a review of The Lost Vikings
a videogame developed by blizzard
and published by interplay
for amiga, personal computers, the sega CD, the sega genesis, the sony playstation computer entertainment system (as "norse by norsewest") and the super nintendo entertainment system
text by tim rogers
Calling Lost Vikings one of the twenty-five best games of all-time is something we here at Action Button Dot Net do out of a four-fold sense of duty. For one, this list would be incomplete without a game about vikings. For two, this list would be incomplete without acknowledging Blizzard at least once. (There were previously plans to include Diablo II, Starcraft, and Blackthorne on this list as well, which would have probably looked ridiculous and gotten us flamed for not including World of Warcraft too. No, we don’t like World of Warcraft, though only for tenuous reasons: we’re just afraid that if we ever played it, we’d like it too much.) For three, no one seems to ever really scream too much about Lost Vikings, so we’re taking it upon ourselves to, uhh, well, talk half-passionately while drinking something delicious with you in a dimly-lit cafe. For four: Lost Vikings most succinctly fits the criteria of an Action Button Dot Net Manifesto Selection, in that it is straightforward, intelligent, puzzling, actioning, buttoning, and it does not stop until it exhausts all the labyrinthine possibilities of its simplistic game mechanics.
Of all the side-scrolling mascot-flogging jerk-off games of the 16-bit era, Lost Vikings is perhaps the only one to score extra credit on the test of time. It was released in 1992, the era when everyone and their brother was just starting to grasp the moneymaking possibilities of putting a T-shirt on a bobcat. As the button-mashing game kids of the late 20th century divided into two camps — those who preferred the “speed” of Sonic the Hedgehog and those who preferred the “exploration” of Super Mario — Blizzard clapped together a platform-action game based on the simplest common-sensical mechanics, believed in their core concept, focused the majority of their attention on level design, polished the package until every stage was arranged in an immaculate order, and nonchalantly released a masterpiece.
Eventually, Blizzard would find the real-time strategy genre more worthy of their time; a decade and a half later, the little developer that made Lost Vikings now sits atop a throne made of bricks — bricks of hundred-dollar bills — and is recognized worldwide as more than a videogame developer. They are a provider of multimedia content. Between then and now, Blizzard would make an excellent racing game (Rock and Roll Racing), an excellent sequel to The Lost Vikings, and an incredibly excellent platform-action-adventure game that successfully attempted to pare Lost Vikings‘s mechanics down into a game in which you controlled one guy instead of three (Blackthorne). Along the way, they made Warcraft for PC, which was a lot like other existing real-time strategy games, only streamlined according to the laws of common sense. Then there was Diablo, which was a lot like a real-time strategy game in which you control only one character. Diablo was obviously an experiment, and a successful one: it accidentally created a genre. Starcraft was Warcraft for people who preferred “Star Wars” to “Lord of the Rings”, and World of Warcraft is apparently the one massively-multiplayer online role-playing game to try if you’ve ever been curious about pretending to be someone else on the internet and are simply afraid you might end up breaking the law. (That is to say, in World of Warcraft, there’s a decent enough amount of fun to have without breaking the law.)
Though we have seen the present of Blizzard, and though we realize that the future includes Diablo III, we cannot shake our understanding of the past: that this humble company that would end up accidentally picking a cola war with Dungeons and Dragons fans (Dungeons and Dragons ran an ad campaign last year that encouraged people to at least invite over “real-life” friends if they wanted to pretend to be an elf in their basement) got their start as just another group of dudes who loved Nintendo games. Lost Vikings was obviously an act of multi-pronged revisionist adoration, directed at the whole of the Japanese side of the Pacific Ocean. It was “cute” characters with a simple goal, moving (usually) to the right side of the screen, fighting bad guys, avoiding death, et cetera. Basically, you’ve got these three vikings in a somewhat maze-like action stage. There’s a point marked “Exit”. Get all of your guys there to win.
Our hindsight at this point allows us to deduce that Lost Vikings sequels are not being made to this day because Blizzard overdid the characters’ facial hair. A simple mustache can keep a character popular for decades (Mario); multi-braided ankle-length beards, however, are simply creepy to the general populace. With Lost Vikings, Blizzard had immediately limited their potential fanbase to live-action role-players and the types of girls who listen to Swede metal because they like scary facial hair. Cuter character designs — a whole different sensibility, actually — wallpapered over the same core concept would have probably resulted in a megaton explosion. Instead, the next time Blizzard revisited the focus of Lost Vikings, it was in Blackthorne, which was mostly a humorless adaptation of a Jim Lee comic about a man shooting demons with a shotgun because they’re evil and he’s not.
The heroes of Lost Vikings are three vikings who are kidnapped by an alien spaceship so they can be exhibited in an intergalactic zoo. The player’s goal is to escape the alien space ship by navigating all three vikings safely to the exit of each tricky area. It’s kind of like Lemmings, with less analog messiness and none of the eagerness to impress the player with numbers.
The tutorial at the very beginning sets the stage brilliantly. We see the three vikings using their abilities to “hunt” in local surroundings for food to feed their families. Years later, games are still struggling with how to present a tutorial. “Reminding the player of what he can do, whenever he can do it, with a disembodied text message” seems to be the answer game developers always fall on. Lost Vikings forces us to merely watch, for one minute, as the characters do everything they will ever be able to do in the game. We see the three vikings, standing in front of their huts, with their wives and children. Each viking introduces himself. Erik the Swift tells us he can run and jump. He proceeds to run to the right and jump into a tree. He waits on the tree. The camera pans back to Olaf the Stout, who tells us he can block anything with his shield. He walks to the right, and blocks a green-goo projectile being spit by a nasty pink snail. The screen scrolls back to the left. Baleog the Fierce introduces himself, says he can kill anything. Now he walks to the right and fires an arrow from behind the cover of Olaf’s shield. He defeats the snail. Immediately, the player’s brain should light up with several possibilities. We now know one of each viking’s abilities: Erik can run and jump, Olaf can block with his shield, and Baleog can shoot arrows.
Now, without a single dialogue balloon, Erik runs to the right, into a wall. He smashes into the wall. It crumbles. Now, Olaf walks to the right, climbs a ladder, climbs a tree, holds his shield above his head, walks off the ledge, and glides down to the ground, collecting a suspicious piece of meat in mid-air. He puts his shield back in front of his body, blocking an enemy attack (though not until after getting hit once, to show us that he can be damaged if his shield is above his head: remember this — it’ll be important later). Now Baleog walks to the right and, again, from behind the cover of Olaf’s shield, fires an arrow at the marauding enemy. Now Olaf moves forward, and holds his shield above his head again. With his shield above his head, the action returns to Erik. Erik runs, jumps up, uses Olaf’s shield as a platform, and steps up onto a high ledge, obtaining a piece of meat. Now Baleog steps forward, facing a blue dinosaur — which has no projectile attacks — and engages him in risky, head-to-head combat with his sword. He kills the dinosaur and obtains another piece of meat.
So now we have glimpsed, in a shiny little minute of game footage, just about everything that we will ever have to do to solve all of the puzzles in the game. The dynamics are actually quite thrilling, on a molecular level, once you realize that Erik and Baleog each have abilities that require Olaf’s presence, though no abilities that require each other, and that each character’s function contains an embedded risk mechanic that could very well define a whole other genre of videogames: lowering Olaf’s shield in time to block an enemy projectile after gliding recalls something Zelda-esque; back-stepping to avoid an oncoming enemy so as to better time a sword-strike as a lone Baleog recalls a fighting game; going it alone as Erik, running, jumping, and avoiding enemies, plays like a platform game. And when they’re all together, it plays like Lost Vikings.
Then it’s back to their houses, where Erik concludes this prologue by telling us that he enjoys his life. Night falls, the alien spaceship abducts the vikings, they awake to find themselves alive, and under our control, and they immediately decide, through snappy word balloons, that they must escape this ship. That’s all the plot we need. We don’t ask why they want to escape the spaceship, because we’ve seen that they have wives. Imagine that — a game about three lost guys trying to get back to their wives and kids. All the other side-scrollers back then were about rescuing boring fairy-tale princesses (with no explicit promise of sexual favors) or setting your “animal friends” free from their “robot prisons”. Lost Vikings was definitely, if nothing else, a more “mature” platform-action game: if these women have born these scruffy dudes’ children, they will no doubt reward them with at least blow jobs when they get back home safe with tales of evil aliens.
In stage one, the game introduces the item inventory — which is thankfully easy to use — by way of a cursed text box. We can forgive this one tiny sin. Half of the items are for healing purposes — and though it’s easy to say on paper that this game would be “better” or “purer” if it were one-hit death, the reality of the nuanced, fluid nature of the action actually makes the game infinitely deeper by allowing us to be hit four times before dying. Blizzard no doubt thought pretty hard about that number. The rest of the items tend to be bombs, which, when used, fall at a Super Mario Bros. fireball angle, destroying an enemy or obstacle. Any of the three characters can use bombs — which is about as crucial a detail as the basic abilities themselves: the position of a character when throwing a bomb is usually highly important. Then there’s the meta-ability: handing items from one character to another. This is actually more interesting than it sounds, because sometimes there’ll be an item that one character can reach easily (across a pit, accessible only to Erik, for example) that another character will need to use (say, a computer must be bombed, and can only be hit by someone standing on a high platform, which only Olaf can access using his shield glide). And so you pull the right thread, unraveling the respective sweater of the moment.
Eventually, after the various live-fire exercises teaching the player every possible permutation of puzzles — switches to be hit by Baleog’s bow, switches that require Erik’s jump — the game slyly turns in on itself and starts to revel spectacularly in the tiny bit of wiggle room between actions and reactions. Time-release doors, manually-activated elevator switches, enemies suddenly possessing a semblance of intelligence. Just when you, as a player, have just started to assess every situation mathematically, the game turns 90 degrees in an inconsequential direction and begins demanding you to pay attention to its finer nuances, that you live and breathe in the moments when you hasten to lower Olaf’s shield, rush in to face an enemy hand-to-hand as Baleog, or run like the wind, dodging and jumping as Erik.
It’s a lot like Portal, in that way. Actually, it’s something like Portal in another way, as well — at the beginning and the end of every level, the vikings have a mercifully short conversation re: the current situation, and it’s usually “humorous”. This example from the Wikipedia page: “If I [head]bash one more wall right now, my head will explode!” “I got dibs on his helmet.” “Okay, I get his boots.” “It’s great to have such good friends.” It’s worth noting that the dialogue in the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis versions was text-only; Bubsy, which probably (and unfortunately) outsold Lost Vikings (and also got a 3D installment), was perhaps able to do so because the main character actually spoke “humorous” quips at the beginning of each stage. (This, and because Electronic Gaming Monthly was sure to vigorously tout the game’s abundance of Death Animations: like, he stops dead, faces the screen, quivers, and then cracks, like a broken something made of glass! How hilarious is that, Fine Young Model Christian Readers?)
Would Lost Vikings have sold more copies if it had had voice samples, actual hilarious humor, and maybe a more palatable coat of graphics? Possibly, though we here at Action Button Dot Net love this game for all it implies, including the trying-too-hard nature of the humor (Olaf’s idle animation may involve nose-picking), the music (yes, the title screen is fat hip-hop beats), and the off-putting character designs (hairy vikings). You can tell that Blizzard had a whole group of guys excited out of their minds at how fun this game was going to be to design levels for, and they just didn’t really care about the rest, so long as it hit enough not-retail-unintelligent notes.
In this day and age, where games like Devil May Cry basically lead the hiply-dressed, focus-tested player character from a round battle arena to a straight hallway with a locked door at the end and a key in a chest in a side room, through the locked door and into another round battle arena, it’s a deliciously warm and fuzzy feeling to remember the day when it seemed like cleverly designed levels in videogames built from the mechanics up might be the future. Why can’t games have interesting characters and great mechanics? I asked a guy in my office, and he says “that’s just not the way they make games anymore, man”. What kind of defeatist answer is that? If there’s one guy in the office with a white-hot idea for how to make our prancing-pretty-boy action-adventure game about more than just aiming at a demon bastard and shooting him the requisite number of times until he pops, why not hear him out? As far as I’m concerned, videogame designers aren’t actually videogame designers unless they’re designing videogames. Take Bioshock, for example — where’s the videogame design in that? You walk up behind an unsuspecting foe standing hip-deep in water. You can either shoot him in the head with a gun or aim your psychic lightning at the water, electrocuting him. Giving me a choice of two ways to score a one-hit kill (one of them with a gun, the other making use of an “environmental gimmick”) on a plain-sight sitting duck isn’t “game design”. Make me think about that one hit, the way Lost Vikings does, so, so many times over, and effortlessly.
Replaying Lost Vikings for the purpose of this review teaches us again that, more often that not, more really isn’t “more”. There’s more good-feeling smart-ification going on in every waking second of Lost Vikings than in all of the dungeons of every recent Zelda game combined. What’s more, Lost Vikings doesn’t even require the player to earn hookshots or boomerangs or larger keys to unlock larger doors in order to feel the sensation that he is progressing. Lost Vikings‘s flow is locked-on, dead-ahead.
The ideas of Lost Vikings would later be revisited in games like Nintendo’s Zelda: The Four Swords, which bogged the whole experience down by making it multiplayer and filling it with superfluous text, and Taito’s EXIT for the PSP, where you control a man who is trying to free other people from buildings on the verge of vaguely defined disasters. EXIT grandfathers real-time strategy elements into Lost Vikings, giving each “survivor” a “class”, with its own unique “abilities”. “Children” can crawl under tight spaces, “large” people can push blocks. All this does is pollute the game with kleptomania-like jargon. Don’t get us wrong, EXIT is a humble, good videogame, far better than most, though it pales in comparison to Lost Vikings. In EXIT, for example, if you see a large block in the middle of a floor, chances are you’re going to have to get a large person push it. This results in all of the puzzles being lock-and-key. (This is still leagues above and beyond, say, Super Mario Galaxy, where a rabbit tells you he’s looking for a star chip just as the camera pans over to show a box and then tells you that you can break a box by swinging the Wiimote. That is to say — again — yes, that Modern Nintendo “Game Design” more often than not, rewards the player with what it has contrived him to need on every occasion where he remembers what he can do at any given time. And no, we will never stop flogging that one particular example.)
What we have with Lost Vikings is perhaps the most honest and appreciated attempt any game company has ever made at cashing in on a zeitgeist. It’s got sparkling game concepts that its execution exhaustively exploits. It delights in layering and escalating challenges, and it doesn’t stop until it’s sick of itself. If DooM is a game that inspires the player to design his own levels, Lost Vikings is a game that inspires its players to design his own games. Its sequel would endow the vikings with robotic upgrades, granting them more abilities for more complicated puzzles; such was the spirit of the 16-bit era. If you love Lost Vikings, the sequel is great, if a little spreadsheetish. We normally frown upon the practice of putting hands on hips and saying “The original was better!” though we’re going to go ahead and do that with Lost Vikings: its influence can be felt wherever videogames force players to think using something resembling real-world logic, as shallowly as in (the excellent) Xbox Live Arcade game N+ and as deeply as in Gears of War‘s cover-based shooting. Though you know what? It’s probably not Lost Vikings‘s “influence” so much as it’s the prevalence of the all-holy common sense that forged it. Either way, welcome to the hall of fame, Erik, Baleog, Olaf. Blizzard, we’re sure that you’re all satisfied these days with your billions of US dollars in revenue, though now you officially have something to be proud of.