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Monday, August 26, 2013

Wizardry: 100s of Hours of Gameplay Told in Just 50 Minutes!

I had planned on stretching out this next batch of reviews across a month, but considering how short each of them are (2 OVAs) I've decided to get them through in only one week... Welcome to Video Game-Based Anime Week! Like the previous time I did this focus (September 2011) every review will be of an anime that was based on a video game, but there's another focus this time around: Anime based on Western video games. Even though Japan is sometimes called a xenophobic country at heart, every now & then a Western creation does become a big hit over there. In super-rare cases, a Western title becomes more popular in Japan than in its country of origin, and in two cases anime have actually been made based on them. Ironically, these anime based on Western video games have never been released in the country they came from. Case in point is the anime based on an RPG series made by two Americans, one of which wound up founding an anime licensing company himself!

Wizardry is a RPG series originally created by Andrew C. Greenberg & Robert J. Woodhead back in 1980, when the two were still students at Cornell Unviersity. As the years went on, it became a big hit for PC gamers, lasting up until 2001's Wizardry 8 by Sir-Tech; Woodhead left the series after IV, & Greenburg left after V. In Japan, though, the series became one of the biggest inspirations in that country's video game industry, most importantly with Yuji Horii, who used Wizardry as one of his big influences when he created Dragon Quest; Horii even tossed in a reference in his mystery game The Portopia Serial Murder Case for the Famicom. Games in the series have been ported & remade to numerous PCs & consoles as Japan-exclusive release as recently as 2000, and a metric ton of spin-offs have been developed by Japanese companies ever since 1991, with only three of them having seen international release: 2001's Tale of the Forsaken Land for Playstation 2, 2009's Labyrinth of Lost Souls for Playstation 3 via PSN (released internationally in 2011), & 2012's MMORPG Wizardry Online for PC (released internationally this year). Not only that, but in 1991, TMS & Shochiku made a 50-minute OVA adaptation of the original 1981 game, Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, which managed to take a game with essentially no story & make a fun, if sometimes (accidentally) funny, little adventure.

I try to use "clean" screencaps, but for some it's impossible.
In that past, King Trebor worked with the wizard Werdna & protected the kingdom from its enemies. One day, though, Werdna betrayed Trebor and stole an amulet that was sealing a destructive power that could leave the kingdom in ruins. In order to stave away Trebor's forces while he worked to undo the seal, Werdna created a ten-floor dungeon filled with all sorts of ferocious monsters, with Werdna at the very bottom. In turn, Trebor offered a reward to any & all brave warriors that dared take on the challenge to kill Werdna & retrieve the amulet. As years have gone by, people have turned dungeon crawling into a job all in & of itself, but during one journey into the dungeon a trio of friends, Shin the Human Fighter, Alex the Human Lord, & Hawkwind the Human Ninja, come across three other brave dungeon journeyers: Jyuza the Dwarven Bishop, who used to work with Werdna & Trebor; Alpa the Hobbit Mage, Jyuza's student; & Sheila the Elven Mage, who went into the dungeon to search for her boyfriend, Randy the Human Samurai. Together, this six-man party will dare to enter the tenth floor & take on Werdna himself.

Let's face facts: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord had barely any story, since it was literally, "King Trebor wants you to kill Werdna, so get down to the bottom of the dungeon & kill him". I haven't played the game myself, but I've commonly seen it mentioned that the only "story-important" areas are the last two floors of the dungeon, since the player could simply choose which level to go to (except for the last level). Literally, all the game is about is creating your own party of (up to) six characters & going into the dungeon so that you can kill monsters, gain experience & items/weapons/armor, & hopefully not die in the process. This original entry in the series is known for being absolutely ruthless & evil, supposedly taking over 100 hours to finish. In that sense, this OVA actually surpasses the original game in that there is an actual story, with individually-identifiable characters, & it's not even 1% of the length it takes to get through the game!

Granted, these characters are pretty simple & aren't exactly filled with depth, but at the same time you get enough about them to make them seem believable. In terms of the first main characters you see, Shin is your standard fighter who fights for the apparent fun of it, but also has a good sense of honor to him. Meanwhile, Alex is the wise-cracking smart aleck, & Hawkwind is the stoic ninja who doesn't say much, but makes his presence felt in battle. When it comes to the second half of the cast, you get a little more depth. Jyuza has his backstory of being the "third guy" who fought alongside Trebor & Werdna, with his goal being to kill his old friend & save the kingdom he fought for. Sheila last saw her lover Randy go into the dungeon but never came back, so she entered the dungeon to look for him, hoping he was still alive; she's fighting for her love, but is also a tough mage on her own.  Finally, Alpa is admittedly a simple character, but he fills a nice spot as the trainee who wants to be more than he is at the moment. Admittedly, this does sound like they could easily be the made-up descriptions any player of the game can make, but that's actually part of the appeal, I'd argue.

Honestly, what makes this OVA work the most is how stringent it is at being such an adaptation. The OVA, at times, actually feels like you're watching a title about people playing the game, almost a prototype of what .hack & Sword Art Online are known for. In the tavern, characters talk about going back into the dungeon to gain more money & goods, or maybe trying out a lower level and testing their abilities out. When the main party comes across some dead warriors, Shin casually remarks that they can pick them up on their way back & take them to the temple, where they can get revived. There's no talk of "leveling up", but it almost feels like the OVA is "in on the joke" that it's based on a video game. Granted, it actually isn't doing this as a joke, but rather is simply establishing a world where "dungeon crawling" has become a sort of job for these people; it's a way of living for them. Sure, it's a little silly, and does result in some inadvertently funny moments, but it also does lend a great bit of fun to the entire thing. You realize that you're watching an anime based on a RPG with little to no story, so why not treat it like you're watching the animated version of someone's imagination?

The anime was directed by Shunya Fujioka (his only anime direction, supposedly), who, with the script by Yu Terajima, did a very nice job making everything feel like an RPG-style world. The character designs by Satoshi Hirayama (Lupin the 3rd TV specials) & Yasuchika Nagaoka (also the animation director) were very sleek & easily identifiable with each of the classes the characters were, though they do come off as a little generic; Hawkwind is probably the most generically-designed ninja you can find in anime. To be fair, though, one of the warriors in the tavern looked like Hulk Hogan... I found that hilarious. The music by Eiji Kawamura (Hades Project Zerorymer, Kamen Rider ZO) was very fitting for the style of production it was, but it was another case of "catchy while listening to it, but you immediately forget about it once it's over". There is an ending theme, "Distance" by Hiroko Kasahara, which is a sweet little pop song that also works fine for the world this OVA created.

The voice cast, though, is definitely noteworthy, with numerous great performances. Shin, Alex, & Hawkwind are portrayed by Toshio Furukawa (Piccolo in DBZ, Ace in One Piece), Keiichi Nanba, & Tessho Genda, respectively, who all do nice jobs with their characters; Shin sounds brave & tough, Alex is smarky but reliable, & Hawkwind is quiet but strong. Jyuza is voiced by Ichiro Nagai (Cherry in Urusei Yatsura, Jigoro in Yawara!), who sounds a little too "old knowledgeable man", but manages to keep it from seeming too generic. Sheila is voiced by Keiko Toda (Karala in Ideon, the iconic Anpanman), who delivers everything from emotional to serious to friendly with no real trouble. Alpa is voiced by Yoku Shioya (Zepelli in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure TV, Jinpei the Swallow in Gatchaman), and he always kept Alpa sounding slightly whiny but not enough to be intensely annoying. Finally, Werdna was voiced by the late Kenji Utsumi, who (as always) managed to bring an epicly threatening boom to his performance. The rest of the cast was done by the likes of Norio Wakamoto (Randy, though it's only screams & yells), Unshou Ishizuka (Morgan, the Hulk Hogan wannabe), & Yukimasa Kishino (a Vampire Lord that works for Werdna).

There is some forgiveness in how simple the Wizardry OVA operates, mainly because of how little the original game offered in terms of story, world, & characters, but overall it's a fun little title to watch. There's a sense of silliness in how open it is to establishing a literal RPG world (outside of acknowledging experience points), but it's also just so honest in delivering that sense of enjoyment one can get from a good RPG series. It is odd that it never came over to America, especially during the times when Wizardry was still somewhat big in North America. It's all the more odd when one considers that Robert Woodhead (the namesake of King Trebor) founded AnimEigo just a year after leaving the series he helped create, yet he never brought it over. Woodhead is also amusingly tight-lipped on why he never actually brought this OVA over, with the closest "answer" being a comment he posted over at Colony Drop when they reviewed this OVA (just barely over four years to this date!):
"Oh come on, we absolutely wanted to license the Wizardry anime!
However, in order to get the true story of why it never happened out of me, you'll have to get me drunk...
...and I don't drink.

Come on, Robert! Tells us the reason why you never did this OVA! What, was Sir-Tech a potential thorn in licensing this? Did you not want to pay for the license to bring over the anime adaptation of one of your creations? Regardless, this OVA is a fun little way to spend an hour, especially if you're a fan of fantasy fun. I would have loved to see AnimEigo dub this title, though... Andrew Greenberg could have voiced Werdna!


  1. Just a side note for those who don't know: Hawkwind is an interesting character. Although the anime is full of mostly new original characters, Hawkwind is the canon leader of the party to defeat Werdna in Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. It is the self insert of CRPG writer Roe R Adams the III.

    Hawkwind also appears in Ultima, The Bards Tale, and other early CRPG's. In addition to being a high level ninja, it is revealed in other games (most notably the Ultima series, even appearing in Ultima online to guide players) that he is in fact a Time Lord, and his multiple appearances are probably a part of temporal antics gone awry.

    Interesting as well is that Hawkwind is more or less the Final Boss of Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna, depending on your choice of ending. He cannot be defeated through normal combat, and is seen with his twin dragons from his symbol at his side. He has only one weakness, and it's one of the most ridiculous puzzles in CRPG history.

    With all this in mind, it's really amusing for an old Sir-Tech fan like myself to see Hawkwind get a share of the limelight in an official anime OVA.

    1. That is actually completely amazing & awesome. Having never played Wizardry, I was only familiar with its legacy, that is am outstanding reference to include, & shows just how iconic that game & franchise is in Japan. It may not have been a great OVA, but it's definitely a fun one, in my opinion.