“This is the old way. You will not see it again.”
-The 13th Warrior
Imagine the premise of Sliders with three characters from Beowulf suffering the finale of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and b-boying to hip hop.
The Lost Vikings is a revolutionary, side-scrolling puzzle-platformer developed by Silicon & Synapse (later Blizzard Entertainment) and published Interplay for the Super Nintendo. It was later re-released for the Amiga, MS-DOS, Mega Drive/Genesis, Game Boy Advance, and Battle.net. I originally enjoyed The Lost Vikings on the SNES, so that will be the slant of my review.
The basic mechanic involves switching between three controllable characters, the Lost Vikings, with their different offensive, defensive and movement specialties. Baleog is equipped with a sword and bow with a “life-time supply of arrows”, and thus he’s the only viking who can easily kill enemies, directly. His arrows can also be used to trigger switches and machinery from a distance. Erik is the most mobile and the only viking who can jump. If he picks up enough speed he can bust down walls with his helmet and even plow through enemies in some circumstances, provided he’s given enough running room. Thirdly, Olaf can use his shield to block the advance of monsters and their attacks, and even use it like a parachute to descend slowly and safely from any height. Further, his shield can be used as a platform for the other vikings; Erik can jump on top of it to reach higher areas.
The three misplaced vikings are Baleog the Fierce, Erik the Swift, and Olaf the Stout who are abducted from their tranquil lives of enjoying viking-like things like picking berries, pillaging and Prima Nocta. An alien race known as the Croutonians has kidnapped the vikings to hold as specimens in their intergalactic zoo. However, the vikings escape the clutches of their alien captors and become stranded in time and space, traversing surreal and eclectic worlds on their quest to return to their own.
The goal is to navigate all three of them to the exit door at the end of each stage, utilizing their abilities to avoid damage, open doors, manipulate items, and kill enemies. Each viking can take three hits before expiring and if they die from being attacked, shot, electrocuted, blown up, crushed or from falling, you will not be able to complete the stage.
Despite the simplicity of the mechanics and the deceptive childishness of the concept and humor, The Lost Vikings winds up into a tight ball of complexity and difficulty in its mid to later levels. Enemies become much more ferocious and the puzzles more cerebral as you progress. Later items and combinations of items can dumbfound as keys to unlocking the next area in a stage. The game features an absolutely necessary trial and error element since there are no continues and losing a stage simply causes you to restart it.
There are an infinite number of worlds in the multiverse and the vikings will find themselves lost in prehistory, in pyramids, even in a world of candy and balloons. It’s up to you to get the three Norse amigos back to their wives and children in one piece. They may be lost but they certainly won’t stop to ask for directions.
The 8-Bit Review
The graphics are as sunny as a Saturday morning cartoon and may not have been the best for the SNES (certainly not for the Genesis) but they serve the content well. Each of the various worlds are distinct and the change of scenery is a welcome one. It’s not that the game never suffers from some ugly visuals, like the waterfalls, but what is here is funny and charming.
One of the elements that shines in The Lost Vikings is its soundtrack. Whereas most platformers and action games of the era were fiddling around with typical 80’s influenced rock riffs and electronica to lesser or greater success, The Lost Vikings diverges from the tinniness of 16-bit music for some bizarre hip hop/house flows. The trick is played right from the title screen, which opens to the dignified chorus of Northmen trumpets before being soundly interrupted by the vinyl-spinning of some unseen DJ. The juxtaposition between ancient vikings and modern music serves to underscore the “fish out of water” theme that’s central to The Lost Vikings concept. You’d never expect to find vikings running around on a spaceship and that contrast is highlighted by the OST to great effect. Not only is it a different kind of soundtrack, but it’s not just different for difference sake. Rather than be jarring, it’s endearing, like the lauded music of Earthworm Jim.
At face value, the gameplay doesn’t seem like anything too special. It may seem trite and simplistic. But this is not a child’s game, despite appearances. Switching between the three vikings at a moments notice becomes crucial for necessary timing if they’re to reach the exit in one piece. Merging both puzzle and platforming genres into one game may not be unprecedented but this is certainly one of the most successful games to do that without lessening the impact of either element. The more I try to describe it, the more I realize it’s just something you’ll have to experience for yourself. Just expect to respawn. A lot. Oh and some versions of the game allow a multiplayer co-op mode.
Early on, like immediately, the game teaches you about the various capabilities of each viking along with their limitations. And boy are their limitations many. Olaf can’t kill. Baleog is defenseless. Erik is the only one who can jump. At the very basic stage, that doesn’t present too much of a problem, but there isn’t really much to The Lost Vikings beyond that. And there’s the beauty of it. It’s a straightforward, uncomplicated style of gameplay that is milked for all its worth, forcing your brain to work around each character’s limitation in order to get to where you need to go. In a modern world where nearly every game’s controls are over-crowded with controls, The Lost Vikings stands as a monument to the old way.
The Lost Vikings is hard. Not Tetris, Lemmings or Wario’s Woods hard. Not Dr. Mario hard. This isn’t about lining up columns of circles, spheres and blocks or crushing candy. Nor is this simply about exploration. Though in many ways it’s about all of those things in the way in incorporates its fundamentals. Some of the later levels are an absolute challenge, especially once they introduce tiny, new components into the mix like magnets, gravity wells and air pumps. One of the stages took me an entire day to complete, after hours of trial and error, and walking away to calm down. Only pick up The Lost Vikings if you want a real challenge of intellect, silly as that sounds of a game with its appearance. This is not a casual play but that doesn’t mean it’s a pain. It’s designed to make you want to keep playing rather than throw your controller at the TV.
The problem with replay value and puzzle games of this kind is that once you’ve solved the challenges of a certain stage, you’ll be able to beat that stage again fairly easily until you forget how to. Certain things help to alleviate this fact like puzzles based on timing or precision, or others that are so complex that they’re difficult to remember through all the item-passing between characters and obstacle course navigation.
Here’s a story about vikings being abducted by aliens. What kind of a head injury was sustained before that thought popped into someone’s head? What, was their muse drunk? Conceptually and mechanics-wise, The Lost Vikings is a Super Nintendo game unlike any other.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
One of the better and more unique puzzle games from the SNES, The Lost Vikings is a lovely step away from the puzzle-genre trend of Tetris rip-offs, fusing the thought-challenges with platforming. It’s a combination of the mentality of the former with the timing of the latter. The blend makes for a game where neither element becomes tiring too quickly. The problem with most puzzle games is they can easily be vexing whereas platformers can eventually dull for the simply fact that you’ve jumped so many platforms already and found all the power-ups. Not so with The Lost Vikings. It may be obscure but it thought outside of the box.
Aggregated Score: 7.8
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