ghosts ’n Goblins (she handled sound effects) and Bionic Commando (she handled music). Fujita later went freelance, making music for the Neo Geo games Pulstar and Blazing Star.
Willow’s most grating song has a surprising source
The music in Willow is largely quite good, but I must quibble about the town music, which, while it properly portrays the vibe of a town, is quite grating, in part because the NES’ sound chip just was not that friendly to the whistle-like sound effect the game relies on. It turns a sound that is meant to be relaxing into something grating.
In my esteemed opinion, it just doesn’t work. But the composition, as it turns out, is the most interesting song from a storytelling perspective because of its source material. As the Video Game Music Preservation Foundation notes, it’s effectively a Nintendo version of a popular instrumental from the 1950s, the theme song to the film A Summer Place, which you can hear over this way:
However, the Max Steiner composition does not track as the famed Percy Faith version from the movie, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959. Instead, it sounds like something else entirely, even though the melody seems like it’s there. I think the reason for that comes down to the version Fujita appears to have used as source material—the 1962 vocal version of the hit, as performed by Andy Williams:
It is clear, from listening to this, that the whistle-like melody line is trying to mimic Williams’ vocal line. Additionally, the key of Williams’ version of the song, lowered to match his vocal register, is much closer to that of the town music.
So, in case you’ve ever heard this song and wondered to yourself, “Where did this annoying music come from?” there’s your answer: Capcom’s composer appears to have been directly inspired by Andy Williams’ cover of a chart-topping hit based on a completely unrelated movie.
Willow is not a particularly hard-to-find title in the modern day. At PriceCharting, the game has only topped the $20 mark on the used market once in the past decade (back in June), and around 2009 or so, copies could be had on eBay for less than $2.
By comparison, The Legend of Zelda, the game that Willow is often compared to, has consistently topped the $20 mark for nearly a decade, and Crystalis and The Magic of Scheherazade have PriceCharting arcs that roughly match that of Willow.
All of this is to underline the obvious—this is a common title, not some hallowed rarity. It’s not particularly beloved or called out as a one of those must-own titles that every NES owner should have.
But I would argue that it holds up better than nearly every other game-based-on-a-blockbuster title of its era. Sure, there are some bonafide success stories on the NES—Sunsoft’s Batman: The Video Game, released in North America at around the same time as Willow, comes to mind—but what I think makes Willow work is that it has a compelling story and compelling gameplay that stands on its own without even requiring players to watch the movie to get something out of it.
As a kid, despite having some early hesitations, I came to love this game and the way that it always felt like there was a new adventure around the corner. The need to always put in passwords wasn’t great, but the adventure was one I was always willing to go on, even if I had to mute the audio in the towns because the music got too cutesy. (I of course had to crank it in the forests and caves.)
As Warwick Davis gets a chance to step back into a role that he originated as a teenager, it seems fitting that, even though it’s a non-canonical mix of game lore and movie tie-ins, the Willow NES game deserves a second chance in the spotlight. Is it perfect? No way. But it makes an excellent document of an important company in the history of video games at the height of its powers. Lucasfilm, a company that created a lot of great games itself over the years, got lucky that they gave this one to Capcom.
Hey Bob Iger—if you’re reading this, give Capcom the license to put this on Nintendo Switch Online or something. It’d be a great way to make your imprint on Disney after letting Bob Chapek run the show for two and a half years.
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