Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Werewolf: The Last Warrior (NES)

When I was a young kid, I would pretend to be the wolfman. A lot, in fact. I don't know exactly why I was so attracted to pretending to be a werewolf but I think it had to do with the movies "Monster Squad" and "American Werewolf in London." Sure, Dracula had all of the ladies and Frankenstein's monster had human feelings buried somewhere beneath that grey, reassembled frame; but the werewolf was a ruthless killing machine. One day playing werewolf on the playground, I bit a kid on the leg. That sort of ended the whole fascination with play-acting in one fell swoop.

Embarrassing childhood stories aside - I knew I had to find an outlet for my ridiculous werewolf fascination. Luckily, I was the proud owner of an NES and I stumbled across the game "Werewolf: The Last Warrior" at the local Toys 'R Us. Released in 1990 by Data East, this game is just what I needed to let out the inner werewolf in me; even if only for a few hours. Is this game perfect? No. However, it's just the right kind of weird to satisfy me and I have a hunch you guys & gals will dig it too.

Most of the plot is told through cutscenes and mildly broken English, but the story is relatively easy to follow. The game follows a man known as "werewolf" as he goes up against several bio-mutants invented by the evil Dr. Faryan. The instruction manual calls you "war wolf," the game calls you "werewolf," I'm not sure any of that matters - just remember, you're a werewolf and your job is to slice and maim everything that gets in your path. You are granted the power to become a werewolf by the great spirit Kinju - a scraggly looking fellow who acts as your guide through Werewolf: The Last Warrior. In the process, you've got slime monsters, a metal super-villain, a fire monster and more to contend with.
The scraggly old spirit-guide Kinju

The gameplay here is a mixed bag. Throughout most of the game, your character will be in werewolf form and that is a truly wonderful thing. You can do backflips by pressing A+B simultaneously, you can hang from pipes, double-jump, climb walls, you have an effective melee attack, and finally - don't ask me how - you can even shoot a gun on the odd occasion that you pick one up. If you collect 5 of the small dusty grey orbs that are scattered throughout the stages while in werewolf form, you will turn into a super-werewolf for a brief time. The super-werewolf has a stronger attack, higher jump, and generally seems to move slightly faster.

If playing as the super-werewolf is the pinnacle of excellence in this game; then playing in human form is the absolute lowest of the low. The human is slower, has no real jump to speak of, his attack is pitiful and his only real means of defense is a powerful scream he lets out when collecting those little anger orbs. Playing as the human is an exercise in futility because there is a constant barrage of enemies, hazards, and other such nonsense that the guy just can't hack it against. To top it off, the guy has far fewer hit points - so all of these dangers popping up will kill you dead real quick. There's a steadfast rule that every player of Werewolf: The Last Warrior should know - red W's are your friend, blue W's are not. The red W will turn your ineffective human being into the awesomeness incarnate known as the werewolf. On the flipside, the blue W will transform you back into that defenseless sack of skin. Stay hairy, my friends. It's the only way you're gonna get ANYWHERE in this game.

That's not to say that playing as the werewolf is a piece of cake. There are a few things that can be more than mildly frustrating about our furry avenger, though I would hardly call them gamekillers.

For starters, it's surprisingly easy to get stuck on a wall when your intention was to jump over it (ala Ninja Gaiden.) This isn't always such a pickle, unless there are bats coming your way and you need to move quickly or in the high rise stage where you need to be super accurate with how you jump from beam to beam. Stages like that one in particular can be beyond frustrating because of that Ninja Gaiden-esque control scheme and all of the hazards coming at you in the level (including lightning strikes that kill you instantly!)
Backflippin' ninja-awesome super-mega-wolf!

Another frustrating aspect of the controls is probably more due to human error - that darn backflip. It takes a very precise hand to handle that backflip accurately and in some levels it's crucial that you repetitively jump from section to section backwards, lest you be zapped by electrical current or stuck by spikes or stalagmites. Also, knowing when and when not to use it is key. If there are pits anywhere near where you think you're going to land - don't use it. Remember that the werewolf takes 3 huge leaps backward and if it lands you into a pool of water or a pit, you're toast. Jumping up and catching ahold of those pipes can also be an exercise in frustration because you'll find yourself whacking aimlessly through the air or spin-jumping when you mean to grab ahold. Again, these problems have more to do with having a deft hand and precise timing rather than programming error.

The music and sound effects are awesome for an early NES game. The soundtrack is full of wailing midi guitars, ominous piano stings, and some catchy, funky boss-battle themes. They may get tedious in levels that you're bound to die in 3 or 4 times, but as far as relatively early NES soundtracks go - Werewolf: the Last Warrior is up there with some of the better Capcom games.

The cutscenes and graphics are also top notch for the time. The level of detail in the cutscenes is impressive - Kinju looks like a dirty and worn man, the monsters look sinister and truly disgusting, and while the transformation sequence is kind of funny (the werewolf face looks a little more like a badger or a fox,) the amount of detail in these scenes is impressive for an 8-bit cart. Character sprites are detailed and have nice shading techniques and the stages have a realistic depth to them. The graphics are comparable to the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game.

If you're looking for a challenging game - this is it. I would rank the difficulty level as medium to hard. There are just so many pitfalls that have to be maneuvered past and some of the later bosses are tough to compete against. Honestly, I've had this game for about 20 years and I have still never beaten the darn thing. Getting past the fire monster takes more fortitude, cunning, and patience than I apparently have. Each boss has a strategy to beat and I'm sure if you carve enough time out - you can get past this blazing fast demon - I just haven't got it in me.
Duck & Punch! Duck & Punch! Where is that darn red W?!

So is Werewolf: The Last Warrior a flawless NES title? No. There are a handful of frustrating moments sprinkled throughout and the difficulty level fluctuates wildly from stage to stage. The English translation can be spotty at times, but the effort put into making a cohesive plot and the super detailed cutscenes are worthy of praise. I would recommend Werewolf to fans of Ninja Gaiden and the first TMNT game - all of which have a frustrating difficulty spike but also can be rewarding as well. This game is available right now at Lukie Games for a super reasonable price and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good action-platformer with a monster hero. Halloween is right around the corner so you guys should snag this game up in time for that spooky holiday!