Top 100 NES Review: #37 – Willow (1989)

What A Rabbit Hole. 

Playing this led to the movie which led me to Ron Howard which then led to the universe. 

Sydlexia’s Ranking: #25/100
My Rating: StarStarStarStar

It all started with a type — 36: Paperboy37.

Looking over my top 100 NES list for my next plaything, paperboy37 sounded odd and intriguing…until I learned that it was a mistake. 37 just didn’t carry to the next line with Willow. Wow — I’m an idiot. I knew what a paperboy was, but what the hell was a Willow? What the hell indeed. 

Willow is an adaptation of a George Lucas film of the same name for the NES. Capcom took this IP and made something akin to a Zelda game. It took me several days to realize that this wasn’t a stand alone product. I was in awe of this quirky game with a rich, albeit weird, story and music. The intro alone was overwhelming for an NES game and probably took up half the cartridge.

None of this prepared me for the movie. In one salient scene, Willow casts fire on a troll that then gets ripped apart by cerbellum-looking branches which turns into a big ball of brain tissues before two dragon heads rip through the film-covered gyrus to morph into Siskel and Ebert.

Here we go!

NES Willow Intro
Oh Possum!


Think Lord of the Rings but replace the ring with a baby.

An infant destined to destroy the evil Bavmorda ends up in a quaint village affected by dwarfism on the outskirts of the kingdom. Willow leads the expedition to return the infant to her appropriate place. Along the way, he meets the swashbuckling Madmartigan, a talented swordsman with ambiguous ethics. They join a powerful sorcerer named Fin Raziel and together protect the infant from Bavmorda’s evil henchman.

Willow NES Fighting
Link, is that you?


I’m all jumbled.

Playing this game thinking it has nothing to do with a movie, and then watching the movie but finding it only has a little to do with the game has left me very confused. Extremely confused. I went from no expectations prospectively to a lot of expectations retrospectively very quickly, and it is hard to untwine what was already tied.

The game starts with a bang. The color palette is rich and synth heavy and layered:

You are quickly tossed into an intuitive hack and slash world. Willow picks up a sword and then goes into the fields to start mowing down bubbles (everyone has to start somewhere). Here, you are treated to another cinematic experience: the music for the open field and battle are one in the same and bleed into each other. The environment becomes wavy as you transition from exploration to fighting. It’s a high art moment for the NES.

Willow is a good mixture of RPG with adventure; each enemy killed is more experience allowing for more HP and MP. This gives you confidence to traverse the dangerous caves and locations collecting items that push your quest forward. The inventory system is simple composing of only sword, shield, magic, and unique items. Exploration is rewarded with souped up equipment, and the puzzles aren’t bone crushingly hard to figure out. Finally, a mostly intuitive NES game!

But, let’s not get too excited. There is still plenty of weird shit abound. How about my favorite time waster, entering empty houses:

Empty Houses Willow
A beautiful day in the mostly abandoned neighborhood.

Or how about the indignation of this Zombie transmuter:

Zombie Turns You Into A Big Willow NES
Being transformed into a pig sucks.

You enter a room to only have an invisible Zombie remove its ephemeral husk as the background changes to the stars from the universe. You are transformed into a pig. In this form, you are unable to escape or attack. All that is left is to dodge the fearsome bubbles the zombie launches at you. After a set number of bubbles, the spell is reversed and Willow is once again able to have full agency. However, the cooldown for this “dwarf into a pig” trick is a microsecond, so if you don’t immediately exit the battlefield, it happens all again.

And this is where it’s best to talk about the intersection of movie and game. This whole pig thing was quirky and a scream when you hadn’t seen the movie. In reality, it is just a thinly-veiled attempt to imitate imagery from the movie no matter how out of place or out of context it is.

And you thought the whole goblin into brain into double-headed dragon scene was weird but little did you know about the Val Kilmer into a pig moment that was yet to come.

Yes, being turned into a pig happened in the movie, but certainly not in every corner of every dungeon. It’s a game of loosely connected associations where events from the movie happen in unrelated ways.

This leaves us with the biggest question for the video game plot: where the hell is the baby? When my BF pulled up the movie poster for Willow, I was in for a shock.  Not only is Willow a person of short stature (it’s impossible to tell with the NES Graphics), but he is carrying a baby. A BABY.


I’m glad I played the game without knowing about the movie. It made everything simpler, and each quirky, bizarre choice was heralded as ingenuity instead of a poorly done imitation. While I’ve been beating up on the licensed element, the game has plenty of moments worthy of experiencing and is one of the rare items in the NES catalog that holds up so many years later.

The movie isn’t so bad either. The same ridiculousness found in the game is throughout the later half of the movie. While it does go off the rails a little bit, I found it all to be very enjoyable.


I really liked everything about Willow the game and the movie except the Brownies. Those guys sucks.


Other People’s Takes: 

  • Twentieth Century Gamer: “While Willow might not have depth on its side, it does have accessibility and personality to spare. The mechanics here are very solid and there are no glaring gameplay flaws to speak of. It’s a worthy entry in the genre and very much worth playing for action-RPG fans, even if it does play third fiddle to Zelda and Crystalis on the NES.”
  • 0% Imagination: Overall I really didn’t like this game although thats kinda obvious when you factor in the fact its a movie based game and they rarely turn out alright. To many flaws and the only good things is slightly pretty graphics that quickly get tiring.”
  • Talking Pulp: “Willow was a much better experience than I had anticipated and if you dig the movie or just dig action RPGs, this is definitely worth your time.

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