Overall Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Tecmo, who was sometimes so confident in their branding for releases for the Nintendo Entertainment System that they sometimes inserted their name in the title as with Tecmo Bowl, released an innovative platformer puzzler for the NES in 1987 called Solomon’s Key.
This two-dimensional platform game following a protagonist that occupies one space of the tile-based scenery. Using the up button to jump, the A button to both create and destroy blocks, and the Start button to pause, the player must guide the wizard Dana through dozens of levels in search of all of Solomon’s Keys. Each stage occupies a single screen, and is comprised of tiles for permanent blocks, removable blocks, enemies, magical items (some good, some bad), the key (which opens the door), and the door, which Dana must enter once the key is gathered in order to conquer the level.
Dana is able to crouch and occasionally headbutt blocks apart ala Super Mario, as well as being able to deftly place and remove blocks at differing positions, even at a standstill, depending on the press of the directional pad. The B button is used to launch fireballs, and each fiery projectile is only granted availability after the player has collected one of the flame jars. The player also has the option to save the jars and collect multiple, as displayed on a scroll at the time of the screen, to unleash a more powerful fireball that will blaze through multiple enemies, as any fireball fired will follow a ground path over the created-type blocks until hitting stone.
Each screen, thusly, is a puzzle that requires careful problem-solving on the part of the player in order to solve, with thoughtful block placements, precision jumping, monster avoidance, and other elements at work. However, rather than affording the player an infinite amount of time to traverse each challenge, there is a “LIFE” bar that operates as a timer countdown.
There are 64 levels in all; 49 of them being regular one-by-one stages, and 15 being secret, hidden locations that must be unlocked. Between the infinitely spawning enemies, new brain-busting challenges with each level, the desire to search every tile on the board, and that ever-present time limit, Solomon’s Key is notorious for its steep difficulty. It is common knowledge that truly beating Solomon’s Key is a rather hard feat for any gamer, yet because the challenge is due to quality level design rather than broken gameplay, it remains a good game overall.
Solomon’s Key is a fairly basic-looking game, but cannot be faulted too severely, considering that its tile-based graphics are intentionally small and unobtrusive in order to better complement the gameplay experience. That being said, there are some nice touches, such as the swirling circle of stars that accompanies each door-unlocking, as well as the sneak-preview effect of each level the moment before all the blocks and enemies appear.
Befitting its simplistic presentation, the background tracks will not blow gamers away, but offer appropriate ditties that pleasantly accompany the goings-on occurring for our hero Dana. The sound effects are solid; while simple, they are honed well, and serve their purposes intently.
Solomon’s Key was based on an arcade game, but the NES version operates well as a stand-alone cartridge that seems to hold its own distinctive feel and merit over the cabinet unit. There are some big fans of Solomon’s Key who have spent hours mastering the course of levels, discovering the secrets, and generally achieving a rather deeply genuine sense of accomplishment at beating the game outright.
Solomon’s Key is an innovative hybrid of platforming and puzzling action, and for its ability to tie multiple seemingly simple gameplay elements into one big, complex, challenging quest earns three and a half stars out of five, with that half star earned solely because Solomon’s Key is the perfect example of an 8-bit Nintendo video game that, though very difficult, is hard for the right reasons, rather than challenging because it was underdeveloped. It is meant to be a challenge, and gamers may continue trying to complete Solomon’s Key for years to come.