Legacy of the Wizard
Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein
We're four main games deeps into the Dragon Slayer series and these titles have been kicked out at a steady clip. One game a year, so far, from 1984 through 1987, and that's not even counting spin-offs and expansions. It's an impressive feat for Nihon Falcom, for sure, but it does also mean there could only be so much innovation between titles, especially once the games became more complicated in general. There's a huge leap in the game play between Dragon Slayer and it's sequel, Xanadu, but less so with the titles moving on from there.
That's not a dig against the fourth game in the series, Legacy of the Wizard (aka Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family in Japan). This is a fine, even great title in its own way. But it is also the third game in the series to very tightly follow the play style and structure of Xanadu. It's a side-scrolling platformer with Metroidvania-esque exploration. If you've played Xanadu then you know exactly what you're getting into with this fourth entry in the franchise, at least at its most basic form.
Legacy of the Wizard is focused on the Drasle Family (as in the "Dragon Slayer Family"). Each member of the family is a heroic adventurer in their own right, with abilities and powers that they can bring to bear when exploring a dungeon. Being dragon slayers (it's in their name) they've been tasked with diving deep into a cavernous dungeon to find a magical painting of the dreaded dragon Keela. They have to free the dragon so that it can be killed and then, of course, destroy it. Accomplishing this is no easy feat, though, as the family members will have to explore every inch of the expansive dungeon complex, collect four hidden crowns deep within, and then use those crowns to collect the magical Dragon Slayer sword of legend. Only then can Keela be damaged.
In construction, this game feels like a direct sequel to Xanadu in many ways (basically ignoring the weird, looping adventure of the third entry, Romancia). The player is tasked with taking the various family members, one at a time, into the deep depths of a dungeon, fighting endless waves of enemies as they explore. There are many paths to dive through, a seemingly (but not literally) endless dungeon to explore. Inns and shops will dot the landscape deep within, aiding the heroes and keeping them topped up (for a fee). Those that have played Xanadu will feel right at home with the basic exploration in this game.
Where the game differentiates itself, and becomes truly interesting, is in the family members. Five (of the seven) members of the family are playable and each have their own specific uses that in game. The father is the strongest combatants but he can't jump very high. He can, however, use the push gloves which let him manipulate specific blocks around the dungeon, aiding his exploration of the zones. The mother is a mid-range combatant but her main power is that she's the only one that can use the flying wings, granting her access to areas no one else can reach. The daughter is the best jumper but one of the weakest fighters. She is also the only one that can use the mattock, allowing her to break bricks and explore deeper in the dungeon. Their pet is a monster and it's immune to the attacks of the monsters in the dungeon, granting it easy exploration in many zones. And finally the son, while weak on his own, is the only one that can collect the Dragon Slayer sword, and thus the only one that can defeat the dragon.
What's interesting is how the game is constructed around these five playable characters. Each character has to be used at least once due to where the crowns are hidden and how they can be accessed. Even if there's one character you really like, or one you aren't as comfortable playing, you'll eventually have to play as all of them just so you can get through the whole adventure. As much as you'd think you could brute force an alternate character into some areas, you will hit a point where each character has to be used. The game is built smartly and effectively to prevent out-of-logic exploration.
With that said, it is still non-linear in its design. You can dive in and slowly map the world as you see fit, figuring out where to go and what to do in your own way. There's only one final path to each crown but how you get there, and the journey you take up to that point, is entirely your own. It's an interesting setup, one that rewards exploration, even if it can feel obtuse for new players. The game dumps you in, says, "have at," and then gets out of the way leaving you on your own to figure things out. But then, for those that played Xanadu, this is exactly the game of game play they would expect from the series.
I will note that this game really is unforgiving for new players, especially if you're picking the game up now and don't have an instruction booklet. You'll have to figure it all out without even a tutorial to say, "hey, use this character to do these things." And when you combine that with a free flowing dungeon that's at least twice the size of the overworld of The Legend of Zelda, it can lead to a lot of players getting lost, frustrated because they can't figure out where to go or what to do. I really do suggest grabbing a real map of this game so you can track your route and know where to go; doing this blind seems like unnecessary self-punishment.
If you can get into it, though, this game does provide a lot to enjoy. The characters all feel diverse and interesting, and while the exploration in the game is unforgiving the combat is not. It's fun to dive in, taking a character and exploring around as you beat up monsters and collect your rewards. Theres plenty to see and do and, over time, you will get a sense of the dungeon, learning its various paths, nooks, and crannies. If you give Legacy of the Wizard time it will grow on you eventually. You just have to be able to give it that time and not everyone is going to make it that deep into this game.
Similarities to Castlevania Games
In many ways Legacy of the Wizard is a refinement of the Metroidvania formula that so many companies were exploring by 1987. It provided a tight, interesting, non-linear adventure a year before Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, along with multiple differentiated characters before Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse pulled the same feat. And the fact that you have to play as all the characters underscores the thought and detail the developers put into Legacy of the Wizard.
So that's the macro view of the game and how it slots into Metroidvania history. At the same time, though, its fair to say that this game was less influential on the Castlevania series than Xanadu. That game, with its dungeons within dungeons, experience system, and upgradeable weapons, felt like a direct influence on Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. Legacy of the Wizard, though, feels more like an answer to Vampire Killer, which was a much more constrained exploration platformer. You can tell they're still playing in the same pond, just from different perspectives.
Still, Nihon Falcom's series would continue to grow and expand, and there is no doubt that its ideas would continue to influence the Metroidvania genre as a whole for some time.