New Retro Vault: Wandering Fighter
Not all those who wander are lost. Especially when you are a fighter in a wandering RPG/platformer mashup that harks back to the original Wonder Boy in Monsterland. Wandering Fighter by indie developer MIG is a pretty decent effort at recreating the spirit of what was possibly one of the first RPG/platform mashups (to the arcades no-less). It also brings along some of the limitations of the time, such as no ability to save your game, or backtrack, and limited continues. Despite this, for the handful of us who actually liked the combination of RPG and side-scrolling Wandering Fighter is perhaps only of the only decent indie side-scrolling RPGs around.
Wandering Fighter is a 2D side-scrolling RPG in which you visit a land under siege from endless waves of monsters (even the towns are flooded with them). Being more of an action-RPG than a platformer, you’ll need to hack and slash your way through the forests, towns, deserts and caves, all the while collecting the precious, precious coins that all monsters seem to carrying (they aren’t a big fan of savings accounts) and of course gain XP to level up. Combat is a pretty straightforward affair, limited to getting close enough and timing your sword swing to hit the assorted beasts and creatures before they touch you (as we all know, mere contact with 80’s monsters is all that’s needed to injure you). There is also some magic available to spice things up a bit, including fantasy staples like fireballs and icicles, as well as handy screen clearing cyclones and boulders, which can be bought from shops or sometimes found on the still warm corpose of a recently felled monster. Rather than a mana or MP supply though, magic is a consumable item which will be used up and gone forever, until you acquire more. As a result, you’ll probably end up relying on your sword for most of the game and conserving magic for boss fights (the ‘ROCK’ magic is surprisingly powerful against most bosses). Finally, there are several powerups which monsters occasionally drop, including a gauntlet that doubles your attack power and an angel wing that grants you the ability to hover indefinitely. The catch being that a single hit from any source will wipe away any powerups as well.
The main gimmick of both Wonderboy in Monster Land, and Wandering Fighter is no different here, is the ability to permanently upgrade your equipment throughout the game, including not only your sword and armour, but a shield to block projectiles and boots to improve walking and jumping speed. However, due to its arcade roots, Wandering Fighter is not an open world RPG, and as such you can’t backtrack to any previously visited areas at whim. Monsters don’t respawn, either. What this means is that you can’t grind for experience and save up for the best upgrades in the first town. Instead, money is scarce and when you do reach a town (or hidden shops) you’ll usually have barely enough to buy one or two basic upgrades, and then living with it until the next town. As you may imagine, this means that there is some strategy to choosing what to upgrade and when. Do you put up with a lack of shield for a bit longer so you can afford better boots now? Do you hold off on the bronze sword upgrade so you can jump straight to the steel sword later (which becomes more cost-effective than buying both upgrades in the long run)? Or perhaps buy nothing and save up for better upgrades the next time round? For some, such as myself in the 80s, figuring out the best equipment combinations and order was part of the appeal. Unfortunately this approach secretly relies on trial and error more than anything else, and is in effect part of how Wonderboy somewhat artifically extended its replayability and the number of coins worth of pocket money consumed. Buy upgrades, get as far as you can, realise you really needed a shield ealier, die, repeat. Translating this approach to modern times, the system doesn’t quite make as much sense and feels frustrating by modern standards. Although there is still a certain sense of fun trying to beat the challenge, a relatively slow pace of the game and a lack of save system at the very least makes repeating areas a bit more tedious than it needs to be.
Wandering Fighter may be more than some kind of alliteration of “Wonder” into “Wander”, since the game is a steadfast homage to the game, warts and all. Just like Wonderboy in Monsterland, you begin the game with the most meager equipment, walking at the crawl speed of a new born infant and jumping with about the same vigour as an elderly gran with athlete’s foot. It’s a bit painful until you can get the first boots upgrade in the first town. Of course, given the limited fundage, upgrading boots comes at the cost of other upgrades, meaning death comes more swifty (tip: after a few playthroughs, I generally find the first boot upgrade and first shield upgrade are relatively cheap and will take you quite far). I don’t doubt I’ll need to die and repeat a few more times to determine the ‘optimal’ formula.
The game, just like Wonderboy in Monsterland, has pubs which provide varying levels of healing and advice in exchange for varying expense levels of
booze totally non-alcoholic sandwiches. Many of these pubs will give hints on upgrade order – but it’s all a bit unreliable. A pub told me to be sure to get the knight shield before the castle level comes up. So I immediately bought the Knight Shield, only for the next pub to tell me “don’t bother with Knight Shield, save up for Lord Shield”. Well, great, thanks a lot. The good thing, at least, is once you’ve learned all the secrets you don’t need to bother paying for them in subsequent playthroughs, meaning more money for upgrades. In addition to the standard pub hints, some of the more expensive pub hints will tip you off to a few secrets buried in the world. There are secret doors hidden around the place which will grant you special items, which will be needed in later levels to access further secrets. Like figuring out your upgrade strategy, part of the hook is the process of piecing together the secrets and where to use them. over the course of various deaths.
While paying due respect to its grandfather, the game sticks a bit too steadfastly to some old school cues to its detriment. Like a true arcade game, there is no save system and limited continues. There are no checkpoints and dying will send you back to the beginning of the stage. There is no ability to backtrack and monsters don’t respawn. These don’t make the game unbeatable by any means but your preference for old school trappings versus modern conveniences will clearly affect how much enjoyment you can get out of Wandering Fighter. It would have been acceptable to give the player a bit more starting speed and probably some kind of save point for each new main area reached. The gameplay itself is reasonably challenging – in that you will need to take some care to time your attacks and avoid spikepits and the like, but it’s nothing that demands calculated precision and reflexes, like say Volgarr the Viking does. On the other hand, while Volgarr had tight fast responsive controls and moveset to compensate for its challenge, the Wandering Fighter is a lot less responsive. Aside from the need to upgrade boots, the hit detection and collision is sometimes a little rough, resulting in your character falling off edges instead of jumping or most annoyingly, failing to properly register the sword if you push attack just before landing from a jump (the swooshing sound effect plays but the sword doesn’t actually swing).
Wandering Figther is a typical case of New Retro, really. It looks to create a new gaming experience wrapped in the formula of a pretty specific game from yore. It enables you to relive a game from your past, but provide something new at the same time. Unfortunately, like a politician who doesn’t believe in climate change, it brings along a few outdated preconceptions with it. The lack of save, forced replays and sluggish controls will no doubt put some off. However, if you liked Wonderboy in Monsterland (and perhaps Cadash), then you’ll get something out of Wandering Figther.
Download: Developer’s Homepage