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The Lost Vikings: 30th anniversary

It's been 30 years since Blizzard released The Lost Vikings, a puzzle platformer, on the SNES (and Sega Genesis). You control three vikings, Olaf, Baleog, and Eric, each of whom possesses a unique skill-set. Only by working together can they escape each of the 37 stages and return home. The levels are divided into six worlds of varying theme, such as spaceship, factory, or ancient Egypt.

The main gimmick of the game is that you switch between the vikings with R and L. Two players can play together to control two at once. Olaf has a big shield that stops all enemy attacks. It can be held overhead or in front. In addition, when held overhead, he floats down slowly, as if the shield were a parachute. Eric is the only viking that can run and jump. Often he goes ahead to enable a path for his comrades, such as by pressing a button to make a bridge. Baleog has a sword and bow for defeating enemies at close and long-range. Arrows can also be used to press buttons from across a gap.

The puzzles begin simple and slowly grow in complexity. Blue, red, and yellow keys with corresponding doors are found in nearly every stage. Keys and a few other items, such as bombs, can be passed between adjacent vikings. In addition to doors, the vikings must navigate elevators, various contraptions and traps, and the occasional teleporter. To exit a level, all three vikings need to make it to the exit, at which point they exchange some very 90's, too-cool-for-school banter.

In the latter half of the game, stages become elaborate though never intellectually difficult. No stage took me more than a few minutes to solve at the level of theory. However, actualizing the solution is another matter. 

The game's biggest flaw is that, whenever a viking dies (or gets stuck), you have to restart the entire level. There are no checkpoints. At first this is a minor inconvenience. Then it becomes frustrating, and finally it becomes infuriating. For years I've used save states only to save when the original lacked a battery backup, or rarely to practice a difficult boss fight. But The Lost Vikings broke me. Even Ghost 'n Goblins has mid-stage checkpoints!

The game uses a lot of trial and error, especially where enemies and falls are concerned. The vikings have three hit points, with plenty of food recovery items, but it rarely matters because the later stages are full of one-hit deaths, whether from falls, lasers, falling blocks, or other hazards. I would have to redo several minutes of gameplay just to advance a few seconds, then start over again. This trial and error can go for a long time, and my patience ran out after about a dozen stages. The last two stages (including the final battle with Tomator) are especially hard, consisting of multiple mini-stages that have to be completed flawlessly in succession.

The levels in The Lost Vikings are fun to solve, but not so fun I want to play each one dozens of times for hours. I'm unwilling to invest that kind of time with so many other worthy games to play. I had two choices: give up and leave half the game unplayed—the experience of almost everyone who played on the SNES—or use save states to make my own checkpoints. I liked the game, so the choice was clear. Save states take nothing away from the puzzle solving, which is the fun part. They make the game much better.

Graphically and aurally, The Lost Vikings is nothing special. The soft background music reminds me of other SNES games, like Sim City, Pilotwings, and Joe and Mac. Without save states (or rewind, if you prefer) The Lost Vikings is tediously difficult, sucking the fun out of the puzzle-solving. With them, it's one of the best games on the SNES. This game has forever changed my view of save states. Life is too short and leisure time too precious to waste. All games involve repetition, and different people draw that line differently. For me, The Lost Vikings crossed that line. I recommend the game: it's a fun puzzle platformer—but use save states.

Grade: B-

Linked Review
"With upbeat music, humorous dialogue between levels, and tight controls, this is a game that is as satisfying as it is challenging!"
— Kyh Yang, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the SNES Library, 4.5/5

"The puzzle dynamics Blizzard created for The Lost Vikings were nearly perfect, as each level was a head-scratching brainteaser that you could only solve by taking full advantage of each viking's unique skills."
— IGN, #30 of Top 100


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