By Punk1984 4 Comments
Gamers and Non-gamers alike always seem to ask me what the "best game ever" is. The good news is there are a lot of ways to answer that question, the bad news is that there are a lot of ways to answer that question. I have a few favorites, and I have a few easy picks and there are tons that we can all agree on but I'm going to start with a bit of a dark horse; Dark Wizard for the Sega CD.
There were a few really good reasons to own a Sega CD, Sonic CD, Eternal Champions CD, Lunar and a few others. (cough Night Trap cough) Dark Wizard was a game that flew under the radar even during the Sega CD's peak. A strategy RPG released at a time when strategy RPG's were not popular meant that Dark Wizard was doomed for the bargain bin. I picked my copy up from the local Funcoland, no manual, no box, just the disc and a paper sleeve. I was in way over my head - over my head in awesome!
At the time I rarely used my Sega CD outside of Sonic CD and the Sega Classics Collection. The game starts with an anime-styled cutscene that just didn't appear anywhere else at the time. I was still a few months away from getting Lunar and this first brush with FMV blew me away. The game lets you choose from four characters, a prince, a soldier, a wizard and a vampire. I picked the prince because he kind of looked like me and I was 12. Each of the four characters has an extensive opening cinematic that relates their motivations for entering the war against the Dark Wizard. Being a 12 year old dork with a deep love of Dungeons and Dragons I ate this stuff up.
Fifteen minutes after pushing start I was at the game screen, A hex based battle map with color coded units on it. My enjoyment came to a crushing halt. With no manual I had no idea how to play; I could move the cursor around but I had no idea what attacks what units did or how movement was calculated or even how to recruit new units. I was stuck. One of the reasons I love Dark Wizard is because I mastered it myself. I taught myself how to play the game through trial and error. I remember first discovering how to recruit units and feeling reinvigorated. After an hour of stumbling around in the dark I figured out one of the cornerstones of the game and I was hooked. This was an era before FAQs and Walkthroughs you had to figure it out on your own or take the game back to the store. After seeing that intro I wasn't taking it back to the store.
My first campaign in the world of Dark Wizard was a slow and painful one. Not knowing which units were good against other units was a major hurdle so was equipping units correctly. The real genius of Dark Wizard is how it scales to you, you can skip most of the management stuff and just play it. I loaded an old file up and found that I had beaten the game with a group of characters whose armor and weapons had never been upgraded. The game didn't make the enemies easier but my use of strategy adapted to the game. There is a lot of depth to Dark Wizard both story-wise and gameplay-wise the strength of the game is that it plays well no matter how shallow you want to play it. By the far the most game time wasn't taken up by me and my failures but by battle animations. Dark Wizard takes place on a Macro level you float above the battle doling out orders but the battles would load you into a different screen full of bad sprite based battles. Everything always looked like a jumble of pixels and none of the spell effects looked that cool. Eventually I found the option to turn those animations off in the options menu but until then it was slow going. Sega CD wasn't known for speedy loading times. Good news is that that option is off by default.
Eventually through determination and a good notebook I mastered the game. Dark Wizard would be a great game on any system but what makes it "the best game ever," is that it is still a deeply personal game. I've never met anyone else who played it, or has even heard of it. Unlike some of its contemporaries it has never been remade. Dark Wizard has always felt like 'my game.' I'll keep shouting its praises but it always seems to fall on deaf ears. A Google search turns up a few fan sites but nothing really in depth. If I had the time and money I would love to produce a guide for the game; something real nice with interviews from the staff. The type of thing I would like to buy now and keep on a coffee table. Dark Wizard deserves to be up there with Shining force, Phantasy Star and Chrono Trigger, it just didn't get its time to shine.