Saturday, 28 February 2015

GROW: Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior

Developer(s)Palace Software
Publisher(s)Palace Software (Europe), Epyx (North America)
Platform(s)Commodore 64,  (also ported to Acorn Electron, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Atari ST, BBC Micro, MS-DOS, ZX Spectrum)
Release date(s)1987
Genre(s)Fighting game
Mode(s)Single-player, and two-player versus
DistributionFloppy disk, compact audio cassette

1987 was an important year for fans of fighting games.  We were in the middle of a flood of amazing side scrolling beat 'em ups in the arcades, with games like Double Dragon, Shinobi and Renegade showing us a future full of cool moves and lots of enemies on screen.  But there was another game released that year in arcades that would pretty much go unnoticed but would be a harbinger of things to come: Street Fighter.  The promise of one on one fighting glory, with complex defensive and offensive moves (something the side scrollers didn't really deal with) would flourish into a genre all its own just a few years later.

On home computers though, this more complex style of violence was quickly growing in popularity (in no small part due to home microcomputer limitations on sprite numbers on screen and the need for more long lasting gaming experiences).  1987 would see the launch of two seminal titles in this genre (and no, Ninja Hamster was not one of them), IK+ and Barbarian!

While IK+ concentrated on martial arts and the innovative one-on-one-on-one mechanic, Barbarian whisked players away into a Robert E. Howard inspired land of sword and sorcery.  You take on the role of a nameless barbarian, whose goal, according to the manual, is to defeat the sorcerer's demonic guardians, confront Drax himself, kill the bugger and save Princess Mariana and prevent "unspeakable doom" from befalling the people of the Jewelled City.  It's all very melodramatic when you think about it...

The game consists of two loads (the main medium of the game was cassette tapes).  The first load (side A) was the two player variant with practice modes and two nice backgrounds, one in a forest and the other in front of volcanoes.  The second load was the single player game and involved facing off increasingly difficult mirror images of yourself (with colored shirts) while Drax and the captured Princess watch on.  After defeating seven of these clones, the player must face off against Drax who can hurl magic projectiles at you.  One hit will kill Drax and after this you are rewarded with Princess Mariana thanking you, "big boy".

But let's face it, one on one fighting games have never been about single player campaigns even in their infancy, and the two player mode is where this game shines... and boy does it shine!  For 1987 the unbelievable rotoscoped graphics, smooth animation, excellent responses and complexity of the moves were unprecedented.

Let's start by looking at the moves.  16 options were available, 8 without pressing the lone fire button and 8 with.  Besides forward and backward walking, you could jump up (no giant saltos through the air here, just a realistic jump up), a high and low block, forward and backward rolling on the ground (working like a sweep in Mortal Kombat), and a crouch (which also allowed for attacks).  The attacks available were as benign as a head butt or a kick, medium attacks such as a high, medium and low sword swings and finally the specialty moves, Web of Death (multiple fast sword swings, creating a windmill effect), the overhead chop (powerful blow to the head) and the Flying Neck Chop (an aerial salto turn that if timed right was an instant decapitation... timing was extremely difficult but often a necessary hail mary move if you were low on energy).  This variety of moves made choosing the right one at the right moment imperative as well as understanding how they could be used together.

The player sprites were rotoscoped based on footage of the game's designer Steve Brown,  tracing the figures off a TV screen, the complex sequences of actions were brought to computers.  The fact that all the enemies (except on the Spectrum where they looked like hooded satanist variants of the player) were clones of the player sprite was a bit disheartening but not unexpected at the time.  In addition to the movement, the game also gave us blood splatters (albeit not over the top ones like later 16 bit games) and the famous decapitation animation.  This meant that once the game was loaded no further load times would stop the endless action  and countless bouts with your buddies. 

In addition to the character sprites, lush background images and beautifully animated side bar snakes were added to the games look.  The final touch, at the end of each round, was a small green bipedal monster who would come out, grab the lifeless body of the losing fighter, apparently laugh or yell to his wife to start the pot boiling because dinner was on its way, and drag the loser's body off screen.  It was grim and nasty and oh so much fun to see over and over again.

While not as advanced as later games, Barbarian gave us a real feel for what fighting games could be.  Deep strategic battles, beautiful graphics, gory violence and... oh, yeah, I wrote a whole review of Barbarian without mentioning Maria Whitaker, the hotty on the cover that caused massive outrage back in the day... how did I miss that?  Or the fact that the U.S. release was called Death Sword and had some beefy guy sans hotty on the cover?  And that there was a sequel also with Maria on the cover that was an action adventure game where she was a playable character and you kept the one-on-one movement scheme but now had to navigate a world filled with a bunch of strange creatures?  What?  You mean I'm out of time?  I have to end it here... well sorry guys, guess I'll just leave you with this.
Yeah, geeky programmers from the 80s with weird hair cuts get ALL the girls! 


1 comment:

  1. Excellent post Trantor! I used to love Barbarian on the mighty C64, and especially in two-player mode against my brother or a friend.