Retro Review: “Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves” (NES)

On 13 June 1991, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves landed in movie theaters. The film would become a remarkable success, and the music would become a high school dance staple for years to come. I’m not even ashamed to admit that I probably considered it to be my favorite movie, at least until I remembered that I lived in world where Ghostbusters, Rocky IV and RoboCop still existed. In any case, since this year is an anniversary of sorts, what better time to review the NES game inspired by the movie?

Is Prince of Thieves worth fighting, lying, walking the wire, and dying for? Read on and find out!

“There was a rich man from Nottingham…”

Published by Virgin for the NES in 1991, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is loosely based on the Morgan Creek film starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. You play as the titular Robin Hood (aka Robin of Locksley), who must escape Arab dungeons in the Holy Land, free the land from corrupt government officials, and fight a giant pig and a giant, sword-wielding skeleton.

Whah? Like I said, the game is “loosely” based on the story from the movie. Which the overarching story is largely in place, there are many other missions thrown in to extend the game. These all play out slightly differently, and there is a respectable amount of gameplay variation to keep things fresh. Most of the game is played as a stage-driven overhead action game (similar to Zelda), but there are also one-on-one duels, massive “melee” battles, and even a couple of horse chases to spice things up.

“What do you call a pair of salads in Arabic? ‘Saladin’! Ha! What, don’t you get it?!”

Blended into the action scenes are a few RPG elements. Characters will join and leave your party, your character can gain experience and level up his skills, and there is a fairly in-depth pause screen where you will use items, equip weapons and armor, and manage your inventory. It’s all pretty in-depth for a licensed movie tie-in.

The story is nicely told in brief dialogue-driven cut scenes, though the characters’ designs don’t really resemble the actors in the movie. Licensing? Laziness? I’m willing to accept the former as the most likely explanation. Either way, Maid Marian should look waaaaaay hotter if she’s going to be “worth dying for”, am I right, fellas?

A rather elaborate pause screen for a movie tie-in

“Locksley! I’m going to cut your heart out with a spoon!”

Controlling Robin works well enough, most of the time. The control is a little bit loose in the main overhead portions of the game, and there there is an annoying, repetitive knocking any time you touch an impassable object. You’ll get used to navigating the environment easily enough, though there is a learning curve. Robin doesn’t animate remarkably well either, but it’s certainly passable for an 8-bit NES game.

The melee battles are very different, where you can swap between members of your party, each with his own health gauge, to fight dozens of enemies at once. The camera is set much higher, so your characters are smaller and move more slowly, but it all works rather smoothly. As for the duels, the sprites are much larger but also feel a bit stiff. The “roll” move is a great way to get in and out of attack range quickly though.

Get behind the rock, dink!

Most boss battles are fought in the “duel” mode, though there is one mission where you must fight a giant boar which plays out in the usual overhead manner. Other than bosses, the most typical enemies you will encounter are the Sheriff of Nottingham’s guards. Most attack hand-to-hand, but crossbow-wielding soldiers will also appear later in the game. These are quite a pain to contend with as their shots fire quickly and can pass through walls and other objects. At least they can also accidentally kill their own comrades if they get in the line of fire. If any soldier gets too close, it may spark a duel, so keep your distance if you want to avoid it. This definitely slows the game down, but it seems to always yield an item if you search the body afterwards (assuming you win the duel, of course).

Other than the soldiers and guards, Robin and his band of merry men will also fight off the typical 8-bit cast of wildlife baddies including rats, lizards, wolves (at least I think the white enemies in Locksley Castle are supposed to be wolves), and last but not least – bats. Unlike soldiers (who you can easily outrun), many of these beasts are much quicker. Still, most of these can be dispatched without too much trouble so long as you don’t get surrounded.

PRO TIPS!

Equip Robin with a bow before melee fights, then swap to Azeem. The computer-controlled Robin is a crack shot.

Don’t give heavy items (like saddles) to Robin. Instead let the rest of your party carry them. This will keep your speed/agility high.

Lure your dueling opponents to the top of a table or rock, then patiently wait below to take them out.

If you’re having trouble, grind for experience early in the game. Most of these enemies are pretty easy to deal with.

DON’T GIVE DUNCAN THE DRUID DAGGER!

The melee fights are more fun than they look

“In my dreams alone have I imagined such a place”

While not remarkable by today’s standards, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves looks pretty nice compared to its 8-bit counterparts. This isn’t too surprising as Prince of Thieves is a later NES release, but visually, everything comes together rather well. The castles, sewers, and woodland scenes are all fully realized, and I really like seeing the NPCs working to build up your forest hideout. Sometimes the brown shades blend together, and you may get a little bored of seeing the wooded environments by the end of the game, but only a little.

On the audio front, Prince of Thieves has a well-written soundtrack with some interesting melodies and rich undertones for an 8-bit game. No, the music is not at all based on the movie’s excellent score. I’m sure this could disappoint some, but what Virgin cobbled together is enjoyable in its own right, complete with a few tunes that will stick in your head for a day or two (for all the right reasons, unlike a Bryan Adams power ballad). The music eventually repeats itself, but the game isn’t long enough for that to become too much of an annoyance.

Oh shit! A ten-foot skeleton!

“There are no perfect men in the world, only perfect intentions”

While there is a lot to like in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, there are certainly a few shortfalls to note. As was typical of the era, there is a bit of flicker and slowdown when the action gets too hot and heavy. This is most apparent in the duels, with the NES struggling to handle the larger sprites, I imagine.

The pause screen, while thorough, is maybe a bit too elaborate for what is really a fairly short game. The “take item” and “drop item” icons seem backwards to me, and you have to put an item in front of the “eye” icon to see what it actually is. Why can’t the item be described in the space to the right when selected? You also can’t equip anything to your head, hips or legs, so the spots they occupy on the grid are wasted space.

Honestly, perhaps the biggest gripe I have about Robin Hood: PoT is that the developers might have tried too hard to fit too much into the game. It’s not a long game, nor is it very difficult, so many of the RPG elements don’t seem to fit very well. For instance, you collect gold from defeated enemies, and I found very few places to actually spend any of it. There are four different types of action, and in only one – the melee battles – do the other members of your party play any part. And while horse chase scenes are usually really cool, the chases in Prince of Thieves are simple, repetitive, and not well-designed.

Always two rocks. Always.

“Fuck me! He cleared it!”

When you finally complete the game, you are rewarded with a fairly lackluster ending that mirrors the final moments of the film. You don’t even get to see credits, as these are hidden in one of the game’s dungeons.

Truth be told, however, I’ve seen the ending quite a few times over years. Why? Not only because is repeats if you let it run, but because I really enjoy this game. It’s not exactly a must-own classic, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is still a really fun experience, even by today’s standards. There are plenty of factors that could have used more focus or polish, but the variety of gameplay keeps you interested. It’s also not nearly as difficult as many other games from the era, which means it was probably a more satisfying rental for most. However, if you are open to replaying your games from beginning to end, a Prince of Thieves play-through can make for an enjoyable afternoon.

So, is Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves worth fighting, lying, walking the wire, and dying for? Nah. But it’s a damn respectable game, and still worth playing even after all these years. With loose copies going for less than $10 on eBay, it’s an easy one to recommend, whether you are a retro gamer, a Robin Hood fan, or a causal player with nostalgia for the early nineties.

Your box… is like a perfect sunrise…

Shout out to Moby Games and Goggle Bob for the screenshots.

Thanks for reading!

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3 comments

  • Rusty Shackelford

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane! It’s been way too long since I played Robin Hood!

    Like

  • Rusty Shackelford

    Also, what happens when you give Duncan the knife? I completely forgot! Do you end up going weaponless if you do?

    Like

    • You need the Druid dagger to kill the giant skeleton near the end. If Duncan has it in his inventory and it gets to the part where he stops traveling with you, you can’t get the knife back and beat the game.

      Like

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