It was the first time I had ever played a beat em-up and witnessed video-game violence. Many argue that it was this very game that started it all. A pre-cursor to Midway’s Mortal Kombat, Capcom’s Street Fighter series and Satan’s Rise of the Robots.
Revisiting Barbarian after almost ten years was like bumping into an old girlfriend, who looks annoyingly good now as she did back then. Barbarian looks well for its age, surprisingly well infact. Perhaps the only wrinkles on show is its cassette tape body, encased in ridiculous box art.
The Mills and Boon cover shot of a very bronzed Michael Van Wijk (Wolf from the Gladiators to you and me) having his shiny leg fondled by scantily clad page 3 pouter Maria Whittaker caused controversy when the game was released, as worried parents deemed it too subversive to use on the cover of a game about killing people.
Today however, the picture feels about as risqué as a Michael Parkinson interview. I’m sure back in, whenever the hell this game is set, hairspray, makeup and bronzer hadn’t been invented and if it had, I would imagine it would have cost a fair penny. I don’t know what the going wage was for a barbarian back then, but considering their wardrobes seem to consist of one bright coloured t-shirt and a pair of black pants – I’m led to believe it wasn’t a great deal.
For anybody that has never seen, played, or even heard of this game until a few minutes ago, I’ll give you brief rundown. It’s a 2D sword-em-up programmed by Palace Software. It came out around the time those ten-a-penny Conan films were released, starring Arnold Schwarzeneger and a group of actors no one has seen or heard from since.
In the game you take the role of a barbarian who is trying to obtain the perfect gift for his girlfriend to celebrate their five year anniversary. He must fight his way through a number of strange coloured clones of himself who are protecting an evil old man called Drax, who guards the last remaining tin of hairspray in the entire land… the guy doesn’t even have any hair, that’s the level of his evilness.
The first thing that impressed me when I re-played Barbarian was the visuals. The characters move fluidly and respond to your commands without looking like they’re pondering about it first. You only have a sparing number of moves at your disposal but the ones on offer, such as ‘The Web of Death’ more than make up for it. The simplicity in the controls is actually a comforting characteristic that makes the game more accessible.
Barbarian also has one of the coolest moves in a video game: The swinging decapitation – a slash of genius which is easily up there with Ken’s flaming dragon punch, Sub Zero’s spine pull and running at zombies with a parasol in Dead Rising. When the computer character resorts to the screen screaming tactics of continually hitting you as you pick yourself off the floor, there is nothing more rewarding than coming back and lopping the head off of your tormentor, especially if he boasts a full bill of health. It allows the balance of a fight to turn on a pin head, invoking a strong strategic element into the game. The down side of course is that it could always happen to you. There is nothing more frustrating then having rolled and defended a barrage of sword slashes and taken 5 of your opponent’s red health circles away from him, to witness him retaliate with a sneaky head from neck seperator at the very last minute. To add insult to injury a gargoyle, who is dispatched to clean up after a fight, will disrepectfully toe-punt your head off the floor like a football!
To accompany the fantastic visuals the game’s programmers realised that less was more when it came to creating the soundtrack. The game’s Casio-esque ballad, which rings out over the menu screen, is grand enough to join me in battle but leaves at the first sign of trouble. When the fighting begins the sound is substituted for the satisfying tones of sword clangs and grunts.
To sum up, Barbarian is a great piece of balanced gaming. It demonstrates that making something very simple, very well, is sometimes all is required. A game can look the part, but if isn’t enjoyable to play, the cracks soon appear and the ugliness escapes. If I have to suffer looking at ridiculous cover art and suspicious graphics for a great game, I will. C’mon, you can’t tell me we love playing Tetris for the realistic looking blocks and picturesque backdrop?
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