Puzzle games always get long shelf life, and with that, higher prices on the third hand market because they’re easy pickups for retro fans that want a game that hasn’t been aged out of relevance. The original Tetris will always be sufficient – even preferable in some cases – despite newer titles in the series, while Super Mario Bros. is positively ancient to someone who grew up in the Mario 64 era.
Puzzle platformers are a different breed. Adding actual gameplay mechanics to the equation beyond “put piece X in place Y” adds a whole list of other points of failure. When looking at retro games in 2012, it adds all sorts of questions – does the gameplay stand up, are the graphics good enough to see what’s going on – that Tetris and its ilk will never have to answer. Tecmo was the master of making platformers that had a puzzle bent to them, and I grew up on them. The first was Mighty Bomb Jack, which I got with my first Nintendo Entertainment System. The second was another game brought over from the arcades called Solomon’s Key, and amazingly, one of the few that Tecmo didn’t alter dramatically for the home market. Today, we look to see if the latter game stands up in 2012 the way it did in 1987.
HOW WAS IT THEN: Solomon’s Key was an interesting mix of platform/twitch gameplay and puzzle elements that had the ability to both enthrall and frustrate gamers. Playing the role of Dana, who is sent to get Solomon’s Key to save the world from monsters, the player went through 64 levels – 49 of those being secret – to beat the game. To get through, Dana was able to create blocks with a magic wand, both next to and below him, and with the same wand he was able to destroy them; he was also able to take them out by hitting them with his head, Super Mario style, twice. Destroying some blocks allowed him to find hidden items such as power-up fireballs that could be used to defeat enemies. The level design, combined with an extremely limited choice selection in how to take out enemies, led to this being an exceptionally hard game. Lives were at a premium, touching any enemy or running out of time meant death, and without the knowledge of a continue code, there were no continues (and even the code didn’t work after a certain point, a cruelty that Tecmo has been well known for), so getting through the game could be hazardous for anyone without a load of time to perfect the game. Therefore, developing strategies were very hit-or-miss; there was never time to think, as the timer was always running, and pausing the game caused the whole screen to go blank. It was hard bordering on masochistic.
Difficulty is a matter of perception, and the game can eventually be learned. Back in the 80s, however, it was harder for most gamers to get past the very bad – even by NES standards – graphics and sound. Though there were some satisfying sound effects, the ditty played throughout the game grated on the ears, and the game had a very bland, washed-out colour palette when compared to the arcade version. However, the gameplay was fun, the puzzles were challenging, and there were enough secrets to keep gamers going back.
HOW IS IT NOW: Solomon’s Key is the rare game that holds up similarly in 2012 to where it stood in 1987. While I wouldn’t call it “timeless”, it wasn’t bad then and it isn’t now.
The number one sticking point to a game like this is going to be the lack of any kind of consequential save function. If the game gets reset or shut off, it’s back to level one, and the difficulty spikes hard at level 3. However, while the game will always be hard, and always be frustrating, technology can alleviate some of the pain for those playing on a ROM. Savestates would be a near-must nowadays, as I don’t see the average gamer sitting through and replaying old levels just to find out how to navigate the later ones. Another major issue is that stages can be rendered unwinnable. The sequel, known in America as Fire ‘n Ice, addressed this by removing the lives system entirely and allowing players to restart levels, but in Solomon’s Key, making one mistake like that – either through strategy or improper hand-eye coordination – can be extremely costly.
The NES controller is also a bit of a limitation, because the A and B buttons are used to make bricks and throw fireballs. Therefore, the up button is the jump button. This is easy enough to adjust to, but can lead to issues if a finger slips or if someone’s using a 16 directional D-pad that is more sensitive than the NES pad. This would have been fine on a SNES pad with multiple buttons, but it’s far from a necessity.
In the end, Solomon’s Key is still a fun game to play. The level design is outstanding, and even for people that know how to finish the puzzle, they still have to execute the stage, on a limited time budget. It’s cheap at times, but there are now guides that can help the process along, and even having played this game quite a bit in my youth, I still think of ways to address puzzles while I go about my daily business. If the player allows it, this is a very addictive game.
Solomon’s Key was available to me for $15, with the full box, at Retro Games Plus. On eBay, it costs about $20, with about $7 for the cart. I would recommend that everyone but the hardcore stick to the ROM and the comfort of savestates, but for anyone who is either a purist or who appreciates a challenge, Solomon’s Key is an easy pick-up. For anyone wanting something more accessible, even if the creator denies it, Escape Goat, one of the best games of 2012, is something of a spiritual successor to the Solomon games, and is easily more affordable than the extraordinarily rare Fire ‘n Ice.