Not a lot of people realize that the pioneering US anime company Animeigo, who was in large part responsible for the explosion of the anime video market, was co-founded by Robert Woodhead. Woodhead, in turn, co-created the equally pioneering computer role-playing game Wizardry. And do you know who really loves that game? Japan. There have been stories that Mr. Woodhead’s geek cred made Japanese animation companies– staffed by serious nerds, naturally– quite a bit more receptive to his plans to bring their cartoons to the West.
Japan loves Wizardry so much that it’s been making original Wizardry products for years, continuing into the present. While the game franchise is long dead in its homeland of the USA, Japan never stopped loving it. In fact, back in 1991– ten years after Wizardry‘s original release– TMS turned out a direct-to-video anime detailing the story of the first Wizardry game. That is what we’re here to talk about, after all. Thank you for bearing with me.
The OAV version chooses to translate its subject matter as straight as possible, which becomes a bit of a problem considering the story of the first Wizardry wasn’t exactly its selling point. A group of adventurers traverse a monster-infested dungeon in search of a big, evil wizard, who they must defeat for his magic MacGuffin. In short, you’re watching somebody else’s very straightforward Dungeons and Dragons session.
Since the Wizardry player creates and names his own party, there isn’t a protagonist he can attach himself to. So the anime has to make up its own very anime band of heroes. At first, we have a party of three: the hero Shin, the cleric Alex (in anime terms, the Blonde-Haired, Blue-Eyed Best Buddy) and a ninja named Hawkwind. As the actual process of playing Wizardry entails months of walking back and forth inside a dungeon, getting lost, fighting monsters, grabbing loot and dying repeatedly, the anime wisely skips to the end. The three men are experienced adventurers who spend their days raiding the second-to-last floor of the dungeon, only to eat, drink and sleep at the inn and repeat the process all over again in the morning. In RPG parlance, they grind.
The inn is populated by groups of adventurers that all do the same thing, as below the ninth floor is the big-deal wizard Werdna, and everybody is afraid to face him. Naturally, our heroes run into some other stock heroes– an old mage, his apprentice and a lady mage– during a routine run of the dungeon and band together to finally beat the game already.
The strict adherence to the source material is often amusing: every single monster, weapon and spell depicted is directly from the game. The fansubbers even noted the in-game equivalent whenever a spell is used, including a game-rules explanation of the final deus ex machina. The story also suffers whenever death is involved: an unintentionally hilarious scene involves the heroine looking over the brutalized corpses of her former party members. The hero passes her by and says “Hey, it’ll be fine, we can just resurrect them at the temple.” This is an RPG, after all! And because RPG magic is available, nobody’s ever in any real danger. Arm get chopped off? There’s a spell for that. Ninja slowly turning to stone? There’s a spell for that, too!
(Perhaps the most RPG-faithful moment is when the party reacts to the possible presence of a woman in the dungeon like giggling twelve year olds. “Maybe she’s naked!”)
This is a thoroughly ordinary and forgettable one-shot fantasy anime of the sort that might have done well in the Blockbuster aisle. I’m not saying it’s terribly good– most of the anime that was at Blockbuster back then wasn’t any good either– but with fantasy anime as popular as it was, it’s surprising that nobody picked up a title with some name recognition, albeit the old school-ness. I’ll assume that rights issues made something like this difficult, but it certainly would have represented some kind of wonderful, full-circle cultural exchange for a Japanese cartoon based on an early American computer RPG to appear on the fledgling American home video market for Japanese cartoons, which in turn was kind of started by the guy who made said RPG. At the very least, it would have made for a good trivia question.