Saturday, November 7, 2020

King's Knight (NES)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Square
Published by Squaresoft in 1989


The idea to mix shooting and medieval fantasy wasn't such a common thing to see back in the old days. Besides King's Knight, a few glaring exceptions that also appeared on the NES are Dragon Spirit (port of an arcade game) and The Guardian Legend (an original RPG-shooter hybrid). Even though the copyright year in the NES cartridge is 1989, in reality King's Knight predates these two examples because the Famicom version had been out since 1986. That's certainly the main reason why the game feels clearly dated for a 1989 release with such drab and blocky visuals.

One of the main influences on King's Knight is definitely Knightmare, which makes sense because the MSX also got its own version of the game alongside the Famicom/NES. However, while Knightmare focused exclusively in the shooting experience, King's Knight tries to spice things up with a heavy item-collecting aspect that often makes people consider the game to be an action RPG of sorts. It is true that you won't succeed if you do not adhere to the item collecting rules, but the game's also far from even having RPG gameplay elements. You won't see any stats or meters of any kind, and the only decision-making you need to make is reserved for the final stage at the press of a single button.

As usual, the story involves a kidnapped princess that needs rescue. Players take control of four characters that join forces to save her: Ray Jack the knight, Kaliva the wizard, Barusa the monster and Toby the kid thief.

Kaliva's garden of joy

Each character has his own stage to be played, but there isn't any actual difference between them besides their starting speed. They're all supposed to be powered up in the same way. The rule of thumb is to destroy everything in your path with button A in order to uncover what you need to pick up, starting with the basic performance enhancements: speed-up (boots), power-up (sphere), defense-up (shield) and jump-up (spring). The jump feature refers to the ability to move over ground surfaces from all sides, which might be necessary in certain parts of the level. There's also a single special orb in the first stage that shows hidden walls, but it doesn't appear anywhere else in the game.

Besides the important items mentioned above, most of what's uncovered are actually arrows. Up arrows refill your health, down arrows take away part of it. There are also unique magic elements to be taken that add up to a special ability that can only be used in the final stage. You must collect four of these for each character (four per stage), and if you miss one of them the respective character won't be able to use his spell at all, which can be simply gamebreaking for at least one of the heroes (Toby). The instruction manual refers to them as elements A, B, C and D, even though they appear as symbols: A/triangle (Kaliva's element), B/double bars (Toby), C/double Vs (Barusa) and D/round badge (Ray Jack). Once it's available, the special attack is deployed with button B.

The four initial stages in King's Knight are very similar, and except for the necessary memorization there isn't much to worry about. You definitely need to find the stairs that lead to an underground dungeon though, since one of the magic elements can only be found there. Whenever you die you go directly to the next level and don't get to see the stats of a successful stage completion. The max value for the upgrade level is 20 (for 7 speed-ups, 7 jump-ups, 3 power-ups and 3 defense-ups), whereas the asterisks indicate the A/B/C/D magic items you have collected. Four asterisks mean you've got them all.

It's in the last stage that the game goes crazy on the things you have to do to succeed in your mission. You control all surviving characters from the previous levels at the same time, in a formation where the uppermost one is the leader. You can only change the leader by touching the turning signs, but note that the results of a complete/U-turn is always random. Three magical swords must be collected for you to face the final dragon boss, which must receive damage from all characters in order to be defeated (check the flash before switching to a different formation leader). The magic spells you're entitled to use can only be triggered in certain areas depending on the character, and finding out where isn't something that a player like me would attempt with a smile on my face.

Knight Ray Jack goes out on a noble quest
(courtesy of YouTube user Patrick So)

I lost count of how many times I died stupidly in the final level due to the way the stage is laid out. On top of having to find out what to do you also have to deal with a humongous hitbox. The characters are always jumping everywhere like retards whenever you're close to a border, and you can't shoot neither when that happens nor when your formation is changing leaders (turning). Getting scroll-crushed by a single enemy and dying instantly is another risk, while more often than not you're at the mercy of how those crazy turning signs will work. It's more of an exercise in patience than an outright tough challenge, but fortunately the short length of the game helps with that.

Although it really comes off as quite a unique attempt at a vertical fantasy shooter, it's hard to recommend King's Knight unless your idea of fun is sheer trial and error with no other sort of in-game reward such as scoring, a feature that wasn't implemented at all. Moreover, the graphics are quite poor and the music is totally unremarkable. At least the instruction manual is useful for figuring out what to do, to a certain extent of course. If you don't feel like guessing things for yourself you can always refer to the great strategywiki on the game, complete with maps showing the locations of items and detailed explanations of where to use what in the final stage. Finally, if you don't fancy the act of button mashing you should definitely get a turbo controller for this one.

By pressing SELECT at the start screen you can choose any of the four stages that was previously played (even if you died in them) in order to improve the characters' stats and get them ready for the final stage. I didn't use this because I went for a straight clear. From the final screen below it doesn't seem the princess is that happy with Ray Jack though.


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