Partly because David Jones is remixing the first Magic Knight game, Finders Keepers, and partly out of nostalgia I’ve been playing a bit of the “windimation” Magic Knight titles for the 128K ZX Spectrum recently and playing them again makes me realise something: there’s nothing quite like them before or since.
If you don’t know the Magic Knight games then here’s a quick primer: there are four of them – Finders Keepers, Spellbound, Knight Tyme and Stormbringer. Rumour is that there was to be fifth game in the series complete with twist ending about the identity of Magic Knight but it never appeared. Finders Keepers I’ve talked about before but following that game the series took a completely different turn.
In the last three games the player controls Magic Knight once again but this time he is thrown into three much more story-based adventures with a mixture of action gaming (especially in Spellbound and Stormbringer) with puzzles and object manipulation in the arcade-adventure style. Magic Knight can perform dozens of different actions which are accessed, cleverly, through a window-based command system accessed by pressing “fire”. Amongst these actions are spells, explaining our hero’s odd name. Magic Knight isn’t alone in these later games either, they are inhabited by various weird and wonderful characters who, strangely, only move when MAgic Knight is off-screen. Along with the window-based command system the non-player characters are one of the things that makes this series unique for its time. Magic Knight and the NPCs have statistics with things like strength, magic level, food level and tiredness. This system seems to have been designed specifically for Spellbound, which revolves around looking after the wellbeing of various mythical/historical characters, but was used in all of the last three Magic Knight games. Because of this, characters can get grumpy and unco-operative or just fall asleep. It’s quite a simple way of creating an environment that feels “alive” but it works.
If you’ve not played any of these games then I’d urge you to try them. They were released for a wide range of computers but the definitive versions are the 128K ZX Spectrum ones (there are also cut-down 48K versions which the conversions to other platforms were based on, even the Atari ST version of Stormbringer!). They’re flawed games in many ways with high difficulty and occasional frustration, Spellbound‘s need to keep its cast of characters in good health whilst dodging bouncing balls and solving puzzles being a prime example. And the puzzles themselves can be a bit obscure. As an example (and this really isn’t a spoiler because you don’t want to fanny around finding this out on your own) you learn quite early in Spellbound that Magic Knight doesn’t have enough strength to complete the game so he needs to recharge it. The solution seems to be a bottle of “restorative fluid” found early in the game. But to make it work you have to, erm, give it to a certain character then take it from him and you magically get your strength back. This was considered an acceptable puzzle in 1985. There are also a number of “instant death” rooms, a dirty trick even back in the ’80s and unacceptable now. All I can say is save often.
But even though these games can be frustrating, they’re also clever, intriguing and like many great games of the era give a real feeling of achievement when puzzles are solved and new areas and characters are “unlocked”.
My personal favourite is Knight Tyme which has a sci-fi theme, although I’d suggest playing Spellbound first to get a “feel” for the series. Give them a go, they’re not perfect but they’ll reward a bit of time spent with them and, like I said, I think they’re pretty unique.