Magician is a fairly obscure NES RPG by Eurocom and published by Taxan with some unique design elements and a notorious difficulty level among those who have heard of it. But is there some merit to be found in this mostly forgotten game, or should it just be left buried in favor of other, better known 8-bit titles?
Magician is a mostly forgotten RPG these days, and even among fans of retro console games it's not really one that comes up much in conversation. Not for a lack of trying, though, as it's one of the more unique RPGs on the platform. Taking place in a sidescrolling view, the game also utilizes a stage-based format, with nine levels in total. However, there is no way to backtrack to a previous level, so if you miss a key item from an earlier stage it can potentially mean restarting the entire game. Numerous things can also kill you instantly, from falling in a pit to triggering a trap to starving to death; that's right you have to manage your character's food and water meters, and both deplete at a surprisingly rapid rate, effectively putting your progress on a strict time limit. Shops to replenish food and water supplies are also very few and far between, and though you can occasionally find more supplies as part of treasure hordes, that likewise means being constantly wary of traps and enemies that can deplete significant amounts of your health, shields and magic. While you can save your progress at any time and there four slots to save to, you only get fifteen saves per playthrough, so one must ration them carefully throughout the game.
Magician features a relatively novel spell-crafting system - you create spells by combining different syllables in the pause menu, then click the spellbook to memorize them. Unlike Dungeon Magic, however, not all combinations are viable. In fact, the vast majority result in an "unknown spell" that will have completely unpredictable effects; usually instant death to your character with a surprising number of different animations exclusively for this purpose (although on rare occasions you may also get a full heal or other beneficial effect). The manual only tells you how to access a basic attack spell, while the rest must be discovered in-game by finding or purchasing scrolls at hefty cost (though the manual does also provide spaces to write discovered spells down, saving you money on later playthroughs). Spells can also be adjusted to four levels of power, which annoyingly plays into some puzzles; the swamp stage is one notorious example, requiring you to constantly adjust the power of your Jump spell to leap to the next platform, with a level too low or too high usually sending you plummeting to an instant death. (Just casting the Fly spell to avoid this isn't an option either, as you'll be struck by lightning the moment you leave the ground for - yep - another instant death.)
Combat is Magician is pretty bland and monotonous. There are four elements in the game (Physical, Venom, Fire and Power) and four varieties of shields to cast which completely block those elements, depleting themselves as they do. Thus, battles typically boil down to casting shields to block the enemy's attacks, then spamming one attack spell repeatedly until you knock your way through the enemy's shields and eat away all of their life; preferably before they do the same to you. Thankfully it's not nearly as prevalent as it is in many other NES RPGs - all encounters in the game are fixed events - but it's still something you end up becoming annoyed by rather than looking forward to.
All in all, Magician is a fairly clunky game with some annoying trial-and-error puzzles, irritating difficulty compounded by limited saves, and underwhelming combat that mostly consists of raising shields and spamming one attack until your enemy falls. However, it is very well presented, with detailed backdrops, smooth character animations and some stellar music by Neil Baldwin. In fact, I dare say it ranks among the best soundtracks on the NES, lending the game a heavy, foreboding atmosphere throughout and showing off some impressive technical tricks, like simulating wind sounds for the forest stage theme. So while game itself isn't really anything special, but the soundtrack is well worth a listen for fans of chiptune music. The source code has been released by the developer too, which may be of interest to those interested in making their own NES games (or possibly improving on this one's clunkier aspects).