ReLoaded: Three Wonders
When I was a kid, I went to Culver beach every summer with my family. It was always a good family time, but floating around in murky water is only fun for so long. The little swimming hole was alright, but the real draw (for me at least) was the small arcade room fifty feet up the beach. I’ll never forget it. It was a bit rundown and they rarely had any good games, but one summer they had an arcade that changed my childhood forever.
The game was called Three Wonders. It was similar to many games I had played before, but the deep visual style was breathtaking and I quickly became enamored with its fantastic world. I played that wonderful arcade all summer and looked forward to it every time we went to the beach. But, sadly, winter came and went and by the next summer, Three Wonders was gone. Every summer after, I searched that little arcade room like a boy looking for his lost puppy, but it never returned.
Time passed and I got older. It had been a few years since that magical summer and I had almost forgotten the amazing game all together. But, one inauspicious night, my family and I stopped to grab dinner at a random pizzeria several towns away and there it was, a lone arcade glowing in the corner like the Holy Grail, the One Ring and the Golden Fleece all rolled together. I had finally found it!
But, unfortunately, I was dragged (kicking and screaming) from the pizzeria before I even got to play it. That night, my delicious pizza tasted of nothing but frustration and disappointment. Luckily, after some judicious whining, my parents agreed to bring me back the next week so I could play the game I “wouldn’t shut up about”. Five interminable days later, we returned.
Clutching a $10 roll of quarters in my fist, I stood for hours playing Three Wonders in its entirety while my parents made chit-chat with the owner of the pizzeria. After I beat it and basked in the end credits, I handed the half-empty roll of quarters back to my parents. It was the first arcade I ever beat and it only took me five bucks. I felt like the most bad-ass 9-year-old on the planet.
For those who never had the pleasure, Three Wonders is a little-known arcade game that was made by Capcom in 1991 and, as the name implies, is actually three games in one: Don’t Pull, Midnight Wanderers and Chariot. Don’t Pull is a fun little puzzle game, kind of like the Adventures of Lolo meets Dig Dug, but it has nothing to do with the other two games and I never really played it much. However, I played Midnight Wanderers and its sequel, Chariot, relentlessly.
The heroes of these two games are Lou and Siva, hobbit-like characters armed with knives and bows who battle goblins, monsters and other ethereal creatures. Both games feature the same characters, the same story, the same fantastic art style and two-player co-op, but they are quite different in regards to gameplay.
Midnight Wanderers is a 2-D side-scrolling shooter/platformer, similar to games like Contra and Metal Slug, but set in a gorgeous fantasy world. The goal of the game is to blast your way through magical forests and epic castles filled with enemies until you recover the sacred Chariot. There are a few power-ups to help you on your way, but you mostly have to depend on your character’s basic skills to survive. After you defeat the final boss and recover the Chariot, Lou and Siva are given magic gliders to soar through the air and remove the curse over the land. This brings us to Chariot.
Chariot is a shoot ‘em up flying game reminiscent of Gradius, but with the same fantastic characters and art style from Midnight Wanderers; gliding through the night sky, players will face an entire armada of detailed enemies and memorable boss battles. You begin Chariot with a weak projectile, but collecting power-ups increases the spread and damage of your weapon and your power attack. There are also defensive power-ups that create a “tail” on the glider and block damage from behind.
Though the descriptions of these games seem rather run-of-the-mill, they are no mere knock-offs. The gameplay is actually better than most shooters, but what truly sets these games apart is their artistic visual direction. The backgrounds, enemy designs and especially the boss battles coalesce to create a vividly realized fantasy world that gives me the nostalgia feels like nothing else. Without a doubt, the unique challenge and stellar design of the boss fight are what I remember most from these games. I mean, how often do you get to fight a moon made out of clouds?
Both games are fairly difficult, but neither put you through the coin-eating bullet hell that shooters used to be infamous for. On top of that, the gameplay is solid. The levels are well-designed, boss battles are balanced and the controls are responsive, so whenever you die it’s usually your own fault (these days there are even YouTube vids of players doing no-damage runs).
It’s also interesting that the two games play so differently within the same series. In fact, I always wanted to see the characters and signature artwork from these games branch out into more genres. I hoped for years that Lou and Siva series would star in their own twin-stick shooter or, even better, their own RPG. Unfortunately, the characters never starred in another game (though Lou and Siva did appear as support characters in Marvel vs. Capcom) and the series is probably better left untouched at this point.
Three Wonders was one of those old-school, lightning-in-a-bottle games that just aren’t made anymore. Studio MDHR’s Cuphead (soon to be released) looks like it will come pretty close, but it still can’t rival the unique and creative world presented in Midnight Wanderers and Chariot. Three Wonders is fairly obscure, but these games have garnered a devoted fan base from the few people lucky enough to have played it.
If you have never played these games before, or if you want to re-experience these awesome titles, you can now find free downloads for them online. If you like retro 2-D shooters and awesome artwork, you should do yourself a favor and play these overlooked gems for yourself.