Title: Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior
Developer: Palace Software Ltd.
Date Published: 1987
Platforms: Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Amiga, MS-DOS (at least; see below)
loinclothes and broadswords...
and only one shirt per two combatants...
"Published in the middle of the hottest Conan and He-Man fad..." (as one recent review put it...)
...this product of the era of epic prose is one of the best Commodore 64 games ever. Forget modern fighting games. This is the real fighting game.
Ah, Barbarian. There were great beat 'em up games for Commodore 64 that were not quite the same on other platforms - even when the other platforms quickly went past C64 on this genre, but that was only because C64 joysticks didn't have enough buttons.
Barbarian was quite a simple game. Even to the name. The plot is quite simple. You are a Barbarian. You kill people. With a sword. Got it so far? Obviously, that is not the whole plot. The actual plot involves princess Marina who was kidnapped by evil wizard Drax. The epic! The prose! The twists and turns of the plot! The rest of the plot? Oh yeah, kill all of the Drax' (identical) champions and then kill the guy himself. Now on Commodore!
The game interface was as pure and simple as the name of the game and the plot. On top of the screen you have a gigantic game logo and score display. On the corners, 6 health dots for both combatants. On the sides, two animated snakes on poles, just for decorative purposes. In the middle, the fields of g(l)ory. Below, a textual indication on what you're seeing - 1-player game, 2-player game, or the demo mode.
As far as I know, an actual arcade version of Barbarian was never produced (if it had been produced, it would be in KLOV and all over the MAME sites - if it's not in the Internet, it must be true!), yet, the game is quite arcade-like on appearance. It can be counted (along with Mega Apocalypse and like) among the C64 games that are more arcade-like than the actual arcade games.
The arenas vary somewhat. In the C64 version, the game is on two parts. I have the game as an original tape and a warez disk (cracked by Triad), and both have the same deal. Actually, I thought first that I was playing Barbarian II since I got the warez version about a decade before the real version *grin*, and the incompetent copier had labelled the disk "Barbarian II" and named the file "barbarian 2". When my friends came to play it, they first said something like "Why Barbarian 2? Barbarian 2 sucks!" and then, "Oh, this is Barbarian 1. That's okay."
Anyway, I digress, let's get back to the arenas. The first part is "Practice", and you have two nature-themed fields on which to slice your opponent - or the computer-controlled guy - to pieces. The second part is "The Actual Game", which has two arenas - Drax' throneroom, featuring the ba(l)d guy himself on the background with a scantily clad female. (Hope that's not the princess I'm supposed to save. If that's so, she's way too passive. I mean, if I were supposedly imprisoned but not chained on wall, and an evil wizard had captured me for something eeeevul, I'd run as fast as I could. I would definitely not lie next to the evil wizard's throne on a seductive pose. But since I'm an ugly guy, I doubt he'd even bother to force me to do that) After digressing again and fighting the opposing champion, we move to a stone-walled chamber (which, in medieval slang, is called "the Pit"), with Drax and the maiden observe the fight on a balcony above.
The gameplay and animation are quite polished and spectacular. The game works pretty well even with the limitations of 8 directions and one button. Basically, without button, you move, with button, you either swing the sword, or parry. All combat animations are excellent and sprites are detailed enough.
There are multiple interesting moves such as high-slashing spinning strike, kicks, head butt and tackling the opponent (this move is often mis-executed when doing crouching blow - but often it works better than crouching blow anyway =) You typically beat the opponent by reducing his health dots to nothing (most scored hits reduce one half of the dot). The opponent collapses on ground, very nicely animated, as usual, and the victor rises the sword for truly heroic barbarian pose. Or, you can chop the opponent's head off with a well-placed hit. Gushes of blood. Yep. This is a rough game.
And on top of all this, every time you kill an opponent, a little green guy comes on the screen, grabs your opponent's carcass, laughs, and drags the body away. And if you hacked the head off, he'll unceremoniously kick it along to the same direction.
With a precedent of sex and violence like this, Germans apparently banned Barbarian II. (Yeah, I hear they did stuff like that even before Wolfenstein 3D, in case anyone was wondering.) The graphics are very good, but at least the Commodore 64 version should be experienced on a TV or a video monitor (a Commodore monitor, of course!) - VICE emulates the game perfectly, but the graphics are way too damn crisp and since you expect better on a PC screen, it just won't look right. It looks too good to be a C64 game but too damn bad to be a PC game. Don't ruin your happy childhood memories (ehm) with a PC rendition of this classic game.
(A small update, a short while later: Okay, there's a "Blurry PAL emulation" in VICE. You can always try that. =)
Sounds are excellent, at least in the Commodore 64 version. The sound effects are crude but are well to the point. Swords clash and swoosh, people collide, the green goblin laughs, heads bounce (and the decapitation sound effect is very interesting too). But you can toggle on the music. Commodore music by Joseph Richard is very cool and has the right Conan spirit all right. (In STIL, he says Conan and Red Sonya influences were Steve Brown's idea, and "it was hard to get the 64 sounding like a Conan movie!" I have to say he did succeed, at least getting the reasonably epic spirit there =)
Platforms and other silliness: The game was published for many major 8-bit and 16-bit platforms of the time, but my game manual which had a list is unfortunately again across the country and Google absolutely hates stupid names for games and companies, such as "Barbarian", "Palace" and "Ocean". Grr.
RottenTomatoes.com says the game was published November 3, 1987, but it also says the game requires a "game pad" and is available on Commodore 64 and also Playstation 2, Gameboy Advance, PC, GameCube and XBox! And if I understood the meaning of the word "Location" correctly, it's set in USA? Should I trust this information? =) (I really wish there were an enhanced GBA version. That ought to be fun. Well, if
System 3 Studio 3 can remake IK and Last Ninja...)
alfimp says there may have been a version for BBC micros (and definitely a version of Barbarian II). Apparently, there is a PC version ported by Designer Software and published by Epyx, titled Death Sword (some sites claim this is the American name of the whole series, hmm, Arnold stays quiet about that...). It's available through The Underdogs. It apparently only supports CGA and no sounds, which probably makes it a far less interesting experience than the C64 version... besides, it jams after a few seconds in DOSEMU so I can't test it right now.
jmn32 notes: "The Amiga version of this game had Wolf from Gladiators on the front of the box along with a scatily clad lady. That probably isn't going to mean much to you if you're not from England..."
Apparently, there was also an Amiga game by Psygnosis with the same title. And probably far more later games by the same title too. And possibly earlier games. None of them are the true Barbarian.
The game was followed up by Barbarian II.
C64 version staff (according to c64gg.com)... Design by Steve Brown, programming and sound effects by Stanley Schembri, Graphics by Gary Carr and music by Richard Joseph.
Revival: I am not sure of who currently holds the copyright to this game, and abandonware sites seem to rather carefree about its distribution. However, I recently spotted an actual Gameboy Advance Barbarian fan remake project by Mike Hawkings - graphics of this game seem to have been ripped from the Amiga version. Some "work in progress" versions have been released so far.