A real-time strategy game is usually a genre that thrived only on the PC. Console versions of RTS titles, from Command and Conquer to Halo Wars always struggled to maintain an audience. The PC showed dominance for the genre, perhaps because of the constant micro-managing that was necessary to survive a general map or a hardcore player. It is why titles like StarCraft are still played professionally today- it is a deep and complex genre that requires split-decisions to survive.
This has not stopped RTS games from making their way to consoles, but even rarer still, a console game on a hand-held is also known to happen from time to time. Perhaps one of the best- relatively speaking- titles to attempt a RTS-lite experience on a handheld is the game Warlocked on the Game Boy Color. Released in 2000, Warlcoked is an anomaly because it is one of the few, pure real-time-strategy games to follow the footsteps of other RTS giants, and despite massive limitations to the game, it actually succeeds at its objective.
Warlocked comes from Bits Studios, a U.K based development studio with a rather colorful history behind them. The studio began life in 1990, focusing development on several Game Boy titles such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Chase H.Q, and most notably, R-Type.
The R-Type games on handhelds would be the biggest successes for Bits Studios, while they struggled heavily on major consoles. As discovered recently, several games for the Nintendo 64 being developed by Bits Studios, including Die Hard 64, Riqa and Thieves World, would never see the light of day or would be re-tooled as other games for the next generation. Nintendo secured a publishing deal with Bits Studios at the time, hence the exclusive work for Nintendo systems in the late 1990s. In the midst of that time period, Warlocked would ultimately be only one of two games Bits Studios would release under this deal, other being R-Type DX also for the Game Boy Color.
The game is rare because it attempts to do something the Game Boy Color wasn’t able to do, a multi-faceted RTS experience. Taking heavy cues from 1990s PC RTS games, especially Blizzards WarCraft, it followed a simple set of objectives- kill and destroy the opponents troops and take over an entire map for yourself. There were two sides to choose from, the good humans and the evil beastmen, as they build troops and supplies up to take on the enemy forces.
Both sides more or less were mirrors of each other, save for the graphics presenting them. Each side had worker units, melee units and ranged units that can be built using resources. Buildings were mirrors of each other as well, just with different sprites to represent them, and the resources came in two flavors; gold and fuel. It was a simple RTS in the grand scheme of things, but even in this simplicity it did have some unique ideas that helped set it apart from its PC cousins.
One of the major hooks of Warlocked was the use of various wizards, some were exclusive towards which faction you chose, others were randomly generated for each map in the game. There were a total of 27 different wizards, but not all of them would be found in the game, forcing the player to trade wizards with other players to ‘collect them all’ for their own index. The wizards all had different effects, although some did overlap with each other. Examples included wizards who turning enemy troops into animals, slowing their movement, destroying buildings or using elemental attacks, as well as support abilities such as healing or making units invisible. Wizards can be permanently killed if the player is not careful, turning them into precious commodities for your campaigns.
The trading aspect also had multi-player support for the Game Boy Color, utilizing the age old game link cable for trades and local battles. This game mode allowed for several pre-made maps to be used to fight your foes, and any wizards collected in the campaign or through trades can be used for multiplayer as well, adding a small but interesting tactical layer to the game. The wizards, in many respects, are analogous to the popular hero characters seen in WarCraft III and beyond, providing a more modern aspect to the RTS genre on the handhelds before it became popular on the PC.
Another recruitable unit includes dragons, which can be found on select maps in dragon nests. Dragons were the ultimate unit- barely taking damage and only suffering damage from archers, guard towers and wizards, which makes them another major commodity to fight over in later levels of the game’s two campaigns.
While there is a lot to like in Warlocked, a major flaw in the title was ultimately how slow and plodding it was. The game chugged when a lot of sprites were on screen at once, and the control scheme followed a PC-style drag and click gameplay, which was difficult to navigate on a handheld system with three buttons. These flaws did hurt Warlocked overall replayability, and also made multiplayer battles difficult to deal with due to handheld limitations of the time.
Warlocked had a very small development team, but it was nonetheless a pretty solid achievement when the game was finally released in 2000. The game was well received by critics, with some even hoping for a re-release of the title by Nintendo on the virtual console or DSi Ware. Even retrospective looks at Warlocked are relatively positive- Hardcore Gaming’s Joshua Jankiewicz noted the game is a flawed experience, such as the slow game speed and rather easy campaign AI. “Still, on the humble Game Boy Color,” stated Jankiweicz, the game plays like a technological achievement. It might not trump or expand on the antiquated Dune II, but at its best, Warlocked equals it.”
Despite the positive press, Warlocked was never a major seller for the Game Boy Color. Bits Studios was working on a sequel for Nintendo’s upcoming system, the Game Boy Advance, titled Wizards. Scheduled for a 2003 release, Wizards would follow-up on the gameplay of Warlocked and expand upon it, adding more units on screen and faster gameplay, likely due to the less limitations on the Advance system. Other promised features included branching pathways for the game’s campaign, providing more variety for the title.
Sadly, Wizards would not see the light of day. While Warlocked would see release, Nintendo would ultimately drop Bits Studios and several other development teams in the early 2000s. Bits Studios shopped around for another publisher for Wizards, but failed to secure one in time, leading to the game’s cancellation. Bits Studios itself would re-tool several of its unreleased Nintendo 64 games for next generation systems, leading to the releases of Rogue Ops and Die Hard: Vendetta– both of which would receive mediocre reviews. Their final release as a studio was Payout Poker and Casino for the Playstation Portable in 2006. As of 2008, Bits Studios is no longer in operation.
Bits Studios may be gone, but its legacy lives on in a number of ways. Warlocked is perhaps their biggest success as a game- a RTS on a system that can barely contain it. This makes the title a unique piece of gaming history, a title that on any other system would fail to be memorable due to its limitations. It is unlikely Warlocked will ever get a re-release, let alone a sequel as Wizards is now dead, but at the very least, is it remembered as an obscure little gem for the Game Boy Color.
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