In September of 1983, a company in Yokohama named Square was founded by Masafumi Miyamoto shortly after graduating from one of Japan’s most prestigious universities: Waseda. Originally, it was a computer game software division of Den-Yu-Sha, a power line construction company owned by Mr. Miyamoto’s father. During this time when the medium was still budding, many projects were conceived and developed by a single person. Mr. Miyamoto challenged this, believing graphic designers, programmers, and professional writers working together on a common project could produce something far greater than the sum of their parts.
Square’s first title, The Death Trap, was created by a part-time employee named Hironobu Sakaguchi and sold enough in 1984 to pave the way for a sequel the very next year. After a series of modest successes, Square decided to branch out into the West. Six years after the company’s founding, the official North American subsidiary, Squaresoft, was established in Redmond, Washington. The American gaming scene had been revitalized thanks to Nintendo’s NES console after a particularly brutal crash in 1983, so this was Square’s chance to capitalize on this new, rapidly growing market. The first title they chose to localize was their debut as an independent company: the 1986 game, King’s Knight.
Analyzing the Experience
The first title that springs to mind when describing the gameplay of King’s Knight would be Capcom’s classic arcade game, Gun.Smoke. It is an overhead scrolling shoot ’em up game that differentiates itself from its peers by having players control a character who travels on foot. Contemporary examples of the genre were typically set in space with players commandeering a vehicle of some kind. King’s Knight further stands out from the crowd by taking place in a medieval fantasy world.
Countless fantasy video games from the eighties featured the classic plot of a brave knight saving a princess from a dragon. King’s Knight follows this plot to the letter with its protagonist, Ray Jack, embarking on a quest to save Princess Claire of Olthea. Joining him are his three companions: Kaliva, Barusa, and Toby, a wizard, heroic monster, and thief respectively. Having more than one character in a shoot ‘em up is certainly unusual by itself, but this even extends to its level progression. Whether your character dies or he is able to complete the level, you move on to the next stage with a new one. If at least one character is alive, you move onto the final stage where you can attempt to rescue the princess.
Considering the genre relies on its protagonist being able to fire projectiles, setting a shooter in such a world is certainly an unorthodox design choice. Despite this, the core gameplay is, on the surface, straightforward and intuitive. Barring natural barriers, you can travel anywhere on the screen, shooting at enemies who can often fire back. It’s a game in which memorization of the level layout and good reflexes are required to succeed.
King’s Knight not only deviates from the standard with its aesthetics, but also with its gameplay. To start with, one thing most players will learn right away is that rather than getting killed with a single attack, their character has a life meter. It doesn’t obviate the need to dodge bullets, however; three or four hits are enough to bring down your character.
You are not limited to firing at enemies, as certain obstacles can be destroyed as well. In fact, your characters are evidently so powerful, they can cleave mountains in half. There’s practical reason for doing this; the scenery often houses a large array of useful items. Though King’s Knight isn’t exactly an RPG, there is a leveling system. Each character begins at level one, which increases whenever they discover a power-up. These enhancements can improve their attack power, defense, movement speed, and jumping ability. The highest level they can reach is twenty.
Moreover, there are four elements hidden within each level. Once each character has discovered all of them, a character will be able to use a special technique on the final level. Ray Jack can transform into a winged horse, Kaliva can cast a spell capable of defeating all enemies in the water, Barusa can transform into a dragon, and Toby can destroy a wall of impassible barriers.
Superficially, it would appear as though King’s Knight is a work that experiments with the genre, adding pseudo-RPG elements while giving the player multiple characters to use, each with their own unique set of abilities. Considering the creators of this game would go on to take the world by storm with a certain series of JRPGs, those unfamiliar with King’s Knight might be under the belief that they missed out on a forgotten classic. If this is the case, you don’t have to feel too badly about passing this game up because, despite its novel premise, King’s Knight is an absolute disaster.
One of the worst aspects of this game would be the visuals. Veteran gaming fans will be the first to inform newcomers that graphics are not the sole determining factor in a work’s quality. While this is certainly true, the problem with the presentation in this game is how difficult it is to distinguish projectiles from the background. This leads to many instances in which you’ll take damage without knowing why and have no idea if you’re hitting your mark. You’re almost forced to sit mere inches away from the television screen in order to reliably determine how well you’re performing.
Although it’s a nice change of pace to play a shoot ‘em up where the protagonist actually has a life bar, the game is so unrelenting, it almost doesn’t matter. This is primarily because there are no invincibility frames. If you get caught in a particularly nasty onslaught, the enemies can drain your health in a matter of seconds – even with a majority of the defense upgrades.
Another glaring flaw is that you can only shoot forward. This would be understandable if you were piloting a starship, but it makes less sense when you’re controlling a character who should theoretically be able to face other directions more easily. Capcom realized this, for in Gun.Smoke, you could shoot at angles. It came in handy whenever an enemy entered from the edge of the screen. This basic ability being absent in King’s Knight causes several problems. First of all, the enemies have no such restriction. I would be more understanding if Square was attempting to make a stealth title like Metal Gear where the enemies have a distinct advantage over you, and therefore engaging them in combat is ill-advised, but it doesn’t work in a game so heavily focused on action.
Furthermore, being unable to shoot diagonally makes obtaining the power-ups difficult. Finding power-ups by itself is a matter of trial and error by itself because in addition to the ones which enhance your characters’ combat power, you might uncover arrows or monsters. Up arrows restore health while down arrows drain it. This is detailed in the instruction booklet, but the choice of icons is terrible, as their functions wouldn’t be intuitive to a first-time player. If they were replaced with hearts and poison symbols, it would be immediately obvious what they do. The monsters will charge the player character upon being freed, meaning you often have to shoot again after uncovering one. On top of all of this, because you can only shoot forward, you’re out of luck if the front of the environmental obstacle has already passed. Shoot ‘em up games often require players to have a good memory, but recalling the exact locations of the hidden power-ups is wholly unreasonable.
Discussing the many shortcomings of King’s Knight isn’t complete without mentioning the swimming mechanic. Water covers a sizeable portion of most of the stages. It’s supremely annoying to navigate because the characters move as though they’re on a sheet of ice. This makes it difficult to avoid enemies and because characters jump whenever they touch land, it can be difficult to collect power-ups. What’s worse is that when your character is in the middle of a jump, projectiles can still hit them. It’s difficult to describe in words; it’s as though they occupy the space in front of them even though they should only be above their current position. There are also some monsters that reside in the water, and they can only be hit when they’re above the surface, which is incidentally when they launch an attack. You have to fire at them and quickly get out of the way of their projectiles – a task made nearly insurmountable when taking into account how awful the controls become while submerged.
Amazingly, as bad as the game has been up to this point, it only gets worse once you make it to the final level. The most immediate issue is that the game doesn’t have the courtesy to restore your life meter. All of the damage your characters took during the previous stages will carry over to the endgame. Many players who make it this far for the first time will probably assume they have a chance of winning without having found all the power-ups or keeping all the heroes alive. In the event they make it through the initial wave of enemies, they’ll stumble upon a series of impassible barriers, and they will be crushed by the encroaching negative space commonly associated with auto-scrolling levels.
In order to complete the final level, you need to use Toby’s and Barusa’s special techniques. If you don’t have their matching elements, you can’t reach the final boss. I’m left wondering why the game would even let you attempt the final level when you have no chance of winning. For that matter, I’m astounded a shoot ‘em up could be rendered unwinnable. This is the kind of design I would expect from classic adventure game developers. There’s also no indication whatsoever that you’re allowed to use these abilities either – you can only use them at certain points in the stage.
To be fair, the developers likely realized restarting the entire game whenever a character died or the player failed to get a certain power-up would be excessively strict, and added a level select feature. Should you die on the final level, you can press the “select” button on the title screen. On this new menu, you can view the status of each character, including their level and which elements they have. From here, you can choose to restart any of the training levels or retry the endgame. This is a nice feature, but it feels like a lazy fix for a serious problem. They allow players to restart levels when it would have been a better idea to design a shoot ‘em up that doesn’t require players to consult a guide. It also doesn’t help that if you press “start” on the title screen by accident, all of your progress is erased.
There are two more flaws which make the final level completely insufferable. The first is that all of your characters march in a formation behind the lead, yet you take damage if any of them are hit. This means you’re a gigantic target while a majority of the enemies are the same size as one of your characters, and thus much more evasive. If you’re traveling down a narrow corridor, it becomes impossible to dodge the enemy’s attacks or return fire reliably because your movement is so limited.
By far the most debilitating part of controlling all of these characters at once is that you cannot manually switch them. What you have to do is collect cards with arrows printed on them. They come in two varieties – the curved arrow cards will rotate your party once in that direction while the U-turn arrow will rotate your party a random number of times in that direction. There are several instances in the final stage when you will need a specific character. In addition to needing Toby and Barusa at specific points in order to progress, there are statues that shoot fireballs at your characters. Each party member deals more damage to a certain type than their comrades. It’s not impossible to destroy a statue with the wrong character, but in a game where you’re constantly forced to move forward, you don’t want to take too long dealing with them. Getting the appropriate character consistently can be impossible if the only cards available on the screen won’t select the right one. This is what plunges King’s Knight from being a run-of-the-mill bad game into a truly abysmal experience: you could go through all the required motions and still fail due to bad luck.
To add to this mechanic’s exponentially growing list of problems, your characters freeze when they rotate. This wouldn’t normally bear commenting on, but not only can your characters still take damage in this state, should they be too close to the bottom of the screen when this occurs, it will count as getting crushed, instantly killing them. Whether this was a glitch or not, I’m not sure; it’s either bad programming or a poor design choice – neither of which bode well in the slightest.
This is particularly irritating when facing the final boss. There are so many of these cards, limiting your ability to dodge its attacks. At the same time, you need to use the cards to vanquish your foe, as each character needs to deal around twenty-five hits to the boss whereupon the screen flashes white for a brief moment. This is the only visual cue that you’ve dealt sufficient damage. It bears repeating that an encounter such as this shouldn’t be so cryptic. His attacks aren’t too difficult to dodge, but he gets several free shots when you decide to switch characters. You also can’t defeat him unless you were diligent enough to collect all three sword icons throughout the level. Something like this would be considered a game’s Achilles’ heel in any other situation – even if the items in question are out in the open. It’s a true testament to this game’s quality that of all of its shortcomings, this one is the least egregious.
Finally, just for good measure, you only get one life with which to save the princess. There are no checkpoints, so whether you die to the first enemies or the final boss, you must restart the entire stage regardless.
Drawing a Conclusion
In a way, I like to think of King’s Knight as the Eastern equivalent of Where’s Waldo? in that rather than having been made by a company so obscure, their game is the only proof it ever existed at all, it was the product of a group of genuinely talented artists who had not yet found their stride. Indeed, it’s interesting to know the person behind the boring music was none other than Nobuo Uematsu, who would later become revered as one of the medium’s finest composers. To me, it showcases just how different video game culture was back then; you afford to create a few experimental flops in one’s quest for self-improvement. In the following decades, artists could afford to do no such thing; they had to be good from the onset or risk being forever known as the people who made that one game everyone relentlessly mocks.
There’s a very good reason Square let this particular IP gather dust for nearly three decades before finally working on a follow-up. It’s because King’s Knight is a complete mess from beginning to end. I have remarked in the past that I do not long for the days when one could waste money on a horrid title because of its impressive box art, and this is the kind of game I use as evidence as to why I steadfastly hold this belief. To be honest, I wouldn’t quite go as far as declaring it the worst NES game of all time. Certainly there are blatantly worse ones such as Action 52, Dragon’s Lair, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but even for curiosity’s sake, King’s Knight is too frustrating to recommend, and no amount of payoff in the world could make suffering through the innumerable appalling design choices worth it.
Final Score: 1/10