Videogames, politics, science, all the important things in life.

Greatest Games Ever– Magician Lord

Posted by nfinit on November 21, 2009

This pretty much encapsulates everything I've ever wanted to do with my life

Chances are you’ve never heard of Magician Lord, much less ever actually run across the game– It was an early 90’s SNK arcade release, one of the very first wave of games released to America using the Neo-Geo hardware, and to be honest the only time ever encountered the game in the wild was in a little laundromat arcade back in Conover, North Carolina, back when you could count on laundromats and Pizza Huts and even convenience stores to have at least one good arcade cabinet hiding somewhere, usually with some forborne store manager muttering under his breath why he just doesn’t get rid of that stupid machine.

But that old SNK cabinet– an six-game MVS unit no less, capable of playing an entire arcade’s worth of games with a single button– played a huge role in my budding gaming obsession.  An inordinate chunk of my free time was spent hoarding quarters for the weekly Saturday afternoon trip to the laundromat, and I’d be heartbroken if my dad would decide on a whim that it’d be better to drive to a different one instead.   In that cabinet laid some of the greatest examples of classic sixteen bit arcade gameplay that could be found– Cyber-Lip, Sengoku, Baseball Stars, Crossed Swords, including a harbinger of a troubling obsession that’d drive SNK for the next twenty years– the very first Fatal Fury.

Ninja + Anything is a good shot for awesome, something the Wachowski brothers know well.

But the game that enchanted my heart in that old MVS cabinet, and the subject for today’s update is Magician Lord, a game you’ve probably never played, yet something I consider on of the greatest games ever made.

Magician Lord is as old-school Japanese as a game can be without involving 16-bit dithered hentai and Majong.  Take for instance the spiked balls that continually plague our hero– Now, in most games, you’ll get some sort of warning before something drops from the roof onto your head.  Maybe there will be a shadow on the ground, or maybe you’ll hear a distinctive clink-clink-clink from the chain holding the spiked ball aloft shortly before it dents your head in, or maybe the ball will simply fall slow enough for the quick-witted player to avoid a concussion.  Not Magician Lord!  You find out where the spiked balls have been hidden by having them land on your impudent little wizard skull.  Be more careful next time!

Magician’s Lord is an Arcade Game, and is not shy about its intentions.  It’s there to squeeze as much money out of you as possible while at the same time keeping you around with it’s stellar gameplay and enormous, gorgeously detailed sprites.  Dying  places you right back where you came from, with enemies, even bosses, having retained the same amount of damage as before, even after using a continue.  Bosses were quarter sponges– the art wasn’t in getting past them, it was doing so by spending as little money as possible.  Of course, that’s hard to convey in this day and age of emulators with save states and limitless continues, but if it makes you feel better you can add up the theoretical money  the first level skeleton miniboss would have deprived you from and then subtract that from how many theoretical copies of Todd McFarlane Spider-Man comics that’d have bought you instead.  There’s no small wonder I was never into comics in my formative years.

But back to those graphics.  I hate to talk about graphics when talking about older stuff , it seems like we should be above stuff like that at this point.  But there’s something about a huge, well-animated sprite that just doesn’t come across in a 3d model, no matter how much geometry you try to shove into it, and few developers have had the talent at drawing a sprite than SNK.  Magician Lord is a sadistic mistress who knows full well you’re there to gawk while being punished.  If you wanted to be treated with respect you’d be playing something sensible like After Burner.  Magician Lord’s spritework still hold up today, evoking stylistic hints that’d crop back up in SNK classics like the Metal Slug series.

This was about the exact moment I realized America could never be as cool as Japan

This was the exact moment I realized America could never be as cool as Japan


Of course, we’re talking about the 16 bit arcade era; and none of this would matter if the gameplay couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain.  And while there isn’t terrible much so far as controls– Walk left and right, fire and jump– what it has is spot on, and while you die often you’ll know full well the cause of your death was because your reflexes weren’t up to the task of avoiding the game’s many sadistic, credit-soaking traps.

Being an SNK game the story is delightfully incomprehensible.  At some arbitrary point in the level– quite often it felt like the designers just decided the current level had gone on long enough– You’ll be presented with some variation of a magical skeleton possessing a scimitar that will run back and forth trying to run you over or cleave your head open with a diving chop or at one point turning itself into a meteor– defeat this midboss and you’re berated by an evil wizard shortly before being forced to do battle with some variation of a face-in-a-wall mid-level boss.

"Impudent Human" was the original name for this blog.  True story.

Now that you see the butt chin you can't unsee it.


The levels themselves are not structured in a typical “run to the right and end” sort of way, they stroll as much vertically as they do horizontally and there’s no obvious path to which to find the end of any given level, and there’s a good amount of secret doors.  Every once in a while you’ll wander across a powerup that’ll transform your wizard into a dragon or a ninja, but they’re rare and honestly overpowered for the game proper, and as you’re nearly always losing health in this game you lose the transformations pretty quickly.

And that’s all there is to it, really.  A sprawling level that feels something like the town levels from Castlevania 2 and a couple bosses at the end that follow a rather predictable pattern.  Sometimes that’s all it takes, just doing one very simple thing and doing it exceptionally well.  Magician Lord is enjoyed for its gameplay and it’s art, and since it’s an arcade game, it never overstays it’s welcome– you can always just wander off to the next machine if you get bored.  That’s something that’s just not feasable for games today.  In Magician Lord you understand what you’re there to do in the first ten seconds of the game.  There’s not even a multiplayer mode, it’s strictly man vs stacks of expensive early 90’s ROM boards.  What you make of it past that point is entirely up to the player.  The only platform something like that is allowable on today is cell phone games,  and even they’re becoming mired in complexity thanks to the iPhone and Droid.

Perhaps "volume 1" was being a bit pretentious


Magician Lord encapsulates a history and a franchise all its own.  SNK stopped making platform shooters early in the Neo Geo’s life and focused on beat ’em ups and fighters up until Metal Slug, which may represent a sort of spiritual successor to Magician Lord, although it’s obvious the Metal Slug series owes more to Contra than anything else.  There was never a sequel and the game was largely forgotten until it popped back up with last year’s SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1, which is a solid retro purchase, encapsulating all the high notes of SNK’s early arcade work save for the lamentable exception of Cyber-Lip.


8 Responses to “Greatest Games Ever– Magician Lord”

  1. logan said

    I had a favorite arcade game

    It was a wild west side scroller.

    Best part was the weapon upgrades

    IIRC you started with normal bullets and then got supper fucking huge laser bullets

    Great fun

  2. Mikesta said

    I played this game on mame a few years ago, and the one aspect of it that really stood out to me was the graphics. You’re right about the quality of the backgrounds, sprites, and everything else; the game looked fantastic.

    The gameplay isn’t so great, and the music is merely okay. But those backgrounds are so good that I’d still recommend playing it through at least once. Just make sure to consult an FAQ for the bullshit maze level.

  3. trame said

    magician’s lord sucks almost as much as your blog

  4. Mikesta said

    Actually, I sort of take back what I said about the music. I played ML a little bit today, and some of the music is pretty good.

  5. nfinit said

    @ Logan: It sounds like you might be talking about Konami’s Sunset Riders. It was sort of like Contra in the Old West, which, as awesome as it sounds, was even better as it was four players and you got powerups from hookers.

    @ Mikesta: I dunno, I felt what little gameplay was there was pretty much pixel-perfect. The game becomes a lot more reasonable once you realize you can shoot above and below you. The only thing I’m not really in love with as far as how your guy controls is that the jumps are floaty and combined with how big the sprites are it’s way easy to get hit while in midair.

    @ Trame: Suppose you walk past a barber’s shop one day, and see a sign that says

    “Do you shave yourself? If not, come in and I’ll shave you! I shave anyone who does not shave himself, and noone else.”

    This seems fair enough, and fairly simple, until, a little later, the following question occurs to you – does the barber shave himself? If he does, then he mustn’t, because he doesn’t shave men who shave themselves, but then he doesn’t, so he must, because he shaves every man who doesn’t shave himself… and so on. Both possibilities lead to a contradiction.

  6. Craiggers said

    Wow, I think Magician Lord was the first ever Neo-Geo game I ever played… I grew up in a small North Carolina town too and our crappy little Wal-Mart had the machine with Magician Lord, World Heroes, Baseball Stars 2 and Samurai Showdown. Good times!

    Your blog is pretty fun to read, keep up the good work!

  7. Player said

    I’ve play the original Magician Lord on the Neo Geo home AES and I’ve play the arcade MVS on the Mame emulator. Magician Lord wasn’t a great game even by 1990 standard. Most of the enemies you come across are flying critters like fishes, balls, birds, skulls, etc. These flying critters dominated 85% of all encounters. Some of the stages have really poor layout such as level four where you can bypass the entire map because the boss room is just a platform above you from the starting point. There are a lot of enemies you never need to fight because there is no point and not even necessary to do so. The best thing about ML are the creative powerup system, character designs and the beautiful graphics, partically stage one and two, the rest of the game are quite blend, if not dull and boring. If you really want a good platformer, take a look at the old Ghouls and Ghost from Capcom. That game is every bit superior from start to end.

  8. Matt said

    I really like the weirdness of this game… like the voice samples. I remember being enchanted by it is in screenshots in old issues of Gamefan circa 1992. I always wanted to play it, but was somewhat disappointed with it when I finally got it to work in MAME some years ago. Nonetheless it’s an interesting game. Clunky gameplay (too hard, too), but otherwise pretty interesting, and I like the music.

    Play “Mystic Defender” on the Genesis for a similar experience (perhaps)

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