Constellations, block puzzles, magic, and a Taoist monk collide in this odd but extremely difficult puzzle game called Solomon’s Key.
Published by Tecmo as an arcade game in 1986, it was ported to the NES in 1987. Michitaka Tsuruta was the main designer and he explained over email how he drew the original inspiration for Solomon’s Key from Lode Runner. Lode Runner was a 1983 game released by Broderbrund in which you erase blocks and trap enemies as you make your way through a complex set of mazes. Tsuruta got the idea of giving players an additional ability; they wouldn’t just destroy tiles, but create them as well. This in turn became the core concept behind Solomon’s Key.
The game actually began as more of an action title, but the developers “came to a dead end,” Tsuruta explained. “Then my boss, Mr. Kazutoshi Ueda, suggested it should be a puzzle game.” Ueda became the leader of the team and helped create the basic structure. But then he quit Tecmo to become a founding member of Atlus. At that point, Tsuruta took over as “the main director and completed the rest. So it started as an action game and ended up as a puzzle. I guess that’s why it became a different kind of game.”
Solomon Key’s gameplay mixes the puzzle and action elements smoothly. Track down the key in each room, avoid enemies and obstacles, then escape once the door is unlocked.
The title for the game came about when the sales manager, Mr. Harano (who later left Tecmo and co-founded Atlus), noticed there were several items in the game with a star-like symbol. He asked what they meant and another of the developers explained, “‘It’s the seal of Solomon,’ and added there’s a book on magic called The Key of Solomon.” Tsuruta explained, “Hearing that, Mr. Harano murmured, ‘I like it’ several times. Thus the title was decided. Having settled the title, we reconstructed the story accordingly, centered around the Book of Magic.”
The story is a hodgepodge of elements assembled from the Bible, D&D, and Lao-tzu. A great king named Solomon sealed a horde of demons into a place called the Constellation Sign using the eponymous key. A Taoist monk who found the key accidentally released all the demons back into the wild. It’s up to the magician, Dana, to enter the Constellation Sign and use his wizardry to seal the darkness.
Dana’s magical abilities are twofold; he can create and destroy stone blocks, and he can cast magic fireballs. The Constellation Sign is made up of about fifty intricate rooms that draw their designs from the zodiac. Blocks hide many secrets and power-ups like extra lives, treasure bags, and even warps that let Dana skip ahead.
Solomon’s Key starts off simple. An enemy goblin is trapped on a breakable stone block that impedes Dana’s path. After Dana breaks the stone, the goblin falls and disintegrates, teaching players the basics of how the block party works. There’s also a Bell of Lyrac above the Ram symbol in the room that’s totally optional. Players can form a stair with the blocks to climb the room and ring it, which liberates a fairy from the exit. To finish the level, grab the key, save the fairy, and leave.
This basic rubric gets more and more complex as enemies increase in number and the constellation-based architecture becomes more convoluted. “Mr. Ueda was mainly in charge of action parts, and his friend, Mr. Masanobu Endou, did the very complicated puzzle sections. After Mr. Ueda’s departure, we began making the Famicom version. We asked the planning staff at Tecmo to come up with the stage designs. We test-played each stage to decide their arrangement. I remember checking to make sure the puzzles varied from stage to stage so that they wouldn’t create similar impressions for more than several rooms in a row.”
Tsuruta’s main work included the design and pixel art for the “main characters, monsters, and fairies.” Throughout the stages, gargoyles, dragons, and demon heads do their best to prevent Dana from escaping. An increase in obstacles and crafty wall placement make traversal arduous. Each room is a cosmological deathtrap that requires you to map out Dana’s route beforehand and put your reflexes and platforming skills to the ultimate test. Tsuruta took inspiration in his monster designs from Greek mythology as well as the film Jason and the Argonauts. “I think these are the basis of my drawing monsters. I also loved playing the game called Gauntlet at the time. The monsters in that game influenced me, too.”
Tsuruta has gone to work on many other games, including another NES classic, Mighty Bomb Jack, as well as a sequel to Solomon’s Key. On my end, it was amazing to get in touch with one of the creators of the game. Solomon’s Key was one of the earliest games I played on the NES, but I never could beat it, as it was so hard.
I recently decided to give it another go and popped it in to play it again. I did fare better, but it was as difficult as I remembered (watching a speed runner finish it in fourteen minutes was humbling). As I played, I couldn’t help but think back to the days when the Nintendo was still relatively new. Not everyone had the console and we tended to congregate towards those kids who did. It’s no exaggeration to say that Nintendo games felt like a revelation after the Atari. The game palettes were colorful, there was catchy music, and they seemed leaps beyond what any of us had experienced before. Solomon’s Key was one of those games that made me feel a sense of awe when I first played it.
I’m always grateful to the developers who created the games of my childhood. And like Solomon’s Key, learning some about some of the mysteries behind their development helps open doors that unlock a little bit of my past. Now please excuse me while I try to work on my key-finding skills, wishing my thumbs were just a little bit faster.
Michitaka Tsuruta’s interview was translated by Daisuke Onitsuka.