King's Knight
  • Genre:
    • Shoot 'Em Up
  • Developers:
    • Bits Laboratory (NES)
    • Cancel (MSX)
  • Publisher:
    • Square
  • Released:
    NES
    • JP 09/18/1986
    • US September 1989
    MSX
    • JP 1986
Score: 40%

This review was published on 09/28/2016.

King's Knight is a shoot 'em up video game published by Square for the Nintendo Entertainment System and MSX. The NES version was originally released in Japan on September 18, 1986, and North America in September 1989. This game was Square's first release in North America under their Redmond subsidiary named Squaresoft, and their first release as an independent corporate entity. The MSX version was released later on in 1986 and was only available in Japan. Bits Laboratory developed the NES version and Cancel developed the MSX port. Another version of the game, titled King's Knight Special, was developed and published by Square for the NEC PC-8801 and Sharp X1 in February 1987 and June 1987 in Japan. Square created the now highly prolific franchise of role-playing games known as Final Fantasy in 1987, but King's Knight predates that. The company struggled to find itself in the video game market before their runaway success with Final Fantasy, and so they made a couple of stinkers before realizing that RPGs were their true calling. This is one of them.

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In the fantasy Kingdom of Izander, the fair Princess Claire of Olthea has been kidnapped by a most foul and insidious dragon known as Tolfida. Four brave warriors were summoned to save the princess; a strong knight named Ray Jack, a wise wizard called Kaliva, a friendly monster known as Barusa, and a kid thief that goes by the name of Toby. The four heroes must first undergo intense training before venturing forth into the highly dangerous Gargatua Castle to slay the dragon and save the princess. If you played the first Final Fantasy on NES, then the whole "four warriors" thing should be familiar. It's possible that King's Knight influenced Square's future works, or at the very least, was a sign of the company's desire to create something within the RPG genre. Also, fun fact; Nobuo Uematsu did the music for this game, and this was the third video game soundtrack that he worked on.

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Despite the medieval fantasy setting, this is a vertically scrolling shooter. You control one of the four warriors with the d-pad and press the A button to shoot projectiles at enemies and obstacles. While the projectiles look different for each character, all of them will do the same thing: destroy stuff. In fact, all the characters more or less play identically, but they do start off with slightly different stats, and they get unique spells later on. Upon first booting up the game, a few problems will immediately become apparent. The first troubling thing is that the screen scrolls at a snail's pace, making the proposition of playing this game without falling asleep a tough one. Secondly, the sound of your shots completely overpowers the background music, so you won't be able to tell whether Uematsu actually did a good job. Thirdly, this game is ridiculously hard. Even though you have a life bar, you can die in mere seconds due to the lack of an invulnerability period after getting hit. The problems only get worse.

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The game is divided into five stages, the first four of which are exclusive to the four different characters. You start off with Ray on the first stage, then switch to Kaliva in stage two, become Barusa in stage three, and take on the role of Toby in stage four. On stage five, you'll control all four of the warriors at the same time... provided they actually make it there alive, that is. See, if you die while playing as one of the characters, the game will simply continue on to the next stage and character. You must beat at least one of the first four stages with a surviving character in order to make it to the fifth. If you die once with all four characters, then the game is over. Basically, you only get one shot per character. There are no extra lives or continues. This is another reason the game is so infuriatingly difficult.

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It doesn't help that the level design is terrible, as enemies and traps tend to appear out of nowhere. For example, the first stage has holes that randomly appear in the ground, and these will temporarily immobilize your character. Sometimes there are also walls that remain invisible until you get close to them. Simply touching environmental objects won't kill you, but they can squish you if you're trapped behind them and the screen scrolls too far. All stages also have stuff you can destroy, like stones, buildings, trees, and so on. These will occasionally reveal power-ups, but most of the time, enemies will pop out of destroyed objects, which is very annoying. You can jump onto raised areas in the scenery by walking into them for a short while, but this usually just leaves you open to enemy fire. Most stages also have segments where you'll be slogging through water, which further adds to the frustration by hindering your movement.

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Something that won't be obvious unless you read the manual or play the MSX version is that this game has some minor RPG elements to it. Scattered throughout the first four stages are power-ups that characters can collect to permanently increase their stats. These power-ups are represented by different icons and will do things like enhance a character's speed, jumping ability, attack, and defense. Characters go up in level as their stats increase, but each stat maxes out after a few upgrades, and the max total level is 20. In addition to stats, there are also four elements in each of the first four stages that can be gathered to allow each character to cast a unique spell at specific spots near the end of the game. The more stuff you get during the first four training stages, the easier the fifth and final stage will be to complete. This is an interesting idea, but it's poorly executed. With the screen constantly forcing you forward and power-ups being hidden in random objects, you won't have enough time to collect everything unless you look at a guide.

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Continue Mode can be accessed on the title screen by pressing the select button after you complete at least one of the first four stages. This lets you replay a character's stage for a chance to get more power-ups before you take on the final challenge. There's a catch, though: if you decide to replay a character's stage, he'll lose all the power-ups he got from it, forcing him to start from scratch. The idea is to get more total power-ups on subsequent attempts, but the character loses all his power-ups if he dies, so it's a gamble. Oddly enough, if you reset the console right before dying, you'll be able to go back into Continue Mode and retain the character's previous stats. This process makes beating the game slightly easier, but it's dumb. The one good thing is that if you die on the fifth stage, you can continue repeatedly from there with all your stats intact. That's surprisingly generous given how hard the game is.

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Stage five differs from the rest of the game. For this stage, you'll be controlling all surviving characters simultaneously. They move around and function as a single unit with one life bar, which means if one dies, they're all dead. This actually makes things harder, as you have to watch out for them getting stuck behind objects or taking extra damage due to the bigger hit box. There are also special arrow icons you can pick up to switch the leading character, which is needed because each character can destroy certain statue enemies faster, plus magic is used by whoever's in front. This is where the game commits its gravest sin: you absolutely need all four characters alive to beat stage five, and you need at least a few specific spells. If you don't fulfill these requirements, then stage five is literally unbeatable. There'll be sections in the final stage where you won't be able to advance unless you have the right spells, and at that point, your only choice is to willingly accept death. That's just inexcusable.

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A couple of differences exist between the MSX and NES versions of the game. The biggest difference between the two versions is that the MSX one has a giant sidebar to the right of the screen with information about the player's stats. This feature is pretty handy, and is a point in the MSX version's favor. The MSX version also has different sprites for certain enemies and bosses, in addition to some altered music and sound effects. Further, the MSX port is slightly easier. However, the MSX version is worse in just about every other category. The graphics look horrendous and the screen scrolling is very choppy. If you absolutely must play this game, then the NES version is your best bet, as it provides an overall more pleasant experience.

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While it's certainly a creative concept, King's Knight sucks donkey dongs. Forcing players to replay stages in order to find hidden items they need for the end of the game is just bad design, especially for a shoot 'em up. None of this information is communicated to the player within the game, either, so you either need the instruction manual or an external guide to figure it all out. The unbalanced difficulty, haphazard stage design, horrid game structure, and bad conveyance all make this a poor quality product. No wonder Square was going bankrupt at the time; they were making awful games like this.

Word Count: 1,603

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