Video games have been employing fantasy almost since their inception. I don’t just mean medieval magical fantasy, mind you, but the more general idea of living an alternate life. Yet despite its prevalence, it’s rare to find a game that relies entirely on fantasy. Normally, games find some other ancillary factor to fall back on, like an intricate narrative or gripping mechanics. It’s easy to understand why: the fantasy in question usually isn’t strong enough to stand on its own, necessitating these kinds of fail safes.
Willow proves to be the exception. This NES action game based off the same movie is the kind of game that relies almost entirely on its fantasy, and what’s more, works all the better for it. It’s almost like an inversion of what I’d previously described. In a game where each part fails to stand on its own, Willow’s core fantasy remains so solid that they’ve no choice but to depend on it.
In Willow’s case, that fantasy bears a striking resemblance to The Legend of Zelda. This only makes sense considering when it came out and the property it’s based on. For one, both share a similar story, although Willow goes into a little more detail. The evil witch Bavmorda has sealed away the spirits of sky and earth, captured the princess, and now aims to take over the world. It’s up to the eponymous hero to journey the land and restore everything Bavmorda has thrown out of alignment. That predictably entails fighting monsters with sword and magic in hand, plundering the world’s various caves and dungeons for their treasures in the process. On their own, neither of these elements make for a compelling game. The story only ever establishes its thin premise, and the dungeons lack any design beyond a random hodgepodge of rooms and hallways.
Yet that doesn’t matter, because neither the story nor the dungeons serve as the game’s basis. Willow knows full what people seek from a game like this. Players want to be a hero of legend who journeys across the magical countryside, encountering all sorts of fantastic sights and landmarks on his quest to save the world. While this isn’t exactly an alien concept for games (especially at the time), Willow displays a level of enthusiasm for it that no other game does. The game absolutely and enthusiastically embraces the fantasy, letting it permeate every fiber of its being. It appears everywhere in the game, from the wind blowing across the fields to the delicate interplay of swords Willow and his foe. So it’s hard not to feel enthralled with what Willow has to offer.
And in that light, the game’s “faults” fail to intrude upon the experience, as they serve the game well enough as they are. The narrative is obvious enough: it doesn’t need anything more than the idea of a heroic quest. The world, however, remains a bit more complicated. I can’t deny how flat and dull the game’s dungeons are, yet they begin to make more sense if understood through the lens of fantasy. Narrow hallways don’t work well as virtual playgrounds, but they are reminiscent of the jousting sword fights you’d expect in a medieval fantasy.
The physicality in the game’s sword mechanics only highlight that point. Using a sword in Willow isn’t a simple “push button, extend sword” process. Willow forcefully swings his sword or thrusts his blade at whatever monster stands before him. Trading blows with the rogue knights of Willow is an intricate as you wait for your opportunity to strike. Willow’s sword movements contain a lot of power, and they contribute a lot to the core fantasy. It only makes sense that the world would steer you into such a vital piece of the experience. What’s more, I have a hard time imagining the world being this conducive to its ideas otherwise. In fact, given the opportunity (IE when I was in a more open environment), I would more likely navigate around enemies and avoid combat altogether. Not because I didn’t enjoy the sword fights, but mostly because I prioritize advancing the game above all else. At least for me, the linear design forced me back into the fantasy.
However, the game’s presentation does far more to bring me into that fantasy than the linear design, or indeed, any other part of game has done so far. I know that sounds contradictory in light of how the game only relies on its fantasy, but the fact that Willow looks good isn’t as important as how it looks good. The art style lends the world a presence that it would otherwise lack. It’s something of a running theme I’ve noticed in the game, one that the presentation represents all too well. Layered foliage lines Willow’s fields, billowing as the eponymous protagonist trades blows with his enemies. In such a context, your actions feel heavily grounded; they carry importance. The triumphant music and the general storybook vibes the game projects only add to that ethos.
OK, the game has a lot to be proud of outside its heroic ideals, like the strong aesthetic and swordplay. However, all of them still refer to those heroic ideals as their foundation, so it’s reassuring to find that this foundation works so well. Willow knows what exactly goes into this kind of fantasy and illustrates it faithfully, from the activity in its world to the energy in its fight. Although each part could theoretically work on its own, they mean so much more as part of this whole.