Whenever people debate which is the worst Amiga game of all time without fail notorious movie licence titles top the roster of shameful contenders. Games like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dick Tracy, Akira, Cliffhanger and Surf Ninjas. It’s strange then that they tend to gloss over Willow, based on the 1988 ‘high fantasy’ action-adventure film starring everyone’s favourite Nelwyn, Leprechaun and Ewok, Warwick Davies.
He took his kids to the Derwent Pencil Museum in the Lake District once, and really enjoyed it. It takes all sorts I suppose. No disrespect intended towards pencils, some of my best frie…
Anyway, for the record it’s pronounced ‘Warrick’, it’s not two separate words as in War – pause – Wick. Stop it, stop it, stop it.
Anyway, the movie is a George Lucas production directed by Ron Howard aimed primarily at a younger audience, clearly taking inspiration from Lord of the Rings. It’s actually a mishmash of lots of popular franchises, not least of which Star Wars unsurprisingly. Direct parallels can easily be drawn between the themes, locations, and traits of the main protagonists, and even the credits share some of the same cast. Warwick Davies obviously, though Willow also features cameos from R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and one of Jabba the Hutt’s henchmen (Ron Tarr). I expect you’ll have to try very hard to ignore all the swiping transitions inextricably linked with Star Wars too.
Willow was a marginal success at the box office, ticket sales stymied by strong competition from Crocodile Dundee II, Big and Rambo III. The upshot was a $57.3 million return from a stake of $35 million. Nevertheless, subsequent VHS and DVD sales seem to have performed much better. ‘Cult’ film is now a term bandied about in the same breath, whatever that’s worth. Hardly scientific is it.
Warwick, playing the hero of the epic saga, Willow Ufgood, is a farmer living a simple life, tending his crops and supporting his wife, Kaiya, and kids, Mims and Ranon.
Although as an amateur conjurer with aspirations of becoming a revered, genuine sorcerer his horizons were soon to be widened beyond apprehension. If ever Luke Skywalker needed an understudy I’m sure Willow could have stepped into the breach.
In a scene of Moses-esque biblical proportions, Mims and Ranon discover a Daikini (human) baby floating down the river. The most facially expressive baby on the planet… where was the Oscar?
This turns out to be Elora Danan, the prophecised future empress of Tir Asleen, and the one person capable of challenging the totalitarian reign of evil black sorceress, queen and ruler of Nockmaar, Bavmorda.
Bavmorda, aware of the baby’s prodigious potential, assigns her army’s commander, General Kael, and daughter, Sorsha, to track down the baby. Kael was named after film critic, Pauline Kael, you might be interested to know. No? Please yourself. We’ll get to the funnier wink (two-fingered salute?) to the critics later. “Just because I look like Skeletor, there’s no need to typecast me as a villain! I played Romeo at the London Coliseum I’ll have you know!” he was overheard ranting… by a complete fantasist.
Despite Willow’s initial qualms, the whole family quickly bond with the child. So naturally, when sorcerer High Aldwin informs the village that Elora needs to be returned to the Daikini for her safekeeping, Willow is nominated to lead the expedition. Going it alone would be suicide, hence he’s accompanied by his closest friend, Meegosh, Burglekutt (the leader of the Nelwyn village council), and Vohnkar, a Nelwyn warrior. Burglekutt is an interesting character; an oversized cowardly dwarf bully. There’s some oxy-moron for you!
Burgelcutt: (Vohnkar has volunteered to accompany Willow on his quest) No – not Vohnkar! He’s the best warrior in the village, we need him here. Vohnkar – step back!
High Aldwin: All this expedition needs is a leader. And according to the bones, that leader is… you, Burgelkutt.
Following the High Aldwin’s advice, the party set off for the Daikini crossroads in search of a human babysitter. There they stumble across an ‘immured mercenary’ known as Madmartigan (played by Val Kilmer). As punishment for theft of some kind he’s been left to starve, dangling in a giant birdcage, alongside the remains of other captives who I imagine have been there longer.
Willow and co. debate the pros and cons of trusting the dangerously dehydrated convict who will say anything to survive. Eventually, after sleeping on it, they free Madmartigan on the proviso that he takes charge of Elora. He immediately takes up the offer, dancing on the spot to celebrate his 11th-hour emancipation. Regrettably, the masterplan goes south in record time, largely owing to his incompetence and lackadaisical attitude towards child-rearing. On his watch, Elora is stolen by a tribe of tiny French household spirits known as ‘Brownies’. Go on, fill in the jokes, I’ll wait. All very Jar-Jar Binksy, in the sense that you’d happily wring their necks rather than tolerate their infernal, inane yammering. I appreciated the allusions to Lilliputians and Gulliver’s Travels though.
Fairy queen, Cherlindrea, saves the day by intervening, fully aware of the significance of Elora’s destiny. To aid Willow in ensuring that he fulfils it, Cherlindrea lends him her magic wand, inadvertently introducing some light comic relief. Given that Willow is an amateur magician and unfamiliar with her spell-casting gizmo, many of his efforts go awry. He was perfectly capable of screwing up conjuring tricks unarmed. Now he’s doubly inept.
Cherlindrea: Elora Danan must survive. She must fulfil her destiny and bring about the downfall of Queen Bavmorda. Her powers are growing like an evil plague. Unless she is stopped, Bavmorda will control the lives of your village, your children, everyone. All creatures of good heart need your help, Willow. The choice is yours.
Our uninitiated Good Samaritan’s first task is to locate the white sorceress, Fin Raziel. She’ll sort out that nasty witch despot! Or at least she would if she hadn’t been rather inconveniently transformed into a possum by Bavmorda. Willow tracks her down on a tiny secret island, accessing it via a rowing boat. After overcoming his disbelief (it’s not every day he talks to a human trapped in a possum’s body!), Willow attempts to reverse the curse… turning Cherlindrea into a rook instead. In addition to various other forna along the way.
Typical cat and mouse, questy chase stuff ensues and the posse eventually arrive at the castle of Tir Asleen. To add a dash more menace to the climactic finale the place is crawling with trolls that look like refugees from The Wizard of Oz. Sorsha and Kael, still hot on their heels, show up and the mother of all raging battles kicks off. No, it’s proper dangerous, someone could really get hurt. To even up the odds, the good guys unite with an army led by Madmartigan’s chum, Airk, military commander of the destroyed kingdom of Galladoorn.
In the meantime, Willow accidentally turns one of the trolls into a humongous, hideously palpitating brain.
Plunged into the castle’s moat it mutates into an ‘eborsisk‘, a gargantuan, fire-breathing hydra of sorts (a truncated portmanteau of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, two leading movie critics at the time).
There’s a fine line between love and neck separation!
Building on the earlier fairy love dust scene that instigated their affection for one another, Madmartigan and Sorsha hook up. Realising the error of her ways she defects to the light side, joining the siege against her wicked mother. Of course! She’s too beautiful to be pure evil. That’s not how these things work.
Elora, now a sitting duck in Bavmorda’s gnarly clutches having been baby-knapped by Kael, awaits her sacrificial demise, while Team Willow mount a rescue attempt. Most of the rebels are turned into pigs except for Willow who was counselled by Raziel to execute a self-defence spell, making him immune to pork-based witchcraft.
Willow returns the favour by fudging his way through a goat to human transformation spell. Rejuvenated to her former glory (well… ish) Raziel is now in a position to go wand to wand with the abominable super-villain of Nockmaar; a spectacular necromantic duel commences between the supernatural trio.
Willow: You stupid hag! With my magic, I’ll send her into the… into a…
Bavmorda: (Bavmorda laughs) You’re no sorcerer!
Willow: Into a realm where evil cannot touch her!
Bavmorda: Impossible! There’s no such place!
Willow uses his disappearing pig trick (seen and failed earlier) to trick Bavmorda into thinking Elora has been whisked away to safety. In her blind fury she throws a wobbler, her baby-nuking ritual apparatus goes on the blink, and in the process, Bavmorda banishes her own soul to… somewhere else. Her dastardly scheme was never really elaborated.
*Whistles* All’s well that ends well. Willow is awarded a magic book in recognition of his trials and tribulations, whilst Madmartigan and Sorsha decide to get hitched, remaining in the castle to raise Elora as their own.
Well, it’s reassuring to know that ‘little people’ haven’t always been overlooked when it comes to playing ‘Munchkin’ roles. That’s not me being deliberately derogatory, it was Willow’s original title. Oops! If you want to be politically correct the right term to use is dwarf or little person, or even Gertrude… assuming you’re referring to a dwarf called Gertrude. It doesn’t work so well otherwise.
That aside, why on earth would anyone think it makes sense to get average-sized people to play little ones? Not looking at anyone in particular of course, ringmaster Mr Peter Jackson with your phoney hobbitses.
At least George Lucas had his head screwed on the right way when he populated Endor with Ewoks, and Nockmaar with Nelwyn dwarves. On that note, he “thought it would be great to use a little person in a lead role. A lot of my movies are about a little guy against the system, and this was just a more literal interpretation of that idea.”
A very appreciative little guy. For illustration purposes.
It’s a shame the same level of care and attention wasn’t channelled into Willow’s gaming accompaniment developed by ‘Brian A. Rice Inc.’ and published by California-based Mindscape to coincide with the movie. According to the main man and programmer himself – the eponymous Brian A. Rice – that was the problem; the team were given just seven measly weeks to get the job done!
“OK… this made me laugh… we were given 7 weeks to make this game… and we followed the storyboard they gave us… and we had a fixed in stone deadline of the day the movie came out… the only part I really enjoyed doing was the battle game… the biggest memory I have from making this game is that, in the sword fight, I thought you might be able to push the other guy into the chasm… couldn’t do it myself… but one of the testers did it in 5 minutes!”
– Posted in response to pcgheroes’s excellent video review of the DOS game (also available for the Amiga obviously, plus C64 and Atari ST). Not excellent as in positive, just very comprehensive and on the money.
In context, it makes sense that the pixelised interpretation of the classic movie (one of my childhood favourites) amounts to little more than six awful mini-games that largely hinge on blind luck, linked by a scroll relaying the story.
It’s generally considered a bad idea to throw that volume of text at players all at once in an action game, because they’d be reading the book instead if that’s their predilection. Here it’s half the package, helping to at least give the illusion of depth, and make the separate challenges seem less disjointed. Although they kind of are in that you can attempt the first five in any order as a practice run.
“Staring at the wall might be more fun – and it doesn’t take half as long as Willow does to load.”
Zzap! (7%, April 1989)
When you’re ready to play for real you’d click on the word ‘Willow’ to start in quest mode. This forces you to play the levels in chronological order and – assuming you can beat the fifth stage – finally confront queen Bavmorda in a not exactly apocalyptic spell construction kit episode. We have eight lives with which to achieve this, one for each candle lit as part of Bavmorda’s ‘ritual of obliteration’.
In the lead up the idea is to read the story, clicking on the text links transporting you to the relevant mini-game emulating a key scene from the movie. And they do, I’ll give them that. It’s also a welcome bonus that we get to play as various different characters, even one who only features for about a minute at the very beginning of the movie.
Ethna that is, the midwife to the mother who gives birth to Elora in Nockmaar Castle. As Bavmorda approaches, the unnamed mother pleads with Ethna to smuggle the birthmarked ‘chosen one’ out of the castle to safety. Both are slain, the mother by Bavmorda and Ethna by her hell-hound attack dogs. But not before she places the child on a raft cobbled together with grass (that would float?) and pushes it out into the river.
You may remember from Bible studies that in the Book of Exodus the Pharaoh promised to slaughter all newborn Hebrew boys in order to prevent the minority Israelite population from swelling, thereby threatening the Egyptians’ ruling authority. That’s why his mother, Jochebed, stowed away baby Moses in an ‘ark’ and hid it in some bulrushes close to the bank of the Nile River.
Slightly less ecclesiastical, a similar story crops up in an episode of ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’ broadcast in 1995, entitled ‘Cradle of Hope’. In all cases, the ensconced baby grew up to fulfil the prophecy of becoming an exalted leader, a force for good.
Funny trivia interjection moment (well, another one): the death mutts that savage Ethna are actually rottweilers wearing prosthetics. That’s why they move more realistically than an animatronic canine would. Although a 13lb animatronics baby was employed for the action scenes in which it would be too dangerous for a real baby to take part.
Elora drifts downstream towards a Nelwyn (dwarf) village until the raft snags upon an embankment. There it’s discovered by Willow’s sproglets and (initially with reluctance) adopted by the family.
In-game the castle escape is replicated in isolation via a dungeon-crawling interlude. As with all the mini-games it can be controlled with the mouse, joystick or keyboard. We’re limited to the exploration element of this genre, moving in four directions to locate the exit whilst evading capture by Kael and other stooges tasked with effecting the queen’s bidding.
There are no weapons available, no stats, nuffink at all. Just a lone midwife traipsing the corridors and dead ends of a dank, disturbing fortress. It’s a real trial and error memory test that will try your patience far more than your gaming chops. If you jot down a list of the ‘furniture’ etc. found outside the rooms in which you come a cropper you’ll know to avoid these next time. Far easier today using save states than it would have been in 1988!
Replaying after capture is easier said than done; it takes an eternity to load each level, even when you’d expect them to remain in memory. This applies to all levels and because some are so unfair and rapid-fire you’ll spend more time data-crunching than actually playing.
Beefing up your emulator configuration doesn’t help that much. As long as you run the game with Kickstart 1.3 I found that you’re free to ramp up all types of memory as well as the processor specs. Your best bet is to wait for the instructions screen for each level to appear and save at that point since it’s plane sailing from then on. When you fail, reload the save state to try again rather than waiting for the game to cycle back to the beginning of its own accord.
High Aldwin: Magic is the bloodstream of the universe. Forget all you know, or think you know. All that you require is your intuition.
As instructed by the High Aldwin wizard (played by Gwildor from Masters of the Universe), Willow’s goal is to get to the Daikini crossroads to hand baby Elora over to the first human he encounters assuming that they’ll be willing to take care of her because they’re of the same species. Daikinis are just humans you see. This is what you get with ‘high fantasy’ – everything and everyone has been assigned with a nonsense name and lives in a different universe. Like Middle-earth or Midgard. ‘Low fantasy’ is more closely aligned with reality. Our reality anyway. 😉
High Aldwin: (throws an apple into the air which turns into a bird) Go in the direction the bird is flying!
Burgelcutt: He’s going back to the village!
High Aldwin: Ignore the bird. Follow the river.
Madmartigan fits the nanny bill, though rather inconveniently he’s found imprisoned, swinging in a human-sized crow’s cage. As previously discussed we learn he’s a thief, highly adroit warrior, and smart-bottom, sparking a great debate as to whether or not to break him free, entrusting Madmartigan with the care of baby Elora.
Willow Ufgood: Don’t call me a peck!
Madmartigan: Oh, I’m sorry! Peck! Peck! Peck, peck, peck, peck, peck, peck, peck!
Peck is the racist word for Nelwyn in case you’re wondering. It’s used extensively to insult the dwarves.
With limited options, they take their chances with the smooth-talking Lothario (“the greatest swordsman to ever live” by his own admission), as we do in the next mini-game. This one is ridiculous, barely a game at all. We select between two cages purely at random, giving us a 50/50 chance of success. One containing a skeleton and the other our ‘saviour’. Point at the left or right cage, press fire and we’re done. Win or lose, it’s completely beyond our control.
Armed with Gwildor’s three magic acorns and now human backup, Willow sets off through the woods. In the movie, this scene comprises a horse-drawn cart chase with Madgarten in the driving seat, pursued by knights on horseback. Willow (clutching a swaddled Elora) and the Brownies do their utmost to stay onboard as the cart jolts violently from side to side. When it eventually grinds to a halt Madmartigan gets a ticking off for putting Elora’s life in jeopardy and we’re out of the woods, literally.
Strange then that this section is played on foot, and as Willow on his lonesome. It’s an overhead view action game that sees Willow hot-footing it from one end of the woods to the other, hopefully unscathed. Criss-crossing the tricky, winding pathways we must fend off attack from the queen’s killer pooches and voracious guards, swerving swamps and pits en route.
This stage seems impossibly tough at first, until you realise the journey must be treated like a racecourse – stay in the centre of the narrow tracks and keep moving at all times to avoid becoming entangled in the protruding vegetation, or bogged down in the grassy areas. Only cross the wooded verges if your route is completely blocked and there’s time to break away to a clear area.
Willow: See this acorn? I’ll throw it at you and turn you to stone!
Madmartigan: Ooh, I’m really scared. No! Don’t! There’s a-a peck here with an acorn pointed at me!
Many of Val Kilmer’s lines were adlibbed. I suspect this was one of them.
A direct hit with a magic acorn will turn the guards/dogs to stone… temporarily in the DOS version. Very temporarily. Then they’re on our tail once more. In the Amiga edition, they freeze solid and then vanish for keeps.
Hitting adversaries is effortless since they seem to be auto-targeted, even when not precisely aligned. Our paltry three acorn allocation also stretches further than you’d imagine given that they can dispatch multiple enemies simultaneously providing they’re all in the same line of fire.
What appears to be a relentless onslaught initially, can easily be outflanked by constant shimmying. Collision detection seems fair so it’s feasible to scrape by within an inch of a foe, brushing against them and still survive.
Scarce supplies of extra acorns can be found off the beaten path, and are best ignored; they’re just a fruitless distraction from the task at hand. It’s entirely possible to beat the level without shooting a single projectile, focusing instead on dodging all hazards. If we can cross the river via a bridge or stepping stones without plunging into the water we’re home free.
Oddly the manual says we need to “traverse the treacherous woods” to reach the Daikini crossroads, except we do that first in the movie. Madmartigan wouldn’t be free to steer the horse and cart like an out of control Roman chariot otherwise.
Fin Raziel, the sorceress who has been turned into a common brushtail possum by Bavmorda, now needs to be transformed back into her human form if she’s to help us take on the queen.
Madmartigan: What are you going to look like if this works?
Fin Raziel: Don’t interrupt.
Fin Raziel: I’m a young beautiful woman.
Madmartigan: Concentrate, Willow!
As we’re just an amateur magician ‘hilarity’ ensues, both in the movie and game. In attempting to restore Raziel, Willow turns her first into a rook, then a goat, ostrich, peacock, tortoise and finally a tiger before she’s in a fit state to put up a fight. This scene denotes the first instance CGI morphing technology was deployed in a movie, developed specifically for Willow by Industrial Light and Magic. You might be familiar with ILM – George Lucas’ baby – due to their incredible contribution to the Star Wars franchise.
Mindscape’s interpretation isn’t quite so breathtaking, and only involves three morphs. More of a photo fit exercise similar to the one seen in RoboCop. We’re instructed to select from a range of 13 runic charms one by one to find the right combination of three to trigger one of the intermediate transformations. This must be performed three times in succession to win.
Again it’s a memory game, if you play it the hard way. One wrong move and we lose a life, forcing us to start again. Keep a note of which symbols aren’t relevant to the spell, avoid choosing them next time, and eventually you’ll hit upon the right recipe. This would be a nightmare without save states, unless…
Click on the area in the scroll’s text that describes this section and we’re taken to what appears to be a cheat sheet displaying the three symbols we need to select in order to succeed. If you can call it a cheat at all, it’s the only one that exists (or is known to exist) for Willow.
Taken hostage by General Kael and his entourage, Willow finds himself trapped in a snow-capped mountain camp. Spying their opportunity to escape, Madmartigan and Willow (clutching Elora) hop aboard an army issue shield and go sledging down an abruptly declining slope through an ice cave.
Madmartigan is catapulted into the air, while Willow emerges miraculously unharmed, skidding to a startling halt inside a village hut.
Just the ice cave section is mimeographed in-game. We hurtle down a narrow channel that splits in opposite directions at multiple junctures. At these points, we must decide to go left, right or continue straight on by pushing the joystick one way or the other. It’s pretty easy once you realise that you have to push and hold towards the chosen side just before turning. Don’t jab at it then immediately release or you’ll collide with the junction every time. If you don’t keep turning you’ll soon hit the wall of a dead end.
This one is surprisingly tense the first few times you play. Fast too… unless that’s because I was running it on an 8mb 060 fake Amiga!
Penultimately we square up to General Kael in Bavmorda’s castle playing as Madmartigan. By virtue of a side-scrolling platformer we must leap over slowly approaching spears, axes and bombs on route to our (second in command) nemesis.
Once in sight, the castle wall behind us crumbles revealing a deadly chasm for one of us to be shunted back into. Let the hacking and slashing commence! We have seven thrusting moves at our disposal to manipulate Kael into position (not like the ones in Saturday Night Fever, stabby moves). Once teetering on the edge of the precipice one final push will neutralise the threat. Button-mashing is the order of the day. I beat this one on my first go. Then not everyone is an unyielding, invincible gladiator like me…
In the movie, Kael is outwitted and outmanoeuvred by Madmartigan, dragged onto a stolen sword, jutting upwards at a 45-degree angle, then thrown into the castle’s moat to drown. A reasonable approximation of his plummeting downfall then.
With Bavmorda’s chief henchman out of the way we’re free to tackle the queen herself… via a spell-casting mini-game much like the earlier one we cheated through, only deploying nine runic charms rather than thirteen. It’s a race against the clock to save Elora from the altar before she’s subjected to Bavmorda’s voodoo ritual. Well, in theory we have to step on it, there’s no actual time limit in the game. I just said that to make it sound more suspenseful. I couldn’t get this far in quest mode because the game crashed in a jumbled disarray of graphical corruption right before announcing the start of the ice cave level. After trudging through the dungeon, crossroads and spell-casting sections all over again. Can you think of an appropriate way to use the words ‘insult’ and ‘injury’ in a common phrase?
It’s never explained why Bavmorda can’t simply cut to the chase, engaging in a spot of infanticide. I expect because that would be too quick, whereas a black magic ceremony that takes half an hour to execute gives the good guys chance to burst in and save the day, showcasing some hocus-pocus and special effects of their own.
“Compared to the old Lucasfilm games on the 64 this does not quite come up to standard. The graphics are well put together but poorly executed, and the tune is a Bagpuss theme with an ’88 remix, phew.
There will be quite a few people who will be turned on by the prospect of an arcade adventure like this, but I for one am not. But then if it is a puzzling, map-able, lasting challenge you are looking for, this could just be the one for you.”
CU Amiga (73%, June 1989)
“The Lucasfilm logo is usually one to watch out for, but in this case it’s one to beware. Willow provides a selection of six unimaginative and lacklustre games: one is merely a single selection screen, one a simple puzzle, three are maze-based, and the last a dire cross between Quazimodo and Barbarian. Each may be played independently, and in truth this is to accommodate mapping, without which the game would be impossible. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.”
ACE (score: 238/1000, April 1989)
“The programmers have tried to recreate the key scenes from the film with little success. There is such a dependence on luck in every part of the game (even the swordfight!) that it just isn’t enjoyable to play. The practice option seems like a good idea, but because all the mazes and spells don’t change until you reset the whole game, you can find the routes through the dungeons and the ice caverns (after many fruitless and tedious attempts) and then ramp through them in quest mode and make the whole thing seem pointless.”
C&VG (33%, March 1989)
“Despite its different stages, Willow in both 16-bit versions is nothing to rave about. Each stage is difficult (frequently very difficult) and what’s worse, boring, so there’s little incentive to persevere. The ST sprites are badly coloured, drawn and animated, backgrounds are plain, and the digitised pictures have random red and blue pixels spread over them.
Control response is slow and sound is limited to basic beeps. Things are worse still for 520 owners because the game takes a long, long time to load in parts and if – as is often the case – you die quickly, it’s very frustrating having to load everything back again.
The Amiga game is depressingly similar to the ST’s. The loading time is no faster and, other than the clearer digitised pictures, graphics are equally poor, and the music’s a grating single-channel tune.
Loading troubles or not, Willow simply isn’t worth the bother.”
The Games Machine (17% Amiga, 21% Atari ST, May 1989)
Is it really any wonder she looks so troubled?
If you’re a real masochist you can now click on the Mindscape logo to reset all the decision trees in the game and try again from scratch with zero knowledge of the outcome of your choices.
It’s easy to see why it’s all this pathetic, yet not why Lucasfilm/Mindscape left it so late to commission a major project like creating a game from the ground up only seven weeks before the movie was due to launch. Assessing its progress as the deadline loomed anyone with half a brain would delay its release until there was something ready you could honestly say was worthy of the hefty £25-£30 price tag.
Precisely what Capcom did in 1989 (13 months on from the movie’s debut), releasing a Zelda-inspired NES exclusive RPG…
…and a gorgeous arcade platformer. Each is based on the movie, the RPG far more loosely.
Both were well received and are still fondly remembered today. Then the Japanese always did take a contrary path to us westerners.