In the 16-bit era of show-don’t-tell gaming, Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole sits as an isometric action-adventure role-playing game about embracing exploration to find solutions to problems and learning on the way. With a 2.5D isometric perspective, Landstalker reimagined new limits for its genre by weaving optical illusions into platform exploration and rewarding players with stat improvements off the beaten path.
Within the opening hours of the game, a light-hearted story unfolds from the perspective of the treasure hunter, Nigel. He’s not your run-of-the-mill prophesized hero waiting to fulfill his destiny, though. His ever-persistent quest for booty and thrilling adventure ends up leading him on the trail of King Nole’s lost treasure. With his companion fairy, Friday, they venture out to an island oozing with uncharted lands and primitive civilizations to discover the forgotten riches of the tyrannical king.
Developed by Climax Entertainment and published under SEGA, Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole came out on the SEGA Mega Drive in 1992 for Japan, later 1993 elsewhere. While an action role-playing game first, Landstalker derives elements from the platformer and action-adventure genre to mesh with its three-dimensional world from an isometric viewpoint. Since its release, it has been re-released several times: from the Wii’s Virtual Console in 2007 to Steam in 2011, following the SEGA Genesis Mini in 2019.
Despite critical and commercial success, Landstalker never received a proper continuation outside of the spinoff Lady Stalker: Challenge from the Past for SNES in 1995 and spiritual successors like Matrix Software’s Alundra for PlayStation. A remake was charted for the PlayStation Portable back in 2005 but faced cancellation due to timing and popularity surrounding the game. However, that wouldn’t stop the future of the studio.
Climax Entertainment history
Climax Entertainment was founded in April 1990 by Kan Naito and Shinpei Harada. Their love for video games elevated Climax into a production company focused on fantasy worlds. Eventually, they would create two RPG-centric games within a massive and popular franchise: Shining in the Darkness and Shining Force.
The first to come was Shining in the Darkness, which mimics a first-person perspective akin to competitors at the time like Wizardry, Might & Magic, and A Bard’s Tale. It was primarily a dungeon-crawler RPG in the same vein as the Phantasy Star series for the SEGA Master System and Genesis. You could talk to characters in town, fight monsters stalking the hallways you traversed, and find treasure. While far removed from the light-hearted adventure in Landstalker, Shining in the Darkness laid the groundwork for high-fantasy concepts and fairy tales that were consistent with the company’s identity.
Shining Force would be the next chapter in Climax Entertainment’s history. In collaboration with Camelot Entertainment, it was regarded as one of the founders of the strategy RPG genre – standing toe-to-toe with Nintendo’s prominent Fire Emblem series. The character art from Yoshitaka Tamaki would become a staple for future Climax Entertainment projects, developing a 90s anime-esque and colorful palette for their fantasy art style.
As overwhelming success marked Shining Force as a classic, it would overshadow Climax Entertainment’s most niche title: Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole. But while attention was on the success of past games, Climax Entertainment gained a wide berth to experiment and created a jarring IP that departed from core-RPG mechanics. Instead, they pushed for optical illusion platforming sections, persistent puzzle-solving, and an interactive isometric game world where you battle monsters in real-time.
Optical illusions in Landstalker
You’ll control Nigel, the treasure hunter, throughout the game. Walking, jumping, climbing ropes or ladders, talking to NPCs, picking up and throwing objects, and swinging his sword are the basic actions that’ll carry you from zone to zone. However, where those actions are used changes the gameplay in Landstalker because of its experimental perspective.
Inside multilayered dungeons or combat-infested areas, monsters will be in pathways where sword swings could stop short against a wall. Then there are switches and locked doors that could be jumped to – if invisible barriers weren’t there. With the game being on an isometric plane, player perspective can skew and cause some impatience. Creating situations where players might believe a platform is in front of them but is actually higher.
Eventually, head-scratching and rage-inducing swearing (at the developers) might be the future of some players because of this perspective. Some would chalk the interesting platform choices as the oversight of Landstalker, but I’d argue the other side.
Isometric games often use their viewpoint to introduce mystery to the game world. Whether secret passages or bringing attention to certain assets around the player character, the isometric perspective creates visual difficulty. It keeps players open to exploring the game world and mastering player movement to conquer gameplay segments.
Finding treasure means surviving the game
Another reimagined limit that Landstalker fostered for multi-genre isometric games is rewarding exploration via character stat improvements. The Legend of Zelda – while not an isometric series – popularized improving character resources to empower players. Landstalker adopted that design after 1991’s Link to the Past, but in a way that constantly improves player survivability.
Finding treasure is the core objective of Landstalker. Without Life Stocks (hearts) or Eke-Eke (re-tries), you’ll get a quick death when dungeons ramp up in difficulty. Finding switches to unlock secret holes or taking the side path earns relevance because progression depends on it.
By amping up gameplay challenges through hiding stat improvements, isometric games like Landstalker could determine how players gain new resources. This newly reimagined limit also played into the game’s theme of embracing exploration, rewarding the stoutest treasure hunters – who not only suffered through optical illusion puzzles but found the chest past a band of rough monsters.
Currently, there haven’t been any plans for Landstalker, which we’ll likely never see return after decades of radio silence. Also, judging from the current state of Climax Entertainment after several key development members departed the studio – chances are nonexistent.
Despite being a dead IP, it has been making the rounds as re-releases for people to enjoy on several platforms. Games like Alundra and Dark Savior continued what Landstalker started. Though, nothing recent to speak of has carried the torch. In the end, Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole showed that isometric games could reimagine new limits and concepts that are fresh and challenging for years to come.
Although, within those years, it would be exciting if Landstalker resurfaced as a remake and shook up the isometric gaming scene once again. Mind-bending optical illusions and new tools-of-the-trade for explorations would set it apart from any other game out there.