When I was little, like most kids during the late '80s, I lived for fantasy films: Krull, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Legend, Time Bandits, Baron Munchhausen. I'd watch them every time they were on. But there was one that stood above all the others. One that I loved so much, I would stay home from school if it were on. This was Willow. Willow was directed by Ron Howard, but the mastermind behind it was George Lucas, who had envisioned Willow to be a fantasy trilogy. Sadly, like most fantasy films of the era, Willow didn't do exceptionally well at the box office, and so it was resigned to having its second and third installments released as novelizations.
Willow had some things a lot of fantasy films lacked during the day. It had a half decent script, extremely high production values (hey, it's George Lucas), and a solid cast of actors. But it also had its issues. Many people felt it was a blatant rip-off of Lord of the Rings, and in a way, that is understandable. But Lord of the Rings is so fundamental and simplistic that it's pretty easy to draw parallels between it and just about any later work of fantasy. Willow still had a unique feel and flavor, and up till then, there still had not been a worthy adaptation of Lord of the Rings to the silver screen. It should also be noted that Willow was originally intended to be a film adaptation of The Hobbit, but George Lucas could not procure the rights to the Tolkien franchises.
Willow is named after its main character, a Nelwyn (dwarf) who lives in a peaceful village isolated from most of the world. Willow (played by the infamous Warwick Davis) is an aspiring magician, but finds himself enveloped by the simple life of a farmer. One day, Willow's children find a basket floating in the river. When the basket is plucked from the water, they are startled to find that inside of it is a baby - but not a baby from their world. It is a Daikini (a regular human, giants to the Nelwyns). Willow's wife, Kaiya, is immediately enamored with the child and takes it in against Willow's wishes. Not long after, the village is attacked by a pack of beasts. The beasts are fended off by the warriors of the village, but Willow is brought under fire from the village council for taking in the strange child, and is charged with the task of bringing it back to where it belongs.
During the course of his journey, Willow meets up with a criminal left in a cage out in the middle of the wilderness. This charming yet sinister fellow professes to be the greatest swordsman in history, and offers to help Willow if he frees him. Willow does, and gives the baby to the self-proclaimed warrior, Madmartigan, played to perfection by Val Kilmer. Madmartigan takes the baby with open arms and promises to guard it with his life. Not much later, Madmartigan loses the baby, doesn't really care, and the baby ends up in the hands of a bunch of brownies (really tiny people), who also capture Willow. The brownies are working for Cherlindrea, a goddess of sorts, who reveals to Willow the true nature of the baby: She is Elora Danan, destined to destroy the evil sorceress Bavmorda, who is seeking to conquer the entire world. Cherlindrea then charges Willow with a new task; protect Elora at all costs.
A pretty standard plot yields a timeless adventure flick with great characters, incredible action sequences, one of which has the most gruesome and creative death scene in any PG-rated movie ever, an unforgettable soundtrack which was sampled in trailers for other movies for many years, and some of the best visual effects ever seen at the time, effects that still stand up quite well to the digitally empowered movies of today.
Back then, just about every movie that was even mildly popular with the kids got a video game incarnation, usually on NES. And Willow was indeed pretty popular with children, and therefore, received several video game adaptions.
The first interactive incarnation of Willow was developed by Mindscape for several home computer platforms, and consists of five mini-games, each based off scenes from the movie and all of them atrocious. One is a first person dungeon navigation maze, but if you step into the wrong room, you lose and need to start from scratch. Awesome! There's another first person segment where you're sliding through an ice maze and need to decide when you turn down different tunnels. Make the wrong decisions and you lose. Double awesome! At least the animation here is kind of impressive for the computer at the time.
There's also an overhead segment where you play as Willow in a forest and need to avoid a horse of enemy soldiers coming at you. You can throw stones at them, at least, but the controls are so horrible that they suck any fun out of it. There's another action-based sidescrolling scene where you play as Madmartigan storming the castle. It's about as simplistic as it can get - similar to Yie Ar Kung Fu II, you jump over incoming projectiles, then fight off enemies one at a time. This also controls terribly, and is also not at all fun.
Finally, there's a level where you need to cast a magic spell on a rat. Choose the wrong symbols and - hey, guess what, you lose. At least you can pick and choose which stages to go through if you get sick of them. But otherwise, this is all pretty terrible.
A year after the film, Capcom released two Willow games. The first was on their CPS1 arcade board. This sidescroller is like a mishmash of every oldschool Capcom action game you've ever played. It has the look and feel of Ghosts 'n Goblins, the overall structure of Strider, the sliding and charging of a Mega Man game, and the shop system from Forgotten Worlds.
At the start of the game, you play as Willow. You travel through a lush, beautiful 2D environment, taking out Nockmaar soldiers. The game eventually throws some pretty hefty platforming segments at you, which Willow is quite adept at handling. The jump control is superb, and Willow can also grab onto ledges above him and thus climb up to higher levels. To take down the Nockmaar soldiers, Willow uses magic. He can rapidly fire projectile bursts at enemies, but he can also charge energy and unleash more powerful spells. However, these spells must first be purchased. With each spell you purchase, the meter that indicates how much energy you've charged grows longer and shows a bigger spectrum of colors. The colors indicate which spell you'll execute once you let go of the attack button. These spells range from more powerful projectiles to the ability to stop time and damage all enemies on screen.
After the first stage, you will then take control of Madmartigan, who fights in a more rudimentary fashion using his sword. His sword, which looks eerily reminiscent of Strider's Cypher blade, can also be charged like Willow's magic. But charging the sword merely increases the range and potency your slash will have once you release the attack button. The shopkeeper sells swords alongside Willow's magic spells, and each sword increases Madmartigan's offense and his charging potential. That said, the two characters are fairly different. Sadly, you don't get the choice to switch between them until the last two of the six stages.
The best aspect of Willow the arcade game is how well it recreates the scenes from the movie. Unlike the NES counterpart, this game is very faithful to its source material. Scenes like the wagon chase and the battle in Tir Asleen are projected perfectly into this game, and they're quite visually impressive considering this game's age. It's a shining example of the CPS1's power.
The music, though catchy, is extremely out of place. It's all standard '80s pop-ish stuff that sounds more like it belongs in a Mega Man game. The sound effects are pretty standard CPS1 fare, sounding about on par with a Sega Genesis, which means a lot of explosions that sound like violent flatulence. There are some good voice samples, though.
The last of the three Willow variants appeared on the NES. Like the arcade version, it was developed by Capcom, but is a completely different game in every way two games could possibly be different. It's the most interesting of the bunch because it raises quite a few questions, and is also ridiculously good for a licensed game.
It seems as if Willow at some point or another was an entirely different game that was transformed into Willow when the need to make a Willow game on NES arose. Aside from inserting a few characters from the movie here and there, the game has almost nothing to do with the movie. This isn't necessarily a bad thing though. Sure, it doesn't follow the source material, but what's more important, staying true to a source or being good? Capcom definitely went with the latter on this one. Willow's story starts off with a legend about two Goddess who bestowed upon the people the power of magic. One of the Goddesses, Bavmorda, becomes corrupt and tries to take over the world. The other, Fin Raziel, prophesizes that a hero will arise to defeat Bavmorda. That prophesized hero is Willow, who must now embark on a quest to do just that.
At first, the adventure is somewhat aimless, and you wander around helping various people with their problems, like most RPGs. Exploration is done in much the same way it is done in Zelda, from an overhead perspective, traveling from screen to screen and dealing with the enemies and obstacles on each screen. The major difference between Zelda and Willow is that Zelda has regular dungeons, whereas Willow's quest is primarily done on the world map with dungeons placed more sporadically and feeling a bit more unique, more like the later released Crystalis.
Willow fights with a sword and has various forms of magic at his disposal, such as fire, lightning, and acorns that turn enemies to stone. Willow's sword attacks, and even the animation of the attacks themselves, are almost identical to Link's from A Link to the Past. The funny thing about that is that Zelda: Link to the Past wouldn't be released for two more years. One interesting aspect of the swords is the concept of weight. Each sword weighs in differently, and thus affects the speed at which Willow can swing it. But as he gets used to using a sword, it'll feel lighter and he'll be able to wield it with more agility. The execution of the spells is similar to the spells in Ys II. There's even a spell that lets you transform into a monster in order to talk to other monsters and get information from them. Considering that Willow also has EXP levels, this game is something like a combination of Zelda and Ys.
Willow is fairly long, substantially longer than most games of its ilk available at the time, and while it doesn't go into the puzzling depth of Zelda, it doesn't get repetitive either. The combat is fun, the boss fights are challenging, and the overall structure of the game is highly enjoyable.
Willow also deserves praise for its presentation. The graphics are almost beautiful for an NES game, using vibrant colors and very clean character sprites that stand out from the backgrounds. The most impressive effect is when a group of enemies appears on the overworld. The entire background suddenly animates and the music changes to a horrific battle theme. The grass and trees in the background blow violently in the wind and other atmospheric effects can be seen in different areas of the game.
The music is particularly good as well. The main overworld music is just as thematic and hummable as the main theme in Zelda, and the way it remixes when enemies appear is just brilliant for a game of that era. Even arbitrary tunes like the theme for the houses are very well composed and memorable.
Willow combines a great quest with spectacular visuals and a very competent soundtrack to create one of the best licensed games on the NES, and a game that I'd say is far superior to most of its competition (i.e. Crystalis, Zelda). As a kid, I didn't quite understand the levels of quality this game demonstrated, but I've come to appreciate it over the years through replays where many other games I used to love back then have become nigh unplayable. I learned my lesson at a young age with games like Back to the Future that just because a game was based off a movie I liked didn't mean it would be good, but fortunately, Willow completely reverses that ideology and provides a long-lasting and highly enjoyable adventure worthy of being held alongside the best NES games out there.