Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole Review
Landstalker and I have a storied history; if you’re read this site’s “about” section, you’re probably already aware of the fact that I used to rent this game on a regular basis when I was but a wee young’un, only to be beaten down every time by its relentless cruelty despite having help in the form of a neighbor who would come over to try and conquer it with me. We never managed to make it very far despite her and I taking turns at the controls, and having finally beaten the game, it’s no wonder—this game is intentionally designed to be as sadistic and unfriendly as possible. This is a game where the perspective is used to hide platforms necessary to progression. This is a game where late-game enemies teleport in front of you, making running away more or less impossible. This is a game where your reward for finishing one particularly annoying dungeon is another, even more lengthy and annoying dungeon. However, between its bouts of soul-crushing malice, Landstalker manages to be surprisingly charming, and save states make the game much more palatable than it would be playing on the original hardware. That doesn’t make this a must-play by any means, of course, but at least it evens the odds so that those masochistic enough to indulge the depths of its villainy stand a fighting chance.
I can’t help but love Landstalker’s characters
Main character Nigel is a bit of a blank slate whose personality seems limited to a longing for treasure/adventure and an uncanny ability to ignore his wood nymph helper Friday’s periodic confessions of love, but Friday is absolutely adorable. Really, she’s the main reason to play Landstalker; the game gets most of its flavor from her entertaining outbursts, whether they be from jealousy, amazement, or surprise, and she has a quintessentially 90s way of speaking, right down to calling another character “sister.” It’s also worth mentioning that despite the internet’s penchant for misleadingly comparing Landstalker to the Zelda series despite the two sharing only superficial similarities, Landstalker introduced a persistent fairy companion with a personality long before Navi in Ocarina of Time (or even the existence of the Nintendo 64 system), so it could be argued that the Zelda series stole this idea from Landstalker rather than the other way around.
This is a game from 1993 (1992 if you count when it was originally released in Japanese), so the writing and characterization aren’t exactly up to modern standards, but it’s still entertaining in how thoroughly and unabashedly weird it consistently manages to be. From having a village elder’s bear-person daughter fall for you to making an effort to fake you out by implying things like murder and prostitution that never seem to actually be the case, there’s something refreshingly absurd about the world and characters. Part of this has to do with censorship; while I haven’t been able to confirm it for myself, the Japanese version apparently doesn’t do this fake-out, with the aforementioned prostitution apparently being the case in that version. I think this is one of those Vanguard Bandits situations where the censorship makes things so much weirder and more lovable than the game would be otherwise. That said, an entertaining bath scene was removed from the English version, and while it can allegedly be accessed by using cheats, it’s still disappointing to see content removed. This is doubly true when it involves a potential jealous outburst by Friday.
There are other notable characters like Kayla and the Duke and Pockets, but they don’t receive anywhere near as much characterization as I had initially expected out of them. Kayla and Pockets in particular appear throughout the entire game (the former being set up in the opening scene as the main antagonist), only to fulfill the same kind of role as Ozzie in Chrono Trigger, which is to say non-threatening comic relief. Pockets is especially strange, because after running into him in various towns and dungeons and noting how convenient his presence is, he manages to do nothing by the end of the game apart from giving you a hint in an early village. He’s just there, a named character with a unique appearance who shows up for no reason. Chekhov’s gun never fires in either case, and this just seems incredibly strange.
The perspective makes combat and platforming a chore
As you can probably tell from the screenshots and videos, this game uses an awkward isometric perspective. This has a number of effects, including making platforming an absolute nightmare, but right now I want to talk about the game’s combat. To start with, simply moving in the right direction is a serious pain when you’re first starting out with the game because it requires pressing two buttons at once to move in the diagonal direction you want. I found that sometimes pressing one button was enough to move in the right direction, while other times pressing one button was worthless because right and up would move Nigel in the same direction. Since there was no rhyme or reason behind when single buttons would work and when they wouldn’t, I wound up pressing two directions to move through the entire game. This takes some getting used to and makes avoiding even the slow-moving enemies early in the game more difficult than it has any right to be. In fact, I suspect that this is why both me and my friend were unable to play too far into the game all those years ago.
Once you get used to the controls, things become quite a bit easier. Sadly, that doesn’t stop the game from getting in your way at every opportunity. From enemies who make an effort to walk around and hit you from the sides (and it’s often difficult to tell because of the perspective whether an enemy is in front of you or slightly to the side where you can’t reach them) to your attack being blocked altogether by a wall, there are plenty of combat quirks that ensure that you’ll have a difficult time.
Of all of these quirks, attacks being blocked is the absolute worst. If you’re close enough to a wall, whether that wall is made out of stone, wood, or simple bushes (seriously—bushes), your attack won’t begin. Instead, you’ll hear a clink sound where your attack would have been. This isn’t like other games where your attack is canceled partway through, either, because your attack simply doesn’t begin here. If you’re facing a group of enemies, this is insanely frustrating because it means having no knockback or damage capabilities until you relocate to a better position. It’s easy to box yourself in, too, so there are times where you have no option but to take damage to move into a position where you can actually attack.
However, the game’s combat problems are nothing compared to its platforming problems, and these are very much designed to be problematic. See, the isometric perspective allowed the developers to hide platforms behind objects, hide paths through trees (most notably annoying during Greenmaze, a long slog through identical-looking areas that are designed to be as frustrating as possible), and make almost all of the game’s jumps incredibly misleading.
The eye can usually gauge distance based on the relative size of objects and a few other factors, but these cues are completely missing in Landstalker’s isometric perspective. Sprites look the same no matter where they are, so it’s impossible to know whether a spiked ball is right on top of you or nowhere close. Platforms suffer similarly, with jumps being almost entirely blind due to you rarely having an idea of where things are. The whole game relies on trial and error, rejoicing in allowing you to fall several levels down each time you fail a jump inside a dungeon, condemning you to replay several rooms full of enemies each time. Add the awkwardness of the controls on top and you have a recipe for complete and utter frustration that only becomes worse over time as the game’s puzzles become more and more obtuse. In fact, several dungeons require you to move in a perpendicular direction to the one you were traveling when you first jumped, all in midair. This is mandatory, and believe it or not, it’s one of the game’s simpler feats.
Harder feats include managing to land and jump again on platforms that are only available to you for a single frame, as well as making your way around a room on platforms that fall seconds after you land on them (naturally, most of the time failing at this sends you far back in a dungeon). That’s not even mentioning the ridiculousness of the non-platforming puzzles, such as one toward the end of the game where you have to hit a switch, then perfectly navigate in and out of gaps in a sawtooth pattern with perfect timing so that a jumping statue can make it across all of them by bouncing on your head. The reward for this? It hits another switch and you have to redo the same thing for another statue. Even with save states, I had to do this something like 50 times before I got it right; I can’t even imagine ever accomplishing this without save states because of how easy it is to hit an invisible wall that prevents you from actually filling in a gap, and you have to exit and re-enter the room to reset the puzzle if you get it wrong.
Highlighting the invisible barriers that require frame-perfect precision is a section where you have to drop three boxes into holes and then activate the fourth by dropping Nigel in. The first time I came across this room (pictured in the screenshots), I wasn’t able to make the boxes fit into the holes, so I assumed it wasn’t yet possible and that something in the dungeon would later change that. I found myself unable to continue because of a locked door, so I eventually found my way back to this room. As it turns out, you have to line yourself up perfectly or the boxes don’t go into the holes, and this room is mandatory since the “puzzle” nets you a key required to move on.
Some of the best items are hidden
When I finally got to the game’s second-to-last boss, I found myself losing huge chunks of life to him because of his ability to teleport in front of me as I was trying to run away. This isn’t something unique to him, of course, but having the first part of back-to-back boss fights burn through my health items—of which there seem to be only 2, and you can only carry 9 of each at a time—seemed patently unfair. As it turns out, I had missed the game’s best armor in the dungeon leading up to the final boss. Where was it, you ask? Why, hidden behind a waterfall, of course. You have to walk behind the waterfall and pick it up, which seems like the kind of thing you’d only be able to do if you had advance knowledge of it being there. Putting aside the stupidity of the game’s best defensive item being purposefully obscured before the final boss fight, the whole system of finding items rather than being able to buy them is backward beyond belief. You can’t buy weapons and armor in Landstalker. Instead, you find it littered around the world (or in my case, you don’t find it and suffer as a result). Healing items like EkeEke—which Friday uses to automatically restore half of your health if you lose all your hearts—can be bought from stores, but you can only buy one at a time, bombarding you with unnecessary text boxes whenever you need to buy more than one.
Slightly more visible are the treasure chests containing “life stock,” which is really just a fancy way of saying “plus one to your max health.” Of course, this, like so many other things in the game, is something you have to figure out for yourself since the game lacks explanations for anything but EkeEke. Everything else you have to figure out by yourself, which can really be a frustrating process.
Take, for example, the game’s swords. The sword you start with has no special properties, but all of the swords you find after it do, charging a little sword meter on the screen. When the meter is full, slashing produces special effects, and the only way to actually know what effect each sword has is to use it because there are no item descriptions in the game. When I finally found the game’s best sword (which wasn’t nearly as hidden as the best armor, fortunately), I started to make my way back through the dungeon. One room had enemies coming at me the second I entered—which is cheap, but not at all rare—so I instinctively slashed, only to see a long animation where rocks and such fell. This confused me since the animation was identical to an earlier cutscene that had made a new area accessible. It only made sense that this animation had somehow done the same. It was only later that I discovered that slashing with that particular sword when the charge bar is full produces a screen-wide earthquake that damages all visible enemies.
The graphics and music are great for the time
While the 90s are known for great sprite art, that’s usually only true of the mid-to-late 90s that saw games like Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger released. To put this game’s graphics into perspective, Landstalker was originally released in October 1992, the same month as Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. With that in mind, the graphics were incredibly impressive for their time, and many of the sprites have a certain timeless quality to them that allows them to still be charming after all of these years. The music is also incredibly impressive for the time, and while the initial “overworld” theme (which you can hear in the second and third embedded video) is perhaps a bit too prevalent, the soundtrack is diverse and interesting in a way few games of the time managed to be. These days the limitations of the Genesis/Mega Drive ensures that the soundtrack is bound to be seen as a bit “bleepy” and grating, but it’s undeniably well-composed and full of gems like the piano piece in the video above.