My memory lied to me. I hate Magician Lord! Magic Sword's pretty alright though.

The guy in Blue is the Magician Lord.
The guy in Blue is the Magician Lord.

Magician Lord and Magic Sword were, for a long time, linked in my mind as similar games I remember liking from my youth. They are both Japanese games from 1990, one on the Neo Geo the other on Capcom’s CPS-1. They are both medieval fantasy themed action platformers with a character who fired projectiles and a ton of creatively designed enemies who swarmed at you. They both feature power-up systems that alter your play-style (Magician Lord features transformations into alternative characters while Magic Sword features companions you can free from behind locked doors.) They both feature interstitial stories between the levels, with the bad guy in Magician Lord taunting you while in Magic Sword your character comments on the level he just finished or gives you a tip or talks about a level to come.

In my memory I liked them both about equally, though I preferred Magic Sword by a small margin. But my memory sometimes plays tricks on me. Sometimes my memory gets it wrong.

Last night I booted up Magician Lord on my Switch, threw a few virtual quarters into the emulator and got ready for some fun mindless jump and shoot action. I quickly discovered something unexpected. No, it wasn’t that I could save 50% or more on my car insurance, it was that I absolutely hate Magician Lord.

I hate Magician Lord!

This is what the Magician Lord looks like when he dies. I saw this screen a lot. A LOT.
This is what the Magician Lord looks like when he dies. I saw this screen a lot. A LOT.

Now this came as quite a surprise to me. I know for many people games that are over 25 years old are almost impossible to go back to, but I’m not that way. While I love new games, I can go back to retro stuff and enjoy that too. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing Neo Geo stuff on my Switch. I loved Blazing Star, which I don’t think I ever played before the Switch. I had a heckin’ good time with Sengoku, which is kind of clunky to play but is sufficiently weird and zany to entertain, and has some basic beat ‘em up thrills. I played through the much-maligned Shock Troopers 2 and I thought it was pretty solid. I even enjoyed some of the primitive early Fatal Fury games, which are far from great but are at least interesting. I have played enough of this stuff recently that I am not looking back at the ‘90s with rose colored glasses and remembering the games as smoother or better-looking than they were.

This fish spits smaller fish at you, though, so that's pretty good. 10/10 on the big fishies spitting smaller fishies criterion.
This fish spits smaller fish at you, though, so that's pretty good. 10/10 on the big fishies spitting smaller fishies criterion.

Magician Lord is horrible. It’s clunky to control, the character is too big for the precision of the dodging you’re expected to do, the level layouts are convoluted and weird, the animation is almost non-existent, and the music is bland. The whole package is kind of boring and very frustrating. I died constantly (with a loading screen between each death) and quickly gave up on playing more. I remembered liking this game when it was new, but in my opinion it has aged into a frustrating unfun mess. The controls are too sluggish and the levels to punishing for me to have any fun or even want to get better.

I then decided that I should find out if my memories of Magic Sword were equally warped by the decades between when I last played it and now. I had a copy of Final Fight Double Impact on my Xbox One (Backwards compatibility allows me to emulate an emulation) and with a little trepidation I booted it up. Would this be another massive disappointment?

Magic Sword is a much better game. The characters are smaller, control better, and can take a lot more damage.
Magic Sword is a much better game. The characters are smaller, control better, and can take a lot more damage.

Within a few minutes I had my answer. I had intended to play just long enough to get a sense for the controls but I found myself unable to stop. The music was better than I remembered, the graphics cleaner, and the control was quick and responsive. Somewhere along the line I must have confused the Super Nintendo cart for the CPS-1 version (though I know a gas station near my house had the arcade machine and I played it fairly regularly) because I don’t remember the game looking or sounding this good. The action was quick and responsive, the companion characters were cool and provided variety, and the levels were short enough not to overstay their welcome, with both vicious enemies and platforming hazards to overcome. I killed a manticore and got into the castle. I killed a dragon and got a samurai sword. I unlocked a door expecting to find a ninja to help me only to have skeletons leap out and attack. I found the diamond ring and got a lizardman to join me. Magic Sword gives you a lot more life than Magician Lord, letting you take a bunch of hits between demanding a new quarter, and passing out numerous healing items to keep the fun going. That, plus the more responsive controls, make it feel much more fair and thus enjoyable. It also has RPG elements and your character gets stronger over time as he advances in his adventure. It's pretty advanced for a 1990 arcade machine.

This dragon can kill me but he can't make me play Magician Lord, so I don't consider him much of a threat.
This dragon can kill me but he can't make me play Magician Lord, so I don't consider him much of a threat.

Magic Sword is better than I remembered; a seriously fun arcade platformer that can definitely munch (virtual) quarters on the higher levels but remains engaging and playable. It’s not an all-time great or anything, but I did get sucked in and played longer than I intended, which is a pretty good sign that the game holds up for me.

Magician Lord, on the other hand, is a frustrating mess. I will probably force myself to play it again at some point just to confirm that I wasn't having an off night (I wasn't) but there's no enjoyment for me in that game. I love Neo Geo, but every system has clunkers, even well-regarded clunkers. Magician Lord is one.

It's funny to me how the two games sort of merged in my mind and my affection for Magic Sword was passed on to Magician Lord. Honestly I probably played a lot more Magic Sword back in the day (because I actually like it) so it probably came to dominate my memory out of exposure alone. Sometimes revisiting old games can change your perspective. Sometimes it can remind you why you loved an old favorite in the past, and sometimes it can remind you that hey, 1990 had a lot of great games but it had a lot of horrible stinkers too.

Stinkers like Magician Lord.

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