Sunday, May 4, 2014

Solomon's Key - A Building Block of My Expanding DNA
How the adventures of young wizard Dana provided a surprise injection of enlightenment.

Solomon's Key was another of those older, cheaper NES games snatched up by my brother during his sporadic collecting phases that started in 1989 and were recurrent until early 1993, when the console's life-cycle was winding down and stores had just about cleared out all of their inventory. It might seem weird to you that I never thought to ask him why he was accumulating so many games he never actually planned on playing (at least not for more than a few minutes), but I recognized it as his usual attention-deficit personality at work, just James being James; whether it was his infrequently played Michael Jackson albums, his dilapidated Kiss dolls, or his eventually hocked gym equipment (like his boxing gloves and punching bag, using which he would pretend to be Rocky Balboa), he was always filling as much of our house's space as possible with toys and accessories that he'd discard just as quickly.

I eventually grew to appreciate this behavior because I realized it was me who became the direct beneficiary of his compulsive episodes, often the recipient of hand-me-downs whose value I would otherwise have overlooked. Such was the case with Solomon's Key, which he excitedly presented to me after emerging from the basement following his browsing of some local electronic stores.

For a few reasons, including my simple gauging of its casing details, Solomon's Key had a lot riding against it: I thought its name was weird, "Solomon's Key" sounding like a title suited to one of those arcane Commodore 64 games that I could never figure out. Its box art was funky, what with some "overgrown elf dude" pointing his wand at a pillar of blocks while ignoring a string of disembodied demon heads, which seemed more threatening. And it arrived at a time when I was swamped with other recently purchased titles like Double Dragon, Trojan, Renegade, Wrecking Crew, and others that had carved out large slices of my attention. I mean, I liked platformers and puzzlers, and I was an even bigger fan of games that featured a hybrid of the two (like the aforementioned Wrecking Crew), but I had already fallen into a mode whereby I was directly interested only in known quantities and games that my friends owned.

So I gave it that dismissive, low-enthusiasm sampling usually reserved for the likes of development-troubled sequels and games based off of kiddy licenses. This shortsighted approach actually worked to Solomon's Key's benefit; the visually distinctive scene playing on the TV screen surprisingly captured me as soon as I took control. I was immediately intrigued by its aesthetics, its gray-blocked foreground and brown-shaded brickwork plus carved symbols combining with a whimsical tune to create a conceivable yet otherworldly setting--my favorite kind of atmosphere for a video-game world. It was indeed weird, as I had previously surmised, but in a good way; it surely didn't have the feel of something low-effort, which I was kind of expecting.

I discovered with a button-press that the hero could create blocks--which could in following be traveled upon--and also destroy them, establishing for me a new twist on platforming. I thought it was wild that there was a single-screen puzzle game that offered me free range of exploration and tools to create my own means of navigation, where similar titles limited me to a grid or a set of canned movements; I could go anywhere I pleased provided the level structure didn't get in the way. As I jumped around and tested the eccentricities of the hero's innate ability, I observed that portions of the screen were sealed off by brownish blocks that matched those I was creating; if I could destroy those, I thought, then I could definitely pull the rug out from that arm-flailing foe marching about the center block, whose removal predictably dropped it to its death. I then grabbed the floating bell that hovered atop the room; it released a fairy from the room's locked door, but the significance of its appearance wasn't yet apparent. After I procured a key from the room's left side, the door opened up and beckoned my escape, which I obliged after rescuing the gravitating fairy.

The level, itself, did a good job of teaching me about the game's basic mechanics, and the following intermission revealed some pertinent information: The hero was actually named Dana ("Haha--he's named after a girl!"), the "rooms" were called "shrines," and there was apparently a compelling reason for rescuing these fairies, even if the game provided no further hint. This would be one of the last times I understood what was going on in Solomon's Key outside of block-creation. Mainly, there were so many disparate items scattered about each shrine--a lot of which were buried behind blocks that were either originally there or had to be specially placed and promptly destroyed--and their effects were typically imperceptible, so I simply ignored them, sometimes feeling that by doing so I was missing out on the full experience. I wondered, for instance, why I had to push "Up" to jump when there appeared to be a free button. Was there an ability I overlooked? Since the copy my brother brought home was used, you see, there was no manual and thus no real point of reference, so I was on my own to figure it all out.

The last thing I remember discovering, pre-Internet, was that you could collect blue vases to earn a limited number of fireball attacks (displayed atop the screen on what looked like an expandable piece of paper or a tattered scroll), including the odd extended flame whose blast was capable of circumnavigating the immediate area and eliminating multiple enemies. This knowledge would become useful to me only later on and might have made it easier to digest the immediate chaos of shrine 3, which in contrast to the two more-sterile shrines before it noisily revealed the existence of an unexpected action element. That is, the screen was now filled with an assortment of threats, and my means for countering them were limited to the hero's aptitude for block-conjuring. I couldn't yet fathom what was going on, as my senses were still overwhelmed by the visual noise, so I immediately focused upon the array of enemy types that dominated the playing field. They were spread everywhere, ranging from simple patrolling minions to wall-embedded demons to surface-circling lightning balls to airborne specters. After a few careless deaths and some experimentation, I came to discover that I could use conjured blocks to shield myself from enemy fire, and I could even create or destroy others to interrupt foes' movement-patterns and possibly redirect them.

I solved the shrines' puzzles as best I could and was genuinely enjoying my experience. It was really tough, so I didn't get too far in my first go, but what I had seen during my short time with Solomon's Key earned it a second look and maybe deeper inspection. I wound up returning to it once a week or so and improved my skill-level each time, learning the true range of Dana's block-creation, how to manipulate and neutralize the reactive and always-frightening enemies, and how to work around obstacles like flame pillars and close-quarter gaps that required advanced knowledge of the block-creating system. The majority of items still didn't make any sense to me, nor would they for more than a decade, but I got farther and farther into the game every time out. I eventually hit a wall when I reached the insane, highly involved mid-20s shrine levels, which was as far as I could get no matter how times I tried (and since I wasn't yet aware of the continue code).

The core formula for Solomon's Key, as I had parsed it down, was simply one of obtaining a clearly visible key to automatically open a room's locked before maneuvering around the shrine's numerous obstacles to escape. Accepted on that level, the game was easy to comprehend. Truthfully, though, Solomon's Key never ceased feeling somehow foreign to me, as if it came from some other plane of existence with a message whose meaning lay beyond my current ability to perceive it. "Who came up with this?" I wondered. "Why does it make me feel like I'm lost in a world I wasn't meant to understand?" These types of evocations were the source of its continued allure and why it became such an object of fascination to me, as I always sensed that there was something big I had to be missing.

Whatever my frame of mind, Solomon's Key had made its impression on me and was one of those games I'd occasionally break out whenever I wanted a change of pace from the action- or adventure-game fare or when I was feeling frisky, falsely convinced that my ever-increasing gaming prowess could finally lead me straight through to the game's finale. It's not one from the class of games I'd often play with friends, but I have a few memories of subjecting them to the game in spurts and particularly to the 20-something levels, where they'd nervously struggle to grasp the concept before being swiftly eliminated after a few fireballs to the face. I fondly remember those times when we'd alternate control and celebrate the other's clearing of a level by singing along to the intermission's two-note ditty using the imaginatively devised lyrics of "Thank you, Dana! Dana! Dana! Dana! Dana! Dana! Dana! Dana! Dana! Dana! Dana! Dana!" Because, I guess, beating each other over the head with my talking Pee-Wee Herman doll wouldn't quite have been annoying enough on its own. 

Its role never really changed with me. Even today, I periodically load it up on any platform I'm currently using and fruitlessly attempt to advance to the game's end without using the continue code. I usually do resort to using the code but only because I enjoy the game so much that I don't want to quit playing even after my original mission has failed. In truth, I did manage to clear the game once using relatively clean means (the continue code and a walkthrough but no save-states), but I don't remember how this was accomplished, since the unlocking of its true ending requires an opaque sequence of events that even a younger, less-time-restrained me would never have discerned (mainly, you have to find "Pages of Time" that only appear in certain rooms, with there never being any hint of their existence). Still, I don't actually have to finish Solomon's Key to get maximum enjoyment out of it, since its initial 20 or so levels are well-designed and creative enough to where they always manage to quench my thirst for action-based puzzle-platforming.

The good news is that there's more to Solomon's Key than what I originally knew. For one, I didn't realize until around, say, 2002 that it was a port of a coin-op game, which like similarly themed titles Kickle Cubicle and Bubble Bobble I never saw in arcades. Until I watched someone play through its early portion in video form, I assumed that the NES game was just a typical home-conversion port, with the arcade version simply being visually superior. While it is a better-looking game (though, not by a huge leap), it actually has some exclusive levels and a few minor unique elements. I was excited to see it turn up on an ESRB listing as a game slated for the 3DS Virtual Console, and I'm certainly going to pick it up when Nintendo of America gets around to releasing it in, oh, 2019.

It also has a direct sequel in the personage of Fire 'N Ice, which I knew about for the longest time while never aware that it was related to Solomon's Key. Its creators--Tecmo, which quickly became one of my favorite developers during my early NES years--for some reason changed its name for the North American release, where in Japan and Europe it was rightfully titled Solomon's Key 2. It's different from its predecessor in that it's more puzzle-focused, dropping the action mechanics and general complexity, and instead presents themed levels that entail the elimination of all onscreen enemies via the process of creating, destroying and pushing ice blocks. Fire 'N Ice is absolutely another one of the NES' many hidden gems, and I'll have much more to say about it in a future written piece.

Regardless of whether you're playing the arcade original or the NES port, Solomon's Key represents a time in gaming's history when developers had the courage to throw a lot of new ideas at you in bulk, even if very few of them had the potential to stick. There's probably a reason I've never played another game like it and why its sequel is more conventional, but I applaud Tecmo for its original effort and its tenacity in keeping the game alive on services like Virtual Console. I could be sad that it was never replicated (and probably for the usual reason of consumer disinterest in anything different), or I can admit that being a lone, quirky sibling is in actuality what makes it stand out so strongly.

Either way, Solomon's Key also represents a word of caution to both you and I, the gaming enthusiast, against playing it safe and sticking only to what we know. All we're doing in practice is potentially robbing ourselves of experiences with games we just might come to cherish.


  1. It's a rare or nonexistant game published in 2014 that would have the audacity to throw you into a scene with tons of unexplained items, enemies, and gameplay elements and NOT have a tutorial bubble pop up to tell you exactly what was going on. Dana would have a fairy remind him that he missed a hidden item in a block back there; maybe he should go check it out There is no faith in the player.

    On the flipside, games published in the era of Solomon's Key often walked hand-in-hand with the guidebook industry - particularly in Japan - and loved to hide lots of stuff that basically required buying a guide to discern. See other stuff like Milon's Secret Castle, Mystery of Atlantis, etc. It would have been great fun to be the kid in the playground tossing out rumors of THIS secret or THAT warp and so forth, but there was also a crass business side to it.

    Still, it's games like Solomon's Key and other titles from that time period that have increasingly led me away from the modern AAA game industry.

  2. Well, someone will probably accuse me of living in the past, but most of the games I've been playing for the past three or four years have been "old." It's more that I'm in a continued state of discovery, like, for instance, when I spent a few months in 2012 on a DOS kick. This is when I first played games like "Crystal Caves," "Commander Keen" and "Duke Nukem."

    Like I said in the blog's first entry: The medium's history is a vast treasure trove, and there's so much more for me to see.