There have been very few games over the years that have shaped an entire video game generation (specifically, my circle of gaming friends). John Madden Football for the Genesis was one of them. Rocky Super Action Boxing for the ColecoVision was another. To a lesser degree NHL Hockey for Genesis and TV Sports Football (remember that one, Mr. Annick?) for the Turbografx-16 did the same. It doesn't take long to figure out that they're all sports games though. The only house-rocking NON sports game that I can truly say made us understand each other as gamers is this little ditty called The Incredible Wizard, or, as it was known in the arcades, Wizard of Wor.
NEVER TRUST SANTULLI became the slogan amongst the Ringwood clan of video game players where I grew up. It was developed after several gamers, thinking they were involved in a cooperative match of worling slaying, were "inadvertently" shot in the back when they crossed my path. I developed this little strategy after realizing that other players were not only stealing MY points, but were worth more themselves than the denizens of the maze we were supposedly out to defeat. Even more importantly, I could ALWAYS predict where that other player was going to appear again after he died, and with five of them lined up to go that was five times that many points I could have in my till. Call me greedy, but that strategy eventually caught on with just about everyone else I ever played this game with, including recent friends who were introduced to this game in the past month while I was preparing this review. By the way, the "strategy" of using the other player as point-bait has stuck with me into my adult life. Streets of Rage and Gauntlet has shown a new crop of gamers a different side of me ("heh heh, deal with it!"). I am happy to say that my wife shares this strategy with me, and our game sessions together make the Civil War look like a carnival game.
I wish I could tell you how many different mazes there are in the game. I can't. It's not that I haven't tried to count them, there's definitely more than eight. It's just that we so rarely even get past the third screen blasting the hell out of each other that the other creatures in the maze become more of a distraction than a goal. The two-player strategy in this game can really get intense! Because you can only have one bullet on the screen at a time, you have to plan carefully where and when you want to execute the other player. Once done, you can lurk outside of his little cubbyhole where he will pop out for his next "life". He can wait there for ten seconds, leaving at any time, but is then forced into play by the computer. It's often that two or three more lives will be lost to the lurking player, but eventually one of those damn worluks will happen by and catch him off-guard, then it's out of the hole and back to the hunt. What a game. What a damn good game.
Oh yeah, about the game. Well, the premise might be clear by now if you haven't already played it. You and another player (there is a one-player mode, too) work to clear the maze of wandering Garwors, Burwors, and other creatures with "wor" in their names. Once they're disposed of, a really fast Worluk darts around the maze trying to get out. You get a bunch of points for shooting it, plus the next level becomes double points. Randomly, the Wizard himself appears, fires a bullet, then disappears again. This repeats until he either kills or is killed by a player. There's a really cool flashing effect when you kill the Wizard, and an even cooler bonus (he's worth twice as much as the Worluk, and an additional double score multiplier goes into effect for the next level). In fact, this is one of those games that fairly awards points, so if you win, you're probably the better player and not just some lucky punk. For some reason, the Astrocade version awards points at 1/10th of the arcade value, so the Worluk is only worth 100 points versus 1000 on the arcade and other systems. The best score I could manage was 13790, which seems really low, but I was on the 13th board.
Here's the really amazing thing. The game was produced in 1981. 1981!! If nothing else, this game proves the superiority of the Bally Astrocade over its competition (this was the same year Atari released the laughable Pac-Man for the VCS). You would never have seen graphics as good as The Incredible Wizard on an Atari 2600 game at that time, and Odyssey2 NEVER reached this level. In fact, CBS released Wizard of Wor for the Atari 2600 a few months later, and although it is more colorful, it is also a flickerfest with bulkier and less detailed characters. The Astrocade version features subtleties that were largely ignored by most developers at the time, such as the recoiling of the gun when a shot is taken, the messages (GET READY/GO and ESCAPED appear in dramatic fashion), and the really wild sounds that top just about everything from the time. It wasn't until almost two full years later, when Wizard of Wor appeared on the Atari 5200, that a graphically superior version could be played. But then, you have to work with those damn non-centering controllers - a real problem on precision maze games like this. Again, the Astrocade version reigns supreme. I suppose if the game wasn't as good as it is, even the two-player shootout that ensues might not have made it the showstopper it was.
The Incredible Wizard is one of my top ten "classic" games of all time, so it gets the ever-so-rare TEN rating from me. Plugging it in again after years of dormancy didn't stifle the fun, the action, or the memories behind this gem.